Court Appointed Special Advocates are volunteers who are trained to help abused and neglected children navigate through the foster care system. Shaney Starr led CASA of Marion County for almost seven years, and recently joined the organization’s national leadership team. She joins us to talk about her new role as director of suburban program growth and development at CASA National, as well as the ongoing needs for CASA volunteers in Marion County and Oregon.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with a conversation about Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASAs. These are volunteers who represent the interests of abused or neglected children who are in the foster care system or in family courts. Shaney Starr led CASA of Marion County for about seven years. Now she’s a part of the national effort that supports these groups. She is the director of the Suburban Program Growth and Development at the national CASA organization. She joins us now to talk about this work. Shaney Starr, welcome.
Shaney Starr: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. I want to start with the basics because it’s been, I think, many years since we’ve actually talked about this. What is a CASA?
Starr: A CASA is a community member who has a commitment and dedication and passion for helping our children who are in the foster care system. Our programs recruit and train them and really give them the tools that they need to be able to advocate for what is in the best interests. And then we support them. Our local programs here in Oregon support those volunteers navigating the very complex system of foster care here in Oregon.
Miller: How is this kind of volunteer, a CASA, different from a DHS caseworker?
Starr: Sure. That’s a great question when we get a lot. The best way that I can explain it is to share that our volunteers, our CASAs, are there because they want to be. They’re not being paid. They report directly to the judge, and they are the only neutral party that is there to advocate for the child. The caseworker, they have their own case plan and beliefs about the case. The attorneys that represent the parents, they’re ethically required to advocate for what their clients are asking for. Our CASAs actually take an oath and get sworn in that they will do their own investigation. I say that in quotations, but they will do their own homework and research, looking at all the discovery, talking to everyone that is involved in the child’s life and then bringing those recommendations and what they believe to be in the best interests of the child back to court and report that directly to the judge. Our CASAs only have one, maybe two, cases that they are working at any one time. Whereas our caseworkers have many, many cases and children and parents that they’re working with. So our CASA volunteers can really focus and dedicate their time on that one case that they’re assigned to.
Miller: How long might a CASA stay with a young person?
Starr: We ask for a two-year commitment. Sometimes that commitment can actually be longer depending on the complexities of the case. Really we look at, on average, about 18 months to two years.
Miller: Who are the people who have enough time or resources, in general, to do this kind of important unpaid work?
Starr: That’s something that we’re working on. We know the system is set up to not always necessarily allow [for] people who don’t have those resources or the flexibility, but want to help. Our system doesn’t necessarily allow everybody to participate in that work. Right now, when we look at our demographics, we typically are looking at a person who, if they are working, has a flexible position that would allow them to maybe take off an hour or two to go to court, from their work day. Typically probably our volunteers are over the age of, probably 45 and older. We do have a lot of retired people, and retired educators, that become CASA volunteers.
Miller: How do you measure the impact of a CASA’s work?
Starr: I think that the best way to measure that impact is looking at – it’s important to keep in mind that every case is different, so one outcome for a case might be different than the next five case outcomes and what is what is termed impact. First and foremost, our goal is reunification with the family of origin. We know, based on science and research and data, that children do better with their parents. So that’s our number one priority. If we can safely navigate the system and the case to achieve a reunification, that’s what we want first and foremost. So I think that’s really what we look at in terms of impact: if it’s safe to do so, are we able to reunite that child or children, sibling unit, with their parent? Otherwise, sometimes if that’s not possible, another term that you will hear is permanency. What is permanency for that child and were we or are we able to achieve permanency? That might be placement with a relative, guardianship with a relative, could be adoption. So we see reunification in about 96 percent of our cases.
Miller: What drew you to this work?
Starr: I’ve always had a soft spot for children and youth and families who would, I think by society’s terms, be labeled ‘at risk’ or ‘disadvantaged.’ I think I was labeled that as a child…
Miller: Are those not phrases that you subscribe to?
Starr: No, not at all. I think every child has potential. I don’t like those labels and I think that is one of the things that has motivated me to get involved in this work because I don’t like labels. I don’t like when we call our children who are experiencing foster care, I don’t like the term ‘foster child’ or ‘foster kid.’ That really labels who they are, and that’s not who they are. That’s what they’re experiencing at this moment in their life.
Miller: What do you use, what words instead?
Starr: ‘A child who’s experiencing foster care’ or ‘a child involved in the juvenile dependency system, in the child welfare system’ or ‘a child who’s in foster care.’ I just don’t want them to be known as a ‘foster child’ because they are – first and foremost – they are a precious, precious child who has so much potential.
Miller: As I noted in my intro, you’re now working for the National Association of CASAs as the new director of suburban program growth. Are there unique challenges for these programs outside of big cities and – I imagine, if we have the same use of the word suburban – outside of very rural areas? I mean, are there specific challenges for suburban areas?
Starr: Yes. Rural areas have their own challenges, but for suburban programs… I came from the Salem program, so I fall within the Portland media market. Portland has their own CASA program, so we really miss out on the media market from the metro area and have to get creative with how we recruit and how we build our program awareness.
Miller: Ohhh, I guess I had been thinking about the specific needs for children who are experiencing various problems or are caught up in the foster care system. But when you say the media market, you mean difficulty in spreading the word to recruit new volunteers.
Starr: Yeah, because we share, right. In Marion County, we fall within the Portland media market, and to the south you have the Eugene media market. So our program, and a lot of suburban programs really face… That’s just one challenge. The other challenge that we face is a lot of people who live here may travel to Portland to go to work. That really cuts down on their availability time. Or people that work here may live in Portland. So, when you’re in a suburban community, there’s just lots of different nuances. And how do you recruit? To your point, the other big issue is: what are the services available for our children and our youth? Obviously they’re not gonna be as vast as what you might have in the Portland area.
Miller: On the deepest level, your work as a whole is a response to big problems that have happened in people’s lives at some point before you or your volunteers have ever gotten involved. I’m curious what you see as the policy changes, of any kind, that would do the most to prevent those issues, those problems, those sometimes family catastrophes from happening in the first place.
Starr: I remember testifying several years ago in front of a legislative committee down here in Salem. I remember my testimony was: ‘We have to, for a period of time, we have to begin’ – this was several years ago – ‘begin putting a significant amount of resources into the prevention work and meeting our families where they’re at and recognizing the trauma that’s, most of the time, a generational cycle of trauma. Then at the same time we also have to put the resources into providing the services, like our CASA programs here in Oregon, to come alongside those families that are involved in the child welfare system.’ My hope was, with that testimony, that we would be able, for a period of time, to fund both a significant investment in prevention, a significant investment in our services and then over time see that prevention investment pay off with the reduction in need for our CASA services. I would love nothing more than to not have a job someday because we, as a society and as a system, have done a really good job of prevention work.
Miller: Shaney Starr, thanks very much.
Starr: Thank you.
Miller: Shaney Starr is a member of the Keizer City Council, director of Suburban Program Growth and Development at the National CASA Association. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC this week. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back on Monday.
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