With all the talk of unjust "entitlements" and those who just "take," it is easy to overlook the other end of the spectrum, those who voluntarily and selflessly give of their time and energy to save and preserve lives. One obvious example is our volunteer firefighters who, after years of training, exercise the skill and courage to enter burning, collapsing buildings to rescue those inside.
Another, lesser known group of volunteers are court-appointed special advocates (CASA). These individuals also undergo extensive training and then also skillfully and courageously volunteer in the family courts to guide abused and neglected children through the foster care system. The important work of CASA volunteers is not as well known because it is performed under a necessary cloak of confidentiality within our family court system. However, by helping to ensure that these children are placed in safe, secure and permanent homes, CASA volunteers accomplish much the same as firefighters: They are heroes to children whose homes and families have been destroyed by substance abuse, mental health issues, poverty and crime.
In any decent society, there is an implied but inviolable social compact that we take care of our children, especially our most vulnerable children. In a time of tight budgets and a depressed economy, this means we have to be smarter than ever about how we spend our limited funds. Even the most staunch budget cutters among us must agree that community-based volunteer programs - especially programs that produce highly trained "guardian angels" for children in the foster care system - should be encouraged and supported.
With minimal staff and budgets, CASA programs around the state are able to deploy highly trained community volunteers to work with family court judges on abuse and neglect cases. The CASA volunteer provides valuable information about the child - information that rarely surfaces during the usual adversarial proceeding - to the family court judge and all of the attorneys involved. But the CASA volunteer does not stop there: He or she also works closely with the child's school and service providers to ensure that the child's educational, medical and mental health needs are being met. Not surprisingly, national studies show that children with CASA volunteers assigned to them are typically placed in safe and permanent homes more quickly than those children without CASA volunteers.
Despite the good that CASA volunteers do for our children, the New York State Office of Court Administration, in its most recent budget, has eliminated all funding to support CASA programs throughout New York state. This is shortsighted and compromises the safety of our most vulnerable children. The elimination of this $800,000 budget item only weakens our renewed resolve, from the recent tragedy in Newtown, to keep our children safe in their schools and homes.
If funding is not restored to CASA programs, or new revenue sources found, local programs throughout the state will either close their doors or be able to serve fewer children. By any measure, this is "penny wise and pound foolish." After all, shouldn't New York state lend its full support to a cost-effective volunteer workforce dedicated to protecting those children least able to protect themselves?
There are many fires to be extinguished and many young, helpless lives to be saved. Our child welfare system and family courts are woefully understaffed and overstretched. Let's not eliminate one of the few safety nets that a child caught in this system has - a CASA volunteer who ensures that the child's interests remain front and center.
Please contact your elected representatives in Albany and encourage them to support finding for CASA. There is a capable and willing force of CASA volunteers standing ready to help, if given the necessary support.
Arthur J. Siegel is president of Court Appointed Special Advocates of New York State, based in Albany, and Barbara Morgen is CASA advocate supervisor for the Mental Health Association of Westchester County Inc.