A Louisiana nonprofit that advocates for the legal rights of neglected and abused children saw the vast majority of its state funding obliterated by the state Legislature at the end of the regular session.
CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, is in line to lose about 75 percent of its total state dollars, unless the money is restored by Thursday when the special session ends. The budget cut could result in losing many of the volunteers who report directly to judges about how well the system is taking care of children who have been removed from their homes by the state because they have been abused or neglected.
CASA is a volunteer-based program that operates on lean budgets made up from state, federal and private dollars. Louisiana has 17 CASA branches that cover all but seven parishes in the state, and state dollars make up between 50 percent and 90 percent of the operating budgets of each of the branches, said Joy Bruce, executive director of CASA New Orleans. The cuts would not be distributed evenly.
After the regular session, she learned her own branch, which serves New Orleans and is trying to expand into St. Bernard Parish, could lose 55 percent of its state funds and three of its eight staff members. She said one staff member oversees about 30 volunteers. And each volunteer can take on one or two children’s cases at a time. So for every lost staff member, dozens of children could lose their volunteer legal advocates.
The cuts will vary for each branch. Some of the more rural branches have fewer private donations and depend more on the state funding. They could end up being shuttered by deep cuts.
Rob Carlisle, chief executive officer of CASA for the region covering parishes including Ascension, Assumption, East Feliciana, Livingston and Tangipahoa, said his branch is 60 percent reliant on state funds. He said they serve 575 children with 250 volunteers, but they also have a waiting list of 135 children.
Ideally, they would be able to expand their service to meet the demands, rather than facing cuts, he said.
Last year, CASA served 3,315 children with 1,805 volunteers statewide.
CASA volunteers are trained by the staff and appointed by judges to represent children who are typically going through foster care because of neglect or abuse within their own homes. The volunteers spend time with the children and accompany them to every judicial proceeding, advocating as an independent voice as to what the best interests for the child are, whether it be reuniting with the family or moving forward with an adoption.
CASA’s funding is passed through the Louisiana Supreme Court, whose budget was cut for the fiscal year starting July 1. Much of those cuts had to be absorbed by programs like CASA because the court budget largely consists of constitutionally mandated costs like salaries for judges, which are written in law.
In the special session, CASA is lining up behind schools, universities and hospitals asking for their full funding to be restored. The most recent appropriations bill passed by the House could restore much of the funding taken in the regular legislative session, but it’s unclear if they’ll be safe until the Legislature ends Thursday.
“This was a shock to us because we understand the idea that everyone is going to take a haircut,” Bruce said, of the state’s current budget woes. “But when we were preparing for what a haircut means, we were thinking 10 percent, 20 percent, that would be a pinch; 55 percent is more than a haircut — it’s a decapitation.”
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.
For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.