Social Work Month

For Social Work Month, we asked our licensed social workers, Shelley, Tara, and Abra to share a little bit about the difference they make in the lives of volunteers, children, and families.

Shelley Hart, Program Director

“For me as a social worker, I think I make a difference at CASA by helping advocates to see certain situations differently. Child welfare is never black and white. And emotions are high when a child is involved, certainly. But as we know, children are always better with their families if they are safe and care is taken. So, I help my advocates put things into perspective. Do we have a parent that has a bucketful of unresolved trauma? Let’s make sure there are services in place to work on that. Do we have a parent that is abusing substances? They are not bad people but have made some unfortunate choices. What do they need to do to stay sober? Do we have a house that is messy and unsafe? Does the parent have different standards of cleanliness than the advocate, is the parent depressed, do they lack the skills? How can we help them in that situation? Again, these cases are grey and will not always have the happy ending of a beautiful reunification story. But as a CASA supervisor, I use my social work skills to point my advocates in the direction of a strengths-based advocacy, looking at what people are doing right and how we can build upon that to effect change as opposed to focusing purely on the negative aspects.”

Tara Marcom, Advocate Supervisor and Trauma-Informed Practitioner

“One of the most valuable things I have gained and enjoyed from getting my degree and license in Social Work is truly listening to those that I am working with. Letting people talk, giving them the space and  time to explain their situation, how they are feeling and how they got to this place. I’ve learned that this not only builds trust but helps people feel heard and motivates them to change their situation and want to be a healthier parent emotionally and physically. There are so many times I have met with families and no one has taken the time to just listen and understand, and I think that can be one of the greatest things we can give them. ”

Abra Morgan, Advocate Supervisor

“I think I have helped some of my advocates create healthy boundaries with the families, workers, foster parents they are working with. I think this is impactful because it helps prevent burnout.”

Celebrating 25 in 2022

The year was 1997. Jewel and Backstreet Boys were at the top of the charts. Ally McBeal and Buffy debuted on television. You may remember it as the year you married your spouse or graduated high school. We remember it as the year that CASA of Northwest Arkansas took root.

Throughout 2022, we are celebrating our 25th CASA-versary! We thought it might be fun to begin the celebration by meeting one of our advocates who has a lot in common with CASA…she TOO was born in 1997!

Meet Savanah Ruff.

Like CASA of NWA, she is a force to be reckoned with. An Art History major at the University of Arkansas while assisting a realtor part-time, Savanah still makes time to speak up for children in care!

Q: When and how did you become involved with CASA?

A: I joined CASA right after turning 21 years old. I always had an interest in helping children, so when my stepmom found out about CASA, we signed up together! It can be scary when you first start off as a CASA, so it was nice to have a partner on my first case.

Q: What inspired you to join the cause?

A: I didn’t have the easiest childhood. CASA helps me use what I experienced to help others. I grew up, sometimes feeling isolated and alone. I often wondered, “Am I the only one going through this?” I don’t want other kids to feel that. They aren’t alone. There is a whole community out there to support them.

Q: You’re turning 25 years old this year, like CASA of NWA! How does your age help your service?

A: It’s actually helped a lot! Both of my cases have had children of varying ages, including a few teenagers. Being closer in age has allowed me to build connections with them fairly quickly. My older kids, especially, have opened up and shared what’s really going on in a way I’m not sure would have happened otherwise. A lot of time, they feel like they are being lectured to or judged by other adults in their lives.

Q: What’s the most challenging part of this job?

A: Trying not to judge. That can be hard when you hear about a drug addicted parent or when you reflect on what these children have gone through. You must be understanding and offer help and resources to these families. On the flip side, I’m a fairly trusting person. So, I have learned to look for actions, not just words, as proof that people have changed.

Q: What do you enjoy the most?

A: I love talking to everyone on the case, seeing the children, getting updates, and knowing the judge reads my report and takes my recommendations seriously. But, most importantly, I love helping children know they aren’t alone.

Q: Twenty-five years ago, CASA didn’t exist in Northwest Arkansas. Can you imagine what would have happened if it was never founded?

A: I can’t even imagine. DHS is supposed to do the work that CASA volunteers do, but they are not always able to. These kids and families need resources to get themselves right. To keep the children safe. I think about the case of Gabriel Fernandez in California and how every single sign was there, and yet he still suffered. Would that have happened if a CASA was on his case?

Q: What would you say to someone considering joining our team of advocates?

