There are an estimated 1,800 children in temporary foster
care in Shelby County. For Dan Michael, executive director
of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), even one is too
"Do all 1,800 kids need a CASA volunteer?" Michael (BA '76,
JD '93) asks. "My answer would be yes."
CASA volunteers speak on the behalf of a child in court hearings.
They do extensive investigation, prepare a report and present
it to the judge so that judge can make an informed decision
Daphni Price, a CASA volunteer coordinator, says that volunteers
generally do a thorough job and are taken seriously at court
"We don't have an agenda," Price says. "We're not fighting
for one side or the other. Judges know we're not giving them
biased or prejudiced information."
Currently, Memphis CASA serves 600 Shelby County children
who are mired in the foster care system. Nationally, the average
stay in foster care is 18 months; in Tennessee, it's four
CASA's task is daunting, but The University of Memphis community
has answered the call. Current students, faculty, staff and
alumni have joined the organization's efforts. Their progress
is slow and steady one child at a time.
tenacious but tender
CASA volunteers have to be patient because they don't get
their first case for at least a month. First, they must go
through 30 hours of training, submit to a criminal background
check and make a one-year minimum commitment to the organization.
"Training was very rigorous," says Egypt Armstrong, a U of
M senior. "The work is not hard, but it is challenging. I
feel like it has prepared us for handling cases."
After training has concluded, new volunteers are given a
"present" as they are assigned their first case. They are
also sworn in by a judge. The court system takes CASA very
seriously, and for good reason nationally, some 43,000
children are getting a voice in the courts.
Armstrong was among the most recent volunteers to join CASA's
ranks. She serves through the Ameri-Corps Project TLC program,
which sends volunteers to organizations such as CASA that
focus on child-welfare issues. Armstrong will work three cases
during the coming year.
In total, 20 people were certified last September to become
the newest batch of CASA volunteers. Half are AmeriCorps volunteers;
the other half are concerned Memphis citizens. Michael says
volunteers generally come from all walks of life.
"It runs the gamut," he says. "We've got 19-year-olds from
The University of Memphis, and we've got 55-year-olds nearing
the end of their career."
There are some commonalities among volunteers, however. The
typical CASA volunteer, Michael says, is a married female
who has at least some college education and a full-time job.
But Michael cites a high burnout rate not because CASA
advocates spend a lot of time on their cases, but because
of the emotional challenge of crossing paths with abused or
neglected children who are in dire need of a safe and loving
"This is tough work," Michael says. "Our volunteers invest
a lot of time and emotion into what they're doing."
At the same time, volunteers cannot afford to be aloof to
the all-too-real problems they encounter.
"I think it's impossible not to get emotionally attached,"
Michael says. "More importantly is how you deal with that
attachment. You have to have an emotional health about you
or it will just drive you nuts. I've had people come in my
office with tears streaming down their faces. It really can
be tough work."
CASA's shoestring budget allows for nine paid staff, whose
sole duty is to coordinate the efforts of roughly 200 volunteers.
"We truly are a volunteer organization," Michael says. "We
cannot do what we do without volunteers. If we had no volunteers,
we'd be out of business it's that simple."
Beyond the court-appointed advocates, CASA draws from other
resources in the community, including those from The U of
M. Several alumni from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
have taken on cases pro bono. The CASA chapter in St. Louis
has implemented a program where lawyers can trade in their
student loans for a two-year internship; that possibility
is now being explored in Memphis.
U of M faculty have also pitched in. Dr. Patricia Murrell,
director for the Center for the Study of Higher Education,
created CASA's training manual. Dr. Dorothy Norris-Tirrell,
associate professor of public administration, and Dr. Doug
Imig, associate professor of political science, have assisted
with prior strategic-planning needs. Others have done internal
research for CASA.
