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The Long-term Value of the CASA/GAL Volunteer to the Court

Janet Ward, Director of State Support, National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association

Dependency court judges are required to apply the “best interest of the child” standard in deciding each case. However, judicial decision-making is often hindered by crowded dockets that limit access to information. Judges, from the CASA movement’s founder to those with CASA or GAL programs in their courtrooms today, depend on volunteer advocates to help fill that gap: it is the reason CASA was created. But appointing a CASA or GAL volunteer can do more than provide the court with additional facts on which to base decisions. It can also improve the long-term prospects for an abused or neglected child by offering a positive adult relationship.

In the last 25 years, extensive research has been conducted to determine what makes youth resilient and able to succeed despite negative environments. There are a number of contributing factors but the research consistently points to the difference that one positive adult relationship makes in outcomes for at-risk young people. Equally encouraging is that several of the other factors that contribute to resilience such as social competence, problem-solving skills and a belief in a bright future, can be developed and enhanced within that supportive one-on-one relationship. A highly readable summary of positive youth development research is available at, a website hosted by ACT for Youth Upstate Center of Excellence, a program of New York’s Cornell University.

Humans are hard-wired for connection. As infants, our physical survival depends on being connected to at least one caring adult but the psychological need for relationships lasts our entire lives. How does this reality impact the children and youth that come before dependency courts? By definition, these children have been deprived of the kind of relationships that promote healthy development into productive adults. Their “toxic social environment”, as characterized by researcher and author Dr. James Garbarino, puts them at higher than average risk for a host of negative outcomes. They are then thrust into an overburdened foster care system, designed to protect them from harm and provide basic necessities, but with little ability to nurture relationships over time.

Because the need for attachment and belonging is so strong, every person seeks it. In healthy families, children learn how positive attachment works when they are infants. They move from being connected initially to parents/caregivers to form multiple attachments: first to other trustworthy adults: relatives, teachers, scout leaders, coaches, etc., then to peers and eventually, for most, to a life partner. Youth with little or no opportunity to form positive attachments make them just the same. However, those unhealthy relationships – to an abusive boyfriend or a gang leader, for example - are likely to have negative consequences.

By appointing a CASA or GAL volunteer, the court can offer an alternative to youth in out of home care. Conditions favorable to building a relationship are already inherent in the GAL/CASA model:

  • The volunteer is a consistent, responsible adult who listens to the young person’s concerns and cares what happens to him or her.
  • The volunteer is empowered to advocate for the young child and with the older youth to help secure their best interests in the courtroom and beyond.

Unlike others in the system, CASA and GAL advocates see the child or youth on a regular basis, commit for the duration of the case, have no competing loyalties and are volunteers. As a number of older foster youth have told their CASA and GAL volunteers, “You’re the only person in my life right now that’s not paid to take care of me.”

Our adversarial court system was never designed to solve the complex family problems that now routinely come before it. Judges have become skilled at developing new options and stretching resources to deal more effectively with the challenges they encounter. Serving the “best interest of the child” in two ways with one resource may be just one more example.

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