Assistant Professor of Law and Assistant Director of Legal Writing — UNT Dallas College of Law
SUMMER 2019 ISSUE:
FAMILY LAW MATTERS
In 2018, 20,685 children were removed from their homes and placed in the Texas foster care system.1 Court Appointed Special Advocates (“CASAs”) are specially trained and supervised community volunteers appointed by judges to advocate for the best interests of children who have been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services (“CPS”) because of abuse or neglect. CASAs develop a close one-on-one relationship with the child assigned to him or her and carefully research the child’s background and needs. This research helps judges make decisions that are in the child’s best interest.
Overview of CPS cases involving child abuse or neglect
In order to understand the important role of a CASA, it is helpful to first understand what happens when there is suspected abuse or neglect of a child in Texas. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (“DFPS”) is charged with protecting children in the State of Texas. CPS, a division of DFPS, is required to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect of children in Texas. If there is an imminent threat to a child’s health or safety, CPS will remove the child from the home. This removal can happen in any one of three ways. First, the parent may consent to the removal of the child by CPS. Second, CPS can petition a judge to grant an emergency order authorizing DFPS to take possession of the child.2 Third, if CPS believes the child is in such immediate danger that there is not enough time for a court order, CPS can remove the child without consent or court order. In that case, the court will hold an emergency hearing on the “first working day” after the removal.3
Within 14 days following the emergency removal of a child by CPS, the court will hold an “Adversary Hearing” to determine whether CPS has provided enough evidence to make CPS the child’s Temporary Managing Conservator (“TMC”).4 If CPS is granted temporary managing conservatorship, DFPS (through CPS) takes custody of the child and places that child in a safe home, either with relatives or foster parents. The Texas Legislature mandates that suits brought by DFPS be resolved within one year.5
During the time in which CPS is a child’s TMC, the court will hold a number of hearings to review the status of the child’s case. In those cases, DFPS’s ultimate goal for each child is “permanency” in a safe environment, and, to that end, DFPS must prepare a permanency plan for each child.6 If a child does not achieve permanency at the end of the TMC, the child enters the State’s Permanent Managing Conservatorship.
As one can imagine, the court’s process for determining where children can safely live can be scary and confusing for the children involved. In a CPS case, there are several different actors, including: the CPS caseworker, the CPS attorney, the child’s attorney (known as an attorney ad litem), the parent’s attorneys, and sometimes—but not always—a CASA. Currently there are not enough CASAs to represent every child. The decision to appoint a CASA is subject to the availability of a volunteer advocate, as well as the discretion of the judge. CASAs can be appointed at any stage of the case, but usually are appointed before the Adversary Hearing, which takes place 14 days after removal. In 2018, Texas CASA had 10,856 volunteers serving approximately 60 percent of the more than 50,000 children in foster care.7
Unique and Important Role of a CASA
The role of the CASA is unique from that of a CPS worker or the attorney ad litem. As an initial matter, while a CPS worker may have dozens of cases at any given time, a CASA volunteer usually only has one. The attorney ad litem, while charged with representing the child’s legal interests and desires, does not always have the time or resources to provide the level of detail necessary to enable a judge to make a truly informed decision about what is best for the child.8 Further, with respect to older children, their desires may not always align with what is in their best interest.
The CASA is described as “the eyes and ears of the court” and frequently acts as “the arms and legs” of an overworked child protective system.9 Because the CASA is able to spend more time with the child than a CPS worker or an attorney ad litem and act independently from them, the CASA develops a close and constant relationship with the child. The CASA’s role is to learn everything there is to know about the child and their situation, serve as a fact-finder for the judge, and also advocate for the child’s best interest both in and out of court. The CASA visits the child in the place where the child is living at least once a month. The CASA also visits with the parents, family members, caseworkers, school officials, health providers, therapists, and others who are knowledgeable about the child’s history. In addition, the CASA reviews the child’s school, medical, caseworker, and other reports regarding the child while he or she is in state care.10
Before court hearings, the CASA prepares a detailed formal report that covers the current well-being of the child and any needs or issues the child has. This report includes the fitness of the child’s current foster parents or relative placement, as well as social, emotional, medical, educational, and other needs. This report is submitted to the court and all parties to the case before the hearing.
During the hearings, the CASA attends the proceedings and is prepared to give insight, advice, and recommendations to the judge.
Effectiveness of a CASA advocate
The CASA model “has been consistently evaluated as the most effective at advocating the best interests of the child and the most successful at procuring a safe and permanent home for the child in the shortest time possible.”11 CASAs have been found to be “highly effective at making recommendations to the court” and such recommendations are “very often accepted” by judges.12 A recent study showed that children with a CASA volunteer spent 25 percent less time in foster care and were much less likely to return to the child welfare system.13 Moreover, children with CASAs (and their parents) regularly received more services than those without.14
Anyone interested in making a difference in the life of an abused or neglected child should visit their local CASA program’s website for more information. As a general matter, in addition to completing the required application materials and the in-person interview, applicants are also required to complete at least 30 hours of initial training and 12 hours of continuing education each year.15
1 Texas CASA, https://texascasa.org/news-events/.
2 Texas Fam. Code § 262.102.
3 Texas Fam. Code § 262.106.
4 Texas Fam. Code § 262.201(a).
5 Texas Fam. Code § 263.401.
6 Permanency goals include (in order of preference): “(1) the reunification of the child with a parent or other individual from whom the child was removed; (2) the termination of parental rights and adoption of the child by a relative or other suitable individual; (3) the award of permanent managing conservatorship of the child to a relative or other suitable individual; or (4) another planned, permanent living arrangement for the child.” Tex. Fam. Code § 263.3026(a).
7 Texas CASA, 2018 Impact Report, https://2018impactreport.texascasa.org/.
8 Hollis R. Peterson, In Search of the Best Interests of the Child: The Efficacy of the Court Appointed Special Advocate Model of Guardian Ad Litem Representation, 13 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1083, 1102 (2006).
9 CASA of Central Texas, Inc., FAQ, https://www.casacentex.org/about/faq/.
11 Peterson, supra note 8, at 1084–85.
12 Id. at 1101.
13 CASA, 2017 Annual Report, https://annualreport2017casaforchildren.org.
14 Peterson, supra note 8, at 1101.
15 Dallas CASA, What is a Volunteer Advocate, https://www.dallascasa.org/how-to-volunteer/what-is-a-volunteer-advocate/.