Well-timed CASA day at the Capitol

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As Senate Finance members came to terms Tuesday with how the budget shortfall would effect abused and neglected children, it was CASA Day at the state Capitol. Regular Capitol visitors understand that hundreds of special interest and non-profit groups hold what are essentially lobby days to tell the story of their work to state lawmakers (we’ve already had the motorcycle people; Doctor Day and Republican Women’s Day can’t be too far behind.) CASA stands for court-appointed special advocates. They are the folks who volunteer to represent children who are taken away from their families because of abuse and severe neglect. They not only show up for  all legal proceedings but often assist the children as they navigate school and health care systems. As is the custom with these Fill-In-The-Blank Days, there was the obligatory Capitol basement exhibit. Upstairs, budget cuts were under discussion. Downstairs, a lengthy panel of names, ages and symbolic handprints told the story of the 227 children in Texas who died due to abuse or neglect in 2010. This sailor outfit — and lots of stuffed animals and other memorabilia — recalled the lost children. CASA leaders have lined up in support of a foster care “redesign” that has been the subject of study by the judiciary and the Legislature. Tuesday, agency leaders testified that the planned improvements to the system could not go forward under the budget proposal being considered. One Republican on Finance told me he felt it was his job to figure out where money actually made a difference — noting that if a system is not working, throwing more money into it doesn’t work. According to Texas Appleseed’s recent report on foster care, money would make a difference in the lives of abused and neglected kids in Texas: There also is widespread acknowledgement that the entire foster care system is under- resourced. In many areas, DFPS and its caseworkers, as well as judges and Attorneys Ad Litem, are overworked, underpaid, or both. In 2009, CPS caseworkers were routinely handling around 30 cases, even though the national standards call for between 15 and 17 cases per caseworker.15 In the larger urban jurisdictions, caseworkers are commonly assigned 40-plus cases at a time, and the “cases” often involve multiple children from the same family. Judges have seen the number of CPS cases on their dockets grow, and many judges only have 10 to 15 minutes to review one PMC case before moving on to the next one. CASA can only represent about half of the children who need their services, and when children enter PMC, CASA is able to represent an even smaller percentage of those children. Attorneys often are paid little to meet with their clients; in at least one jurisdiction, the rate is $20 an hour.

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