Hello, again! Welcome to the next blog for ASK CASA – Ask. Seek. Know. about all things CASA just for you – CASA Advocates! A new feature of the ASK CASA blog will be “Talking with Kids” – questions to spark conversations on various topics such as: Getting to Know You, Friends & School, Family, How Do You Feel? and finally, Health & Fitness. Look for these conversation starters at the end of each blog. See you there!
But getting back to the work at hand – the topic for now. While this blog spot is driven by your questions and comments, which I truly enjoy reading and addressing in our conversations, the topic I’ve settled on for now is Report Writing.
I can well-imagine that report writing may be your least favorite part of being a CASA Advocate. After all, you’ve arranged for and carried out your visits either virtually or with occasional door drop-offs. You’ve observed your CASA child and noted strengths and improvements, and perhaps, some areas of decline. You’ve carefully noted your interactions and conversations with parties on the case, as well as, any travels or meetings you attended so that your Optima entries will be detailed and complete. You may have even made court appearances. And now, now it’s time to write your report. Are you sitting at your computer staring at a new, blank Word document just wishing all the words in your head would simply jump into your computer? Are you rereading your notes from 2, 3, 4 weeks ago to decide what to include in your report? I understand. Been there. Done that. But, what other distractions keep us from composing reports? Hang on. I’ll be right back. Just need to refill my coffee!
OK, I’m back after that slight diversion. Yes, report writing can be trying. I understand perfectly, especially after seven years as an advocate interacting with five family units and nine children. So, let’s look at the important reason for writing the report, the various parts of a report, and then let’s explore what might happen to your report once you submit it to your CASA supervisor.
The important reason for writing your report is that as a CASA Advocate you care deeply about child welfare. You are a consistent, dependable voice for your CASA child. You are professionally trained and receive continuing education with knowledge to recognize child abuse and neglect. You understand cultural competency, child development, permanency, along with court procedures and court etiquette. You have a safety net of support from your local CASA program and your supervisor. You have a true love of caring for and about children. Yes, you can do this!
So, isn’t it just a little easier to begin that report knowing that you are writing the story of your CASA child? A CASA is the eyes and ears of the court, so the presentation of your words reminds all readers of your CASA child’s life with all its recent struggles and adjustments in the past 3-4 weeks. Hence, the importance of the timeliness of your report, also.
Now that your notes and the pictures in your head from your visits are beginning to take shape into words on your computer, let’s think about the audience for these reports. Who will read your report – your supervisor, judges, social workers, corporate council, any and all parties to the case? Understanding what your local program does with your report once you submit it will enable you to report fairly and objectively with careful attention to relevant information and your selection of words.
Look at the following selections of what I consider good report writing (based on an actual case) that is objective and factual vs. Not Good Report Writing that is opinionated and critical.
Good Report Writing – objective and factual
After playing outside, Mom called the children to the empty kitchen for cookies and ice cream. The other CASA and I helped Mom spread plastic grocery bags in front of each child for placemats covering over the crumbs and food scraps on the floor. Mom gave each child a spoon and napkin from McDonald’s. The youngest child used the napkin to wipe his nose and eyes. He had been crying and screaming. The ice cream carton was passed from child to child. Each took a few scoops with the spoon or their hands. Mom opened the cookie package and dumped them on the floor in the center of the circle. The older children grabbed at the cookies. The youngest child stood up and walked through the cookies to get one. An older boy pulled him down and pushed him out of the circle, which made the little one start crying again. He ran down the hall screaming for Mama. The children finished the treats and threw their napkins and spoons in the sink.
Not Good Report Writing – opinionated and critical
Mom yelled for the kids to come in for a treat. She didn’t make them wash their hands. The kitchen didn’t even have a table or chairs and the floor was filthy. The other CASA and I didn’t like that there were crumbs and food scraps on the floor, so we asked Mom for plastic bags as placemats to keep the treats somewhat clean. The youngest child had been crying and screaming and Mom did nothing to console him. He used his napkin to wipe his nose. The children passed the ice cream carton around the circle, using their dirty hands to scoop out 2 or 3 bites. Mom dumped the cookies on the filthy floor. The older children quickly grabbed at them. When the youngest child walked through the cookies to get one, an older boy pulled him down hard and pushed him out of the circle. That poor little one started crying and screaming again looking for Mama. Maybe it was the older boy who made him cry outside. Instead of cleaning up and putting napkins and spoons in the trash, the children just threw their things in the sink for Mom to clean up later.
