The acronyms are similar, but CASA volunteers and CAC staff do different things at different times
A children’s advocacy center (CAC) is a friendly building where children go for the investigation of a crime against children. CACs do many things, but the primary focus is on forensic interviews. Forensic interviews are special conversations conducted by professional staff trained to work with abused and neglected children who may have experienced abuse, sexual assault, or witnessed a crime.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are, as the name suggests, people appointed by a judge to advocate for a child. Court Appointed Special Advocates usually don’t interact with a CAC much, if at all. Most CASA volunteers are there to help children who, for one reason or another, don’t have an adult to advocate what’s best for them.
What are some examples of where CASA volunteers work and where CAC staff work?
The CAC is a central hub for a multidisciplinary team
A children’s advocacy center does almost all its work in its private, secure facility. CACs are sometimes in houses, sometimes in larger offices, sometimes even in the local prosecutor’s office. But they are all child-friendly places and share similar features, such as a welcoming environment, forensic interview rooms, and may have medical exam rooms and therapy or comfort dogs.
CACs also have Victim Advocates, who are specially trained to help children and their non-offending family members recover after an allegation of abuse. Victim Advocates at a CAC may help caregivers navigate the judicial system and follow trials or hearings closely. Some may attend a trial or hearing, but may not provide any testimony.
Victim Advocates (sometimes called “Child and Family Advocates”) are also frequently in contact with families to ensure they have food, clothing, access to therapy, and various other basic needs depending on their situation.
Forensic interviewers who interview a child at CAC may appear to testify in court if a judge or jury needs to hear their testimony. But, in most cases, the CAC’s judicial work begins and ends with the forensic interview. Additional services, such as health referrals or helping a caregiver with basic needs, may continue for a long time after the interview through the Victim Advocate.
CACs also work with what we call a “multidisciplinary team,” or MDT. The MDT consists of:
- Law enforcement officers
- Child services caseworkers (or representatives of the child welfare system in other states)
- Mental and medical health professionals
CASA volunteers are not part of the CAC’s multidisciplinary team.
A CASA volunteer is there to advocate on a child’s behalf, usually in court
A Court Appointed Special Advocate may interact with abused and neglected children during trials, but they may also interact with any child who lacks a lot of consistent adult support. The most common occurrence is when a child’s parents die, or the children are involved in the foster care system.
But CASAs help kids in a wide variety of situations, not just foster youth. CASAs have been known to help kids talk to a judge through sign language or serve as a fixture in a child’s life after trauma or other tragedies that impact their lives.
It is not always the case, but often anytime a judge or court system believes a young child or teenager may be at risk of getting “lost in the shuffle or the system,” a CASA stands by them at a court hearing to advocate for:
- The best possible permanent home
- Children’s medical care
- Reporting and disclosing instances of other alleged physical abuse
- Requesting help from partner agencies or other services, such as tutoring or food services.
Because these children often lack a stable adult as they pursue a safe and permanent home, a GAL/CASA volunteer helps fill the need.
And because the overlap between abused and neglected children and those in the foster care system is significant, it’s possible child victims of abuse who first experience a CAC and are later removed from a home and placed in the foster care system may also be appointed a CASA volunteer. As tragic as it is, this process likely requires months or years of effort from kids, prosecutors, caseworkers, and others.
But, typically, child abuse happens at the hands of one person, usually a family member. It’s not uncommon but it is statistically rare that both parents abuse a child. Depending on the child’s case, judges and caseworkers are keen to leave families intact as much as possible.
CASA volunteers, like the staff in a CAC, do great and necessary work. Like CAC staff and their multidisciplinary team, CASAs work collaboratively with lots of other professionals with the primary goal of helping improve a child’s life and support a safe and permanent home.
How can I get involved with CASA or a CAC?
Child Advocacy Centers sometimes take volunteers to help with many activities and fundraisers in their community. Because CACs do sensitive, critical work privately and closely with social workers or caseworkers, investigators, and prosecutors — and are heavily involved in the case coordination required of the judicial system — volunteers are rarely able to directly serve kids in a CAC.
You should talk to your local CAC about opportunities to volunteer, but be aware these opportunities are usually not “direct service” with kids or families.
To become a CASA volunteer, you can volunteer with your local GAL-CASA chapter. Virtually every county in Indiana and much of the US has one and they will train and prepare you to work with the local CASA program through a robust training period. Most counties have a single person who supervises volunteers, too, and can answer questions about the program.