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Applying the CASA Model to the Juvenile Justice System

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

Mary Nelson, CASA's BRIDGES Programs Manager, discusses why CASAs are uniquely positioned to help foster youth in the juvenile justice system.

The CASA Model

Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, are appointed by judges to work with children in the foster care system and represent their best-interests throughout the child’s abuse and neglect case. CASAs are volunteers from the community and typically only work with one child or family at a time. CASAs make recommendations to the court, and take a holistic view of the child’s best-interest and well-being–including making representations with regards to the child’s wishes, education, mental and physical health, placement and the ultimate goal, permanency— in other words, finding a permanent and safe home for the child. We at CASA DC believe every child deserves an advocate to represent their best-interests and ensure their voice is heard.

Why Juvenile Justice? Capitalizing on Experience and Expertise Advocating for the Best-Interest

The best-interest principle is one embedded in child-welfare law, and a common legal standard used in both federal and state law with regards to children. While this principle is most often associated with abuse and neglect cases and custody, it actually is a standard that legally applies to much more. Derived from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3 states, “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best-interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”. In this, there is an explicit responsibility for our juvenile justice system to also take a child-centric approach which accounts for the best-interest of the child. Yet, the competing dynamics of punishment, public safety and incapacitation can create a barriers to actualizing a best-interest standard in the juvenile justice system. 

Approximately 80% of youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma, an experience similar to their counterparts in the child-welfare system. What’s more, the needs of these youth are not dissimilar from the needs of those in the child-welfare system, including a safe and secure placement, educational services, and mental and physical health.  Likewise, youth dually involved in the foster care and delinquency system, known as “crossover”, “dual status” or “dual jacket” youth, are more likely to experience both complex and intergenerational trauma then their peers involved in a single system. According to The National Foster Care Youth Alumni Policy Council, “the barriers faced by crossover youth are compounded by the barriers they faced while in the foster care system, making this population especially at-risk for falling through the cracks”. 

Furthermore, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform notes the "experience offered by CASA volunteers presents an excellent opportunity for partnership in jurisdictions seeking to transform the way in which they serve crossover youth."

By capitalizing on the experience and expertise of CASAs in advocating for the best-interest of children in the child-welfare system, CASAs can also help the juvenile justice system actualize a best-interest approach for the youth in their charge. Furthermore, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform notes the, “experience offered by CASA volunteers presents an excellent opportunity for partnership in jurisdictions seeking to transform the way in which they serve crossover youth.” CASAs can help prevent crossover youth from “falling through the cracks”. 

This is why at CASA DC we began to focus on the needs of children in the juvenile justice system. For over three years CASA DC has accepted cases from the speciality courts of the Juvenile Division of the DC Family Court, including status offenders, the Juvenile Behavioral Diversion Program, and HOPE court. Additionally, CASA DC has made a concerted effort to understand and serve the particular needs and vulnerabilities of crossover youth in the District of Columbia.  On June 10, 2019 CASA DC officially launched the BRIDGES Program to formalize our efforts working with DC youth coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. 

We are proud of the work we’ve done at CASA DC. At the core of the CASA model is the understanding that consistent, supportive adult relationships cultivate positive outcomes for children and youth like Kevin. If you would like to volunteer to serve a youth like Kevin visit our Volunteer page to learn more!

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