The stepped-up oversight has resulted in staff furloughs at the 39-year-old National CASA/GAL Association for Children, which sets standards for volunteers matched with hundreds of thousands of children in family courts across the country.
The federal government has placed a freeze on the primary source of funding to a prominent child welfare nonprofit — an organization overseeing a network of court-appointed volunteers for foster kids — following an examination of its financial practices.
Until now, this information has not been made public. But The Imprint has learned that in March, the National CASA/GAL Association for Children was designated “high-risk,” which led to the critical halt in grant funding.
“This is intended to be a short-term freezing of funds,” Department of Justice spokesperson Kara McCarthy stated in an email. She added that the classification will remain in effect until the association “has made sufficient enhancements to its accounting and cost allocation processes.”
The national association supports and promotes more than 900 affiliated organizations that match special advocates and guardians ad litem with young people moving through family courts. The local “CASA” entities rely on diverse funding streams and the majority are not directly affected by the freeze in federal funds this year.
Still, the funding pause has resulted in staff furloughs across three national offices in Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.; delayed pass-through grants to some local CASA nonprofits; and contributed to growing internal tension.
In an email sent today, the national association’s Chief Executive Officer Tara Perry acknowledged the difficulties resulting from heightened scrutiny by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
“This has been a challenging time for the national organization, requiring very difficult, but necessary decisions, as we work to satisfy the recommendations outlined in the OJJDP review and get our budget approved, while at the same time fulfilling our commitment to supporting and growing a strong network and ensuring children in foster care are given a voice and hope,” Perry stated. “But no one has quit the fight.”
A CASA spokesperson stated that there have been no findings of fraud, theft, mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, or any illegal activities.
“This doesn’t mean the death knell of an organization. But it means it needs to take corrective action, however that is determined by the federal agency.”— Shay Bilchik, former head of OJJDP
Federal officials and organization representatives did not respond to repeated requests for details of how much money in “active awards” has been withheld from the roughly $16 million nonprofit.
Justice Department spokesperson McCarthy noted, however, that a decision on whether the national CASA association will have to return previously awarded funds is still “pending.” CASA officials said $6,975 has been returned to date, money “related to legal services” that was “later deemed unallowable.”
‘Managed and monitored’
According to the Department of Justice website, grantees are deemed high-risk “based on a documented history of unsatisfactory performance, financial instability, management system or other internal control deficiencies, or noncompliance with award terms.” Although the designation does not automatically prevent grantees from receiving funds in the future, it indicates they need to be “managed and monitored closely.”
The Justice Department informed the National CASA/GAL Association for Children of its determination in a March 29 “High Risk Letter,” following a joint review by the department’s juvenile justice and finance offices that was conducted in October 2022.
The hundreds of state and local CASA programs are not included in the new high-risk designation. That network of independent entities continues to operate on a revenue stream that amounted to a combined amount in 2021 of nearly a half-billion dollars, according to an internal survey by the national organization.
Shay Bilchik, a longtime CASA supporter who ran the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the 1990s said he was not familiar with the situation faced by the association, but that a high-risk designation is not necessarily linked to any “malfeasance or corruption.”
“This doesn’t mean the death knell of an organization,” said Bilchik, who founded the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. “But it means it needs to take corrective action, however that is determined by the federal agency.”
The argument for child advocates
The nation’s civil courts for child abuse and neglect cases have faced chronic staff and attorney shortages since their inception more than 100 years ago. In the late 1970s, a Seattle juvenile court judge led the charge for community volunteers to step in and advocate for the vulnerable, typically impoverished children who land in court.
“It terrified me to make decisions about kids when I didn’t have anybody there who was only advocating for the child — not as an attorney, but as a party to the case,” Judge David W. Soukup stated in an undated video on the national association’s website.
Over the decades, becoming a court-appointed special advocate became a highly regarded role for professionals or retirees seeking meaningful volunteer work, launching what would become the well-known CASA brand.
National leaders highlighted “exciting changes” ahead for their network, outlining “strategic priorities” through 2030. Days later, their staff began receiving notice they had to stop working or reduce their hours.
These days, the volunteers’ practices vary widely depending on state statutes. They are appointed by judges after receiving 30 hours of training developed by the national association, and attend hearings and deliver their observations in court reports, weighing in on issues such as where a child in foster care will be placed. Advocates also meet regularly with kids, offering advice and sympathy while helping them access counseling and other resources — welcome support for foster children who may lack caring adults in their lives.
Foster youth often speak highly of their CASA volunteers.
In a September testimonial, Angel Jacobs, the marketing coordinator for CASA of Jefferson County Alabama, wrote that the volunteers played vital roles for her and her sister.
“During our most difficult moments, when we felt abandoned and helpless in an abusive foster home, CASA provided us with hope,” she said. “Our CASA worker and her support were the main catalysts in providing us with the resources we needed to heal emotionally and physically.” This year she was the first person in her biological family to graduate from college.
In 2021, the CASA network included 939 independent entities in 49 states. A total of 97,920 CASA volunteers worked with more than double that number of children, most of them in foster care.
One state CASA organization leader stressed the immense stakes of the current uncertainty.
“We have an obligation to be accountable for our performance — like any nonprofit, national CASA is no different. If there are organizational issues, we need to address those,” said 48-year-old Charles Lerner, executive director of the Massachusetts CASA Association and a former foster youth. “But, fundamentally, this work can’t stop.”
Lerner underscored that position through his own experience.
“I was born into the foster care system. I have seen generation after generation get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “If we are left to rely only on child protection professionals and attorneys to make sure these children are well cared for, we are in trouble.”