A: This is a great organization. The training and staff supervision is extremely helpful and reassuring. But, this is heavy work. It is not an easy job, especially emotionally. But, for me, it is so fulfilling. Whenever a case closes, and I know I’ve done all I could for those children and family, well…my job is done.

Asked & Answered: How has CASA advocacy changed over the past 25 years?

From the number of staff to the counties we serve to additional programs to meet the needs of our community, here are just a few of the ways our advocacy has changed and shifted since our organization got its start in 1997.

Expanded Team and Impact

-After a long strategic journey, we now serve every child assigned to us by the court system! We finally have volunteers waiting for cases instead of children waiting for volunteers.

-To meet the growing needs of our children, our volunteer base and staff have grown tremendously over the past 25 years. What started with a couple of dedicated team members and a handful of advocates has grown to 18 staff members and more than 400 volunteers.

-As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, so too has our local CASA program. Founded as an agency serving children from just Washington County, CASA of NWA has expanded to include children from Benton, Madison, and Carroll counties.

Our Volunteers

-While new volunteer recruitment will always be needed, we believe focusing on retention and relationship building with our current volunteers is key to growing and maintaining our volunteer base.

-With the move to our current building in 2014 and the conversion of garage space to a training room in 2020, we are better equipped to offer high-quality, pre-service and continuing education for our advocates.

Family Focus

-Guided by changes to legislation at the federal and state level, our program has shifted its mindset over the years in how we advocate for the child. The primary goal of foster care cases is to return children to their homes of origin if it is safe to do so. Therefore, CASA volunteers work more closely now with biological parents, helping to identify resources or answer questions they may have.

-Another big shift is trying to place children with appropriate family members instead of kids being placed directly into foster homes. To assist this process, CASA of NWA developed a family finding program and incorporated it into our new volunteer training.

Transitioning Teens

-In response to the unique needs of teens aging out of the foster care system, we developed our Older Youth Program in 2013. By offering life skills classes and transitional life planning for our teens along with specialized training for older youth advocates, we help foster independence while putting safeguards in place for these young adults.


Answered by Program Director Shelley Hart


Asked & Answered: Has research been done on the effectiveness of CASA advocacy?

You know what a CASA volunteer does: she/he advocates in court for the best interests of the children on their case. But have you ever wondered, “How effective is CASA advocacy?” A number of academic studies have compared outcomes for children with a CASA to those without a CASA to answer that exact question.

The research found that children with a CASA volunteer:

  • Have significantly less placements than a child without a CASA volunteer. 1, 2, 3
  • Reported significantly higher levels of hope. A child’s hope has been linked to numerous positive outcomes such as academic success, overall wellbeing, increases in self-control, positive social relationships, and optimism. 4
  • Are more likely to have better outcomes: children tended to perform better academically and behaviorally in school as measured by whether they passed all of their courses, whether or not they were expelled, and their conduct performance. 5
  • Are half as likely to reenter the child welfare system. 1, 2, 6, 7, 8
  • Are more likely to achieve permanency. 1, 2
  • Are as likely to be reunified with their birth parent as a child without a CASA volunteer. 8
  • Are more likely to be adopted. 7, 8
  • Are ordered to receive more services. 2, 6, 7, 9, 10

These are just a few of the studies’ overarching findings focusing on outcomes for children who benefit from the advocacy of a CASA volunteer. CASA volunteers assure that the court and child welfare systems remain focused on the children’s wellbeing, assuring that the specific needs of individual children are addressed. As you can see, having a CASA volunteer on their case and by their side can improve almost every facet of their life: personal wellbeing, relationships, school, and permanency.

(These studies were completed across the U.S. and are not specific to CASA of NWA.)


Answered by Development Coordinator Nikki McDaniel



1 Calkins, C.; Millar, M. The Effectiveness of Court Appointed Special Advocates to Assist in Permanency Planning. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. 1999.

2 Gershun, Martha, and Claire Terrebonne. Child welfare system interventions on behalf of children and families: Highlighting the role of court appointed special advocates. Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care. Volume 9. 2018.

3 Leung, P. Is the Court-Appointed Special Advocate Program Effective? A Longitudinal Analysis of Time Involvement and Case Outcomes. Child Welfare League of America. 1996

4 Stanley, Jessica, and Chan M. Hellman. Nurturing Hope Among Children Experiencing Abuse & Neglect: Examining the Effects of CASA Volunteers. 2019.

5 Waxman, H.; Houston, R.; Profilet, S.; Sanchez, B. The Long-Term Effects of the Houston Child Advocates, Inc., Program on Children and Family Outcomes. Child Welfare. 2009

6 Office of the Inspector General Report, US Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. Audit Report Results for CASA Advocacy. Washington, DC. January, 2007

7 Poertner, J., & Press, A. Who best represents the interests of the child in court? Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program. 1990.

