A program run by a local nonprofit that advocates on behalf of children is facing significant federal funding woes.
Vancouver-based YWCA Clark County has a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, program where volunteers advocate for children who are under state care as a result of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Washington requires a guardian ad litem be appointed to represent these children in local courts.
YWCA recently lost about $200,000 in Victims of Crime Act funding for the program. VOCA money is funneled from the federal Department of Justice to Washington’s Office of Crime Victim Advocacy within the Department of Commerce.
“The message that we received when the funding was released in 2017 versus the message that we received when we reapplied in 2019 was very different,” said Stephanie Barr, YWCA’s director of services and mission impact.
She said YWCA was told the funding would be competitive, not renewable, and should not be considered sustainable funding. Also, the amount they could request would be reduced by $100,000 annually. When Clark County Superior Court applied on behalf of YWCA to fund CASA, it was not successful, Barr said.
Penny Thomas, spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce, confirmed that Clark County’s CASA program was not successful in the last funding round but was successful in 2017.
“Success in one round does not automatically guarantee grant funds will be awarded again in the future. Each new funding round is a new competition,” Thomas said in an email.
In the original 2017 funding round, there was $12.8 million available, and the Department of Commerce received $13.9 million in requests, so most requests were funded. This year, there was $7.2 million available and $23.7 million in requests. As a result, 22 of 78 applications were funded. The difference was due to a fluctuating federal budget, Thomas said.
Collectively, YWCA lost $345,000 in VOCA funding, some of which was intended for domestic violence and sexual assault programs, Barr said. Still, the biggest gap was with CASA.
“We’re providing what I believe are lifesaving services, literally, for people in crisis in our community, and they’re chronically underfunded,” she said. “When we lose government funding at this level there is nothing to close the gap. And I would really like to see more community awareness about the issues that we’re addressing as an organization because I think they’re public health and public safety issues.”
CASA programs started in 1977 when a Seattle judge who oversaw dependency cases said he didn’t have enough information to determine the best interests of the children in his courtroom. He thought trained volunteers with a passion for the work could build relationships with the children and get to know them like no one else in the system could, providing the court with enough information to make informed decisions, such as approving a needed prescription or therapy or determining whether to return the children to their biological parents.
YWCA lost funding for four CASA staff positions; three were already vacated through attrition, so the nonprofit launched a fundraising campaign to cover the fourth position and add a volunteer recruitment position. By the end of September, it had raised $88,000 of its $120,000 goal through individual donations and a grant from the National CASA Association. As the CASA program shifts to be more volunteer-run, it will ideally have 225 active volunteers. It currently has 118.
Barr described the fundraising campaign as a “one-time response to a catastrophic loss in funding” and not a sustainable way for YWCA to move forward.
“We don’t generate revenue. So, we will always need funding to provide the services. That’s just the reality,” Barr said. “It’s heartbreaking to me, knowing the work that we do and the importance for this community, such basic needs aren’t sufficiently funded.”
She said YWCA is negotiating with the county regarding its contract, which is up for renewal in January. The county pays for about half of CASA’s program costs. After staff reductions, the YWCA plans to spend $164,000 on the program this year; the total program budget is approximately $664,000.
“We’re trying to figure out how to best serve the kids that are in care, knowing that we have fewer resources, and it’s unrealistic to operate as though we have the capacity to serve every child under the age of 12,” Barr said.
Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz attended a meeting at YWCA recently to discuss the reduced VOCA funding. She described the situation as “lose-lose” since a CASA is cheaper than other options. Using a CASA, it costs about $1,000 annually to represent a child, compared with $6,000 for a contracted guardian ad litem or $9,000 for an attorney.
“I’m quite concerned about it,” Lentz said.
While the funding gap isn’t really that big, she said, it’s a big problem for a nonprofit like YWCA. The county council is working on its 2020 budget and legislative agenda. Lentz said there’s a lot of work to do in general when it comes to indigent defense and ensuring people are adequately represented regardless of ability to pay.
“Unfortunately, unfunded mandates are part and parcel of county governance,” Lentz said.
State Reps. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, also attended the YWCA meeting.
Harris said the Legislature is going into a short session, but there may be ways to provide a temporary fix before finding permanent funding the following session. He said he needs to see enough of an appetite locally to convince other legislators there is a problem.
“Hopefully we can do that,” Harris said. “We do need to get them (YWCA) some stable funding.”
It’s a matter of finding the dollars or giving counties and cities the ability to find funding, Harris said, adding that the county’s options currently are limited.
Stonier, too, said she’s trying to figure out if there’s something that can be done at the state level. Being able to deliver CASA services for “pennies on the dollar” compared with other ways of providing the same services is something to take into consideration, she said.
Last year, CASA volunteers donated an estimated 20,000 hours of service.
Jane Robinson became a CASA volunteer more than a decade ago after she found herself unexpectedly unemployed and needing something to do. Since then, she’s learned that the child welfare system is exceedingly complex. Being a CASA is one of the most involved volunteer opportunities around, she said, requiring dozens of hours of training before being sworn in as an officer of the court. The focus is on building teams around the children to make sure they get all of the services they need.
She’s had one family’s case for six years, during which the children have had different therapists, foster families and social workers. Every six months, she writes an in-depth report about what would be in the best interests of the children and how to prevent them from falling through the cracks.
“I’ve been with these kids through six years through all the bumps and the trials,” Robinson said. “I feel like I’m part of the fabric of these kids’ lives.”
Of the funding cuts she said, “It just seemed really short-sighted to me because we add value to the community, and we help stabilize one of our most vulnerable communities.”
She added that CASA is a good value for the money spent. However, Robinson acknowledged: “We’re in times where you’re really competing for dollars.”