Furloughs after optimism
Local branches, like Lerner’s, do their own fundraising. Some have more than doubled their annual revenue in recent years, according to Form 990 tax documents submitted to the IRS.
Jennifer DeBalko, executive director of the Pennsylvania CASA Association and a former CASA volunteer, declined to comment on the challenges faced by the national association. But she said local CASA volunteers’ work with children has continued uninterrupted.
“Although we’re member programs of National CASA, and we adhere to their standards, we are fully autonomous, as are our local programs,” DeBalko said, echoing other interviews with CASA state leaders. “We’ve worked diligently to maintain diverse funding bases so that these funding issues are not impacting service delivery to children.”
Nonetheless, she added, the Justice Department funding remained “essential” to some state and local programs, especially newer CASA offices that rely on pass-through grants from the national association. “We hope that they’ll continue to support our mission,” DeBalko said of the Department of Justice.
“At the time, we thought it was a temporary glitch.”— A CASA state director
Despite the ongoing challenges to the national CASA organization, its current and former staffers praised CEO Perry for her passion for the job, her work ethic, and her efforts to diversify the network of volunteers and employees.
But some said the organization’s leadership has not been transparent enough about its difficulties. As recently as this summer, there were few outward signs of instability, they said.
In June, staff gathered with hundreds of volunteers, judges, policymakers, social work professionals and foster youth at the Hyatt Regency in St. Louis, Missouri, for the association’s four-day “Strong Families, Strong Futures” annual conference. At the event, national leaders highlighted “exciting changes” ahead for their network, outlining “strategic priorities” through 2030.
Days later, their staff began receiving notice they had to stop working or reduce their hours. An additional round of furloughs took place in September.
In interviews, 15 current and former national and state employees said despite repeated requests to leadership for information about the escalating scrutiny by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, they received an unsatisfying response.
The Imprint generally avoids using unnamed sources in news articles. But current and former employees who were interviewed separately expressed similar concerns, and most did not want their names published for fear of professional retribution. A subset of those interviewed had been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements upon parting from the national CASA association, they said.
“At the time, we thought it was a temporary glitch,” another CASA state director said, describing the pass-through grants that were delayed beginning earlier this year.
She asked to remain anonymous to protect her nonprofit’s relationship with the national association. “Then we came back from the conference and learned about the furloughs and realized it could be a much deeper problem.”
More information came on Oct. 12, when CEO Perry sent a five-page question-and-answer email to employees and network members, revealing the high-risk designation. Perry wrote that issues with the federal government first surfaced in March 2021, under a new federal program officer. She added that her organization has and continues to have “an incredible partnership with OJJDP.”
She also thanked staff who have supported the CASA network, “while also missing your colleagues that were furloughed at 100% and now in some cases being furloughed yourself.” She encouraged optimism, stating, “We are finally reaching the end!”
Perry underscored the point: “It is not a matter of ‘if’ the funding will come, but ‘when’ it will come.”
The national association’s publicly available financial disclosures show Justice Department funding represents by far its largest revenue stream. In 2021, 86% of the nonprofit’s roughly $16 million in total revenue came from Justice Department grants, tax records show.
According to the department, CASA has received more than $300 million in federal funds since 1994.
CEO Perry’s bio states that under her leadership, the organization’s funding had increased 40% since 2016, along with the number of volunteer advocates and children served across the country. IRS reports for 2021 list her total compensation as $526,323 — an 80% jump from her $292,295 package in 2016.
(In a statement, the national association representative said it was “critically important” to note that “the CEO’s salary is not funded by federal dollars” and was set after a compensation study of similar organizations.)
The CEO has received strong support from the organization’s National Board of Trustees, which is largely composed of current and former corporate attorneys, executives and lobbyists, including a former international general counsel for The Coca-Cola Company based in Atlanta, Georgia.
In a September letter to CASA state directors, board chair James Rishwain, Jr. — the former chairperson of the Los Angeles-based global law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP — described the consensus.
“The Board is confident that our CEO, Tara Perry, has the insights, skills, and determination to lead our efforts to resolve the situation with OJJDP in the most effective and expeditious manner,” Rishwain stated in the letter.
He also addressed what appears to be some internal discord. Addressing “various letters and emails” and “concerns” expressed by state CASA leaders, Rishwain warned against “attempts to cause dissension and disunity between National CASA/GAL staff and Board members.” He stated that any violation of standards “will be met with a decisive response.”
The Imprint was unable to obtain the communications to the national board that elicited Rishwain’s response.
Outcomes from a “high-risk” designation vary, and the Justice Department often offers nonprofits many chances to address issues before and after any funding is withheld, those familiar with department grants say.
But they can also prompt significant changes. In 2013, an audit of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America revealed that the well-known mentoring organization had been designated high-risk, and $19.4 million in grant funding was unaccounted for, resulting in a freezing of funds.
As a result, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America changed its entire leadership team, but was able to negotiate a settlement to avoid losing much of its funding. The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General recommended that the national nonprofit return $1.6 million.
In her statement sent to The Imprint, CEO Perry called her association’s current period of hardship “unprecedented,” and she underscored the competency of the staff working to address the challenges.
“We have been so very proud of the determination and resolve of our national team to continue to provide tools, training and support to state organizations and local programs and to continue to enable best-interest advocacy for children who have experienced abuse or neglect,” Perry stated. “We are deeply appreciative of the patience, support and continuing work being done on the ground by our state and local partners while we navigate the funding delay.”
Perry also said she is confident that her organization will be able to make the changes federal officials are requiring, and that ultimately, they “will leave us stronger and even more capable of supporting our state and local organizations.”
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