CASA New Orleans is a private nonprofit " funded by a variety of local and national sources " with a mission of providing trained community volunteers to champion the best interests of abused and neglected children in the court system. As a CASA, Cody currently monitors the health and well-being of a 10-year-old boy awaiting adoption, a case assigned to her by Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray. Because each CASA is assigned only one case at a time, volunteers like Cody are able to devote significant attention to a foster child's needs in a way that other adults involved in his or her life cannot.
'I think of it as being an extra grandparent," says Cody, a former school teacher and University of New Orleans professor. 'Some of these children have no family. Some of them have family they've been pulled away from. They need somebody who is dependably loving and dependably caring, somebody who talks to them and asks them what they need and what they want, how life's going."
Research shows that youngsters in the foster care system who have been assigned a CASA are often served better than those without a special advocate, says Dellona Davis, executive director of CASA New Orleans. They spend less time in the foster care system, are less likely to reenter the system and often have a better chance of finding permanent homes, she says.
'It's [the CASA's] responsibility to act and be the voice for that child," Davis says. 'Each child in foster care has an attorney who represents them and an Office of Community Services (OCS) worker (a social worker that's appointed by the state) that's on the case, but many of these people serve 30 or 40 kids [whereas] a CASA is assigned just one child."
After 36 hours of intensive training in the areas of child abuse, child development, diversity issues, the court process and other advocacy skills, CASA volunteers are assigned to a case by Gray or Judge Lawrence Lagarde. These two juvenile court judges comprise the child protection division, which deals exclusively with abuse and neglect cases, parental rights issues, adoption and transfers of custody. Once assigned a case, the CASA volunteer meets with the child on a regular basis in their foster home, at school or during extracurricular activities. CASAs also are authorized by the court to talk with the child's teachers, school counselors, health-care providers, therapists and OCS caseworkers to make sure the child's needs are being met.
The first CASA program was founded in 1977 in Seattle, Wash., by a juvenile court judge who felt he was not getting enough information through traditional channels to make informed decisions concerning the fate of abused and neglected children who came through his courtroom. The CASA New Orleans program was formed in 1987 under Judge Salvador Mule as the first such program in Louisiana. There now are 950 CASA programs nationwide.
CASA New Orleans currently serves 117 of the 171 children in foster care in Orleans Parish, but its goal is to provide advocacy services for all children in the foster care system, Davis says. Once a CASA is assigned a case, he or she typically spends 10 to 15 hours per month conducting interviews, doing research, meeting with the child, preparing reports and testifying in court.
'CASAs are powerful voices for children," Davis says. 'A CASA volunteer provides a judge with a carefully researched background of the child to help the judge make a sound decision about that child's future to determine if it is in the best interest of the child to stay with his or her parents or guardians, to be placed in foster care, placed with relatives or to be freed for permanent adoption."
A CASA's work is not always easy, and it often takes time to develop a relationship with the child. Because a CASA works specifically with one family, however, he or she has the potential to develop a very different type of relationship with that child than that of a government worker, says OCS Assistant Secretary Marketa Garner Gautreau.
'There's just a perception that this volunteer, this CASA who's donating their time and their energy and passion, is going to be more connected to [the child] than the caseworker is. They want to help and they've gone through extensive training, but they're not social workers and this isn't their career path. So there's just a very distinct difference in the work of the two individuals. But both of them are highly needed and necessary for a successful case."
The child with whom Cody currently works " whose name is not disclosed here for liability and confidentiality reasons " has been in four different foster homes. After the hurricane, he was relocated out of state when his foster mother no longer could keep him. He changed families again when he returned to New Orleans, then moved once more when his foster parent became too ill to take care of him. Cody says her relationships with her child's foster parents have been different in each situation, but generally the parents are very accepting of the work of the CASA and are helpful in facilitating her interactions with him.
'Some (children) are very guarded, especially at first, if they've had people in and out of their lives " all varieties of people: doctors and teachers and caseworkers," Cody says. 'So there is no reason for them to trust immediately another adult that comes into the picture. In both of my cases I have gotten some reciprocal affection from the kids. The one I've been with the longest I usually get a bright smile and a good hug (from him), so it takes time but usually they come to trust."
