What is Child Advocates, Inc.?
Child Advocates, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization that is Harris County’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. We mobilize Court Appointed Advocate volunteers to break the cycle of child abuse. We speak up for abused children who are lost in the system and guide them into safe environments where they can thrive. Child Advocates volunteers serve children who have been placed in foster care because they can no longer live safely at home. Our volunteers are appointed by juvenile and family court judges to serve as a child’s “guardian ad litem,” which gives them the power to make a profound difference in that child’s life.
What happens to children who fall through the cracks in the system?
So often we end up seeing them on the five o'clock news, once they've been abused to death or acted out their pain on society by committing a crime. Research shows children who grow up in foster care are more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy and substance abuse. They are also less likely to receive a high school diploma or earn enough to support themselves. On top of these challenges, many of these children grow up with no idea of what it means to be a member of a healthy and loving family. They do not receive help to deal with the trauma they have suffered and they don't learn how to trust, cope and grow. As a result, they frequently abuse or neglect their own children, and the cycle of family violence continues. Child Advocates is an effective solution to the epidemic of child abuse because our volunteers ensure children exit the foster care system as quickly as possible so they can grow up in loving, permanent homes.
How does Child Advocates operate?
Our work begins after children who have experienced life-threatening abuse or neglect are removed from their home by Child Protective Services (CPS) and placed into a foster home. These children will remain in foster care until a Harris County judge decides where they should live on a permanent basis. State law requires the judge to make a decision regarding their permanent placement within 12 months of the date of removal. One six-month extension can be granted under extenuating circumstances. Our services may be requested by any party to the case, including the judge, the child's parents or even one of the children.
Each of our volunteers has completed a 30-hour training course called Advocacy University, taught by Child Advocates staff. Prominent professionals such as judges and CPS employees also teach some portions of the training sessions. After graduating from AU, clearing all background checks and being sworn in by a judge, the volunteers are assigned to a case under the supervision of one of Child Advocates' professional caseworkers, known as Advocacy Coordinators (ACs).
Teaming each AC with many court appointed advocate volunteers enables each volunteer to concentrate 100 percent of his or her time and energy on only one case while allowing for constant advice, guidance and problem-solving assistance from an expert in the field. Using this approach, Child Advocates is able to leverage each paid professional social worker through many passionate volunteers to serve more children without incurring additional staffing costs. Each AC supervises fewer than 24 volunteers and each volunteer is assigned to only one case (or under unique circumstances two or three cases) at a time.
What does a court appointed advocate do?
Once appointed by a judge, our court appointed advocate volunteers begin a process of information gathering with the goal of guiding abused children out of the foster care system. They identify the child's needs and ensure they receive critical rehabilitative services. They act as a communications link between the child, the courts and everyone involved in the case, including parents, caregivers, relatives, caseworkers, attorneys and therapists. Volunteers gather all the pertinent information about their child's case and make recommendations to the judge based on that information.
Volunteers provide a continuum of services customized to meet each child's needs. They locate vital therapeutic and rehabilitative services for the children we serve to help them deal with the trauma of abuse. They also link the children with the wide variety of esteem-boosting activities that Child Advocates provides, such as birthday parties, trips to watch sporting events or visits to the zoo. As volunteers identify specific unmet needs, they work with our Special Needs Program to find a solution, such as buying bunk beds for children who have to sleep on the floor.
Volunteers work in tandem with a staff Advocacy Coordinator who guides their casework and supports the efforts of the volunteer. Our staff members attend family visits with their volunteers, teach them how to most effectively testify in court and offer advice on working with children and families from diverse backgrounds.
What type of person makes a good Child Advocates volunteer?
Volunteers come from all careers, cultures, educational backgrounds, ages, and experiences - that's what makes this program work. The primary requirements for being a court appointed advocate volunteer with Child Advocates are that you have a genuine interest in the well being of children, are a proactive communicator and complete our Advocacy University training course. Court appointed advocate volunteers are objective, responsible, committed, persistent and understand the important role they have in a child's life. Both men and women are needed as volunteers and you need to be at least 21 years of age.
How much time does it take to be a Child Advocates' volunteer?
In the same amount of time you spend each week doing something ordinary, like attending a movie, you can do something extraordinary: change the life of an abused child. Volunteers average 2 to 5 hours of casework per week (8 to 20 hours per month). Most of our volunteers work full-time jobs of their own.
What are Child Advocates' goals and what progress has been made toward achieving those goals?
On any given day, there are more than 5,000 children in foster care in Harris County -- more than any other county in Texas. In fact, Harris County has more children in foster care than at least 16 states. Yet high caseloads prevent CPS caseworkers from giving these children the individual attention they deserve.
The long-term goal of Child Advocates is to provide a court appointed volunteer to serve as guardian ad litem for every child who needs one in Harris County. Our immediate goal is to break the vicious cycle of child abuse for every child we serve. Each year, we strive to recruit new volunteers and retain tenured volunteers so we can serve more children who might otherwise get lost in the system.
How does Child Advocates measure its progress toward achieving its goals?
Child Advocates evaluates the success of the Court Services Program by collecting statistics that are analyzed on a monthly and quarterly basis. The primary statistics include number of cases served, children served, active volunteers, volunteers trained, volunteer hours, length of case, demographics of children, and case outcomes. Analyzing these statistics allows our program team to track our progress toward meeting our annual goals and helps us gauge the effectiveness of our advocacy.
A multi-year longitudinal study conducted in conjunction with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and the University of Houston Psychology Department confirmed that our work makes a difference in the lives of the children we serve. The study found that children who have a court appointed advocate have greater self-esteem, can control deviant behavior, have a positive attitude toward the future, value achievement, and work well with others. Also, more mothers and fathers of children with a court appointed advocate were offered and completed counseling services, psychiatric evaluations, drug and alcohol counseling, and GED education than those receiving assistance solely from the Harris County Department of Family and Protective Services (HCDFPS). Additionally, more children without a court appointed advocate were in emergency shelters and therapeutic foster homes than children with a court appointed advocate. Fewer home placement changes occurred for children who had a court appointed advocate and they were less likely to re-enter the foster care system once they found the right home than children served by HCDFPS alone.
Does Child Advocates have the resources to meet its goals?
Child Advocates enjoys great support throughout the community. We receive the majority of our funding through donations from foundations, corporations, churches and individuals. We are not a United Way agency and do not charge a fee for our service to children.
Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of our supporters, we broke all previous organizational records in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 -- serving more children, maintaining more volunteers who worked more volunteer hours, and exceeding our previous revenue record -- in spite of the economic downturn.
Perhaps the strongest measure of our community support and program sustainability are the more than 1,000 individuals who volunteer to serve each year as members of our Board of Directors, Advisory Board, the Friends of Child Advocates or the Young Professionals for Children, as court appointed volunteers and in other roles. Throughout our 30 years, we have trained more than 4,300 advocate volunteers and served nearly 21,000 abused children.