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Pennsylvania CASA: Child Advocacy in the Courtroom

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

On this episode of 52 Weeks of Health Equity, we were joined by guest representatives from the Pennsylvania CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program.

Jennifer DeBalko, the president and CEO of PA CASA, and Ashley Frank Chief Impact Officer shared personal stories about how they became involved with CASA, witnessing the power of volunteer advocacy and the importance of data in supporting children in the child welfare system. Please listen to the podcast to hear the full episode. Our CASA guests also shared that Pennsylvania CASA is one of the first states to implement a course that tracks the outcomes in the case management system that CASA volunteers utilize. The goal is to provide this training nationally so other volunteers have the opportunity to be as well informed of their role as healthcare advocates and improve outcomes.


This is a blogitized version of that podcast interview.

 

Jennifer DeBalko (she/her):


I'm the CEO of PA CASA, but my CASA journey started when I was in college. I was an intern for a local CASA program near my college. By being a part of that, I was allowed into the courtroom to see some of the stories of the children served by CASA. As a result, I was able to use the power of best-interest volunteer advocacy to help support children. I have worked in various roles at local CASA programs and enjoy seeing the power of volunteer advocacy and communities rising up to support their most vulnerable members.


Ashley Frank (she/her):


My role with the PA CASA has transformed as our network has grown. I started out as the partnership director, working with local programs with some larger grants that we had received to pass through funding to those local programs. We now have a need to dig deeper into data to see where we perform the best. That is how I have had the privilege of receiving the role of Chief Impact Officer. It is looking at the impact our organization has on the families we serve.


Tahitia (she/her):


My understanding of CASA is that it is a volunteer-driven program. CASA relies strictly on volunteer advocates and these advocates help by engaging with the child, learning about their family, and life, and sharing that with the court system to really advocate for them in their best interests. Is that accurate to what the advocates do?

Jennifer DeBalko (she/her):


Yes, that is very accurate. I'll add that our advocates are appointed by the court and they take all the information they learn and put it back in a report for the court. This report informs the court and helps the court make the best decisions for the children and families.

Tahitia (she/her):


It seems like it is essential to have a CASA advocate because they are speaking for the child in that situation. When CASA does this report, does it go to everybody in the court or just a specific person? Is it all confidential information? In Pennsylvania, your CASA advocates can also see the children's medical records. Why does that matter in the court system?



Jennifer DeBalko (she/her):


It goes to the judge and all parties in the case, and everything is kept confidential. The reason why children's medical records matter is because we know that children who enter the foster care system have higher percentages of chronic illness. The American Academy of Pediatrics has some daunting statistics about the children who enter the foster care system and their healthcare needs. What we came to find out is that those needs are not always addressed. There is a lack of access to the services needed.


Tahitia (she/her):


People are not talking enough about the health of the children who are in foster care or going through the court system. 30% to 80% of the children that come into the foster system have at least one medical problem and a third of them have a chronic medical condition. I wouldn't anticipate that any child who goes through trauma is going to come through that unscathed. When it comes to mental health, there are just tremendous mental health issues. 80% of them have a type of significant mental health problem or issue. Also, there is a heartbreaking statistic that children in foster care are 42% more likely to die than children in the general public. Their medical records paint the picture as to whether or not the children can integrate back into their family of origin. What does CASA do to address the health aspect of the foster care system?


Jennifer DeBalko (she/her):


We knew we needed to address it and we leaned into a learning management system that would allow CASA volunteers to be able to access the training. We believe that we can gather outcome data from this management system. With the data, we can see if that training has an impact on volunteer behavior, or if volunteer behavior impacts court decisions.


Ashley Frank (she/her):


We're one of the first states to implement a course that tracks the outcomes in the case management system that CASA volunteers utilize. The goal is to provide this training nationally so other volunteers have the opportunity to be as well informed of their role as healthcare advocates. Now we have 13 CASA programs, 130 CASA volunteers, and 250 children involved in completing not only the health advocacy course, but we've created two additional courses that address health equity and the child's healthcare needs.


Tahitia (she/her):


There are some healthcare professionals who struggle with knowing the needs of their patients or clients, and they do not ask. It is great that you have opened your advocates' eyes to also think about what might be missing for these children health-wise. When you can really focus on a need in a specific it does help others figure out impactful ways to help a child. With these things in mind, have you seen any impact on areas such as mental health with the children you work with?


Ashley Frank (she/her):


Each of our three health advocacy courses touches on how trauma impacts one's physical health and the intersection there. Besides the two health equity courses, we also have developed a separate trauma-informed advocacy course. This course puts a lens on mental health and ways CASA volunteers can help build resilience factors in the children and youth that they're working with.


Tahitia (she/her):


You happen to be sitting in a space where most of the kids that come in will have some sort of issue that has long gone unaddressed. It is so powerful that you're giving them the tool and the language to talk about that. Not only have they (CASA volunteers) learned about the court system, but also how to be some sort of health advocate for children. While developing those courses and incorporating health and education, what would you say is the greatest realization to come from it?



Ashley Frank (she/her):


My greatest realization came from noticing that in order to make a difference in someone's life, is that you have to be able to see the whole person. That realization came from the development of these courses. We all have the humility to learn more and to understand the disparities impacting children in the child welfare system. It's especially compounded by children who identify as LGBTQ+ and belong to diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves and help remove those barriers.


Jennifer DeBalko (she/her):


I wanted to highlight the power of volunteer advocacy. The weekend we released the course and we had hundreds of advocates signing on to learn and do better for the children. Without the advocates, it would not be possible. If anyone really wants to make a difference in their community and strengthen their communities, we would encourage you to join CASA.




 

More information:


Learn more about PA CASA: pacasa.org


Statistics on child welfare: Childwelfare.org


National CASA system: nationalcasagal.org




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