Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Advocating for foster children in rural areas

I have been a volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) since 2002 and have been a sworn CASA volunteer since 2009. CASA, a national nonprofit organization, trains and supports volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children in foster care. As advocates, we are appointed by judges to make sure foster children don't get lost in the legal or social service system. We stay with each case until the child is placed in safe, permanent home. Because there are not enough CASA volunteers, judges assign us to their most difficult cases.

Last year, 75,000 CASA volunteers helped over 240,000 abused and neglected children. Substantial research has proven the effectiveness of the CASA program. A 2006 Audit Report from the Office of the Inspector General found children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to be adopted, half as likely to re-enter foster care, and are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care.

Foster children in rural areas would benefit greatly from a strong local CASA program. These children suffer not only from neglect and abuse, but also from poverty and the realities of a constrained social services system. Much research has shown that children living in rural areas have less access to health care and fewer social workers to meet the necessary standards of care for the child welfare infrastructure.

A study conducted in 2002, at the request of the Child Welfare League of America's National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services, found that the social services considered "necessary for adequate child welfare" do not exist in many rural counties. Some of the services found to be unavailable in rural areas are parenting classes, domestic violence services, after-school programs for youth, and family preservation services. These services specifically support families with children in foster care and help to reunite foster children with their parents.

It is clear that these rural communities need strong CASA programs that can support overburdened social workers and help secure services for the local children in foster care. Unfortunately, federal and state funding has declined significantly for CASA programs overall. As a result, rural CASA programs are struggling to stay afloat and provide support for their CASA volunteers.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJD) Prevention Proposed Plan for FY 2011, the OJJD continued to fund CASA programs last fiscal year, but with an 18.5% reduction in funding. With reductions in funding also expected in FY 2012, rural CASA boards of directors are faced with the possibility of disbanding their local programs. Some CASA programs are looking to local fundraising events to make ends meet. Amy Miller, executive director of CASA in Elmira, New York, where the poverty level is more than 25%, highlighted the challenges rural CASA programs face when fundraising is not an option.
We've been struggling to make up that loss [of government funding], but that's just about impossible, especially in our most rural county. When you have an increase in poverty and little industry, raising funds is very difficult.
Hopefully these rural CASA programs can find a way to stick around during these tough economic times. Harvey Meyer, in an article about issues rural CASA programs face, notes that rural CASA programs are surviving by relying on the same skills that are often associated with rural people: persistence, self-reliance and resourcefulness.

I highly recommend becoming a CASA volunteer to anyone who cares about these issues and wants to make a difference some one's life. To help build awareness within the King Hall community about CASA, I started a new student organization called Advocates for Youth Justice (AYJ). For those in the Davis area who are interested in becoming a CASA volunteer in Yolo County, AYJ will be holding training on the UC Davis School of Law campus sometime in early 2012.

To learn more about your local CASA program, visit National CASA's website here.


Namora said...

I never really thought about the issues faced by foster care children in rural areas. I think my ingrained stereotypes regarding the close-knitted nature of rural communities left me with an impression that children will be placed with neighbors or extended family and avoid the foster care system altogether. In stopping to think about the issue, however, I know my first perception is not at all true. Considering that people in rural areas, generally, don't work as full time as people in urban areas, leads me to believe that many people would be available to volunteer if they only knew about the CASA program.

KB said...

I was very impressed to see the positive impact CASA is having in the lives of children who are in the utmost need. I wonder what leads to the small amount of volunteers in rural communities. Do some rural communities think they can take care of such problems on their own? Does the distance between the county seat and some rural communities discourage people to get involved? It might be difficult for volunteers to say they will be available for court appearances if the court is far away. How prevalent is CASA in rural counties currently?

Due to its effectiveness, CASA should be expanding to more communities that are rural. With the budget issues, though, expansion will probably not happen soon. I hope that rural CASA programs can stay afloat. Maybe those that want to volunteer but cannot make it to the county seat for court can do some sort of supportive work that will help keep CASA programs in rural communities strong for the rest of the volunteers.