Do you sense the difference between the two reports? Both tell the same story; paint the same picture. The first report is objective.
- Empty kitchen says that there wasn’t a table and chairs. The family had recently moved into the apartment.
- While there’s no shame in using disposable spoons from McDonald’s, it could indicate that there was no silverware in the home. Using spoons and hands to scoop ice cream might also indicate there might not be cooking utensils in the kitchen. Dumping the cookies on the floor might say, ‘fend for yourself.’ None of these is a crime, and the children were not harmed other than the little one being pulled down and pushed out of the circle. These are simply observations of family function which often tell more than words could ever do.
The second report interjects my opinions, beliefs, and expectations into the writing. These words are highly confrontational and hurtful.
- Mom yelled – subjective. Maybe she called out, but it came across as yelling to me. It is important here to note any ‘language’ that might have been used. If Mom is yelling for the kids to come inside and using derogatory language, that should be noted in the report. Be factual. Report exactly what you heard.
- She didn’t make them wash their hands. I am imposing my standards of cleanliness while berating Mom.
- The kitchen didn’t even have a table or chairs and the floor was filthy. This is pure bias. Remember, the family had recently moved into the apartment, so maybe the table and chairs had not arrived. The floor was filthy – again, imposing my standard of cleanliness. I did not notice any mops or brooms, but the family had just moved in. Maybe they didn’t know where the mops and brooms were. And, maybe they swept the floor once a day – at night, after dinner.
- The other CASA and I didn’t like the uncleanliness of the floor, so we jumped in to fix it. We probably offended Mom, and may have used precious grocery bags she kept to use as trash bags.
- Mom did nothing to console the crying, screaming child. Again, imposing my beliefs that all children need tender, loving care, no matter what. Well, maybe the little one was overtired or overheated, and had been crying most of the day. Maybe he was cutting teeth. Maybe he missed his nap or was transitioning from two naps a day to one. Maybe he was sick. Maybe Mom was tired and had tried all day to console him. We just don’t know what happened before our visit. What we do know is that Mom did not lash out or harm him in anyway during the visit.
- The children used their spoons or dirty hands to scoop out the ice cream. My cleanliness issue again.
- An older boy pulled him down hard. Subjective.
- That poor little one started crying again – I just wanted to console him; I wanted to fix things.
- Maybe it was the older boy who made him cry outside. Not factual. I’m merely guessing. This does not belong in the report.
- Cleaning up and throwing things in the sink, rather than the trash, and making more work for Mom to clean up later. Here, I am absolutely imposing my sense of cleaning up: picking up and putting things where they belong – garbage in the trash, silverware in the dishwasher! Oops, no dishwasher! What I couldn’t see though was that the children actually DID pick up!
As your writing takes shape, be mindful of reporting objectively, using factual information. Proofread your report to look for any personal bias or critical statements that may have snuck into your writing. Ask for feedback for your first few reporting cycles. Constructive feedback might reveal that you actually are imposing your opinions and expectations onto your CASA case. Your supervisor can help you process what you are experiencing.
Always remember that your supervisor and local program are required by state statue to be available to you, to hold regular conferences with you, to conduct annual evaluations, and to provide written policies and procedures of the CASA program, including your volunteer responsibilities. Keep those lines of communication open and flowing.
Now, let’s move on to other considerations when writing your report. What details does your audience look for? This is important to know so that your reports provide enough, but not too much information. Think of the time investment for a judge, supervisor, corporate council and other parties to the case, to read all the reports for all the CASA cases every month!
Initially, my reports were 5+ pages long per month. Yes, I had three children for my first case, and there were no restrictions then on the length of reports. I also knew that particular judges enjoyed reading certain details such as not only what game we played, but who won and how the winner and loser reacted. I came to understand that other judges were fine knowing that we simply played a game. Work with your local program to understand your audience so that your reports will be read and that the voice of your CASA child will be heard.
