The February 2018 Sobel & Co. Nonprofit Spotlight is focused on CASA of Morris and Sussex Counties, Inc. Lisa Firkser, Ph.D. and Executive Director of CASA of Morris and Sussex Counties, is proud of the powerful legacy of positive representation for foster children that CASA for Children has earned over the past 30 years. 

The story began in 1977 when a judge in Seattle was determined to find a way to prevent children in foster care from ‘falling through the cracks’, ensuring them a safe childhood by implementing what might be termed a watch dog approach. Today the vision is a reality, with close to 1000 CASA organizations nationwide.

Here in New Jersey, CASA of Morris and Sussex (the second to be launched immediately after the Essex County group was formed) is one of 14 CASAs serving the state’s most vulnerable children. Every county is accounted for, but CASA of Morris and Sussex has the unique distinction of serving 100% of the children in the foster care system in their two counties. It is an incredible work load but the organization has a depth of volunteers, a strong staff and the financial stability to achieve such a challenging milestone.

What does CASA do?

Adhering to the original charter, today’s CASA of Morris and Sussex identifies and recruits community volunteers (many who are employed full time while others are retired) who will become advocates. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old and agree to a state and federal background check.  Once they have passed these standards, they go through an extensive training process, learning how to fulfill their role as the eyes and ears of the court, taking responsibility for foster children and ensuring their safety – and much more.

The volunteer process includes completing a written application, an in-person interview with two CASA staff members, providing four references and six weeks of weekly on-site classes and three additional hours of online curriculum - all based on National CASA guidelines.

Children in foster care have been removed from their families because they are victims of abuse (physical and sexual) and neglect, often complicated by parents suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues. As such they need to be kept safe, nurtured and cared for so that they can move forward someday to enjoy a productive, healthy adult life.  

Each advocate is assigned to a child or a sibling group who she/he follows through permanency. This ensures that every foster child has a monthly in-person meeting with the advocate who is accountable until the child ages out of the system, is reunited with family or is adopted.  These meetings may take place at a group home, residential facility or a foster home. Every 90 days a status report is filed based on a variety of factors including the monthly in-person meeting. The mandate for direct contact is a distinguishing factor for CASA and one that sets this organization apart from others.  It is this deep and ongoing commitment that forms a foundation that promises a brighter future for the children.

The advocates also invest time in a holistic approach to supporting the children, visiting the schools and interacting with teachers to ensure that they have access to a rich range of educational resources as well as meeting with medical professionals.  So many of the children are not inoculated, have not had consistent dental or medical care, and have special needs.  A result it is the advocates who protect them and get them the care and attention they require.

What’s special about CASA of Morris and Sussex?

Beyond the twin pillars of education and health and wellness, CASA of Morris and Sussex has launched a special approach to helping teenagers prepare for living independent lives. They teach them how to open a bank account, how to grocery shop for healthy food items, how to dress for success, how to take public transportation and how to function in the crowded, hurried world of adulthood.    CASA advocates want the children in their care to be competent adults but they also want them to have lives filled with meaning and purpose. To accomplish this, they make field trips to the Paper Mill Playhouse, to sports events, to museums and even to college campuses. Every experience helps them shape these young lives and turn them around to have the same opportunities as all children deserve.     

CASA advocates are sometimes called upon to be supporters and mentors of the parents as well as of the children – helping to rebuild and strengthen fragile families. Even after the children have achieved a place of permanency, their advocate may still remain in touch, ensuring that these children can be confident knowing they have sincere friends and genuine concerned supporters at CASA. 

CASA Morris and Sussex is not only one of the first chapters to serve the New Jersey community, but more importantly, they are respected for the leadership role they have assumed in the state.  With Lisa’s guidance and a strong staff to support her as well as a powerful and engaged board led by Board President Stephen Weinstein, Esq., the organization continues to lead the state in serving and advocating for foster children.

To learn how you can become an advocate or to donate to CASA, we invite you to visit their website at http://www.casamsc.org.