CASA volunteer finds rewarding role in state's foster care system


By Debra Talcott
Legal News

Just because an attorney is no longer practicing law doesn’t mean she isn’t using her education and training to better the lives of others. 

That is surely the case with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer Joyce Tesoriero, who devotes her skills and time to children in the foster care program in Washtenaw County.

“When our daughter was four, my husband Tony and I began to parent foster children, especially teens.  Through this experience we realized just how difficult life can be for children in foster care. As soon as I learned about the role that a Court Appointed Special Advocate can play in a foster child’s life, I knew that was something I wanted to do,” says Tesoriero, a Saline resident.

A CASA, under court order, befriends and advocates for a child or sibling group and works with all the parties involved in the case: social workers, therapists, attorneys, foster parents, and biological parents.  Each time a foster child’s case is reviewed by the court, the CASA reports on the extent to which the child’s physical, emotional, and educational needs are being met.  The CASA also makes recommendations about the best permanency plan for the child.

“As a child moves from one foster home to another or from a foster home to a residential facility and the workers change, the CASA stays with the child and can be one of the few consistent people in the child’s life,” says Tesoriero.

Each CASA is assigned one or two cases at a time, unlike the professionals in the foster care system who often carry very heavy caseloads.

“A CASA can really focus on the needs of the child and spend time with a child when an overworked case worker would not be able to devote that much time to one case,” Tesoriero explains.

The training to become a CASA is extensive. Although no specific education or work background is required, prospective volunteers complete an application, background checks, and interview process to determine whether they have the skills and time to be an effective advocate. Once a group of new volunteers is formed, CASA coordinators employed by the county begin a series of training classes that meet over a span of several weeks.

“During this time the new volunteers learn about the mechanics of the foster care system, the roles of the various people involved in the system, the goals of foster care, and the laws that apply to children in care,” Tesoriero says. “Volunteers learn about how and when children are removed from their families and placed in foster care.  They learn about Child Protective Services and how abuse and neglect are defined. With this knowledge as the basis, the volunteers then learn how children react to these forces and how to best work with the children—and everyone else—in order to do what is in the best interests of those children.”

CASA volunteers also learn how to effectively draft court reports and to present them at hearings. Tesoriero says each CASA receives support from the program coordinators as well as from other CASAs so that even during a particularly challenging case or situation, the CASA always has someone to turn to for help.

CASA coordinators have offices close to the courtrooms where the cases of children in foster care are heard.

“CASAs have monthly training sessions at the Learning Resource Community Center, and we may also have meetings and visits with children at the Washtenaw County Department of Social Services,” Tesoriero says.  “Our role often takes us to the foster homes, to the family homes, or to the prospective adoptive homes of the children we represent. These homes can be located anywhere in or around the county. There is such a shortage of foster homes and residential options that it is not uncommon for children to be placed outside the local area,” she adds.

Tesoriero and the other Washtenaw County CASAs appear in the Washtenaw County Judicial Circuit Court, Family Division, where it is their responsibility to prepare a report prior to a child’s case review in the court. Reviews are usually quarterly, but special hearings may be held if an emergency situation arises.

 “CASAs go to these hearings and sit in the front of the courtroom with the professionals involved in the case.  We are given an opportunity to speak at each hearing and can provide additional information or answer questions that the presiding judge or master may pose.  We are considered ‘the eyes and ears of the court’ since we have the time and resources to learn about the cases.”

As someone who has experienced being a biological parent, a foster parent, and an adoptive parent herself, Tesoriero calls upon her unique set of experiences as she approaches each new case.

“My husband Tony and I had a difficult time conceiving children. As we did the soul searching that inevitably accompanies infertility, we realized that what was important to us was having a family and having children in our lives. We trained to become foster parents because we realized how many children there are who are maybe not babies anymore but still in dire need of parents and a loving home. Shortly after we completed our training to become foster parents, we were surprised to find out that we were expecting a child, our daughter Jessica.”

Living in Maryland at the time, the Tesorieros welcomed foster children into their home for the first time when Jessie was 4 years old. It was an emergency placement of a sibling group that was supposed to include two children.

 “But when they appeared at our door, there were three,” recalls Tesoriero.  “The children’s mother had left them alone for several days, putting the eleven year old in charge of his 5-year-old sister and 3-year-old brother.”

These children eventually transitioned to a home closer to their biological family since the goal was to reunite them with their biological mother. The Tesorieros’ next placement was a 15-year-old boy.

“This boy remained with us throughout high school and is now in his mid-30s and still an important member of our family.

We are very proud of him. He completed college and graduate school and has a wonderful job working in information technology. He had suffered from a very difficult family environment in his early years and had lived in many different homes with many different relatives, but he was still able to turn his life around.  He says that living with us taught him the value of education and hard work,” says Tesoriero, who had done her own hard work back at the National Law Center at George Washington University in the early 1980s.

Over the years the Tesorieros have had several other teens living in their home, and they adopted a teen-age girl who had suffered severe abuse.

“Then, 17 years ago we had twin baby boys placed with us.  David and Daniel were supposed to be reunified with their birth parents, but when this couldn’t happen, we were able to adopt them,” Tesoriero says. 

Today those babies are handsome young men who will be high school seniors next fall, and the Tesorieros cannot imagine their lives or their family without them.

 “We are a blended family with our amazing adult birth daughter, our grown foster son, and our wonderful teenage boys,” says Tesoriero.

It was in Maryland that Joyce Tesoriero first learned about the CASA program; however, as a busy mother who was also serving on a foster care review board in those days, she knew her time to become a CASA would have to wait.

“I was always intrigued by the role of a CASA, but because of the time commitment and the objectivity required to perform this role correctly, I knew it was not something I could pursue while being a foster parent.”

As she enjoys her third year as a Court Appointed Special Advocate and looks back on her rewarding experiences as a foster mom, Tesoriero is in the perfect position to give advice to anyone considering getting involved in the foster care program.

 “Every child deserves to be loved and supported. Children born or raised with abuse and neglect often lack these basic entitlements. Caring foster parents and CASA volunteers can help reshape the world for a child. There is no greater gift we can give than changing the course of a child’s life for the better.”

For more information on becoming a CASA volunteer, contact the CASA program office at the Washtenaw County Trial Court at (734) 222-3734.