Twenty years. Twenty years of CASA. Twenty years of advocacy for children. Twenty years of challenges, tears, joy, heartbreak, and impact. Twenty years of caseworkers, attorneys, judges, volunteers, staff members, funders, parents, children, and foster parents.
This month marks my 20th anniversary working for CASA. In January 2004, I was an MSW graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. One frigid western PA morning, I stepped off the elevator on the 9th floor of the Manor Building in downtown Pittsburgh to begin my first day of an internship at Court Appointed Special Advocates. I had no idea what to expect and the butterflies in my stomach felt like they were trying to escape up my throat. During one of my very first days at CASA, I accompanied my field instructor (whom I still have a relationship with to this day and admire greatly) to conduct a file review at Children & Youth Services on a new referral. As I thumbed through the multiple file boxes full of papers, I slowly learned that this case centered around a father’s sexual abuse of his infant daughter -unimaginable abuse of a full-size adult man against a tiny, helpless new being. Thus began my career at CASA.
Without a doubt, most child welfare cases are not so horrific, not nearly so jarring. But it’s also true that that wasn’t the worst case I have encountered in twenty years either. Why wasn’t I scared off? Why didn’t I move on to another field or at least to a different area of social work practice that doesn’t involve holding back tears in a bare, impersonal bureaucratic office while getting a dozen paper cuts flipping through hundreds of documents? I have asked myself that question many times over the last two decades. And I believe the questions of “Why am I here?” and “How did I get here?” are ones that we should regularly ask ourselves as they are not just answered once in our careers. The answers have evolved as my own understanding of myself and my sense of who I am and want to be have also evolved over the years.
Why did I stay at CASA after that difficult day in January of 2004? Although I was saddened and horrified by what I was reading, I was also fully bought in. It’s a massive understatement to say I felt compelled to do something. I think I felt so deeply concerned about the needs of children subjected to abuse and neglect from the people they trusted and needed most. I was immediately invested in the idea that children need someone who has their best interests at heart and who is empowered to advocate for them. Someone to intervene in their situation and ensure they are safe and have an opportunity for a better future.
But why do I stay at CASA now in 2024? After twenty years of practice, that answer is multi-faceted and much more nuanced. I remain at CASA now because I see a better future and I’m inspired daily to work towards that future. I’m inspired by our multitude of CASA volunteers, who are hands down some of the most incredible people I have ever met in my entire life. I stay at CASA now because I have seen the successes. I have seen the children and families who overcome tremendous adversity. Because the vast majority of parents caught in the child welfare system love their children immensely, but often lack the financial, emotional, or mental resources to keep them safe and provide for their needs in the way that they would hope and dream to be able to do. And I see the failures of a system and a society that have resulted in so many families ending up in court and having their children removed due to lack of affordable housing, insufficient access to mental health resources, lack of culturally appropriate services, community violence, and parental incarceration due to substance abuse and its ramifications. These societal factors have led us as an agency to expand our core individual advocacy program for children and youth in Delaware and Chester counties to also engage in systems change and policy advocacy work through our Voices for Children coalition and the Safer Schools Stronger Neighborhoods coalition. I strongly believe that we need to re-examine how we respond to families in crisis in our community. Is it really the best system we can create to have the single mom of three special needs children who is struggling to stay sober, keep a job, and put food on the table, subjected to the same process, investigation, and court procedures as the father who sexually penetrated his 6-month-old baby? That’s why I stay at CASA now. Because I believe we can do better. Because I believe we owe it to children and families to do better. And I believe CASA is well-positioned to make a difference. One day at a time. One small change at a time.
As I rapidly progress through my 40’s, I often feel out of sync with my peer cohort, many of whom have worked at a half dozen or more places during the time I’ve devoted my career to CASA. And yet, although I’ve been in the CASA network for so many years, having moved from Allegheny County to Delaware County in 2007, I feel like I’ve worked for 10 different organizations during that time. Not only has my role changed multiple times and the court and child welfare systems have turned over and evolved and changed many times, but we’ve changed. CASA has changed. When I joined Delco CASA in 2007, there were 3.5 FTE staff members. Our budget was under $250,000. We didn’t yet serve Chester County, where we expanded our services in 2015. We didn’t yet provide Educational Decision Maker services, which we added in 2012. And we hadn’t launched our Voices for Children work which began in 2019 and now our Safer Schools Stronger Neighborhoods coalition which began just last year.
Now, as we begin 2024, we have 19 staff members. The budget that our Board will approve in the coming days is over $2.5 million. And we’ve continued to expand how we see our mission and our vision for our work and for our community. One-on-one volunteer advocacy will always be the heart and soul of CASA. But we now also feel compelled to be system change makers. We’re not always successful, but we stay the course. I’m so proud of this organization, of our amazing staff who always quest for a better path to achieve impact, of our dedicated Board of Directors who are not afraid to take risks if it means potentially reaching more children in more impactful ways, of our donors and supporters who believe in us and invest hard-earned dollars in our mission, and of our awe-inspiring CASA volunteers who give of their time and their emotional resources for the hope of making a difference in a child’s life. It has been the honor of my career to serve CASA for 20 years. I look forward to many more. I hope that you’ll join me.