On Thursday, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) became a permanent part of the St. Bernard Parish judicial system with the swearing in of six new advocates and a renewed commitment of financial support from the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation.
Before last year, children in the foster care system in St. Bernard didn’t have anyone to advocate for their interests in the courtroom. Judges realized that something needed to change and the hole that existed could be filled by CASA. But bringing CASA to the parish required funding and community involvement, both of which the organization didn’t have. That’s when the Meraux Foundation stepped up.
“When CASA, with immense support from judges in the parish, approached us about starting a CASA program here in St. Bernard Parish, there was no question – of course we were going to help them,” said Rita Gue, president of the Meraux Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Thanks to a donation of $30,000 by the Meraux Foundation, a pilot CASA program started a year ago in two courts in St. Bernard. The program trained 19 advocates who served 18 children by attending hearings with them, filing written recommendations to judges on the children’s behalf, and providing support for the children.
“Children in the foster care system are vulnerable so they need someone to look out for them during these transitional, and often traumatic times, and CASA provides exactly that,” Gue continued. “We are thrilled with the success of the pilot program and are happy to continue our support of CASA in St. Bernard so they can serve even more children in the parish.”
Due to the incredible success of the pilot program over the past year, the Meraux Foundation has pledged $100,000 in support to CASA over the next three years.
“The Meraux Foundation has been fantastic throughout this whole process,” said Joy Bruce, Executive Director of CASANew Orleans. “They not only provided the financial support that we needed to get CASA off the ground but they opened up many doors for us in the community, bringing in support that is needed to sustain the program.”
The work CASA does is distinct. They train court appointed special advocates who volunteer to be assigned to one child in the foster care system. These volunteers go through rigorous training over the course of five weeks to learn about child development, the child welfare system, and case law, as well any of the countless situations they may encounter while serving as an advocate.
“CASA has a unique roll that nobody else fills,” explained Bruce. “CASA is there exclusively for the child’s best interests. Others who are involved, like the judges and lawyers, often have additional interests, so there aren’t redundancies with other services in the system.”
Bruce continued to explain how without CASA, children tend to fall through the cracks. The children don’t receive the services they need or, instead, they remain in the foster care system for a long time. But with CASA, children receive stable support from an adult who can help them in getting their needs addressed, with the ultimate goal being to place them in a safe, permanent, nurturing home.
Children with a CASA advocate are less likely to bounce around in the system, and after their case closes, they are 50% less likely to return to foster care. The children are also more likely to do better in school and are less likely to act out.
However, CASA relies heavily on community and volunteer support to function.
The Hon. Jeanne N. Juneau presided over Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony at which a new class of advocates pledged to serve their court, step into their new role as a consulate, and accept their legal responsibilities.
“I’m so grateful to the Meraux Foundation. They do so much in this community, especially for children,” Said Judge Juneau. “This is near and dear to my heart, because I believe we should give children all they need to succeed in life. Sometimes, CASA advocates are the only constant in children’s lives.”
CASA is hoping to be able to serve every child in foster care in St Bernard, but they need more volunteers from the community.
“We are thrilled about this new class of advocates, but we still have work to do. St. Bernard has a deficit of advocates at the moment and many are actually Orleans volunteers,” said Bruce.