Our Children, Our Future: The Role of CASAs in the Foster Care System

Amelia Ulmer

Driving west out of Portland towards Hillsboro, as urban areas and strip malls gave way to green fields and woods, it was easy to feel the hustle and grind of the city dissolve into a sense of peace and quiet. Similarly, as I drove past the Washington County Juvenile Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro, with its quiet gray exterior shaded by trees, it was easy to imagine minor cases such as contract disputes, speeding tickets, and automobile accidents being heard within its four walls. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, within that drab, unassuming building, judges are being asked to make some of the most significant and complicated decisions that ever come before a court. Day after day, case after case, judges of the Juvenile Court have to decide whether to interfere in that most profound and foundational relationship — the relationship between parent and child. Judges have to decide whether to separate children from their parents, either temporarily or, in the worst circumstances, permanently because it is no longer safe either physically or emotionally for them to remain in their home. It is not an exaggeration to say that many parents and children will experience the worst moment of their lives within that courthouse, and the trauma and the damage that can result from these decisions, one way or the other, can change a child’s life. 

 There are many possibilities that lead to the drastic decision to remove a child from his or her home, but most often it happens as a result of parental abuse or neglect, often due to drug or alcohol abuse. Typically, this abuse is reported by a mandatory reporter, someone who is legally obligated to ensure a report is made when abuse is witnessed or suspected. At this point, Child Protective Services, a branch of the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) is called to investigate. If the decision is made that the home is not safe for the child, the child will be removed from that home and made a temporary “ward of the court” (“ORS 419B.328”). At this point, DHS tries to find a fit and willing relative to take the child. The DHS defines a “fit and willing relative” as someone who “demonstrates a long-term commitment to the child” and is often a family member such as a grandmother or an uncle (Oregon Judicial Department). If the child does not have a fit and willing relative, the child will be placed in foster care. The foster care system, regulated and run by the state, is designed to provide temporary housing and care for children whose biological parents are unable to protect and raise them. (iFoster). Right now, there are over 8,000 children in the foster care system in Oregon (“Reach Out to an Oregon”). As “wards of the court,” foster children have regular court hearings in which a judge determines whether or not a child should be returned to his or her parents or remain a ward of the court. In extreme, but not infrequent cases, a judge might find that parents’ rights should be terminated and a permanent adoptive home found for a child (Oregon Judicial Department). 

Within all this process and procedure, what cannot be missed is the trauma that has so often been experienced by children in the foster care system. The National Institute of Mental Health (USA) defines childhood trauma as, “the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects” (“What is Childhood”). Childhood trauma can occur when a child witnesses or experiences overwhelming negative experiences in relationships, such as abuse, neglect, or violence. This is known as interpersonal trauma. Not only have foster children likely experienced some form of neglect or abuse when living with their parents but also the simple act of removing a child from his or her parents, however negligent that parent might be, is a traumatic event. The physical and emotional impact of this trauma can last a lifetime. Traumatic reactions can include depression and anxiety, difficulties with self-regulation, nightmares, attention and academic difficulties, anger-management issues, and aggressive behaviors. If not treated, childhood exposure to traumatic events can affect the brain and nervous system. Research shows that child trauma survivors can be more likely to have long-term health problems such as diabetes and heart disease or to die at an earlier age. Adult survivors of traumatic events may also have difficulty in establishing fulfilling relationships and maintaining employment (Peterson).

In light of these life-long consequences, the decision to remove a child from his or her parents is of enormous significance. It was with the understanding of the seriousness of the decisions that he was being asked to make that, in 1977, Judge Soukup in Seattle, Washington, came up with the idea of a Court Appointed Special Advocate (“CASA”). He set up a group of citizen volunteers whose role was to speak up for the best interests of children in the courtroom to ensure not only that he was getting all the facts, but also that the long-term welfare of each child was represented. There are now nearly 1000 private, non-profit CASA programs across the country (“CASA”). CASAs are appointed by the judge as a legal party to the case and, as such, work entirely independently from, and have no relationship with, the DHS. They have access to all information (including all confidential information) relating to the case and are responsible to provide independent and objective recommendations to the judge at each court hearing.

