Oregon has no shortage of unfunded mandates, but there is one on the books that, if fully funded, could help remedy some of the most serious problems plaguing the state’s overburdened child welfare system.
According to Oregon state law, every foster child must be assigned a volunteer who advocates for their best interest as they’re shuffled through the courts and bounced between foster placements.
This session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Salem is pushing a bill to make full funding of this mandate a reality.
In the face of the state’s budgetary shortfall, however, others are instead looking to make cuts to a program that’s already falling far short of serving every foster child.
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That program is Court Appointed Special Advocates, known commonly as CASA, and it serves all but one Oregon county, with CASA staff at 22 independent nonprofits overseeing 1,880 volunteer advocates.
Each of these volunteers’ sole purpose is to advocate for the best interest of a child or sibling group in state custody.
For the 44 percent of foster children in Oregon who are assigned a volunteer advocate, having objective eyes watching their case can make a big difference in the way they experience the system.
Travis Lee, now 22, said growing up in the custody of Oregon’s Department of Human Services, which houses child protective services, meant he had a different government-employed caseworker at least every eight weeks.
“There were times where I would go through three to four caseworkers a month,” he said.
His foster home placements weren’t stable either, leaving him without any continuous source of support.
But all that changed when he was assigned a volunteer advocate at age 9.
“I only had one CASA worker for the whole time,” Lee said. “Always having different caseworkers – knowing that my CASA would always stay the same, always felt like some kind of relief for me.”
His advocate has stuck by his side for 13 years, even as he was moved away from Newport, where his case originated, living in foster homes in Salem, Portland and Newberg.
Lee said that before he got his volunteer advocate, he didn’t really understand what was happening with his case.
“But my CASA worker put everything into words I could understand,” he said.
Now an adult, he speaks at fundraisers for CASA nonprofits and still stays in contact with his advocate.
“It really is just an amazing program,” Lee said. “I would take a CASA worker over a DHS worker any day.”
Volunteer advocates are privy to a child’s medical records, family history and school file. They can interview the child’s teachers, parents and other people involved in the child’s life and visit the child in their home environment, whether it be a foster home or with their parents or legal guardians. If they suspect something is wrong, they can make an unannounced visit.
They are also there to figure out what is best for the child’s safety, health and success, and to advocate for that outcome in the courtroom. They also ensure a child gets medical and dental care, and they can make recommendations to a child’s school as well.
Shenetta Martin is a volunteer advoate and a volunteer supervisor with CASA For Children, which serves Multnomah, Washington and Columbia counties.
She said that sometimes, while there may be a plan for a permanent placement or reunification with the child’s parents, it can get stalled in the child welfare system.
It’s the volunteer’s job to help the judge understand that the “child deserves permanency as quickly as possible,” she said.
Volunteer advocates are shown to reduce the amount of time a foster child spends in the system by 7.5 months, and more than 90 percent of children who have an advocate never return to foster care. These outcomes greatly lower a foster child’s cost burden on taxpayers, according to an Office of Inspector General audit of CASA programs nationally in 2006.
At the same time, advocate-appointed children are more likely to receive the counseling they need to address trauma and abuse-related issues, according to CASA staff interviewed for this story.
Foster kids who have an advocate are also shown to have significantly improved academic performance, according to data compiled by the National CASA Association.
But above all, the program gives foster children someone to go to bat for them as they are ferried through an often frightening period of their life.
The public defenders, Oregon Department of Human Services caseworkers and others that may be involved in handling a foster care case are often juggling large caseloads.
“There could be a lot of people involved in a case, but those people have numerous cases – I mean numerous cases,” said Kim Ell, a volunteer advocate in Multnomah County. The uniqueness with a volunteer advocate is they have only one case, he said.
When Ell received his first CASA assignment, he said, he went to Home Depot and bought the largest binder he could find, but it wasn’t large enough to hold all the paperwork in the child’s file.
He said it’s not uncommon to see attorneys and caseworkers wheeling large cases full of paperwork into the courtroom. But Ell’s a retiree, and he has only one case, so he’s had the time to meticulously organize all the documents and case files, read through them carefully, and even double check the accuracy of their contents. All this puts him in a better position to quickly answer a judge’s questions and relay his recommendations in a meaningful way.
Volunteers typically receive about 30 to 40 hours of training, and then spend an average of 10 hours per month on their case, however the time varies greatly depending on the complexity of the case and other factors.
While the majority of volunteers are retired, employed part time or unemployed, this past fiscal year, 33 percent were employed full time.
