TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senators Joseph F. Vitale and Dana Redd which would codify an existing Statewide program to allow judges to appoint volunteer advocates on behalf of children under 18 who have been removed from their homes due to child abuse or neglect was approved by the Senate today by a vote of 38-0.
“The CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) program has been one of the success stories in ensuring abused and neglected kids get the support they need through the courts,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex, and Chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. “However, many CASA volunteers have run into road-blocks in their efforts to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable kids, due to the lack of statutory authority. Through this legislation, we are empowering CASA volunteers to act on a child’s best interest, and creating safeguards against abuse of the program.”
“Many kids who are taken from their homes due to abuse or neglect do not have legal means to advocate for their own best interests,” said Senator Redd, D-Camden and Gloucester, and a member of the Senate Health Committee. “In these cases, CASA volunteers have been integral to preserve the fairness of court proceedings and ensure the best legal outcome for children in need. This program has been a major tool in advocating on behalf of abused and neglected children, and by codifying the existing program, we can give volunteers all the cooperation and oversight they need to do their work on behalf of kids.”
The bill, S-2276, would statutorily establish the existing Statewide Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program, which is currently authorized via court rule. Under the CASA program, judges have the authority to appoint a community volunteer who has received special court-sanctioned training to serve as special advocate for the courts in determining the best interests of any person less than 18 years of age who has been removed from his or her home due to child abuse or neglect. The Senators’ bill would also provide that a CASA may continue to undertake activities in the child’s best interests until they reach the age of 21.
“Unfortunately, many kids who come through the DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services) system still need legal help beyond their 18th birthday,” said Senator Redd. “Rather than abandon these kids to a sometimes over-extended family court, we want to allow CASA volunteers to continue to work towards the best interests of their charges. Through this bill, they can continue to have a positive impact in guiding these kids through the legal process until they reach adulthood.”
The sponsors note that CASA volunteers have been used by the court system in New Jersey for nearly a decade, pursuant to court rule. However, while their work on behalf of abused and neglected children has been a great benefit to the State, the lack of statutory authority has been a hindrance in CASA volunteers’ ability to receive critical information and cooperation from State agencies. The court rule also does not address issues of accountability and criminal background checks, which are addressed through this legislation.
“CASA has been an excellent program, but it’s not without its shortcomings,” said Senator Vitale. “Through statutory authority, CASA volunteers would be empowered to work with other government agencies and have access to information that was previously off-limits. And through background checks, we can make sure that only those with the best intentions get involved in the CASA program. These changes will make for better Statewide advocacy on behalf of abused and neglected children, and will give these kids a legal guardian angel to turn to in difficult family court proceedings.”
The bill now heads to the Assembly for consideration, before going to the Governor to be signed into law.