April 19, 2004 – The territory's Court Appointed Special Advocates program, founded a decade ago on St. Croix, is undergoing a restructuring that reflects the growth it has experienced and that it anticipates in years to come.
CASA has been operating within Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, growing from a small program with part-time staff to a much larger one with two full-time staff members and about 30 volunteers assigned to cases by Family Court.
The reorganization involves separation from Legal Services and placement of the program under a new umbrella, Virgin Islands Volunteer Advocates for Children.
CASA's mission in the Virgin Islands "is to provide children with a voice while they are part of the system," Gail R. Shearer, founder says. "CASAs speak up," advocating on behalf of children "to insure that their needs are identified and addressed and that they do not get lost or slip through the cracks of an often overwhelmed and underfunded system."
The system includes the Human Services, Education, Health departments; the Family Court that has jurisdiction over a child's case and the private agencies that provide services to children and their families by contract with the government or by their mission.
Trained volunteers working under the supervision of a paid staff person provide most of CASA's direct services. Volunteer commit to devoting about two and a half hours a week to their cases. The work includes monitoring the court-ordered services for the child; coordinating efforts among service providers; and meeting with the child, teacher, therapist, foster placement caretaker and other persons relevant to the child's case.
Prior to each review hearing, the volunteer prepares a detailed written report on what they have learned relative to the child's case and CASA's recommendations on behalf of the child. "This is shared with the attorneys in the case and the judge so that they will feel more adequately informed and better equipped to perform their duties in a way which will serve the child's needs," Shearer said.
Where a child is to be reunified with his or her family, the CASA volunteer monitors the situation to see that the family is meeting its commitments to insure that the transition home is safe, healthy and in the child's best interests.
Legal conflicts of interest prompted separation
In 2002 an advisory council was formed to consider the future structure and operation of the CASA program. Considerations for separating from Legal Services included growing legal conflict of interest situations, Shearer said.
Such situations prevented Legal Services lawyers from representing parents in related or unrelated legal matters when CASA was already appointed by the court to advocate on behalf of the child in an abuse and neglect matter. Similarly, conflicts required CASA to refuse court appointments in cases where Legal Services was representing the parents or had recently done so.
Also a consideration was CASA's desire to expand its ability to serve children. "In the courtroom every Wednesday for many years, the CASA program has been listening to the cases and recognizing the overwhelming lack of very much-needed services," Shearer said. "The volunteer advocates can advocate until they are blue in the face, but if the service is not available for the court to order for these children, the advocacy is lost."
CASA program staff want to become part of a solution to see those services made available in the community, she said.
In late 2003, the Legal Services governing board approved a plan for the CASA program to become separated from the agency by this Sept. 30. Because the national CASA association does not permit local programs to provide services beyond their advocacy mission, it was agreed that a new umbrella organization would be formed.
Thus, Virgin Islands Volunteer Advocates for Children was incorporated in November to operate the CASA program and also to work toward developing new programs to serve the interests of children, particularly abused and neglected children in the welfare system.
Examples of such programs include tutoring, mentoring and sibling visitation/activities. Such programs "often are not available to our children in foster care situations because of other factors that affect their ability to participate, such as transportation, emotional barriers directly relating to the trauma from the abuse and neglect, and an inadequate foster care system that does not encourage or mandate foster parents to involve the children in extracurricular activity," Shearer said.
VIVA also will develop programming to address the needs of teen-agers as they approach the age of 18 and their separation from the foster care system. "These children are often without any safety net," Shearer said, "and the statistics are depressingly familiar as they often do not complete their education, become homeless, and are left behind in too many ways compared to their peers who have the advantage of growing up in a family that will continue to provide financial and emotional support long after turning 18."
VIVA will strive to become a leader in community awareness, education and advocacy of issues relevant to all children, she said, although "we will continue to operate with an emphasis on children who have been abused and neglected."
Directory of children's services in the works
The new agency is undertaking to produce an updated directory of children's programs and services on St. Croix. A survey questionnaire was mailed earlier this month to school-based, faith-based and other not-for-profit and government entities operating programs for children. Replies must be received by April 28 in order for information to be included in the directory. Any such agency that has not received a questionnaire is asked to call the CASA office at 773-2626.
Shearer said the VIVA directory will not duplicate current efforts of the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. CFVI's primary aim in its first stage is to match funding opportunities with not-for-profit programs, she said. "We have discussed our survey with CFVI," she added, and it was agreed that VIVA will tailor its directory to use "more for referral to services by those of us working in the field, for parents looking for services for children, and for guidance in knowing where we have services and where we need services."
CASA's public awareness and fund-raising events include the Pennies from Heaven campaign, which collected contributions to raise $20,000 for a matching gift last year; its yearend holidays cards and T-shirts featuring children's artwork; and the 2nd annual CASA movie series that combines the showing of five films not scheduled for commercial runs locally with pre-screening receptions.
"It is an exciting time to become involved as a volunteer, board member or committee member" of CASA, Shearer said. "We are looking for good people with good skills and a commitment to children. As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, we also welcome and need financial support from individuals and businesses."
For more information, visit the CASA V.I. Web site. To learn more about the new VIVA program, call the CASA office at 773-2626.
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