“I’ve done lots of volunteer work throughout my life,” Ell said, “and this is by far the most rewarding.”
Betsy Miller, executive director at CASA for Children, said every time a case closes, she sits down with the volunteer to see how it went.
“I would say nine times out of 10, the CASA (volunteers) will say, ‘This is the most rewarding experience, and one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had,’” she said. “But CASAs also say if it weren’t for my supervisor, it would have been much more difficult.”
In order for a CASA program to be certified, it has to follow national standards requiring that a paid, full-time supervisor can oversee no more than 30 advocates or 45 cases, said Kari Rieck, executive director of Oregon CASA Network, which exists to support and represent Oregon’s CASA programs.
The lack of funding for these paid supervisors is why more than half of Oregon’s 11,554 foster children this past fiscal year didn’t have a volunteer advocate. Most nonprofits find that when they make a call for volunteers, there are plenty of people in their community who are willing to put in the time.
Shaney Starr, director of the Marion County CASA program in Salem, got creative and recently paid for sponsored content in the Statesman Journal to attract new volunteers.
She said she usually gets about 25 new volunteers spread across four to six trainings per year. After the paid articles, 21 people showed up to a single training.
“We know that when you reach out to the community with the call for advocates – we know we get a response,” Rieck said. “More than anything, it’s that we can’t afford to hire the people we need to do the job.”
Some Oregon CASA programs have as few as one full-time, or even just one part-time, staffer who oversees all the volunteers for their region.
“From all sources, we run on about a $6.5 million budget – about $1,291 per child to have an advocate per year,” Rieck said of all the programs across the state. “Currently, the state funds $1.14 million, which is only $219 per child.”
Rieck said the governor’s budget proposal calls for what amounts to a 23 percent cut to the CASA program, which she said would have the potential to end service for as many as 480 children.
The Joint Ways and Means Committee budget also recommended cuts to CASA, but it was less specific about how much.
We know from national data on CASA programs that fully funding it might actually cost taxpayers less in the long term than not funding the program at all. But due to the complexity of the child welfare system, the lack of CASA data specific to Oregon, and differences among the communities served by the state’s 22 CASA nonprofits, it’s difficult to pin down exact cost savings.
There are also lifelong cost savings for foster children who have CASAs, given that they are less likely to fall into the foster-care-to-prison pipeline and less likely to be reliant on social safety nets as adults, Rieck said.
In Oregon, a foster child’s average monthly cost to taxpayers is $2,500, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services.
It costs far less than that to provide a foster kid with an advocate for an entire year – about $1,300. And doing so is likely to shave months off their time in the system. With more than 6,500 kids going without CASAs, the savings could quickly add up.
Early estimates of what fully funding the CASA program would cost give it a $15 million to $20 million yearly price tag, but as Rieck explained, that applies CASA’s current bare-bones, full-caseload approach to management. The Legislative Fiscal Office, tasked with coming up with the cost of the bill to fully fund CASA, may project a vastly different number.
If House Bill 2171 passes, it would make that funding possible. It will likely stall in committee until later in session, but could come up for a vote after lawmakers sort through budgetary challenges. For one of its chief sponsors, Rep. Duane Stark (R-Grants Pass), the bill hits close to home.
“As a foster parent and adoptive parent, I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have a CASA, and I’ve experienced what it’s like to have a CASA,” Stark told members of the House Judiciary Committee at a March 8 hearing for the bill.
“I’ve seen even in my own case, where CASAs were in court, and (the government-caseworker) had goofed some things up and couldn’t technically make some specific requests of the court – couldn’t actually say what they wanted to happen because their paperwork was not complete, and yet the CASA was able to be a voice there for the child, for the system, and for the foster parents,” he said. “It was so important.”
He said his bill is intended to bring in funding so Oregon can meet its own mandate that every foster child is appointed an advocate.
Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) signed on as one of the bill’s 18 co-sponsors. “CASA is one of the best things that kids in the foster care system have going for them,” she said.
When it comes to fixing Oregon’s flawed child welfare system, car-lot owner turned child welfare advocate Dick Withnell said CASA is the “silver bullet.”
And he’s found some evidence to suggest that when a foster child has a volunteer advocate, it may put the state at a lower risk of child welfare malpractice litigation.
Withnell said he began advocating for the CASA program after reading about how two foster children in Yamhill County were starved nearly to death.
The Oregonian reported it was “at least the third time since 2004, in cases involving at least five children, that (a) youngster placed in foster care by Oregon child welfare workers ended up suffering from life-threatening starvation.”
