By Jenna App and Lisa Romano

Oregon’s child welfare agency, the Department of Human Services, has been in the news too often lately for all the wrong reasons — closures of foster care programs, lawsuits alleging neglect and abuse of the children DHS is entrusted to protect, firing of upper management and failed federal reviews. Meanwhile, here in Central Oregon, local DHS caseworkers are carrying big caseloads and facing uncertainty about the future of DHS. These serious issues highlight the importance of CASA programs as an independent voice that provides oversight to vulnerable children in foster care.

CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocates.” The CASA program is mandated by state law, and nonprofit programs exist in nearly every county in Oregon. Here in Central Oregon, Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties are served by a single nonprofit agency, CASA of Central Oregon.

In 2016, a small CASA staff of 6 will recruit, train and support over 140 community volunteers who will become legal parties in several hundred court cases concerning children who have experienced abuse and neglect in Central Oregon. When a CASA volunteer is assigned to a child — or to multiple siblings in a family — that one volunteer commits to staying with the case until that child moves into a safe and permanent home. CASA staff and volunteers investigate all relevant information about the child’s case, participate in all court hearings, and ensure that other legal parties (including DHS) are fulfilling their obligations to the child. CASAs become “the eyes and ears” for the judge, and help ensure that the child is getting all court-ordered services. Because an average child in foster care will have multiple foster homes and several caseworkers, the CASA volunteer is often the only consistent adult in a child’s life during the time that child is in foster care.

Despite the fact that CASA is a state-mandated program, this year CASA of Central Oregon will receive only 18 percent of its budget from legislative appropriation, and must raise the remaining 82 percent through a combination of grants and donations. Statewide, CASA has been proven to be cost-effective: CASA leverages $5 for each $1 of state general funds. If CASA programs were fully funded by the state, CASA volunteers could be assigned to every child in foster care to ensure they are as safe as possible, have the services they need, and have their voices heard in court. In 2016, CASA of Central Oregon will serve a record number of children, but because of budget constraints, we will still fall short of our goal to serve every child in need in Central Oregon.

There is a lot of pressure for CASA of Central Oregon to serve as many children as possible because we know that children in foster care with a CASA volunteer tend to do better over time in nearly every quantitative and qualitative measurement — from school performance, to behavior, to mental health, to moving out of the foster system more quickly — as compared to a child in foster care who does not have a CASA volunteer.

On statewide issues, the Oregon CASA Network regularly provides input to elected officials about child welfare issues, and the OCN contributed to House Bill 4080, that established the Governor’s Child Foster Care Advisory Commission. The OCN and CASA of Central Oregon hope to be involved in future conversations about how to improve DHS and the foster care system, and are advocating for CASA to have a seat on the new Child Foster Care Advisory Commission.

In a perfect world there would be no need for foster homes or CASA programs. Until that day comes, CASA programs across Oregon must succeed where large state agencies like DHS have failed, and must provide consistent and individualized advocacy and oversight for Oregon’s most vulnerable children. Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a CASA volunteer can visit www.casaofcentraloregon.org or call 541-389-1618.

— Jenna App lives in Bend and Lisa Romano lives in Eugene.

14115843