The CASA program arrived in Oregon in 1986 and the Oregon Legislature has now passed a law mandating that every abused and neglected child in protective custody is entitled to the help of a CASA volunteer (“ORS 419B.112”). I spoke with Georgia McGinnis, a Program Manager for CASA in Washington County, to find out more about the work of CASAs. Even though we were separated by a computer screen, I could tell immediately that Georgia was a thoughtful woman, with a gentle voice and a contemplative smile. Although soft-spoken, Georgia was incredibly deliberate and articulate with everything she explained to me. With her dark hair shaped into a bob cut, I felt as though she would be a calming presence in the clearly stressful situation that foster children, parents, and workers are in. She described how in 2001, after the horrific events of 9/11, she felt called to do something for her country and her community. After working in the DHS and volunteering at CASA, Georgia returned to school and earned her Master of Social Work Degree (MSW) in 2008. She then became a full-time employee in the CASA organization working up from a CASA Supervisor to becoming the Program Manager for Washington County. She is passionate about serving the most vulnerable members of our society. 

She explained how in Oregon, a child who has been removed from his or her parents should be assigned a CASA by the judge assigned to that child’s case. Unfortunately, the number of foster children exceeds the number of CASAs, and so judges tend to appoint CASAs in only the most complicated cases. CASAs stay on the case until a child reaches permanent placement, whether that be through adoption or reunification with their parents, or turns eighteen (“CASA”). They investigate all aspects of the case, speaking to parents, family members, teachers, therapists, pediatricians, and foster parents to learn as much as possible. Based on that information they provide a recommendation to the judge. Georgia described the valuable role that CASA plays for a judge as an objective advocate. A child in the courtroom is surrounded by adults with competing interests. The child’s parents typically want the child restored to the home, whether or not that is in the best interests of the child. The child’s attorney is obligated by legal ethics to advocate for the wishes of the child, whether or not the child is able to determine what is in his or her best interests. Many children want to return to an abusive home, even though that may not be in their best interests. DHS caseworkers carry a heavy load and may not have time to be as familiar with the case as would be ideal. There is also considerable turnover. And so it is often the CASA who can present an objective and balanced point of view, who is most familiar with the case, and who can present the judge with an unbiased and balanced point of view as to what is in the best interest of the child (McGinnis). For a child who is being surrounded by tumultuous transitions and changes, the CASA is permanent and consistent. In many situations, the relationships that the CASA can create with teachers, or mentors, or even foster parents are the key factor in finding a child’s permanency. The CASA’s are in a unique position to be able to support the child, and oftentimes end up offering the most robust, realistic, and promising solution to the judge. For a judge facing the difficult decision of whether to move a child permanently from his or her home, this help can be invaluable. 

CASA’s vision is a “world where every child who has experienced abuse or neglect is given the opportunity to thrive in a safe and loving home” (“CASA”). It is the individual CASA’s that make this possible. Enter Jay Kapp. Jay Kapp is a Portland man. Prior to teaching, Jay lived and worked on an organic farm and was known as Farmer Jay by neighbors. Jay is the kind of man to bike across North America, Europe, and China (in fact, he has done all three). Feisty, yet always patient and gentle, Jay comes to every situation with a positive and passionate mindset. Usually adorned in a buttoned-up flannel, with his short reddish hair and athletic build, Kapp is a well-spoken, intelligent, and involved person in the community. Sporting his mason jar and his obvious affection for his canine friend, Jay is a strong member of the Portland walking community. Jay has spent time in a variety of positions, including supporting himself financially by being a standardized test tutor, being a freelance editor for firms on Wall Street, being a tutor for different organizations such as Minds Matter, Project Grow at Port City, and Janus Youth, and being a CASA (The Tutors). Jay Kapp explains that he has always “made an effort to work with kids who face tremendous obstacles, emotionally, financially, systemically” (Kapp). He learned about CASA four years ago and became a CASA shortly thereafter. He saw CASA as an opportunity to offer meaningful and direct support to children who are met with big difficulties and need advocacy. Sometimes these children are victims of abuse or neglect, sometimes it’s due to parental drug abuse, sometimes their parents are incarcerated or severely ill. Kapp has been volunteering for CASA for three years and is working on his second case over this time. Although CASA takes a substantial amount of time, he cannot use it as a living. As much as compensation may lead to more diversification within their members, CASA simply does not have the funding to pay all of their volunteers, so it is out of the goodness of Jay’s heart that he devotes his time and energy. 

