Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

In the last three months, Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, a national organization connecting individual volunteers to advocate for neglected or at-risk children, has solidified and expanded its Connecticut branch, involving a dozen Yale alumni amongst its leadership and group of volunteers. 

Further expanding from CASA Southern Connecticut, which was started in 2019, Director Josiah Brown ’92 and other leadership are now in the process of training the organization’s seventh cohort of volunteers, each of which has about 13-15 individuals. It has served nearly 60 children in the last two years, helping find them extended families, aiding them through finding a foster home and advocating for them in educational systems. In 2019, CASA served over 277,000 children through over 96,000 volunteers, and engages nearly 100,000 volunteers a year, according to Brown. 

“I’ve always enjoyed working with and on behalf of young people, and so when this opportunity rose, I took it,” Brown said. “I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial, but still in the greater New Haven community, in some way relating to youth. It’s been everything I have been hoping for and more.” 

Alumni serving on the Board of Directors include Billie Gastic Rosado ’98 and Reggie Solomon ’98. Its advisory council includes Earl Phalen ’89, Jonathan Fanton ’65, PhD ’78, Angela Robinson LAW ’89 and Jessica Sager LAW ’99. Volunteers working with CASA Connecticut include Eileen Condon NUR ’12 GRD ’21, Andrew Giering LAW ’11, Claire Kelley ’13 and Mary Woolsey ’80.

Rosado noted that she had been in contact with Brown for more than 20 years and recognized Solomon from her class year when she joined, contributing to her decision to reach out. CASA Connecticut ambassadors, who serve to help publicize the work, include Miye Oni ’20, now an NBA player for the Utah Jazz, and Brandon Sherrod ’16. 

“My focus has always been on young people,” Phalen, who serves as an advisor for CASA, said. “My mom and dad always emphasized that children always need one person in their life that thinks they’re the Earth, the moon, the sun and the stars. I came through two homes in foster care, went through adoption when I was born. If I didn’t have social workers and foster families, my life could have been different. To take care of some of the most vulnerable is a real honor and blessing to be able to do that.” 

Origins of CASA

Brown, originally from Windham, Connecticut, said he has always felt rooted in New Haven. While at Yale, he participated in Dwight Hall’s Coordinating Council for Children in Crisis, where he was connected with a younger New Haven student in the area. He recalled bringing the student into Morse College and frequent communication between the two of them. Years later, he has been corresponding with the boy again, but now, both are fathers with children. Over the summers of his undergraduate years, he also worked with Upward Bound, a federal program that prepares low-income or first-generation students for college through the University of Connecticut.

“One of [the students] was a young person who had significant family challenges, and so I was identified as a possible big brother and I got to know him and his family,” Brown said. “I had the chance to reconnect with some of those people, who are grown men with their own children — an extra rewarding aspect of this and makes me feel more rooted.”

After graduating from Yale, Brown worked in a series of advocacy jobs, from a U.S. representative’s office to Columbia University. But in 2019, he took on the responsibility of starting CASA’s Connecticut branch with only four other people on the board. With support from the national organization, they started to train volunteers, supported by Dwight Hall, the New Haven Public Library and the Jewish Community Center in Woodbridge. 

Some volunteers, like Condon, who researches adolescent development at the University of Connecticut, saw the call for volunteers on a Yale email list and reached out, wanting to serve further in the community. 

Rosado, who works as an associate dean for New York University and researches child neglect, currently lives in Connecticut, making the one-hour commute each day. 

“When I was thinking about the kinds of organizations that I wanted to help strengthen, it was focused on helping people who are hurting,” Rosado said. “It’s this idea of intervening when people are in pain. I’m happy to have my service be around those subjects.”

Rosado emphasized that when institutions intended to be secure spaces for children, like schools and homes, contain violence, it creates damaging mindsets for adolescents. In early 2020, she noted that the pandemic grounded her, encouraging her to serve her local community more. She now volunteers for CASA Connecticut and the Domestic Violence Crisis Center.

In the last few months, CASA Connecticut has been rapidly expanding to encompass more courts. In Connecticut, CASA receives case appointments for children who are in foster care or in prior supervision, which is the step prior, when children still remain with their families. The children are under court jurisdiction on the child protection side of juvenile court. The judge is then responsible for connecting the case with a CASA volunteer advocate, and the program, ultimately Brown, assigns specific trained volunteers to one or two children at a time, working with each for often over a year. The goal is to do so until the child can find a permanent and safe home.