CASA volunteers are required to meet with their children a minimum of once a month but are strongly encouraged to do more, and Cody does. 'I talk to him on the phone, sometimes visit schools," she says. 'I travel a bit and so I send him postcards from places I go and describe to him what I'm seeing, what I'm doing. I try to be a presence in his life that is more than just somebody who comes in one afternoon a month."
One of the hardest aspects of the job is coordinating CASA efforts with those of the OCS staff and making the relationship a positive one, Cody says. 'Sometimes the OCS workers are just so overburdened that they can't help but see us as just another something they have to deal with," she says. 'So sometimes they're not as communicative as we would like and sometimes it's hard to reach them. But that's only some; [others] are cooperative and collaborative in what we see and do."
OCS often has to juggle what's best for the children and what will maintain the long-term well-being of the system, and attorneys advocate for the child's rights, but they don't go out to a foster parent's home the way CASAs do, Davis says.
'We all know that sometimes children don't tell everything (to these adults), but they develop this one-on-one relationship with this CASA volunteer, and then we find that the child might open up," she says. 'So it's that extra piece. The CASA workers don't replace the social workers or the attorney, but he or she helps them both."
Cody believes the court system is the efficient part of the equation, but that the OCS needs help.
'I would agree with Ms. Cody's assessment of the (OCS) workers being overworked and under-trained," says Judge Gray, who will assume the position of president of National CASA in June. 'But I would say that the department is aware that there are things they need to do, and I do believe that they are making efforts to [that end]."
The OCS, which is operated by the Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS), has been working with a number of national organizations to find ways to better serve children and families, the judge says. DSS is in transition for a number of reasons, including the election of Bobby Jindal who, as the new governor, may appoint a new secretary to run the department.
'We certainly have high hopes that [Jindal] will be child- and family-friendly and will want to continue the great work that we've been able to do," Gautreau says. OCS' strongest asset right now is that the office has undertaken a self-generated reform agenda. It wants to make its own improvements and shift its focus to more prevention work and early intervention with families that ultimately should result in fewer children needing foster care.
'Our most pressing needs are that we have a very young work force," Gautreau says. 'A lot of our workers have less than two years' experience, and in this work, experience is critical. We need better and more training for our staff " and also more staff."
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, OCS received significant funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Resource Centers as well as $15 million in congressional funds " $10 million of which was used to help foster parents and children replace lost belongings such as refrigerators, mattresses, clothing and toys; the other $5 million was spent on instituting prevention services and specialized treatment for families.
Improvements include implementing services in which therapists and counselors work with families in the home to either keep the families together or work with them after a child has been placed in foster care. OCS also has partnered with the Office of Addictive Disorders to place a substance-abuse therapist in each of its regional offices and to offer an intensive type of therapy that targets at-risk adolescents in five of the neediest regions in the state.
None of the funding, however, could be used to hire additional OCS staff, Gautreau says. It could only be used to serve the families affected by the hurricanes. This year, OCS requested an additional 100 workers, but received only 50.
While these improvements certainly make a difference in the lives of families already in crisis, both Gautreau and Gray emphasize that improving the well-being of families and children begins with prevention, and that means providing vital resources that promote the health of families.
'We ought to have a better way of supporting families and protecting children rather than through the courts," Gray says. 'Research says (that) even as we do make huge efforts to do a good job for the children who are in care, the state systems don't do a good job of raising children.
'We as a society have got to make better decisions. That includes legislators recognizing the severity of the problem and making sufficient funds available so that [DSS] can have adequate, trained staff. They can't just go out and hire people, they can only hire if they have money to pay them. The legislature has to do some work, the governor has to do some work. I think all of us working together with a common goal of improving the work that we do for families will make a difference."
As it stands, the court often will assess a case with the help of CASA and OCS and determine that a family or child needs a particular service that may not be available in their community, Gray says. Therefore, they ultimately are unable to help that family in crisis because of a lack of resources.
'The community providers have not come back as strongly and robustly as they were before the storm," Gautreau says. 'The everyday stress of living in the post-Katrina world is evident in our families. It's just simply harder to live and to manage and to do everything that we need to do in our daily work."
There is a critical need for volunteers.
'CASA New Orleans is supportive in their training and resources so that, while the work is very challenging, it is also incredibly rewarding and not beyond anyone," Cody says. 'I pretty much decided it's a one-person-at-a-time kind of task. You can do big, dramatic things, but I don't think that's as satisfying as doing it one child at a time. It seems to me that the best thing to do is save one child."