When Dan Danser began working his first case as a court-appointed special advocate two years ago, he thought it would end as it started — a mess.
Pinal Superior Court had removed three children from a mother’s custody and placed them in a foster home. Then the court told the mother what she needed to do to get them back. Initially, however, the prospect of the mother getting things together enough to once again care for the children was grim. Over the course of the next year, things began to change for the better.
“When you look at the totally of it, it looked like a failure waiting to happen,” says Danser, a former Arizona Department of Corrections employee. “As it turned out, the parent got involved, and really turned herself around 180 degrees. We got the family reunification, which was in the beginning not looking like it would happen. So it was rewarding to see that people can change and do change. So that gave me an incentive to keep going.”
As a court-appointed special advocate (CASA), Danser’s job is to advocate for children, monitoring all aspects of their lives while they are in foster care and report his findings to the court.
Danser, 65, of Pinal County, is one of 812 CASAs statewide who advocate for children who are wards of the state up to the age of 18. They are separated from their families for various reasons by court order and are living temporarily with family members, foster parents or in a group home, court officials say.
The court’s goal is to reunify them with family or find a family that wants to adopt them. Sometimes, however, they end up living in group homes until they are 18. Then they are on their own, court officials say.
“I make recommendations,” says Danser, who volunteers about 20 hours per month. “My whole job in CASA is to advocate for the needs of the child, the child’s best interest.”
The program, run by the Arizona Supreme Court, has been in existence since 1985, and its volunteers have served 1.1 million hours advocating for children who have become wards of the state. In that time, volunteers have helped 14,850 children find permanent homes, CASA officials say.
Greg Clark, Pinal County’s CASA coordinator, says the value of the program is self-evident. When a program volunteer is involved in a case, there is a 50 percent increase in a child or children being placed in permanent homes, which helps long term to reduce the cost of the state’s judicial, welfare and prison systems, Clark says.
“I believe in the program,” Clark says. “It’s a fantastic program. It’s life changing. It’s life changing for the kids and often for the volunteers. They often say they got in it to help the kids, but they admit later on that they think sometimes the kids helped them.”
There are 11,585 children who are wards of the state of Arizona right now, which means that only one of every 14 children has a court-appointed special advocate in their corner, officials say. Their goal is to increase the number of volunteers as much as they can.
Volunteers meet with children on a regular basis and report directly to judges in court every six months on the children’s temporary living situation, informing them of any issues that may be occurring in the home or school.
While it is true that family court cases often include caseworkers from Child Protective Services, those caseworkers handle multiple cases simultaneously while court-appointed special advocates generally have one case at a time. Therefore, the advocates can focus their attention strictly on the needs of the child without being bogged down by a huge caseload, volunteers say.
“We visit the child more than CPS. They are swamped,” says Susan Steenhard, of Yuma, who has been a court-appointed special advocate for almost 14 years.
Although it is challenging dealing with children from broken homes, Steenhard, 52, says she enjoys it because she becomes a positive force in the lives of children who have often been neglected and forgotten by their families. The fact that they know someone is watching out for their well-being helps them through tough times, she says.
“We are the ones who are always there. We are the consistent people in their lives,” she says.
Just spending time listening to what the children have to say can make a difference in their progress, volunteers say.
In Danser’s current case, for example, a teen is living with a family member because his parents are unable to care for him. But the teen has had some trouble with the law and wants to live with someone else who would not be positive for him. Danser had to advise the court against it, he says.
One day the teen asked him: “Why do you bother?”
“Because I see a potential in you,” Danser responded. “I want to see you do right. I hate to see a kid like you waste your life in prison. Half of the people around don’t have the smarts you do and the savvy, but you’re using it wrong.”
The direct approach works well for Danser and other volunteers, especially with children who have been let down by their families or legal guardians. They tend to appreciate others being honest with them even if it hurts, CASA volunteers say.
Marshall Porter, 70, a CASA volunteer since 1999, says the relationship with the children may grow in time to where the child looks up to him as perhaps a mentor. But that’s not the focus of the program. It’s rather a by-product of mutual respect that occurs as time goes on.
“Before you get into the mentor or the big brother thing — and there are other people that do that — it’s mainly you are advocating for that child. You are the representative of the court for that child,” Porter says.
CASA volunteers have access, for example, to children’s school records and can arrange meetings with teachers and counselors if necessary to help them overcome disciplinary or academic problems. Then they submit reports to the judge with their recommendations, Porter says.
“You want to be as objective as you can because you want to tell the judge what’s happening,” says Porter, who is retired from Allied Signal.
Judges weigh those recommendations with those of the family members, lawyers and social workers, and write orders based on the pool of information.
“I work with CPS. I work with the courts,” Danser says. “But I come up with my own opinions, my own ideas and my own theories. I write reports and give them to the judge.”
When Steenhard first became a CASA volunteer, she says the work was compelling but overwhelming because of the many pieces of the puzzle the judges have to fit together to have children placed in permanent homes.
Since then, Steenhard, who is retired and disabled, has worked on 50 cases and was CASA volunteer of the year in 2011.
“In the very beginning I was very ignorant of everything going on and the more I learned I understood how important CASAs are to the delinquency and dependency cases.”
Although she isn’t financially compensated for her CASA work, there is a reward that goes beyond that, she says
“I see how well those children have done and how they have blossomed,” Steenhard says. “We don’t get any money. That’s my paycheck.”
— Visit www.azcourts.gov/casa/volunteer/aspx for more information on volunteering in the CASA program.