Volunteer advocates for abused, neglected children

By Brittany Elena Morris

December 14, 2012 - 5:58 am
Maricopa resident Vince Vitale helps children removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse. Christina Sampson photo

When children are removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse, Maricopa resident Vince Vitale is a constant in the chaos.

“You are the one person who does return phone calls, the one person who comes to see them, the one person who answers all their questions,” Vitale said.

Vitale is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer. CASA volunteers are everyday people selected by judges to play a neutral role in the proceedings and decisions of a child removed from a parent’s care by the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS).

There is an application process, interview and polygraph test. If the candidate is accepted into the program, he or she is assigned a child and has access to a variety of information.

Vitale can access medical records, financial statements and court documents pertaining to his child and his child’s family.

There are 15 county CASA programs in Arizona, said Katie Mayer, the marketing and outreach specialist for CASA of Arizona. The program also operates on a national scale.

Only one out of nine children has a CASA volunteer and Arizona has the highest number of children in foster care of any state in the country.

Vitale spends 30 or more hours a month volunteering, which can be physically and mentally strenuous, he said.

“The only person I’m concerned about is the kid,” Vitale said. “You have access to the most intimate part of their life and you have to be discreet and circumspect.”

Vitale writes court reports for the presiding judge that include what he thinks is in his child’s best interest. In some cases, the child is returned to his or her parents or placed in foster care.

His view may differ from social workers and other representatives who preside over the case because of the time he spends with the child. Oftentimes, a caseworker has more than 50 children to balance at any given time.

A CASA volunteer is rarely assigned more than one case.

“We’re the eyes and ears of the court,” Vitale said. “When you come into the court, you have an enormous amount of influence. You know more about the case and the child than anyone else in the room.”

Vitale and Mayer agreed CASA is special because it is not responsible to an agency or the state. The program consists largely of volunteers, while unpaid lottery tickets fund the remainder of the program.

“A child is more than a case number to a CASA volunteer,” Mayer said. “They’re here because they’re invested.”

Vitale, a father of two and retired lawyer, said more time and money should be invested in the children he works with through the CASA program. Aside from always needing more volunteers, he said the federal government and the state should spend more money on social work programs and CPS.

“We agree that our children are a priority, but as a community if we look at where our money is spent, our children is not where it’s going,” he said.

More information is available at AZCourts.gov/CASA.

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