When asked what the biggest problem in foster care is, Jay responded without hesitation. The largest challenge that he has encountered is the “absence of resources available to these kids, there isn’t more structural support in place for them” (Kapp). This view was echoed by Georgia. As a well-versed member of the foster care community, she has seen the ins and outs of the system and she told me that there needs to be a “larger general investment in children” (McGinnis). Georgia explained that not only is there not enough room to serve children but not enough resources either. In order to properly do our best service, Georgia says that the community needs to “push larger system issues” (McGinnis), meaning that it is time to tackle the big issues that are blatantly obvious in the foster care system. It is time that those in charge of the foster care system become advanced enough to address larger issues. Workers should no longer be struggling to keep up but instead, be taking preemptive actions to prevent problems in the future. The beginning of this is to be able to supply resources to be able to address all the needs of the children.

The lack of resources is prevalent throughout the foster care system. There is a severe lack of placement options for children in the foster care system. Jay described how his current child is in a group home, a placement with six or more children. For a child that is already suffering the trauma of being removed from his or her home, the institutional nature of a group home only emphasizes the lack of family and close relationships. However, although far from ideal, in Jay’s opinion, it is far better than hoteling. The recent phenomenon of hoteling has taken over the foster care system and brought to light central issues of resources and children’s trauma. Hoteling is a last-choice resort to place children in hotels (accompanied by a DHS worker who rotates through) when no other safe options present themselves, due to a shortage of placement homes and a lack of resources for them (Hoteling). These children can range in age, from babies to teenagers. Hoteling began because there simply were no foster parents or any other housing available for children. In fact, CASA sued the DHS for hoteling children, and even though it wasn’t the fault of the DHS workers, CASA was confident about the necessity of the change due to the lack of connection and the stifling loneliness that it presents children (McGinnis). These children have been ripped from everything they knew, only to be placed in a cold and distant hotel room. They lack the community that will support them and the people around them that will be there to encourage them and be able to find opportunities for them. To put it simply, children need families. Children deserve far more help and dedication than four walls and a bed. 

Hoteling is just one instance where the deficiency of resources is so clear. Not only are foster homes short in quantity, but there is also a severe deficiency in the quality of training for foster parents, as they deal with children who are exhibiting the behavioral and emotional issues associated with extreme trauma. Although Jay was limited in his explanations because of confidentiality issues, he told me that there was almost no hope for his child to be put into foster placement because of behavioral and emotional issues. There are simply no foster parents available with the training sufficient to take such a child. The only hope for this foster child to achieve a permanent secure home is for a distant relative to take him. In the best-case scenario, this placement is at least a year away. These children have been through traumatic experiences, and then they are offered not nearly enough support after the fact. This means that foster children can often “blow out” of foster homes (behave in such a way that the foster family feels no longer able to care for them). The CASA often is advocating for therapy, medication, mentors, and tutors because the children have severe amounts of emotional damage (McGinnis). They have trauma that precedes the separation, and then they have the trauma that is the separation. They are in desperate need of defense and assistance, and a major part of that comes from the foster parents. Jay explained that the best foster parents always have the support of their community, often through a church or other religious affiliations (Kapp). The foster parents have a huge role in the life of the child, and it can be retraumatizing for the youth if that temporary placement isn’t a fit. Jay is firm in his belief that foster parents need a network of support in order to be successful. However important it is that the foster parents are supported through outside communities, they also need to be supported with supplies from the system and the government.

 Not only is there a shortage of funding on the foster care side, but there is also a shortage of resources for DHS workers. Jay explained that there needs to be more money in the system. States can receive reimbursements from roughly 50 cents to 76 cents for each dollar spent on daily child care and supervision, administrative costs, training, recruitment, and data collection (Talk Poverty). The Federal government and the State government need to put more funds into the foster care system in order for the DHS workers to be able to properly do their work. The widespread idea is that DHS workers shouldn’t have more than 7 cases, however, Jay’s have at least 20 (Kapp). The average salary for a DHS caseworker is about $36,000 a year and they are faced with a neverending workload. The DHS workers are exhausted and overworked (Kapp). Burn-out is a familiar story and there is considerable turnover. For a child, a DHS caseworker leaving his or her case can be interpreted as yet another rejection by an adult carer, and lead to further distrust and emotional insecurity. These DHS workers are one of the main resources for the children, however, they are not able to work to the best of their ability.