8 Abramson, Shareen. Use of court-appointed advocates to assist in permanency planning for minority children. Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program. 1991.

9 Caliber Associates, National CASA Association Evaluation Project, Caliber Associates; Fairfax, Virginia. 2004.

10 Litzelfelner, P. The Effectiveness of CASAs in Achieving Positive Outcomes for Children. Child Welfare League of America. 2000.

11 Peters, C.; Claussen Bell, K.; Zinn, A.; George, R.; Courtney, M. Continuing in Foster Care Beyond Age 18: How Courts Can Help. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. 2008.

Asked & Answered: How do CASA volunteers advocate for a child’s educational needs?

One of the areas where a CASA can make a huge and lasting difference in the life of a child, is in educational advocacy. Helping to ensure that a child is receiving educational supports and services appropriate for their particular needs can remove barriers that prevent a child from really thriving in a school setting.

Children in foster care often have educational gaps, and these are not always immediately apparent. If not addressed early, these gaps may become larger over time, especially if the child spends a significant amount of time in foster care or if they change placements frequently. A CASA, however, will be a constant in a child’s life, regardless of where they are placed. CASAs can help fill in some of the blanks about a child’s educational history and pass on pertinent information. A complete and accurate educational background, when combined with the knowledge a CASA will have about the child as an individual, not only helps ensure the child is receiving appropriate services in their current school, but can also be passed along to any future schools which will make for smoother transitions.

While not an exhaustive list, CASAs can support a child’s education in these specific ways:

  • Recommending enrollment in early intervention or daycare program
  • Requesting school transcripts, attendance records, and educational records
  • Ensuring IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) are shared with current school, requesting IEPs be updated, or requesting a child be evaluated for IEP services
  • Requesting appropriate behavioral supports
  • Requesting referrals for occupational, physical or speech therapy OR ensuring children who receive occupational, physical, or speech therapies are being provided proper service
  • Advocating for proper diagnosis and treatment of any underlying medical or mental health challenges that may impact school performance
  • Advocacy for involvement in extracurriculars, sports, clubs, music, art, or theater programs
  • Ensuring placement in correct classes (remedial, honors, AP, summer school, credit recovery etc.)
  • Advocating for alternative learning environments when necessary
  • Helping ensure ACT, SAT, AP tests are paid for and taken
  • Helping to navigate through college applications, admissions, etc.

We are grateful that most children will have the opportunity to return to an in-person setting this fall, and we are even more grateful that those who are in foster care will have the opportunity to put their best foot forward with their CASA by their side.


Answered by Advocate Supervisor Sadie Perkins

A CASA volunteer’s perspective on educational advocacy

Education is the great equalizer.

Shared often by one of her former principals, that paraphrase remains top of mind for CASA volunteer and former educator, Teresa Cornett.  Having spent 18 years as an elementary teacher, Teresa knew CASA would be a good outlet for her experience, knowledge, and passions when she retired in 2017. As kids return to school this month, we thought it might be helpful to share the many ways that CASA volunteers impact their children’s educational success. Teresa was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us.

Q. Did you have any students who were in foster care when you were a classroom teacher?

A. Yes. It’s hard to teach kids when you know they are transient. But, being a good teacher and human, you know you need to help as long as they are with you. It was very difficult to see kids come and go from the classroom and know they were facing an uphill battle from learning loss – both prior to coming into care and from being moved around a lot while in care.

Q. What do all students need?

A. Well, that’s easy. They need to feel safe. Their physical and emotional safety is number one. No one can be successful in a classroom if they are afraid and not secure in their surroundings. They also need their physical needs met; they can’t be malnourished, for example. Lastly, they need to trust their teacher and the adults around them. This is the same for my CASA kids as it was for my students. I am constantly reminding the young people I serve that “I’m here for you.”

Q. What are three simple things advocates can do to make a difference in a child’s education?

A. 1) Communicate with their teacher! Via email, chat, or by attending parent-teacher conferences. Let the teacher know you will follow through, and they’ll communicate with you. They’ll keep you updated on testing, missing forms, homework, supply needs, etc.

2) Check in on attendance, report cards, and units. This is extremely important, especially for our older youth who haven’t been in school consistently.

3) Meet the needs of your child by appreciating where they are. Not every child is working toward college. If your young person is looking for alternatives or is focused on completing their GED, lay out the benefits of their path and encourage them to succeed.