Walker (BPS '94), CASA's deputy director, reports her
findings directly to Juvenile Court judges after researching
Geographically speaking, CASA offices are located in a corner
of the Juvenile Court Building in downtown Memphis. The office
space is cramped. Cubicle walls are lined with photo after
photo of children. Stacks of notebooks and folders stuffed
with papers are leaning, sometimes precariously, against the
walls. Even so, the CASA offices are strangely quiet.
"You won't see a lot of action back here," says Keisha Walker
(BPS '94), the organization's deputy director. "This is not
where the real work is done the real differences are
made on the streets and in the courtroom."
day in court
One of the most important components of a CASA volunteer
is the investigative work preceding the court hearing. A child's
well-being hangs in the balance, and it is up to the advocate
to give an informed, objective report to the judge.
Like any good journalist, advocates must interview, interview,
interview. They talk to the child, the child's parents, grandparents,
teachers, daycare providers, friends of the family or anyone
else who interacts with that child. But advocates learn soon
enough that it's usually better not to talk with attorneys,
who can sometimes subpoena them or try to discredit them on
Advocates take precautions to protect the child. They are
discreet with the information they have compiled. Most of
what they find during their investigation is for the judge's
eyes and ears only.
"I am not at liberty to explain any case," says Jill Sewell,
a U of M senior also serving CASA through Project TLC. "Even
the particulars can be interpreted and/or be a breach of confidentiality."
Children are somewhat stigmatized by their stay in the foster
care system, she says. When others find out, it only adds
to the humiliation.
Once the investigation is complete, CASA volunteers get their
true chance to make an impact at court. Juvenile Court is
not a particularly happy place; people aren't there because
everything is just fine. People with slumped shoulders and
sullen faces line the main hall while they wait for their
case to come up.
Fans of television courtroom dramas will be disappointed
to find that here, art does not imitate life. The courtrooms
are small, and the hearings are closed. Only the judge, the
child, the parents, the attorneys, a bailiff, a CASA advocate,
and sometimes a Division of Children's Services worker are
CASA volunteers say they feel good to be a helpful part of
custody hearings. It is estimated that a judge enacts the
advocate's recommendation about 95 percent of the time.
"I know that my efforts are sincere, objective and thorough,"
Sewell says. "Therefore, every case is making a true difference
in that child's life. Many times, the courts will order the
family to remain under the supervision of CASA. These opportunities
give the child a safety net as well as the CASA volunteers
time to monitor, ensuring the recommendation continues to
Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to recruiting
new volunteers. Finding fresh volunteers is a continuing challenge.
One big stumbling block for CASA is poor name recognition.
"Beyond the Red Cross, people can't name many nonprofit organizations,"
Michael says. "People will ask me what cay-sah' is,
or they'll think it's a Spanish term. But we're working on
getting better connections to the populous at large."
CASA's other main challenge is the amount of time involved
with being a volunteer. Most advocates put in between 10 and
15 hours a week; thus, it takes a special brand of do-gooder
to thrive there.
The University will remain an important resource for CASA
in the future. That's because the best way of recruiting is
by word of mouth and U of M students and alumni are
sharing CASA's story with others.
"I would recommend this to anyone, in all honesty," Armstrong
says. "The work is so wonderful, and you learn so much. What
you do will impact everyone involved."
While newspaper and radio ads are good at raising revenue,
Michael agrees that personal recommendations are the most
effective way to reach would-be volunteers. Volunteers don't
have to recruit their replacement before they can quit, he
says, but adds that volunteers are great promoters for CASA.
"At the training course, I challenge them to go out and bring
back two people," Michael says. "You can't get better recruitment
than sitting down at lunch across from a friend who's involved
with CASA and hear them talk about their experiences."
Individual volunteer and staff experiences vary, but they
agree that the organization is making a tremendous impact
"I always wanted to have a job where I knew I could make
a difference every day," Walker says. "With CASA, I've been
given that opportunity. I love it."
It's that love of making a difference that keeps CASA dedicated
to its cause. And as long as there's even just one child in
the foster care system, CASA will continue to change lives.