This lack of resources has a huge impact on children. Many studies have indicated that children in foster care have higher emotional and behavioral issues, about 30% more likely compared to those children who were in the general population (Walsh and Mattingly). Children who have been in foster care are 16 times more likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis and 8 times more likely to need some sort of medicine for mental needs. Furthermore, children with emotional and behavioral problems are more likely to be in foster care, and less likely to be adopted or reunited with their family, which yet again elongates the cycle (Walsh and Mattingly). Moreover, the issues facing foster children do not disappear with time. When children age out of the system and enter into the world, foster children are more likely to have low educational attainment, experience homelessness, and are less likely than their peers to be working. The males who age out of foster care are six times more likely to be convicted of a crime (Walsh and Mattingly). In Jay’s situation, his entire team is worried about how his child will fare as he approaches his teenage years. This child has behavioral issues and “anger management (certainly understandable in the context of spending years in the system)” and is soon old enough to go into juvenile detention if he is perceived as a threat to himself or others (Kapp). Jay explains that “early detention in the criminal justice system will likely exacerbate a cycle of trauma this kiddo already seems trapped within” (Kapp). The foster care system does not have any implemented plans for children once they age out, which is arguably a time when they need even more support. Jay explains how difficult it is to see opportunities for them close off at every turn, “the compassion we hold for kids usually disappears as they age into adulthood; unfortunately, kids in foster care frequently lack the resources to be able to navigate the long transition into adulthood and therefore suffer in an unforgiving society all too ready to exploit and punish young adults” (Kapp). 

The example of failures in the system can be all too stark. Jay told me a story that was chilling in its implications. An 18-year-old girl who had been released from foster care just two weeks earlier was found hanging in a tree in North Portland, it is still unclear if it was suicide or homicide. Children in Oregon can choose to receive services until they are 23, however, she chose to have her case closed. Although her legal guardian was the DHS caseworker, she had been living on the streets in homeless camps for the past three years. After she was found, she was admitted to a hospital and it was discovered that she was nearly brain dead, with meth in her system. Her caseworker alerted the hospital that she had been in an abusive relationship with an older man for at least a year and a half. Because she had chosen to have her case closed, her DHS Caseworker could no longer make decisions surrounding her future. Her mother, who had abandoned her from an early age and not been present throughout her life, was the one left to decide what they could do, and the girl died shortly thereafter due to being taken off life support (Kapp). This is a child who had been failed at every turn. 

As a society, where we choose to put our resources reflects what we value and consider important. Based on this standard, it is clear that we do not consider children in the foster care system either of value or importance. As the story above indicates, the foster care system is underfunded and children are not getting the services they need. Even if we feel no moral obligation as a society to treasure foster children, then we should at least recognize how short-sighted it is not to provide them with the support they need. Not supporting these children adds an increasing strain and burden on our schools, our hospitals, and our jails. As these children struggle with the life-changing trauma of their youth, they need significant resources in order to help them to become stable and contributing members of our society. 

Pearl Buck, an American novelist and recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature said that “the test of a civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members” (Buck 337). With unheard voices, no real ability to affect their own future, no political or social power, and no way to impact the world around them at a young age, it is hard to imagine a more helpless member of society than a child who has been abused by his or her biological family. Last year, 471 individuals in Multnomah, Washington, and Columbia counties, volunteered as CASAs to devote considerable amounts of their time to advocate and stand by these children (“CASA”). However, they were working in a system that is under-resourced at the most fundamental level. The fact that the resources available for these children are in such short supply, suggests that, as a society, we have failed Ms. Buck’s test. CASAs set the example for how to prioritize and care for the needs of foster children. We need to figure out how we, as a society, can follow this example.

Works Cited

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Oregon Judicial Department. “PLACEMENT WITH A FIT AND WILLING RELATIVE.” Citizen Review Board, May 2016, http://www.courts.oregon.gov/programs/crb/training/Training%20Center/W6.PlacementFitWillingRelativeHO.pdf. Accessed 28 May 2021.

“ORS 419B.112.” Oregon Laws, 2020, http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/419B.112. Accessed 6 June 2021.

“ORS 419B.328.” Oregon Laws, 2020, http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/419B.328. Accessed 6

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