ILLINOIS STATE BAR ASSOCIATION
AUGUST 2019 VOL 32 NO. 1
The newsletter of the Illinois State Bar Association’s Section on Child Law
A Conversation With Mari Christopherson, Executive Director of Illinois CASA
BY MISSY GREATHOUSE
Missy: Mari, thank you for taking the time to tell our section council members about yourself and to give them an updated on IL CASA. Let’s start easy. Please give
us a little background about you and your journey to becoming a CASA volunteer. In case a reader does not know, what does a CASA volunteer do?
Mari: Missy, thank you for being
such a dedicated and hardworking member of the Illinois CASA Board of Directors and sharing the work we do
with ISBA members. Let’s start with a simple explanation of the program: CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to advocate for children’s best interests. They stay with each case until it is closed and
the child is in a safe, permanent home.
We serve children from birth through the age defined by state statute, 21 in Illinois. Volunteers work with legal and child welfare professionals, educators and service providers to ensure that judges have all the information they need to make the most well-informed decisions for each child.
I first learned about CASA 25 years
ago when I was starting my career at the Chicago Community Trust as a Program Officer. At a staff/board retreat, I shared a room with a very prominent philanthropist and heard her conversation with the child for whom she was a specially trained court appointed special advocate. After the phone
call, she explained that her role as a CASA was the most impactful and important volunteer experience in her life – and this was someone who sat of many prominent boards and was very invested in Chicago’s philanthropic community. At the time, I had small children at home and a very busy professional life. But I always knew I wanted to become a CASA volunteer when the time was right.
In 2013, I signed up for the pre-service training at CASA Lake County, and I
loved the model from the very first class. Fourteen citizen volunteers with a diverse set of backgrounds came together as a cohesive group to learn how to advocate
for the best interests of youth in court and the community who experienced abuse and neglect through no fault of their own. At the end of the six-week, 40-hour training, we were sworn in as a group by Judge Valerie Ceckowski, accepted our cases and begun our CASA journey.
I served as a CASA volunteer on two cases before I joined the staff at CASA Lake County, both teenagers who had been in the foster care system for many years. Although their individual circumstances were
very different, both needed support and guidance to prepare for independence. After years in protective care, neither child had much experience making personal choices and had not had a consistent, caring parent
guiding them. Practical life skills like how to interview for a job, file a tax return, apply for financial aid or get a driver’s license are pretty daunting for my own children, and I’m sure most of your reader’s have helped their children with all of the above and much more. Imagine how hard it is for the more than 3,000 youth in care in Illinois over the age of 16 to transition from foster care to independence.
Missy: It is so wonderful you were an advocate before an employee of a CASA program! It is really the best way to learn about what it means to be a CASA. How do you think serving as a CASA volunteer prior to becoming an employee of a CASA program shaped your work?
Mari: Many of our 170 staff partners
at the 31 Local CASA Programs started as volunteers, and I think that is a testament
to the power of the CASA model. As volunteers, we experience the difference one person can make to change a child’s story. Our outcomes in 2018 support our efficacy. Children with a CASA spent on average 8 months less time in foster care, less than
1% re-entered foster care and there were no child deaths when a CASA was involved.
I accepted the challenge to direct Illinois CASA for one simple reason – I knew more than 2,500 CASA volunteers were doing a fine job of advocating for children, but the State Office was not doing a good job of
advocating for itself. In other states, CASA is a well-known brand and respected partner
in the child-welfare sector. My goal has been and will continue to be raising awareness of CASA and supporting the incredible work of our volunteers and staff. I took the concept of the power of one individual to a completely new level, and I have spent the last two years advocating for our network. When I served as a CASA volunteer, I quickly learned how important it was to work with all parties involved in the child’s life, caseworker, foster families and court-based personnel. It is the same at the State Office. We can only succeed by building relationships at DCFS and the Office of Illinois Courts and with our elected officials at the state and county level.
Missy: Moving onto your work at the
IL CASA State Office, could you give our readers a short outline of the wonderful work you have accomplished over the past two years?
Mari: I set out to professionalize and standardize our practices. For many years, the 31 Local Programs did not get much benefit from the State Office. I’ve worked hard, along with my staff and Board, to rebuild trust and provide meaningful services. I am very proud of our training program. We offer three webinars a month, and it is so great to see how participation has grown, many of whom are outside of CASA such as GAL’s and DCFS staff partners.
I invite all ISBA members to visit our website, www.illinoiscasa.org to sign up for one of our trainings too.
In May of 2019, Illinois CASA agreed
to be one of the pilot states to take part in National CASA’s new Quality Assurance and Standards review. We had to submit over
90 documents pertaining to governance, fiscal controls, local program support, community engagement and office policies and procedures. We decided to go first
to set the bar high for ourselves and then
be able to share best practices with our network. The partnership with National CASA is important for our success and has been undervalued in the past. I serve on the State Leadership Council and the Quality Assurance Task Force at National CASA, and the collaboration with National CASA has strengthened Illinois CASA. Other
new partnerships within the child welfare community include my service on the Children’s Justice Task Force and The Court Improvement Program (CIP) Advisory Committee.
I think the most important thing I
have done at Illinois CASA is changing
our mindset from one of scarcity to one of possibility. The Board is invigorated, the Executive Directors feel included and heard, and we have finally secured meaningful line-item support from the State for our State Office and the network with our recent $2,885,000.00 appropriation as part of Governor Pritzker’s budget increase for DCFS.
