Improved health, education and employment outcomes CASA foster youth
CASA programs are well regarded and seem to have a positive impact on the youth they serve, but there is little empirical research to back up these claims. Many of the California CASA programs do some evaluation where they compare their outcomes to the outcomes of foster children in their county, state and/or the country as a whole.
The problem is that much of the information needed to determine outcomes for CASA programs are not readily available in an easily accessible database. Often the information is in paper files that must be combed through to find the relevant data. As a result, CASA programs often choose only a few measures to track and are inconsistent in their tracking internally and across CASA programs within the state.
Finally, there is no statewide California CASA outcomes tracking system. The national tracking of outcomes is merely descriptive of how many children are served, number of volunteers, racial and ethnic backgrounds and ages of children and volunteers.
To overcome these problems former California CASA Staff Attorney Phil LaDew decided that asking the CASA volunteers directly about what they knew about their child or youth would allow us to collect much more detailed and accurate information. He developed a list of questions, and asked for feedback from a number of CASA Executive Directors.
Ann Wrixon, executive director of Contra Costa CASA set up the survey on SurveyMonkey, which allowed for the required question skipping logic. The survey was piloted with a group of CASA staff volunteers in Contra Costa County, the staff at California CASA and the executive director of Silicon Valley CASA. She modified several questions based on their feedback.
Findings for CASA foster youth as compared to California foster youth overall
Although CASA youth appear to have more behavioral and mental health challenges, they also appear to have better outcomes than foster youth without CASA. For example, CASA youth are three times more likely to live in a group home or shelter and 16 percent less likely to live with a relative. In addition, they are three times more likely to have an authorization for psychotropic medication, which may just mean that they are receiving more mental health services due to having an advocate. This appears to be the case for medical and dental care as well since almost 92 percent of CASA youth have had a regular medical exam and 80 percent have had a regular dental exam compared to 72 percent and 57 percent of California foster youth overall.
Education and employment
CASA youth are also five times more likely to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which might indicate they have more educational needs, or it may mean that the CASA volunteer is working to ensure that a needed IEP is in place. The latter is the more likely since CASA youth have a 95 percent high school graduation rate, which is 25 percent higher than the California overall average of 70.5 percent for foster youth, and is even higher than the overall California high school graduation rate of 88 percent.
California foster youth overall had much higher levels of employment than youth involved with CASA. Fifty-four percent of foster youth as a whole were employed while only about 33 percent of CASA youth were employed. This may be due to the fact that CASA youth are more likely to be engaged in schooling.
Contra Costa foster youth meet even more challenges than foster youth in California as a whole. Although the high school graduation rate is the same as California at 71 percent, 95 percent of CASA youth in Contra Costa County graduate from high school or the equivalent.
Only 4 percent of foster youth overall in Contra Costa have an IEP, but 30 percent of CASA youth in Contra Costa County have an IEP. This may indicate that the CASA youth have higher educational needs, but given the fact that CASA youth graduate high school graduate at a rate 25 percent higher than youth without a CASA, it probably means that the IEP is helping them to graduate.
Timely health exams are at 51 percent and 37 percent for dental exams for Contra Costa foster youth overall, while CASA youth in Contra Costa have timely health exams 97 percent of the time, and timely dental exams 87 percent of the time.
Thirty-two percent of CASA youth are prescribed psychotropic medications, while only 9 percent of Contra Costa foster youth have psychotropic medications. CASA youth may have more mental health needs or it may be that CASA advocates are ensuring CASA youth get the necessary mental health care. Nevertheless, CASA youth in Contra Costa County probably are higher-need overall as 18 percent live in group homes while only 10 percent of foster youth overall in Contra Costa County are in group homes. Finally, 100 percent of CASA youth have housing, while only 88 percent of foster youth in Contra Costa County have housing.
Limitations of the survey
The findings from the survey have limited use for the following reasons: first, the data for California and Contra Costa County as a whole includes CASA youth who may be inflating some of the overall California and Contra Costa statistics (high school graduation rates, IEPs, psychotropic medication) and deflating others (employment, group home placements, relative placements) and second, although CASA programs are well regarded and seem to have very positive impact on the youth they serve, according to Lawson, J, and Berrick, J.D. (2013), “Due to the equivocal research findings and widespread methodological weaknesses (most notably selection bias) in the literature base, it is determined that there is not currently enough evidence to establish CASA as an evidence-based practice."
The primary problem is that there is a lack of large randomized controlled trials. This is primarily because most judges are reluctant to randomly assign youth to a CASA or a control group, feeling that this is not ethical. To address this problem, Lawson and Berrick suggest that the next best design “is using the waitlist typical to CASA agencies as a natural-occurring control group” Ibid, p. 18. This research design will be implemented when additional funding is available.