The case resulted in a $60 million lawsuit filed against the Department of Human Services in 2016 for overlooking red flags and failing to stop the abuse.
Withnell hired the Salem law firm Kevin L. Mannix PC to compile information pertaining to the malpractice lawsuits for child abuse brought against the state between 2012 and mid-2016. He also wanted to know whether any of the children in those cases had a volunteer advocate.
The firm wrote in an informal report that among the nine child abuse cases (consolidated into eight) lodged against the state that it was able to identify, Oregon was “potentially exposed to $255,957,696 in liability.”
Connor Harrington, the attorney who took the lead on the project, emphasized that the state didn’t actually pay out that amount. But, he said, it could have because, due to the nature of the cases, judges could have awarded much greater damages.
According to Oregon’s office of Risk Management, between January 2012 and December 2016, the Department of Human Services paid out $33.7 million in settlements related to child abuse cases, both litigated and un-litigated.
Finding out how many of the affected children in these child abuse cases had an advocate was not easy. There was no public information to indicate that any did, and among CASA staff interviewed for this story, none knew of any lawsuit in the past few years that involved a child who had an advocate.
The Department of Human Services initially denied Street Roots’ request for the number of cases that involved an advocate, but after we petitioned the Oregon Attorney General’s Office, it agreed to give us a number.
Oregon Department of Human Services said it was unable to identify any cases other than the cases we provided them with, which was the list of cases that the law firm had compiled. Of those, a Department of Human Services spokesperson indicated two cases had a volunteer advocate “involved.” Due to the closed nature of child abuse cases, Street Roots was unable to determine the nature of the two volunteers’ involvement.
One might have been involved in the starvation case that Withnell read about. It was reported that an advocate was involved in that case; however, they were assigned to a sibling of one of the abused children who was in a different home.
It was the advocate who had alerted the state to the abuse, even though they were not representing the abused children.
But regardless of their involvement, this sample of cases indicates foster children who have advocates may be less likely to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the Department of Human Services – cases that exposed the agency to more than $255 million in liability since 2012.
“I hope you will look at CASA, not as an expense, but as a purchase for return on investment,” Withnell told lawmakers at the hearing. “And we’re not talking about widgets here; we’re talking about transformation of lives.”
While the exact monetary cost of not funding CASA is unknown, the human cost is.
Brittany Hope, a foster youth from Washington County, gave heart-wrenching testimony about her experience in the foster care system, and how her advocate helped her through it.
“She really did save me,” Hope told the committee as her eyes filled with tears. “While her title was only a ‘Court Appointed Special Advocate,’ she was everything to me. She was my support system, she was my mentor, and she was my best friend.”
Email staff reporter Emily Green at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.
Lobby your legislator
The House Committee on Judiciary is currently considering House Bill 2171, which would make it possible for every foster child in Oregon to have a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Let its members know what you think of the bill by contacting their offices in Salem. Select their names on the Legislature's website to get their contact information.
Become a CASA
Oregon CASA Network is always looking for new volunteers to advocate for children in the child welfare system. Anyone 21 or older who has a flexible schedule and can pass a
criminal background check can become a CASA.
Becoming a CASA requires about 30 hours of training, and an average of 10 hours of work per month; however, time requirements can vary greatly.
If employed, CASA volunteers should have some flexibility in their work schedule that would allow them to appear in court with the child or children they are representing.
Because being a constant fixture in a foster child’s life is an important part of being a CASA, don’t apply unless you can commit to sticking with a case until it’s closed.
Visit casahelpskids.org if you live in Multnomah County, or see a full list of Oregon’s CASA nonprofits.
By the numbers
$2,500: Average monthly cost of a foster child to Oregon taxpayers
$1,300: Average yearly cost of a CASA
7.5 months: Average time, nationally, having a CASA shaves off a child’s time in foster care
$18,750: Cost to Oregon taxpayers of 7.5 months in foster care
6.6: Average number of times children in state custody move between foster homes
3.9: Average number of times children who have a CASA move between foster homes
Sources: Oregon CASA Network, CASA For Children, Oregon Department of Human Services
From the 2015 Child Welfare Data Book
(For fiscal year 2014-15, in Oregon)
69,972: Reports of abuse or neglect received by Child Protective Services
6,708 involving 10,402 victims: Completed investigations that found abuse
46.6: Percentage of victims younger than 6
27: Number of children who died from causes related to family or caregiver abuse
104: Number of perpetrators of abuse who were a foster parent or foster home