Even with the support experts like an Oklahoma Department of Human Servicescase worker, a private agency case worker and an attorney, foster parents can feel overwhelmed with the paperwork and court proceedings involved with their cases.
This is where CASA of Oklahoma County can step in to provide a trained, court-appointed volunteer to advocate for the best interests of a local foster child. Advocates ensure their foster children’s voices are heard in court and make independent and informed recommendations to help the judge decide what’s best for each child in terms of a permanent home.
“You might see a biological family on the verge of losing their parental rights when a CASA volunteer enters the case, and with the support and recognition of the unmet needs, the parents themselves can change the trajectory of the case to reunification,” said Lee Ann Limber, executive director of CASA of Oklahoma County. “Conversely, a CASA may enter a case when child welfare is recommending reunification and discover facts and concerns that change the direction of the case.”
While the various case workers, attorneys, judge and foster parents all have the best interest of the child in mind, a CASA’s advocacy is focused solely on his or her one child or sibling group.
“One of the glories of being a CASA volunteer is that typically you are only assigned to one case or one family of children for whom you are advocating, while the child welfare worker has 15 to 20 other cases, 40 or more children within those cases and multiple foster homes to visit,” Limber said.
By the same token, a child’s OKDHS worker is charged with addressing the needs of both the children and the biological family, providing reasonable efforts in most cases for the family to reunify. CASA volunteers work to ease the burden of foster parents, especially when they have biological children of their own and more than one foster child.
“While it is a testament to the depth of their compassion and desire to protect children from future pain,” Limber said, “foster parents’ attachment to the children can limit their ability to see future alternatives, while it is easier for a CASA, as a trained professional who has never acted in the role of parent to the children, to assess from a more fact-driven perspective.”
CASA volunteers also connect foster families with resources and services. A CASA may help get a child to therapy or coordinate efforts with his or her school to address academic or behavioral issues. In cases where siblings are split between foster homes, the CASA volunteer often plays an instrumental role in facilitating visitation between the children and, in some instances, visitation with the biological parents. Sometimes they are simply a person on the other end of the phone, willing to listen or lend a shoulder during difficult times.
Perhaps most importantly, CASA volunteers spend countless hours getting to know a child and listening to the foster parents thoughts and concerns about the child’s future. In 2014, CASA of Oklahoma County volunteers drove more than 17,000 miles over the state of Oklahoma and spent an average of 12 hours per month working in their cases. They meet with their children in their foster homes, biological family’s homes, at restaurants, playgrounds and other community locations. When they move placements, the CASA follows them, serving as a positive role model and constant relationship in their often tumultuous young lives.
“As one young CASA child said to her advocate after she had changed foster homes, ‘I knew you would find me,’” Limber said.
Currently, only about 30 percent of children in foster care in Oklahoma County have a CASA assigned to their cases. Judges typically assign a CASA to the most difficult or complex cases. But anyone related to a case, including a foster parent, can request a CASA volunteer when in court or by contacting the CASA office. Serving more foster children can only be accomplished by recruiting and training more volunteers.
To learn more about volunteering with CASA and other local non-profits helping foster children, see this list of volunteer opportunities.