Difficulties

The system surrounding the children can be overwhelmed or overburdened.

“Something distressing is how little time these children get in the legal system,”  Woolsey said. “The court hearings can last five minutes, and lawyers show up for the case. The social workers can be overburdened.” 

During the pandemic, meetings went onto virtual formats, which multiple volunteers said made it difficult to remain engaged with the children. However, in-person meetings are returning. Condon, who is originally from Stratford, said CASA has been returning to normal.

“I think truly the most challenging part of this has been the pandemic and the barriers in place for that,” Condon said. “Most of my visits for the first six months or a year have had to be virtual, and so that does mean it takes more time to build relationships and trust. That has been a bit of a challenge, although I have been able to have more in-person visits recently which has been great. In one case in particular, I’ve been to birthday parties and really gotten close with the child and the families. It feels like a real privilege to have that relationship.” 

Brown noted that there is no specific background required to be a volunteer.

At Yale

Current alumni who work as volunteers and advisory council members were often involved with direct service organizations through Dwight Hall or other community service associations at Yale. Others did not develop a passion for service for youth after graduation.

Brown was a part of Dwight Hall’s organizations at Yale that connected him to New Haven youth. Similarly, as an undergraduate student, Rosado worked at Dwight Hall’s extension of the Ulysses S. Grant program, an after-school academic program offering math and reading courses to New Haven youth. The program included athletics, games and clubs.

“I was very active,” Rosado said. “I started as a math teacher, and then math director and then director of admissions. I credit it for reinforcing for me that education was going to be the thing I cared about, to commit my career to.” 

Rosado was involved in Despierta Boricua, a student organization for Puerto Rican students. In the group, she led cultural and leadership events on campus, and community service projects which were meaningful because they allowed her “to straddle campus and community.” She remembered the idea of acknowledging her own relative privilege and making contributions.

Woolsey was involved with environmental organizations through Dwight Hall as well. She currently works as an environmental academic editor.

Phalen, a former Yale basketball player, took a different path to being on CASA’s advisory board. Unlike his colleagues, he was not involved in community service at Yale. That passion came after graduation, he explained.

After graduating, Phalen spent a year with the Lutheran Volunteer Core. He worked 100 hours a week as an assistant director to Luther Place Women’s Night Shelter in Washington, D.C., managing about 100 women who came in each month until they could transfer to permanent housing.

“The women had such great hope, such great compassion and you realize how many difficult things and unimaginable things they’ve been through,” Phalen said. “To me, that year transformed me. School is simple. This isn’t life or death. You have to put things in context.” 

Yale as an Institution

Reflecting back on their Yale experiences, volunteers noted the necessity of recognizing Yale’s privilege. Through the research done by volunteers in their professional work, they pointed out how family and environment can aid admission into an institution like Yale.

“It’s devastating in some way,” Rosado said. “At Yale, I gained some insight about the city context, but my work with CASA, it is very eye-opening. It is devastating to hear and learn about the levels of crisis that a lot of young people are in. We are protected from that reality — myself included.”

Woolsey mentioned that she had felt critical of Yale as an institution during the late ’70s. Now, moving back to New Haven to accompany her husband, Mark Peterson, who is teaching American history at Yale this year, she has left the bubble of Yale and sees it as a city resident. 

Woolsey had been involved in environmental activism as an undergraduate, and has been living in New Haven for the last three years. 

“Partly there’s been a shift in perspective on my part [in the last 30 years],” Woolsey said. “Yale has made more of a concerted effort, but Yale has become even wealthier of an institution. I wish Yale would disinvest from fossil fuels; I wish Yale’s environmental practices were better than they are. There are a lot of things that I would hope that Yale could change.” 

Woolsey emphasized listening to the community’s needs. In the future, Brown noted plans to collaborate more with Dwight Hall –– which once hosted in-person trainings pre-pandemic –– and a partnership with the Yale Interpretation Network.

National CASA was founded in 1977.

Correction, Dec. 16: this article previously stated that national CASA, since 1977, has helped 270,000 children and hosted 93,000 volunteers since its founding. In fact, those figures are more representative for one year of CASA’s work nationally. In addition, the article misrepresented the process by which children entered the CASA program. In fact, court judges are responsible for assigning the children to CASA advocates, rather than CASA choosing their cases directly from the courts.

SARAH FENG
Sarah Feng is an associate beat reporter for health on the city desk and an associate editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a first-year in Trumbull College majoring in English and Cognitive Science.