Q. Describe a specific time when, as a CASA, you were able to advocate for a child’s academic success.

A. Every child needs something different. That said, I’ve verified attendance for when a child struggled getting to school. I’ve helped advocate for a laptop for another. I’ve worked with a young person who was interested in a career in cosmetology to make sure she had enough credits to obtain her GED. And, I’ve advocated for one of my young people, with special needs, to access life skills from a community partner.

Q. Current or former teachers seem uniquely qualified to become CASA volunteers. What makes them so?

A. Obviously, teachers know how to work with children, but they also know how to work the educational system. Teachers can easily navigate requests for accommodations, additional therapies, and counseling at school. For the older kids, they also know how the unit system works and can make sure the young person is working with their guidance counselor or academic advisor to graduate and participate in career planning.

Beyond specifically educational advocacy, every effort an advocate can make to move these children out of survival mode opens them up to the freedom to think about the future.

What a gift to give, Teresa. Thank you for your years of service and commitment to children.

Asked & Answered: What is a CASA volunteer’s role in reunification?

As reunification is always the initial focus of the case, CASA volunteers play a vital role in not only advocating for the child, but also building a relationship with the parents, and helping them build a positive support system within their community.

The exact role a CASA plays in reunification varies case by case but often includes the following:

Service Provision: Helping the family heal and reunify requires aide from various community partners.  CASA volunteers work with biological families to identify appropriate resources that support reunification including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, and housing.

Parent Visitation: Throughout the case, CASA volunteers will also observe visitations/interactions between the parents and child and help ensure that visits are occurring regularly to help repair and continue to build the bond between parent and child. 

Residential Review: Advocates also make home visits to assess the environment and identify any safety/health concerns that may need to be addressed. The main goal is for the parents to be able to provide a safe and nurturing home for their child/children.

Partner Relationships: CASA volunteers play an integral role in their cases by collaborating with DHS, foster parents, biological parents, attorneys, and the child/children to assess the progress of the case and ensure that the child’s best interest is always being kept in mind. By maintaining these positive relationships and communicating with all parties involved, it greatly increases the opportunities for families to be reunified. 

During the course of a case, it may become clear that reunification is not in the best interest of a child we serve. But, seeing a child reunify with their family is one of the brightest moments of being a CASA volunteer and highlights the important role that an advocate plays in the foster care system.


Answered by Advocate Supervisor Amanda Quillen

A volunteer’s perspective on reunification

Reunification can be hard to understand, and many CASA volunteers are unsure about working with parents when they take their first case. We asked veteran volunteer Deanna Cicatiello for her perspective on reunification and working with parents in this Q&A.

Q: Was it hard to imagine working with parents when you first became a CASA volunteer?

A: “I was unsure about working with parents. After all, their actions resulted in their kids being taken from their custody. But once I started working cases, I‘d learn more about them and become invested in their success.”

Q: What surprised you about working with parents?

A: “It didn’t take long for me to realize that in some situations, they’re not bad people; they’ve simply made bad choices. And in a lot of cases, the parents have suffered their own trauma that they continue to struggle with. That adds another layer of difficulty to things.”

Q: How has your view of parents changed since working with them?

A: “My experiences have definitely made me more compassionate and understanding. I realize how important it is to go in with an open mind. They may have gotten in a bad relationship or they just need some help. I’ve definitely become less judgmental.”

Q: What are some of the issues they have to overcome?

A: “One of the biggest is probably sobriety when drugs and alcohol are involved. Getting over an addiction takes enormous effort. It’s easy to get discouraged, especially if they don’t have support.”

Q: How do you help parents when the case’s goal is reunification?

A: “Working toward reunification is a long process, and they might feel like they’re not getting anywhere. One of the most important things I can do is encourage them and let them know that someone’s in their corner. When parents get the case plan with the list of what they have to do if reunification is going to be an option, it’s overwhelming and intimidating. I think even just one person calling and checking on them and offering consistent encouragement can make the difference between failure and success.”

Q: Has seeing parents’ successes inspired you?

A: “Absolutely. In my first reunification, it was a mother wanting to reunify. I could see how hard she was working. It would’ve been so much easier for her to just keep doing what she was doing before, but she was committed to becoming a better person and a better mom for her kids.”

The Child Welfare Team

Being in foster care can be overwhelming for children and parents for many reasons. One of those reasons is the sheer number of people working on a case at a time. Each is important to making sure the case follows the legal timeline while working as a team to promote the ultimate goal of reunifying a child with their parent or making sure there is a solid plan in cases where reunification cannot happen.

So, just who is involved in a foster care case besides the child and their parents?

