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Giving Foster Kids Hope

How Washoe CASA and the judiciary are building a healthier community

By Chrisie Yabu

In Washoe County, more than 900 abused or neglected children live in foster care because they cannot live safely at home (and, there are 1,000 kids in the legal custody of social services). Each year, more than 400,000 children are placed in foster care across the United States.

When these children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, they are often with caregivers that they have never met. These children are away from everything familiar, while entering into a world filled with social workers, lawyers and judges making life-changing decisions on their behalf.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are trained volunteers that advocate for an abused or neglected child in family court proceedings. Since the first CASA program was started in 1977, court-appointed volunteers have demonstrated that they effectively support abused or neglected children by providing court judges with important information concerning the children they work with.

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“CASAs act as the eyes and ears of the court,” said Judge Egan Walker, Washoe County Second Judicial District Court and board director for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). And judges are the gatekeepers for what happens or doesn’t happen for the child in foster care.

Grace entered the foster care system at age thirteen after her mother had been abusing her since the age of five. Grace realized that she wanted to break the cycle and protect herself and her younger brother. Her situation happens too frequently for youth who face abuse or neglect. Her CASA, Susan, spent many hours with Grace, as well as the people involved in Grace’s life, including teachers, doctors, family members and social workers. Susan served as Grace’s voice in court. Today, Grace is in her thirties, thriving in Northern Nevada, and still remains close to Susan.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), based in Nevada, educates judges about best practices in child welfare and many other issues. In fact, one of NCJFCJ’s past presidents, Judge John Mendoza from Clark County, coined the term “Court Appointed Special Advocate” in the late 70s. The NCJFCJ recently published its Enhanced Resource Guidelines (ERGs), which serves as the NCJFCJs national blueprint for education and training on child abuse and neglect practices.

The ERGs cover all stages of the court process, from the preliminary protective hearing until juvenile and family court involvement has ended, which leads to the child safely being returned home or placed in a new, secure, and legally permanent home. Currently, practices from the ERGs are being applied in fourteen court sites nationwide through the NCJFCJs Implementation Sites Project, which fulfills the goal of improving the outcomes for children in foster care.

“It falls to me to be educated and informed about what works for kids, about trauma and trauma-informed practices, and to really elevate the best interests of a child above the interest of any of the individual players in the system,” said Judge Walker. “The NCJFCJ has taught me that we owe it to kids to give them a permanent family if reunification is not a viable option.”

Another example is Jenny, who found in her heart to adopt her cousin Abel, although the adoption took more than two years to complete with the help of a CASA.

“The stability is something that I don’t think can be replaced,” said Jenny. “That feeling is indescribable, knowing that he’s going to be with me forever.”

Abel’s CASA, a volunteer who wanted to be his voice throughout his proceedings, was integral in the process. Today, Abel and Jenny are enjoying their lives together, adjusting to Abel’s activities and to each other.

When foster care children have the support that CASAs and the court provides, they actually do better while they’re in the court system. This results in improved outcomes for children. Healthier courts make for healthier communities, and healthier communities benefit all of our kids and families who thrive in loving, stable homes.