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magazine home > archives > winter 2003 > features

The Memphis chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates has its share of U of M students, faculty and alumni fighting for children's rights.

No Place Like CASA
by Benjamin Potter

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 many.

"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 regarding
custody issues.

 
Dan Michael
 

Dan Michael

Daphni Price, a CASA volunteer coordinator, says that volunteers generally do a thorough job and are taken seriously at court hearings.

"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 years.

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.

Volunteers: 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 home.

"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."

Coordinating efforts

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.

CASA volunteer
Keisha Walker (BPS '94), CASA's deputy director, reports her findings directly to Juvenile Court judges after researching a case.

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."

A 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 the stand.

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 present.

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 be effective."

Spreading the word

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 in Memphis.

"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.

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