In addition to the narrative of your visits, monthly reports may also include sections unique to local programs such as:
- What does the child want the court or the judge to know?
- What are the wishes of the child?
- What are the CASA Advocate’s recommendations?
One approach to conveying what the child wants the court or the judge to know is to simply ask your CASA child what s/he wants to say and then write it exactly in the report, using quotation marks, if necessary. One of my CASA children really wanted the judge to know that he was a great reader and he loved math. How is that relevant you may ask? I wrote exactly what this excited child said because I knew it was important for the judge to ‘hear’ the energy in his words about how much he loved learning and being in school. This was also a ‘normal’ developmental milestone for that age child, which is so important to note for CASA children who experience abuse and neglect.
In another case, I had a very, very, quiet, shy child who rarely said anything. Shrugged shoulders and head nodding were hard to express in my report. Once I presented this child with a special, small spiral notebook and colorful Flair pens at each visit, she began to write notes to the judge which I included as small photos embedded into my report. Once she wrote about how proud she was of her Dad for getting a certificate in his parenting class – that’s powerful! Finally, this child’s real voice became part of her court records. Always check with your supervisor when including items within or attached to your report.
Your recommendations as a CASA Advocate for the child/family may seem daunting at first. However, since you have weekly contact with your CASA child, you have the unique and essential duty to report what you observe:
- Is the child thriving mentally and physically – language development or regression, gaining or losing weight?
- Is the child smiling and excited to share with you or more quiet and reserved than usual?
- Is the clothing appropriate – size-wise and seasonally?
- Have you noticed any new injuries – bruises, scratches, scrapes that your CASA child cannot explain or readily explains as: “Oh, I fell off my bike.” Or, “I’ve always had that – didn’t you notice that before?”
Changes should prompt you to definitely make recommendations. Work with your supervisor if you feel you need help to say things correctly. Some recommendations I made over the years included:
- My report narrative stated: Child shared that s/he needs homework help. My recommendation was for HS/SW to contact the family and/or school to make a homework plan that included making sure the backpack went to school and came home each day.
- My report narrative stated: Young child had a several deep scratches around one eye. S/he explained that ‘Mommy’s nails are long and they hurt me.’ My recommendation highlighted the exchange with the child and that HS/SW should check on any medical treatment the child received and monitor how the wounds were healing. It was evident that one or two of the scratches warranted stitches.
- My report narrative stated: Severe facial bruising on cheek and around puffy eye on left side on youngest child. S/he said, “I felled down the stairs.” I pressed for more details by asking the child to tell me more. When s/he didn’t/couldn’t say anymore, my recommendation highlighted the exchange and that HS/SW should follow-up on the child’s story and perhaps make a home visit. While the probability of child abuse was high in this case, a home visit by SW may reveal safety issues that could be remedied such as no handrail or steep wooden stairs and then suggest that older sibling or parent hold hands with toddler while on the stairs.
As a CASA Advocate you have a deep, heartfelt concern for child welfare. You are well-trained to observe your CASA child and to accurately report what you see and what you say in the best interest of your CASA child to make that child’s voice heard.
And now, here are the first of many conversation starter questions to get you “Talking with Kids:”
Getting to Know You
What is the nicest thing that ever happened to you?
What do you dream about?
How Do You Feel?
Who can you trust to talk with about your feelings?
What kinds of things help you feel safe or calm or in control?
Your feedback is most welcome on this new blog feature “Talking with Kids.” What conversation starters have worked (or not) for you? Keep those other questions, concerns, and comments coming for ASK CASA – Ask. Seek. Know. – the place where we can connect about all things CASA for CASA Advocates. Looking forward to hearing from you about what you want to discuss in this blog that is just for you. Until then, just ASK – Ask. Seek. Know.
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Hello and welcome to ASK CASA – Ask. Seek. Know. - the blog where your questions and concerns as new or veteran CASAs will be addressed by an experienced CASA Advocate – that’s me, Deb! While I’m here to lead you through discussions to answer your questions and to...