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If you want to help kids in foster care, be prepared to take a lie-detector test.

Court-appointed special advocates, or CASAs, are the only players in the long chain of people involved with Arizona’s foster-care system who have to pass a polygraph test.

In fact, they’re the only CASA volunteers nationwide who have to pass a lie-detector test.

A state court committee is weighing whether to scrap the requirement, modify it or leave it as is. The members, mostly juvenile-court judges, wonder if the test deters people from joining the CASA program, which has a chronic shortage of volunteers.

They’re getting an assist from the Impact Maker initiative of Valley Leadership, an organization that trains people to take on leadership positions in various sectors across Arizona. The group has recommended the courts drop the lie-detector requirement and focus on making the program more appealing to diverse populations.

Deterrent or defense? 

The polygraph test has been part of the CASA program since it launched 36 years ago. No one at the courts, which oversee the program, knows why; it’s just the way things have always been, said Caroline Lautt-Owens, director of the Dependent Children’s Services Division at the Arizona Supreme Court.

But last year, several juvenile court judges started to question the practice.

“We need to consider whether our polygraph is a deterrent to people,” Judge Joseph Kreamer said at a November meeting of the state Committee on Juvenile Courts.

On the one hand, he said, the test is a screening device for a program that pairs adults with vulnerable children.

But, Kreamer added, polygraph test results aren’t admissible in court, and there are other safety precautions, such as background checks, a two-hour forensic interview and a crosscheck with the Department of Child Safety’s Central Registry, which lists people with substantiated claims of child neglect or abuse.

Others noted some of the questions asked during the test should be updated, while other judges have suggested the test is yet another safeguard for children and should be kept.

Kreamer, presiding judge of Maricopa County Superior Court’s juvenile division, has led a study group that is due to bring recommendations to the state committee Thursday. 

Why aren’t others tested?

CASA volunteers interviewed by The Arizona Republic said the polygraph test was not a deterrent to being a volunteer but questioned why they were the only people directly dealing with child welfare who have to pass such scrutiny.

Mimi Condon said she wasn’t bothered by the test when she became a CASA nearly nine years ago.

“My biggest thing always was, ‘Why am I doing this and DCS is not doing this?’” she said, referring to case managers at the state Department of Child Safety. “Why aren’t the judges?”

In her view, everyone who deals with a child in foster care should have to pass a polygraph test.

Katherine Schmidt, a CASA with 10 years of experience, said the checks are prudent, given CASAs spend a lot of time one-on-one with children.

The polygraph test “would probably catch the people who don’t have the best intentions,” Schmidt said. But, like Condon, she wondered why CASAs are the only people in the system required to take the test.

Is there a better use of funds?

In the 3½ decades of Arizona’s CASA program, no volunteer has been accused of abusing a child, Lautt-Owens said.

But, she added, she’s heard people worry the test requirement implies that the volunteer is under suspicion from the start. 

“Do polygraphs make people nervous enough that they don’t want to be a CASA?” she asked. Lie-detector tests can pick up on nervous reactions that might wrongly suggest a problem where this is none, she added.

The Valley Leadership study concluded the polygraph is a barrier to recruitment, and the money spent on the tests could be better used for training that emphasizes cultural awareness, the effects of trauma on child behavior, implicit bias and LGBTQ awareness. 

Other skeptics have noted that CASA programs in other states appear to be working well without the polygraph screening, with no outbreaks of abusive volunteers.

The committee on Juvenile Courts is scheduled to act on the polygraph issue at its meeting Thursday. 

Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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