In Brief

Interested in pro-bono work with abused and neglected children? If so, psychologists and psychology graduate students are prime candidates for volunteering with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a national nonprofit organization. Judges assign CASA volunteers, known as CASAs, to families with children adjudicated as dependent on the courts due to abuse or neglect.

CASAs conduct in-depth interviews with children and caregivers, including parents, social workers, teachers, foster parents, physicians and court psychologists, and recommend to judges whether children should return to their families or go to foster families or adoptive homes.

More than 42,000 CASAs serve in U.S. juvenile and family courts, but many more are needed, says Jim Clune, a CASA volunteer and chief communications officer for the national program office.

"There are half a million children in the foster-care system that could use a CASA," he says, adding, "We only have enough volunteers for one-third of them."

While CASAs can have any professional background, psychological skills, such as intake, assessment, active listening, interviewing and sensitivity are ideal for this type of work, says Clune.

CASAs work on a case for 18 months or more, depending on the case, devoting approximately 10 to 12 hours a month to interviewing, home visits, meetings and court-report writing. Volunteers visit children wherever they live at least once a month, sometimes unannounced.

Because turnover for social workers is high and many children stay with three or four foster families during the court process, a CASA is "often the one caring adult they see--the one constant amidst a stream of strangers," says Clune.

And the program can benefit volunteers as well as the children they serve, says CASA volunteer Holiday Adair, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at the California University of Pennsylvania.

"CASA has given me a special outlet to exercise my therapy, interviewing and consulting skills in the service of a population that needs still more advocacy than is provided," says Adair.

Volunteers attend 40 hours of in-depth training on the legal system, advocacy, abuse and neglect, child welfare and interviewing techniques, and also meet with judges, attorneys, psychologists and social workers to learn about their role in the court process. CASA staff work one-on-one with each volunteer during his or her case--preparing them for testimony and advising them on strategic and legal issues.

To supplement their training, CASAs attend ongoing workshops on topics such as chemical dependency, cultural sensitivity and community resources, and many mentor new volunteers. CASAs must be at least 21 years old, care about children and be willing to commit to at least one case for 18 months, says Clune.

For more information on volunteering for CASA, contact the National CASA Association at 100 W. Harrison, North Tower, Suite 500, Seattle WA 98119, (800) 628-3233, or visit the CASA Web site at www.nationalcasa.org.

--J. CHAMBERLIN