Jo-Anne Vanin: Advocating for Youth, Leading the Board

Jo-Anne Vanin, in a yellow jacket and black shirt standing at a podium speaking into a microphone

This edition of Fostering Change highlights the perspectives of recent and long-serving Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers. These trained, talented and committed individuals are critical to the success of our CASA program.  

Jo-Anne Vanin, who became a CASA through Friends of Children in 2003, is a retired associate vice chancellor of Student Affairs/Dean of Students at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Vanin currently also serves as the Board President of Friends of Children. 

What drew you to become a CASA?

I had always been involved in community activities  with my three children: as a parent rep in the schools; coaching youth basketball; helping with Girl Scouts, etc. With all three off to college, the CASA opportunity offered the chance to again be involved with kids. In addition, my daily professional work tasked me with advocating for the needs and rights of students. I had even previously considered fostering. So several interests and experiences came together to make CASA an intriguing opportunity.

What is the work of a CASA? 

First and foremost, a CASA serves as the independent advocate for the best interest of the child, whatever the attending circumstances. The key word is “independent.” CASA’s role is to determine and advocate for what is in the child’s best interest, “independent” of  past decisions guided by DCF policy or recommendations from attorneys, school personnel, or other interested parties such as foster parent placement agencies. At the same time, CASA can serve as the “glue” that promotes better communication between these collateral agencies, as often CASA is the only on-going voice involved with a case. Over the period of time a child and family are involved with DCF, case workers and providers can and often do change several times. The CASA becomes the repository of comprehensive information as they will have been in contact with ALL collaterals.

What have been the high points and challenges?

The high points are without question the closure of cases via reunification with strengthened families or adoptions/guardianships. Throughout these journeys, I am constantly encouraged and amazed by the resiliency of the children. Despite neglect and sometimes horrific abuse, children can and do, with appropriate support, treatment, and belief in them, heal and thrive. 

The challenges are the well documented systemic problems within the DCF: overworked social workers carrying too many cases to adequately monitor them; insufficient available foster placements; insufficient mental health services resulting in long delays in scheduling assessments and assigning therapists; an insufficient number of therapists willing to take these cases once a child is evaluated; a lack of school services for children with special needs; and the failure of the foster care review system to affect change and promote progress on cases. These and other challenges result in a process that is too encumbered to effect timely change resulting in families languishing in poor situations, children experiencing multiple or no placements; and wait lists for mental health services. It is the CASA who is often the catalyst or squeaky wheel that fosters progress. The critical activities of CASA work include making monthly visits to directly observe a child’s circumstance, keeping in contact with social workers, and asking tough questions during foster care review meetings.

How has CASA work changed over the years?

Two aspects of this work have evolved and required more intentional involvement. First, the CASA does need to directly monitor and address a child’s school situation. Knowledge about special education laws, service mandates, etc. is essential. Schools play a vital role in identifying problems and implementing services. Second, in my CASA work, I find the need to engage with the foster parents more than in the past. Foster parents are often not given a child’s full family history; are left in the dark regarding changes in the case; and do not fully understand how the DCF system works. Often a follow-up by the CASA on a foster parent inquiry is necessary to get results. T