First, you have the DHS caseworker. They are responsible for the everyday safety and well-being of all the children on their caseloads.  At the same time, they are responsible for making sure parents are getting the services they need to have their children returned to them.  It is a big job that often requires driving kids across the state, finding last minute placements, setting up doctors and therapy appointments, making home visits to foster homes, meeting with parents, drawing up case plans and testifying in court.  What don’t they do, really?

The Office of Chief Counsel or OCC is the attorney for the DHS caseworker on the case. They are there to protect the interests of the Department of Human Services. They help the DHS worker communicate with the Judge during court. They are considered the “prosecuting attorney” of the case and file all the initial petitions in order to take the hold on children.

The Attorney Ad Litem is a court appointed attorney specifically assigned to speak on behalf of the best interests of the foster child(ren) they represent. They will often voice the child’s thoughts and opinions during a case. They can call witnesses and file motions on behalf of their client.  The Attorney Ad Litem works very closely with the CASA volunteer on the case as their perspectives often align. The Attorney Ad Litem is required by law to present the CASA court report to the judge.

While the Ad Litem is the attorney for the child, the child also has a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to speak up for their best interests. Unlike the Ad Litem, the CASA is a volunteer. Often assigned to only one case at a time, the CASA volunteer has the capacity to delve very deeply into the families involved. CASA advocates work closely with the child, DHS, and biological and foster parents to identify and fulfill resource gaps. As an objective third party, they can speak freely to the child’s needs and keep the focus where it should be: on the safety and well-being of the child.

Parents always have a right to an attorney in juvenile court proceedings. If parents are under a certain income level, they will be assigned a court appointed attorney. Whether paid for by the parent or by the state, parent counsel is there to guide their client through the child welfare process.  While they often encourage parents to complete services, ultimately they are there to protect the parents’ rights and interests in the case even if it goes against the best interest of the children involved.

Foster parents fill a vital role in the life of a foster child. During a difficult time in a child’s life, they can be a safe place to land. They tuck children into bed at night and provide the everyday care for the child. Foster parents can be a support for a child in the actual court room while providing information to the court about any specific needs the child has. In some cases, the foster parents can be a good support system for parents by helping to provide some one on one parenting skills, supervising visits and encouraging healthy interactions. Beyond a foster home, a child may also be placed in a residential facility, group home, or shelter. In those cases, it is the staff of those placements that fill in the foster parent role.

Therapists, teachers, doctors, child care providers, coaches, etc. all play critical roles in providing services and care to a child in foster care. If a child is of Native American descent, tribal representation will also be a valued member of the child welfare team. Because each child’s experience and needs are different, the role they play in any particular case varies. All of these professionals can be called upon, by the court, to provide critical information on a child’s progress, needs, and permanency.

And finally….

The Juvenile Judge. The judge is an elected official who conducts the actual foster care court proceedings. They must be impartial and properly interpret the law. Each attorney presents their case to the judge, CASAs write reports and witnesses testify, but the ultimate outcome of a child’s case is squarely on the shoulders of the judge.

The players are many in child welfare, but the objective is the same. We are grateful to each and every one of our partners for staying committed to the safety and well-being of children in foster care.

Asked & Answered: What happens when a call is made to the Child Abuse Hotline?

When a call is made to the child abuse hotline, the hotline operator must decide if there is enough information available to take the report. The hotline operator will gather information from the caller including whether he/she is a mandated reporter as well as if the caller wishes to identify him/herself or report anonymously.

The hotline operator will then ask for information about the alleged child maltreatment. The caller should provide as much specific and pertinent information as possible regarding the concerns, the child’s name, the alleged offender name and address, and any available contact information for the family. If there are others who may have knowledge of the alleged maltreatment, the caller should provide this to the operator as well. The more information the caller gives the better.

The hotline operator will then decide, based on the information provided, whether the call can be accepted for an investigation. If the call is accepted, the report will be sent either to the Division of Children Family Services or the Arkansas State Police (Crimes Against Children Division) to investigate depending on the severity of the concerns. An investigator will visit with the family to discuss the allegations and ensure the safety of every child in the family. If the child cannot safely remain in the home, removal may be necessary for the health and safety of the child. If the child can safely remain in the home, the investigator will assess the needs of the family and begin to put in place services and supports for the family while the investigation is ongoing.

The investigation is typically completed within 30-45 days. Based on the findings of the investigation, the family may be done with involvement from DCFS, or a case may open to offer the family continued support and services to work on safely caring for the child.


Answered by Advocate Supervisor Kayla Tave