Program improves outcomes for infants and toddlers in child welfare system

PHOENIX  – Aug. 6, 2019 – Prevent Child Abuse Arizona has received a grant totaling $90,000 from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to train Maricopa Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) advocating on behalf of babies and toddlers who are in out-of-home care due to abuse or neglect.

“The Trust is providing support for the Baby CASA program so volunteer special advocates can help our courts better address the unique needs of the vulnerable infants and small children who are displaced from their parents and homes,” said Carol Schilling, chair, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

In 2006, the Baby CASA training was developed by Prevent Child Abuse Arizona Executive Director Rebecca Ruffner and child development specialist Sally Campbell in response to a need for specialized training for CASAs wanting to advocate for pre-verbal children.

Ruffner is a Baby CASA and has advocated for several young children in cases involving parental addiction and extreme neglect. She saw first-hand the critical need for a trained advocate to document and advocate for timely, effective services, both in the community and in the courtroom.

“Since 1989, Prevent Child Abuse Arizona has been engaged in developing prevention services in response to community needs, as well as training thousands of community professionals and new parents about what they can do to keep children safe and families strong.” Ruffner said. “This grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust will give us additional resources to reach children ages 0 to 3 and ensure they have every opportunity to heal and thrive while in the child welfare system.”

With more specially trained Baby CASAs representing infants and toddlers in the Maricopa Juvenile Court, it is expected that the young children they advocate for will have more timely developmental services and more frequent, meaningful visitation with birth parents. Additionally, judicial officers will be better informed in making decisions regarding permanency.

Prevent Child Abuse Arizona’s Baby CASA training project addresses the critical need to increase the number of specially trained volunteer Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) who are the “eyes and ears of the court” on behalf of the youngest maltreated children in the Maricopa Juvenile Court system. The need for more CASAs to advocate for the health, safety, and well-being of very young children who have been removed from their parents’ custody because of maltreatment is crucial and largely unmet. Today in Maricopa County there are approximately 600 CASA volunteers, with 1,300 throughout the state for more than 13,400 dependent children ages birth to 18 in out-of-home care.

The need for specially trained CASAs in the juvenile court is greatest for the youngest children. Infants and toddlers – the most vulnerable age group – enter the child welfare system at 3 times the rate of all other ages, and remain in the system longer than older children. They experience trauma not only from abuse and neglect, but also from abrupt removal from everything familiar, to then be placed in the arms of strangers, often not seeing their parents for weeks or months. Many show their distress through sleeplessness, loss of appetite, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior as they adjust to these overwhelmingly stressful life events, making the task of the foster or kinship care provider even more challenging.

When a Baby CASA is assigned at the first court hearing or soon after, this volunteer collects all relevant information from birth to present, visits the foster or kinship caregiver to learn how the adjustment is going, meets with the baby’s attorney and case manager, advocates for timely developmental assessments and primary healthcare, assures visits begin as soon as possible, and reports his or her findings and recommendations to the judge at each hearing. Baby CASAs’ trauma-informed training can help foster and biological parents minimize dysregulation and maximize positive outcomes.