Foster care statistics are staggering. It can be daunting to envision a solution when you consider how many children are in foster care, the abuse and neglect they have endured, and the chronic instability they face.
Thankfully, there is a role within the foster system that allows caring individuals to volunteer as advocates for children who have been removed from their homes at no fault of their own, and who need a supportive adult more than ever. That role is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). It is a unique volunteer opportunity and one that empowers ordinary people to make an extraordinary impact on the lives of children.
If you’re new to Voices for Children and the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, you may not know much about what a CASA volunteer does or how to become one. Like many others, you may not have even known that CASAs existed.
But also like many others, you are probably drawn to the simple, yet powerful, mission to transform the lives of abused, abandoned, or neglected children.
In order to learn more about the organization and what it’s like for our volunteers to become CASAs, one of our staff members went through the CASA application process, from start to finish, and wrote about their experience.
As you consider the opportunity to change the life of a foster child through the CASA role, we invite you to learn what to expect along the way. Sometimes new opportunities can be stressful, but hopefully this step-by-step process will answer many of the questions on your mind and help you understand what it’s really like to become a CASA volunteer.
Step 1: How Do I Start the CASA Journey?
The first step in becoming a CASA with Voices for Children is to attend a volunteer Information Session. Using the registration form on the website, I signed up for a Saturday morning presentation in San Diego. If you’re planning to volunteer in Riverside County, you can also find Information Session dates and times on our website. Not knowing what to expect and wanting some company, I brought my best friend with me.
When I arrived, the diversity represented was one thing that I immediately noticed and appreciated. There were some men, some women; some older, some younger. The group was made up of people from all different walks of life.
The presentation lasted a little over an hour but went by fairly quickly. There was a lot of information given about foster youth, the foster care system, and the CASA role, and we had the opportunity to ask questions.
Not only was it informative, but the staff did a great job of making it engaging, including playing videos of real children and CASAs. One of the most impactful things to me was when a current CASA volunteer shared his experience, told us about his case, and shared how rewarding the role has been.
TIP: Bring a friend! It can be overwhelming to go alone, but bringing a friend gave me the chance to talk about what I heard with someone afterwards.
Step 2: I’ve Attended an Information Session… What’s Next?
The Voices for Children team will encourage you to submit your CASA application prior to attending the Information Session. But just in case you didn’t do that yet, now is the time to go online and submit yours for either San Diego County or Riverside County. The application is lengthy, but it’s important for Voices for Children to thoroughly screen anyone who is going to work with children. From start to finish, the application takes somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes.
Besides wanting to know more about you generally (such as your education, work, and volunteer history), you are also asked about why you are interested in this volunteer opportunity specifically, including “Why are you interested in volunteering with Voices for Children?” and “How do you hope to benefit from this volunteer experience?”
The best thing to do when filling out the application is to just be honest. While it is important that Voices for Children finds the right candidates for the role, this information will also help Voices for Children match you with the right child once you become a CASA.
TIP: The application form does not allow you to save and continue later. Consider preparing your responses to the open-ended questions ahead of time, and copy/pasting them into the application.
Step 3: The Interview
Although I was not interviewed myself, I did sit in on an interview with a potential CASA and one of our volunteer recruitment team members. This interview is your chance to tell Voices for Children more about yourself and share why you’re interested in volunteering as a CASA.
One of the things that stood out to me was that the questions asked were very personal. They ask every potential volunteer these tough questions, and it is for very good reasons. Voices for Children takes its job extremely seriously in maintaining the safety of the children it serves. It’s crucial to make sure that the volunteers who work with this vulnerable population are there for the right reasons and are in a place to successfully provide stability and support for a child who has previously been abused and neglected. Although the questions might feel a little intrusive, answering them honestly and to the best of your ability will help both you and the recruitment team make an informed decision about whether this role is right for you. Everything discussed during the interview will be kept confidential.
These interviews typically last somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. The great thing is that the Voices for Children staff is accommodating, and you can select from a variety of dates and times available to fit your schedule. After you have interviewed with a staff member, the team will follow up to let you know if you have been accepted into Advocate University.
TIP: Remember that this is considered a professional interview! As a CASA, you will be attending court hearings for the child, so it is important you can dress and conduct yourself appropriately in that setting and many others.
Steps 4 & 5: The Home Stretch – Advocate University & Your Advocacy Supervisor
Once you have passed your interview, the next step is training. We call this training “Advocate University,” and it is where you will learn all of the tools you’ll need to successfully advocate on behalf of a child in foster care. The curriculum consists of approximately 35 hours of training over the course of a few weeks. Although making it to this step in the process is a big accomplishment, you are not yet considered a CASA until you’ve graduated training and been sworn in by a Juvenile Court Judge.
New cohorts of potential CASAs begin Advocate University periodically, with various day and time options available. I was able to participate in the daytime class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. for three weeks. My class had about 20 potential CASAs in it, although some classes have up to 60!
Over the course of the training, I learned so much about what goes into being a CASA. VFC staff expertly spoke on a broad range of topics relating to youth in foster care, such as “Understanding Childhood Trauma,” “Working with Biological Parents,” “Educational Advocacy,” and much more. Voices for Children is committed to making sure CASAs feel supported and equipped to advocate in the courtroom.
However, training is not the only resource you will have during your time as a CASA. Every volunteer is matched with an “Advocacy Supervisor” — a staff member at Voices for Children whose sole job is to support CASAs, help them understand foster care, and serve as a sounding board. Trainees were encouraged to frequently check in with their advocacy supervisor, especially when unsure of how to best advocate for their child. “Call your supervisor” quickly became the mantra and go-to answer for the class!
TIP: A lot of information is covered during training; take lots of notes, but don’t feel like you need to remember every detail! You won’t be on your own after you graduate.
Step 6: Becoming a CASA
Once you have completed all of the training requirements and passed all background checks, you are ready to be matched with a child or sibling group and begin making a difference in their lives.
To celebrate this accomplishment, Voices for Children holds special graduation ceremonies for new CASAs, which are a fun way for your family and friends to be a part of the experience with you.
The graduation I attended took place in the evening on a weekday. It was not held at the VFC office, but rather at a special auditorium. Family and friends were invited to celebrate the newly appointed CASAs, and we were honored to hear from the Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court. (2021 Update: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, CASA graduation ceremonies are currently taking place virtually, but family and friends are still invited to attend.)
After being inspired by the guest speakers, the graduates were sworn in by the judge, officially becoming Court Appointed Special Advocates. It was a momentous occasion celebrated by everyone in attendance.
Take the First Step in Changing a Child’s Life Today
If you’ve gotten this far in the article, chances are you are seriously considering this meaningful volunteer opportunity. I would highly encourage you to take the first step in speaking up for foster youth by attending one of our upcoming volunteer Information Sessions.