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This Virginia program advocates for children. Now they want to expand their reach statewide.

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Posted at 7:26 PM, Jul 10, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- The first meeting of a work group was held in Richmond Wednesday to look at the feasibility of the statewide expansion of a program that advocates for children who are victims in the court system.

The Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children Program (CASA) trains volunteers and judges can appoint them as advocates for the children and the advocates can report back information to the judge as they make decisions in those cases.

81% of the cases involve allegations of abuse or neglect of the children.

"CASA is appointed to provide additional information, to have conversations with family members, teachers, professionals -- gather information to report back to the judge. So, the judge has better information to make the best possible decisions for the kids," said Jeannine Panzera, Executive Director of Henrico CASA. "We are bringing that child's voice forward. Oftentimes, the child is the only one who isn't present in the hearing itself. And so, this is the opportunity for our advocacy to bring that voice forward to ensure that they are present."

"Having that program in place to have another set of eyes for the judge to be able to look at the whole picture of the case and determine what's in these children's best interests. I think that improves the quality of the hearings that we have, and improves outcomes for our children," said Eric Reynolds, Director of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman.

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Eric Reynolds, Director of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman.

The first Virginia CASA program started in 1985 in Roanoke and there are now 27 programs either covering one or more judicial districts. However, some districts have limited or no CASA program coverage, impacting dozens of cities and counties. This includes many in the Central Virginia area.

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The counties and cities in white are not covered by a CASA program

An amendment in the two-year budget that took effect July 1, directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which oversees CASA programs, to study and make recommendations on requiring the establishment in all judicial districts.

"Which would be a potential wonderful benefit to children and families. And, of course, to the courts itself," said Panzera.

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Jeannine Panzera, Executive Director of Henrico CASA.

"I'm hopeful that the DCJS workgroup established as a result of my budget amendment will find a solution for expanding the CASA program to all areas of Virginia. I was asked by a constituent to carry the budget amendment when she found that Loudoun County and many other areas of Virginia are not included in this program that provides trained volunteers to speak for abused and neglected children who are the subjects of juvenile court proceedings," said State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-38th), the amendment's sponsor, in a statement. "There is a cost to the program, including local funds which are more difficult to raise in some parts of our Commonwealth. All children should have access to this support and I am hopeful that this workgroup is a first step toward achieving that goal."

The work group is made up of DCJS staff, CASA staff and volunteers from around the state, juvenile court judges, and others. Both Reynolds and Panzera are members of the work group.

DCJS staff said in Fiscal Year 2023, 3,233 children received CASA services through the work of 1,324 volunteers. They added in 86% of all cases, judges incorporated the recommendations.

But, they estimated there were 4,441 children who could have qualified for services but live in underserved or unserved courts.

Much of the work Wednesday focused on the potential challenges with a statewide rollout of the program into unserved areas.

Among those challenges included the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

"Our work is done by the boots on the ground of these amazing individuals who volunteer their time to become advocates. That means we need more people to do the work," said Panzera. "So, that's a big component."

Others including overcoming geographical challenges (especially in larger rural communities), how to expand (buildout existing programs into neighboring localities or start new ones from the ground-up), and buy-in from other local stakeholders -- starting with judges in the unserved areas. DCJS sent out a survey to judges in areas with and without a CASA program. They said of the nine judges who responded from areas with a CASA program, four said they would not use it if available.

They said a rollout would likely look different in every part of the state to account for the regional differences.

"I always say that if you've seen one CASA program, you've seen one program. So, it's really hard to try to make some informed decisions about what does it take to expand to a particular locality because every locality is unique," said Melissa O'Neill, the state CASA program coordinator.

They also discussed increased cost of expansion. DCJS staff said the current program costs around $8.5 million with $1.6 million coming from State General Fund Appropriations (which they said has not been increased since 2008) and $1.4 million coming from federal Victims of Crime Act funds (although this funding is set to expire). The remainder of the money was raised by the local CASA programs themselves.

They estimated a statewide expansion would cost an additional $11.5 million ($4.1 million from the government, $7.4 million from local fundraising).

"We definitely need to have the conversation to see what would be needed not just to increase the state funds, but I mean to your address, some of the federal funds that we know are going to be cut caught, and we're going to need to make that up somehow to our existing programs," said Reynolds.

The work group has to submit a report with recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor Glenn Youngkin is due by November 1, 2024.

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