'Children in need won't have a voice any more,' local volunteers steam.
Members of the Iowa Supreme Court have banged down the gavel on the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program and its volunteers.
The 15-year-old child advocacy program is about to become a victim of the state's current budget crisis - not cut, but killed.
The CASA program, which recruits and trains volunteers to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children involved in court proceedings, will cease to exist on January 3, 2002, making Iowa the only state in the country not to have a CASA organization.
The Iowa Judicial Branch included the elimination of CASA in cuts totaling more than $5 million within its budget, as the branch anticipates the State Legislature will ask it to trim 4.3 percent of its budget on Thursday when the legislature meets in special session in Des Moines.
Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court Louis Lavorato said that while members of the judiciary did not want to end the funding of the CASA program, they knew it must be cut in order to streamline the court system.
"Eliminating CASA was a painful decision," Lavorato said. "It's a wonderful program that helped many children over the years, but it is not a basic court function... we cannot make exceptions."
The death of CASA comes as a surprise to many people, starting with CASA regional director Kathy Fritz, who fears children who are being served by the program's volunteers will suffer as a result of the lost service.
"It's very unfortunate for the state of Iowa, because there will be children that will be hurt because of this," Fritz said. "It really scares me, because if CASA is gone, the voices of many of the children who are being served by it will be permanently silenced. It really worries me."
"All of these kids that we are taking care of won't have a voice anymore," Alta resident and CASA volunteer Paula Aronson said. "I'm just afraid we're going to have a lot more violence in the future. If we can't keep the program going and support these troubled kids that need our help, then we're going to be in trouble. I think it's an extremely shortsighted decision by the state."
"The whole CASA program is really just a wonderful program," Jenny Gano, a part-time secretary and CASA volunteer for Fritz, said. "It's just a shame that they have to cut it, because it has helped so many people across the state."
The CASA program is comprised primarily of community volunteers who are specially trained to ensure the best interests for the children are being met in child abuse and child neglect cases.
They are given freedom to visit with the children at any time and may obtain information about their families from a wide variety of sources who are involved in the lives of the children, including relatives, teachers, doctors, neighbors, psychologists and friends of both the child and family.
The volunteers then present their information to the judge and attorneys involved in the case and help the magistrate determine what the best interests of the child are.
Buena Vista Juvenile Court Judge Mary Timko, who has been in Storm Lake since March of 1988, said that the CASA program has been nothing but an asset to her since the service started service in Buena Vista County in 1999.
"Although the Department of Human Services had some hands-on information concerning the children in their cases, they didn't have a lot of the personal information that was critical to some cases," Timko said. "When CASA came along, that gap was filled. I'm supposed to be making decisions about issues concerning the very personal lives of people, and the more information I have, the better decision I can make. CASA has helped me do that, because they have provided personal information that I wasn't always able to get."
"The attorneys that would be in charge of the kids can't be involved with the cases as closely as they should be because of their large caseloads," Aronson said. "That's exactly why CASA was born. We can oversee all of the other services and see how the families are operating. We can tell the judges what is and what is not working, and by doing that, we can protect these children. Otherwise, the system just throws them by the wayside and their voices are not heard."
"These volunteers are appointed to be the eyes and ears of the judge and other parties involved, such as the Department of Human Services," Fritz said. "These volunteers can see what is going on and report that information to the judge. Their role is so important, because they become a very valuable source of information for everyone involved in the case.
"That's why it's extremely unfortunate that the program is being cut," Fritz continued. "That source of information won't be there for anybody to use anymore in the future in Iowa."
Fritz said she was even more shocked at the elimination of CASA because of the financial benefits the program brings to the state.
In the 3rd Judicial District, CASAs are assigned by the Court to act as the child's advocate and to fill the roll of the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for the child. Normally the cost to the state of Iowa would be $50 per hour for GAL/Attorney representation, but CASA volunteers provide the service for free.
The 96 enlisted local volunteers, who served 178 children, contributed 6,922 hours to the state last year, saving Iowa $346,100. They also drove 30,172 miles around the area, saving the state $8,750 additional dollars, bringing the total amount saved locally to $354,850.
The CASA program in the 3rd Judicial District cost has 3.5 full-time employees covering Buena Vista, Cherokee, Woodbury, Plymouth and Monona counties, and the organization had an operating budget of $7,635 in the district last fiscal year.
Statewide, the operating budget for CASA was $1,095,312, as 613 enlisted volunteers served 1,129 children, drove 194,669 miles and contributed 37,284 free hours working with assigned cases in 30 counties.
"With the mandatory 4.3 percent across-the-board cut, I know members of the Supreme Court didn't really have a choice, but I'm still surprised they cut it," Fritz said. "We are a volunteer program, so our costs are extremely low. The only cost is really for each of the coordinators in each judicial district and a part-time secretary. The rest of the program relies on volunteers, so it's really free work for the state. I'm just amazed that they cut a volunteer program."
Aronson, who received an award from Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack Sept. 24 in Storm Lake for her involvement in the CASA program, said she was also amazed at the elimination of the organization, and said it was very strange to receive an award for her work with a service that will not exist two months from now.
"I feel it's very, very ironic that I was given a Governor's Award for the work that I did as a CASA volunteer, and the program is then cut barely a month later," Aronson said. "Very ironic. I've sent a very strong letter to Gov. Vilsack telling him exactly how I feel about the issue, because I'm extremely disappointed about this. I was in total disbelief when I heard it was being cut."
Vilsack is not the only person Aronson has voiced her frustrations to. She has mailed letters expressing her views to every member of the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives, and has also sent letters to the editor to several media outlets, including the Des Moines Register and the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.
Fritz said support from people like Aronson is critical, and she hopes enough people will express their feelings to their legislators in order to keep the program alive next year.
"We're trying to let everyone we can think of know that this program is being cut, and hopefully they will write their legislators and something can happen," Fritz said. "If we have enough people write in, then maybe we can see if the state can do anything to save this program in any way, because it's helped so many people out in a very positive way."