On any given day, around 8,000 children in Oregon are in foster care. The most constant presence in the life of many of these children is a court-appointed special advocate (CASA), whose singular duty is to advocate for the child’s best interests with courts, foster parents, caseworkers and school officials.
Emma entered Oregon’s foster care system as an infant when her parents were unable to care for her because of addiction. Denise, Emma’s court-appointed advocate, was at the girl’s side when she entered foster care, when she re-entered foster care at age three after her parents were arrested and when she moved through four foster homes by the time she was five. Emma says Denise was the only person she knew that she could count on any time, all the time. Denise was still at her side when Emma was adopted at age eight.
Statistics show children in foster care with CASAs are more likely to find a stable, permanent home. They also perform better academically and receive the services and support to which they are entitled. Oregon law mandates each child in state custody should be paired with a CASA. However, state funding has only covered the cost of CASAs for 10 percent of foster children.
CFM was retained by the Oregon CASA Network (OCN) to seek funding from the 2021 Oregon legislature to fulfill the state mandate and serve more children in foster care. Lawmakers approved $5.92 million, a 100 percent increase, to improve CASA operations, increase outreach, recruit and train new volunteers and support more children experiencing neglect and abuse. Lawmakers set aside $250,000 of that amount for OCN to stand up a statewide distance training program for volunteers. The bulk of the funding will be distributed statewide to the 22 local CASA programs, based on the number of foster children in each service area.
“Prior attempts failed to gain full funding for CASA advocates,” explains Waylon Buchan, CFM’s state affairs counsel who led the firm’s lobbying effort in the 2021 session. “We undertook the task with the goal of telling CASA’s story from the point of view of children in foster care, volunteer advocates and state judges who appoint advocates for children in foster care. We saw our role as sharing stories of hope.”
“We also explained to lawmakers how CASA leverages the public funding it receives,” Buchan says. “Each paid CASA staff member can support 30 unpaid volunteer advocates, who can serve more than 60 children in foster care. In 2019, CASA volunteers provided 235,440 hours of advocacy for Oregon children in foster care. At the Independent Sector’s estimated volunteer rate of $27.20 per hour, this equates to $6.4 million in donated services by CASA volunteers.”
House Bill 2738, which was introduced at CASA’s request, passed the Oregon House on a unanimous vote and the Oregon Senate on a 23-6 vote. In addition to creating a statewide volunteer training program, the legislation contains reporting and accountability language, calls for efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, and articulates a strong commitment to National CASA standards. Funding came in two measures – $2,890,327 from HB 5002, the Department of Administrative Services budget, and $3,029,673 from the end-of-session spending bill.
“Judges rely heavily on the observations and recommendations of CASAs because of their sustained relationships with children of all ages in foster care who face tumultuous, unthinkable life experiences,” Buchan says. “For young children, CASAs help to ensure safe, loving and consistent care. For teens, CASAs serve as advisers on college or career training to prepare them for independence, self-reliance and success.”
Judges rely heavily on the observations and recommendations of court-appointed special advocates because of their sustained relationships with foster children of all ages who face tumultuous, unthinkable life experiences.
He noted the testimonial of Clackamas County Judge Susie Norby, “CASAs combine the integrity of a juror, the neutrality of a Court Visitor and the wisdom of an expert witness as non-lawyers whose expertise is the life of a child. Imagine that. A child without a CASA is denied a bridge across troubled waters of the adversarial court process. And a judge without a CASA is at a disadvantage in her pursuit of true justice for children who most need it.”
“We may not be able to prevent circumstances that send and keep children in foster care, but we can and should do everything possible to help children in foster care survive and thrive,” Buchan adds. “It was a privilege for me and for CFM to work on this issue and achieve the funding it needs and deserves.”