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Court-appointed special advocates program growing years after merging with neighbors

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - CASAs in Columbia County work in teams on a Jeopardy-style training lesson held in December.When children are removed from their homes, the ensuing legal process is often lengthy, complicated and traumatic.

In courtrooms, parents and children are outnumbered by attorneys, caseworkers, assistant attorney generals, judges and court staff.

Among them, there is often one person who isn't paid: the court-appointed special advocate.

CASAs, as they're known, are assigned to child welfare cases to act as an additional check on the proceedings and advocate for the child.

The foster care system in Oregon has struggled in recent years, reporting and state audits have shown.

DHS caseworkers are often stretched thin, covering more cases than they have time to adequately review. CASAs, in contrast, are volunteers who are only assigned to one case at a time. PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Karin Miller, CASA program manager in Columbia County, speaks to current CASAs at a training in December. CASAs receive 35 hours of training before they are able to take on cases, but also attend on-going trainings while they're on cases.

CASAs are made a legal party to the case they're working on. They attend court proceedings, spend time with the children, meet with teachers and other adults in the child's life, and produce reports for the judge — all with the goal of helping the child find a permanent home as quickly as possible, whether back with their parents or adopted.

"Sometimes you need an extra pair of eyes," Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Cathleen Callahan said. "It is a challenging area of the law because there have been so many changes ... the more people involved, the better for me."

Last year, 195 children in Columbia County spent at least one night in foster care.

An expanded, improved CASA

CASA for Children is the local program serving Columbia, Multnomah and Washington counties. CASA currently has 36 advocates on cases in Columbia County: 26 local advocates and 10 commuting from Multnomah and Washington counties. Columbia County had its own CASA program until 2015.

When the local program joined the two neighboring counties, some were concerned local services would get lost in the massive caseloads of the other counties.

But in the years since, CASA has steadily grown the number of Columbia County volunteers and has found CASAs from the other counties who are willing to make the drive to advocate for Columbia County kids.

Greg Cohen, a CASA on his fourth case, said the local program has become more stabilized over the years.

"There was a period when there was some instability as far as new people coming in, and that always has a backlash on the program," Cohen said.

The number of advocates is still far below the number of cases, forcing those involved to prioritize cases that would benefit most from a CASA.

Local Columbia County Circuit Court judges identify those high priority cases. The judges "know that we have limited resources," said Karin Miller, the CASA program manager in Columbia County. "We just don't have the resources to be on every case."

Paul Aubry, a Columbia County attorney who primarily works on child welfare cases, said he's noticed gradual improvements to the CASA program over the last three to five years. More cases have CASAs assigned now, and those CASAs seem to have received more training and support, Aubry said.

Attorney Mark Lang also said the CASAs seem more knowledgeable in recent years.

"I would say that they're much more familiar with the systems than they used to be, and kind of appreciate the relationships that each of us have in the system much more," Lang said.

"Because of the way the nature of these cases are, being adversarial, there may be cases that I'm in agreement with the CASAs.... (but) sometimes the CASAs have been detrimental to my client," added Lang, who represents parents more often than children.

Navigating roles

The Oregon Department of Human Services is represented in court by an assistant attorney general, though the District Attorney's Office formerly filled that role.

"We will definitely be at odds, perhaps, on a case, but we have to respect each other in the process," CASA for Children Executive Director Betsy Stark Miller said of all the parties in a case.

The relationship between DHS and CASA has been strained in the past, but CASA leaders think things have improved. "I think there were times that they saw CASA as a little adversarial with them, and now I think they really see that we want to work in partnership with them," Karin Miller said. "I really think that in Columbia County, we've really bridged a lot of that. I'm not saying that everybody thinks we're wonderful, but I think... they respect what we do now," she said.

While the child's attorney represents the child's wishes, their advocate may have a different idea of what is best for the child.

"Sometimes what they want isn't necessarily what's good for them in the long run, it's like asking a kid what they want for Christmas," Cohen said. "It's our responsibility to really get down to the core of what the child's needs are," he said, noting therapy or educational assistance as examples.

Staying in Columbia County?

CASAs visit the children on their cases monthly, except in instances where the child is being housed outside the state.

Most children removed from their family homes are kept within Columbia County. Point-in-time data from Jan. 31 showed 83 children in Columbia County had been removed from their homes. Of those, 71.1% were placed in Columbia County, but 18.1% weren't even as close as a neighboring county.

"We don't have a higher-level foster care, we don't have any in-treatment facilities for kids that need more help," Miller said. "So the reality is, unless they can go into a regular certified foster home, they're probably going to go out of the county."

The overall aim is to get kids out of foster care and into stable, permanent homes. Reunifying children with their original family is the first hope, which means that CASAs sometimes end up advocating for the child's best interests by advocating for the parent to receive needed support services.

Neglect and parental drug use are some of the most common reasons children end up in the foster care system, according to state data.

CASA receives state funding. For the most recently completed fiscal year, CASA in Multnomah, Washington and Columbia Counties received $768,000 in government funding, accounting for just over a third of its total revenue. The 2019-21 budget adopted by the state Legislature approved $5.3 million in funding for CASA programs statewide. A Senate bill proposed last year would have allocated an additional $8.3 million but never made it to a vote.

Comparing outcomes with or without a CASA is difficult because CASAs aren't assigned to the most "typical" cases, but to the most complex, challenging cases.

But local and national data show that when a child has a CASA, their case likely closes months earlier. That means potentially millions of dollars of savings in the cost of foster care each year.

Emotional toll

Before getting their first case, hopeful CASAs go through background checks and 35 hours of training. Once assigned a case, the advocates often spend as much as 20 hours per month on the case.

The emotional expense of being a CASA far exceeds many other volunteer opportunities, current and former CASAs say.

"There's just a huge gamut of emotions that you go through with a case," Jacqueline Curry said.

Curry didn't have time to become a CASA when she first heard about the program 20 years ago, but it stayed in the back of her mind until she signed up a few years ago. Curry is now a CASA program manager in Columbia County.

"I shed tears over my case and my kids. When you see them struggle you can't help but become invested," Curry said.

Cohen said he takes a month off between cases to catch up on his own obligations and reset.

"It sounds cold and maybe a little bit callous, but you really have to fight against getting personally involved with your case," Cohen said. "(If) you don't become overly emotionally involved in the case, you can see things more clearly. And that, in the long run, helps the child and the family."

The program strives to find local advocates.

"We'd love to have more people be advocates that live in this county," Stark Miller said, "because this is a tight community, this is a community that loves the children that live in it."

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