Missy: How was your experience talking with legislators about IL CASA? How important do you think it was for you to spend that time educating our legislators?
Mari: On my first visit to Springfield
last February, with the help of our public affairs consultant Kevin Riggs, I had the opportunity to meet Senator Martin Sandoval, (D) Chicago. Senator Sandoval did not know much about CASA, but he was generous with his time and suggested
a number of his colleagues that I should connect with. At the end of the meeting, he asked how often I came to Springfield, as
he did not recognize me. I told him, maybe too honestly, that my last time in Springfield was on my 7th grade class trip. He laughed and said I had better get used to the drive from Chicago. By the end of the session,
I had made that trip weekly and met with every member of Judiciary, Human Services, Counties and Townships, Adoption and Families Committees, and any other Senator or Representative who would give Kevin and me a few minutes. I think the final tally was 70, and that is not including legislative staff or members of the Governor’s office!
There is a real sense of urgency in Springfield to find solutions to the child welfare system in Illinois. We rank last in
the nation for achieving permanency for children, and the last year’s horrific series of child deaths brought to light the systemic problems within DCFS. The time spent talking with legislators in Springfield about CASA was so important and not just because we secured funding. My overall experience
was that members wanted to know what they could do legislatively to improve outcomes for children.
Missy: Now, thanks to your leadership, we are moving forward into an exciting time with the ability to expand, grow, and support local programs throughout the state. Please share with our readers information regarding the new funding and what it means to local CASA programs and Illinois state CASA.
Mari: I went to Springfield with two lofty goals: line item funding for Illinois CASA and a revision to the Fees and Fines Act, passed last year, to reinstate the collection of court fees specifically for CASA programs. Prior to the passage of the new Fees and Fines Act, counties could elect to set up
a CASA fund. The original bill confused CASA with the CAC, and unfortunately resulted in CASA programs losing over $625,000.00. HB2497, which reinstated CASA, was sponsored by Representative LaToya Greenwood and passed the House unanimously. In the Senate, a technical amendment was and passed unopposed. When it went back to the House, the bill stalled amidst the frenzied backdrop of marijuana legislation, the capitol bill and legalized gambling. We are hopeful that
the bill will be reviewed in this fall’s veto session, and our local programs will have stable county-level support. The whole idea behind the appropriation is to expand the network’s capacity, but without the passage of HB2497, some programs are just replacing lost revenue.
Illinois CASA will provide $2,200,000.00 in pass-through funding to our 31 existing offices and an additional $200,000.00 is set aside for new program development. Marion County is well underway in starting a CASA program, and we hope to provide startup costs to three other new CASA programs this year. The remainder of the appropriation will support the State Office. We have hired four new staff partners who will allow our Office to fully support the network’s growth, standardize practices and manage data collection with the goal of establishing CASA as an evidence-based provider of services to child victims.
Missy: And here we are now. You are about to celebrate two years as the IL CASA
State Office’s executive director. I know it has been a long and hard road, and I have been so honored to be a small part of your journey. How does it feel to have moved IL CASA forward in so many ways over the last two years?
Mari: The biggest satisfaction comes from knowing how much our program means to the 38% of the children who are appointed a CASA. This weekend I attended the Foster Care Alumni of Illinois Chapter annual picnic. Like many of us in the CASA network, I sometimes feel uncomfortable with public acknowledgement of my good work because I compare myself to what
the children we advocate for deal with. At the event, I got a loud applause and heard many shouts of, “I love my CASA!” from the children in attendance. Any struggle I have felt in the last two years is nothing compared to what more than 17,000 of our children in Illinois go through every day.
Missy: What are your dreams for coming years?
Mari: Our vision is to ensure that every youth in care has access to a CASA volunteer by 2025. We are established in 47 of 102 counties now, so I know this is a big task, but
we owe it to our children to try.
Missy:Is there anything else you would
like to share with our readers? Mari: I think there are some
misunderstandings about the role of
the CASA in the courtroom. In some counties, the CASA program is the GAL, but predominantly our programs act as a friend to the court. This year, we are going to be looking at how the statute pertaining to CASA is written and look to other states for examples of more inclusive and specific wording.
Kim King, formerly Chief Deputy of the Office of the Cook County Public Guardian, is joining our staff effective September 13th, will be leading this effort as well as putting together an advisory group of attorney’s who might be interested in doing some case-specific pro-bono work for our Local Programs and the State Office.
Missy: Finally, please let the readers know how they could get involved with their local CASA program or the state program.
Mari: Missy, as you well know, our Board is small but mighty. This year we are hoping to add four new members, and I cannot think of a better applicant pool than
your readers. As we get closer to the fall legislative session, it would be great if the ISBA members could sign witness slips in support of HB2497, and reach out to their legislators to let them know they support CASA. I invite everyone to visit our website mentioned above and our Facebook page to learn more about our program and events
in the upcoming year or stop by our new office at 200 W Madison Street, Suite 2100, Chicago just to say hi or email me at mari@ illinoiscasa.org to learn more about CASA.n
Missy Greathouse is the executive director of Dispute Resolution Institute, Inc., a nonprofit providing conflict resolution services throughout the state. She is the current Secretary of the Child Law Section Council and has a long history of working with child abuse and neglect cases. Prior to law school, Missy was a social worker and foster care case manager for the State of Missouri’s Children’s Division. Additionally, Missy served as a volunteer CASA for Williamson County, IL for six years and currently serves as the Treasurer of Illinois State CASA.
Reprinted with permission of the Illinois State Bar Association Vol. 32 No. 1