CASA's success relies on business model

For more than a year now, I have been privileged to oversee a nonprofit agency of 155 skilled workers charged with a huge and delicate responsibility. In 2006, on an annual budget of $340,000, we provided court-appointed advocacy and other care to 447 abused and neglected children here in Jackson County.

Ours is the second-largest CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program in Oregon, ranking just behind the combined Multnomah-Washington Counties agency in Portland.

In this era of shrinking public funds and demand for nonprofit accountability, our agency must be run like any successful business. We must conserve resources, allocate our funds wisely, and invest for tomorrow. In Oregon, the CASA program is state-mandated for all counties, but not state-funded. We must actively seek private funding and we must spend it frugally.

At a cost of just $760 per child, each of those 477 children last year was assigned one adult totally dedicated to the goal of placing that child in a safe, loving home. Our 155 workers performed their critical services for an average cost of just $2,194 each. Our super grown-ups — I am so proud of these CASAs — are often the only calm and consistent voices in a scary world of squabbling adults and changing foster homes.

How can we do so much for so little? Of this 155-strong workforce, 130 are unpaid CASA volunteers. That is precisely why we get such bang for our buck. Our seven paid employees spend their time recruiting, training, supervising, and coordinating thousands of court documents for, the corps of volunteers. Slightly more than half our budget is for wages. The rest is for all the other costs of doing business — computers, technical support, insurance, supplies, office maintenance, mortgage payments, fundraising, etc.

Our CASA volunteers, who bring professional skills from every walk of life, range in age from 23 to 90. About half are retirees. Among the ones actively employed, the assignment of just one case at a time limits their volunteer commitment to no more than ten hours per month.

After passing background checks, new volunteers undergo 40 hours of classroom training. A few drop out. Those who successfully finish are formally sworn in by a judge. This empowers them — as "parties to the case" — with full recognition by the court throughout the long series of hearings leading up to the final permanency ruling for each child.

CASAs even see to the basic health needs of their charges. For example, there is rampant early tooth decay in children born to mothers who used methamphetamine while pregnant. CASAs make sure that these children get immediate and ongoing dental care. Ours is a constant effort to keep every assigned child out of harm's way and headed for a happy home.

Unfortunately, another 500 children in the county — 500 wards of the court — are waiting to be assigned a CASA. Why? The meth epidemic has been responsible for a flood of new cases. We need more volunteers as well as funding for more supervisors. (The maximum caseload for one supervisor is 30 CASAs serving 70-80 children.) Of the 500 kids now in line, more than 100 are considered to be in extremely urgent circumstances. The court must literally triage these waiting cases.

Our commitment to sound business principles has required that we wait until we have the funds needed to tackle the problem. Thanks to a recent fundraising auction, we will take a big step this week and hire one more supervisor. We will increase the frequency of training cycles over the next few months. Our current class of 15 prospects will complete its training on June 15, and the next class will begin in August.

We need dozens of new volunteers, and before long will have to hire yet another supervisor. Interested readers are invited to attend a one-hour orientation for prospective volunteers. Absolutely no commitment is necessary to enroll in our training. We also have volunteer openings that do not involve casework.

It is CASA's business to serve kids in desperate situations. It is essential that this business be anything but desperate.

Jennifer Mylenek is executive director of CASA of Jackson County Inc., 613 Market St., Medford, OR 97504. Call 734-CASA (734-2272) for more information.

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