CASA: Advocating for the Child

By Melanie Hess

How come the TV is still on? Is it really 3 a.m.? Why does Mom always leave for so long? Why does the baby keep crying? Where is the food? School will be a good break from all this. Wasn’t it supposed to start last week?

Many parents cannot fathom why any child would have to ask these questions. Others know it’s the daily reality for thousands of children in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

As freeing as it can be to leave an unsafe situation, children often enter the foster system with a mix of emotions, some feel as alone and confused as before. While the hope is that a foster home will serve as a temporary haven, each home or center does not always last the duration of a child’s time in the already overwhelmed system.

Fortunately, children can count on at least a glimpse of consistency throughout this season in the form of their Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a volunteer who comes alongside the courts to help place the child in a permanent safe, loving home.

Consistency is Key

“As a CASA, you are the constant in a child’s life,” says Sylvia Gray, an eight-year CASA veteran in Dallas.

Gray explained with the average case lasting about a year, a child’s CASA has ample time to get to know the child and their situation.

“We are able to get all the information that Child Protective Services and the attorneys don’t always have time to,” she says. “CASAs are the eyes and ears of the courts for these kids. A judge has so many cases and very little time.”

Gray described it as putting a puzzle together.

“I observe the surroundings in the home,” she says. “I visit the school and see how they are in the classroom. I talk to the teacher, the counselor.”

She stresses the volunteer capacity of a CASA helps them to earn credibility with the child’s family and creates an openness.

“They understand we aren’t Child Protective Services. We aren’t the authority,” Gray says.

Families are most surprised to learn CASAs do not receive monetary compensation for their work.

“We’re the only people in the court system who are not paid,” she says “Everything we do is because we want to do it.”

The Role of a CASA

Gray said CASAs tend to spend more time on cases in the beginning.

“You do most of your work on the front end,” she says. “It just takes longer because you have to study the case and get all the players in place. You hear a lot of different stories and work to verify things.”

After the initial time investment, it tapers, she says. CASAs make monthly home visits to see the child in their placed environment, whether that’s a foster home, with a relative or at a residential center, to continue their assessment.

Unfortunately, some placements, especially residential treatment centers require that a child be placed outside of Dallas County. In some instances they end up in areas more than several hundred miles away.

A Partnership Takes Flight

One of Gray’s most recent cases involved a child who was placed in a residential center in the Texas Panhandle, which made face-to-face visits more challenging and much less frequent.

Fortunately, CASA’s recent partnership with Angel Flight has lifted some of that burden.

“We tend to think of Angel Flight when we think medical air lifting,” the former registered nurse admits.

But as Gray learned first hand, medical work is not all Angel Flight does.

She’s used the free service a few times to meet with her CASA child.

“You meet them at the airport or sometimes they will fly to meet you,” she explains. “It’s just the pilot and me. Where I go it’s a 2 to 2 ½ hour flight. Then I usually spend about two hours there. And the pilot just waits for me or maybe goes and has lunch or waits in the hanger.”

While she’s there, she gets to take the child out of school, sees how they have grown, visits with people in their life and tours their facility.

“It’s an overall progress report,” Gray says. “They are just like any other child. They’ll ask ‘What did you bring me? Did you bring me a toy?’”

When they finish, it’s a two-hour trip back.

“All in a day’s trip. Mission accomplished,” she says.

Gray is grateful for the volunteer gift Angel Flight pilots offer CASAs and acknowledges it is a sacrifice.

“When you fill a plane it’s not like filling your car,” she says.

She loves to see two groups coming together with their own speciality.

“They’ve got time. They love flying, and it gives them a way to give back just like we are,” she says.

The Impact

While veterans like Gray may be free to go at it alone with the majority of their cases, newcomers don’t have to worry. CASA provides an extensive training process along with a supervisor.

Then, Gray says, at the end of a case, CASAs write a court report, explaining their informed conclusions.

“I’ve found the courts do rely on a lot of my investigative work as I’m sure they do with a lot of CASAs,” Gray notes.

In fact, one of Gray’s favorite parts of involvement with CASA has been learning how the court system works from the inside.

On the annual Adoption Day, she has enjoyed seeing the courtrooms lined with teddy bears and other celebratory elements like balloons, clowns and food.

But not every day is as glamorous as adoption day, and Gray admits, in the beginning, she wondered if what she was doing really mattered.

“There are all these people and all these cases,” she recalls. “But the more I did it, the more I really realized, you really do matter. All these advocates come together, and together it really makes a difference.”

CASA of Dallas County serves more than 2,250 children each year. To learn more about volunteering or donate to CASA, visit