What is a CASA? A judge can request that a Court-Appointed Special Advocate be assigned to a case in which a child is impacted. Learn how you can help judges to make better-informed decisions.
Maybe you’ve thought about being a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for a child, but you’re not sure what it involves. Such was the case for Bill Gissal, after he retired from his 30-year career in the human resources department of Sundstrand a few years ago. Gissal, who is married and has three grown children, became a CASA in Winnebago County two years ago. He also tutors 4th graders of Rockford Public Schools; helps people to find re-employment through a program at Holy Family Catholic Church; sings in The Classic Chorale and the Grace Lutheran Church choir; and participates in the Transform Rockford engagement team.
Northwest Quarterly Magazine recently sat down with Gissal to ask what his CASA experience has been like so far.
How did you learn about CASA?
I’d always thought this might be something I would like to do, after I retired, because I knew some CASA volunteers who found it very rewarding. I liked the idea of helping children to increase their odds of developing in a positive direction. But I wasn’t sure.
I took the next step by talking with CASA staff members in their office and then signed up for the training session, which involves 35 hours over six to eight weeks in spring or fall. When training finished, I passed CASA’s screening process. Over the past few years, I’ve completed two CASA cases and am starting a third, more complicated case.
What’s the training like?
It’s very extensive. Before you start training, CASA staff interviews you to be sure you know what the program is about. In training, you learn about the history of CASA, the legal implications involved, and all kinds of information about what to do and what not to do. You look at real case studies and you do role-playing. You go through an actual case and take the part of a CASA. You also attend court a couple of times to observe.
By the time you go through all that, you pretty much know what to do. They get you very well prepared.
What are your CASA duties?
The key is that I’m the person looking out for the best interest of the child during a court case. Typically I start by reading the file prepared by CASA staff, then I meet with the child, meet with each parent or foster parent and every agency or school official involved, and meet with the CASA attorney assigned to the case.
The parents each have an attorney and the agencies have attorneys but there’s not anyone whose sole responsibility is to represent the child, except me. I periodically attend hearings and submit my reports to the judge and make recommendations based on a set of criteria we’re given.
A CASA tries to be objective and doesn’t inject his or her own personal value system. For example, the minimal legal guidelines for care are not necessarily what I would want for a child, but if a parent is meeting them, that’s what I report. I organize the information I’ve gathered, using CASA guidelines, and report it to the court.
What kind of cases are these?
A case might be about child abuse of some kind, or neglect – maybe the child is living in an unheated home or an unsafe environment. Or it may be a truancy case – the parents just don’t get the child to school. There’s a whole range of severity in these cases. New CASAs aren’t thrown into the most severe cases right away and not all of the cases are about something horrific.
Often the cases come to court after the DCFS (Illinois Department of Children and Family Services) assigns them to a local agency. Children served are age birth to 18.
My most recent case was about truancy. The ability to attend school regularly impacts the child’s life in an important way.
My other case involved an infant who was removed from the mother, at birth, because her other children had been taken away from her by DCFS. My role was to gather information about the current fitness of the mother, using the legal guidelines, and to report it to the judge. I was involved with that child from age 4 months to age 2.
How much time do you spend on this?
On average maybe 3 to 4 hours a week. It might be more if a case requires you to drive to someplace like Freeport or Chicago.
On my truancy case, I visited parents and the schools every three weeks or so and reported in court twice. I take one case at a time. The CASA folks don’t push you to take on more, although some CASAs do more than one case at a time.
Sometimes a case takes a few years to get through court. We typically provide updates to the court every six months or so. Truancy cases meet more like every two months. In the past two years, I’ve been to court about seven times.
Who might be a good CASA?
Anybody who has a passion for helping kids, and some comfort level in dealing with people, can be a good CASA. I’ve seen nurses, counselors, teachers, retired business people and human resources people, like myself, become CASAs. But there are no requirements, as far as the career you come from. The ability to be objective is important.
Why do you like being a CASA volunteer?
I like using the same skill set I used in human resources, but to help children. I like the challenge of looking at the puzzle of a child’s life and piecing together what’s really going on and what potential solutions may exist. What are the parties involved really saying? For a child caught up in these cases, and for a judge trying to make a good decision, it’s invaluable to have someone objective – someone with no stake in the game except the child’s best interest – to assess the situation and communicate it.
I want children to have the opportunity to develop their full potential. That’s hard to do if no one will take you to school or if you’re abused or neglected or sleeping in a car every night. And it’s hard for a judge to get the objective information needed to make a good decision, if information only comes from the adults involved in the case. So I like seeing a child progress through whatever issue has brought the case to court.
I also enjoy working with the CASA staff members. They’re in this for the right reason, and it’s not to get rich.
What’s the most challenging thing about it?
Building a trusting relationship with an older child who has not found adults to be very trustworthy is challenging, but it’s also very rewarding when you make progress. I try to be a good listener and to not be judgmental. I try to identify common interests and show interest in whatever is important to them. The basis of everything is relationships, and those take effort.
Also, getting parents to cooperate when meeting with a CASA can be challenging. A CASA can request someone to come along during a home visit, or set up meetings in a public place. If the parents don’t cooperate, a CASA reports that to the judge. Parents know this, so they usually come around.
When I hit a roadblock, I talk things through with a CASA staff member, which is very helpful.
What are some misconceptions about CASA?
People often think CASAs house children or become the children’s foster parents while children are involved in the court system. We don’t. People also think a CASA acts like a Big Brother or Big Sister to the children, taking them to baseball games or for ice cream. We don’t. We’re not even allowed to transport them in a car.
As court advocates, we have many limitations on what we can and can’t do with the children. We aim to advocate for a child’s successful future by getting to know the situation and reporting objective information to the judge so that the judge can make better-informed decisions that impact the child’s future.
How many children are in need of a CASA?
There are 775 children waiting for a CASA here in Winnebago County and 117 trained CASAs.
What can people do to support CASA?
The main thing is to consider being an advocate. The need is great. It’s not for everybody, but it’s also not as difficult as some people think it is. If you’re interested, but are not sure if you could do it, call the CASA office and set up a time to go talk to them about it. That doesn’t commit you to anything.
A lot more people could do this, but they think it’s harder than it really is.