In 1981, Carolyn Muscari heard a radio advertisement asking for people to volunteer with a new child advocacy court program in Clark County.
Muscari had no experience in the court system or working with abused children. But there was one image she couldn’t get out of her head — a boy in her neighborhood who would walk the streets barefoot late at night, seemingly with no supervision. Muscari knew she wanted to help kids like him.
The working mother of three signed up for the Court Appointed Special Advocates program within six months of its inception in Clark County. More than 40 years later, she’s believed to be the longest-serving CASA volunteer in the United States, according to Kristina Ver Foley, a spokesperson for the national organization.
“It never occurred to me to quit,” the 76-year-old volunteer said during a recent interview at her Henderson home. “As long as there’s kids out there that need help, I could not see myself walking away from that.”
Clark County’s CASA program has grown from 10 volunteers when Muscari first started, to 400 people currently serving as advocates. Unlike social workers or attorneys, each volunteer is usually assigned only one child abuse or neglect case, and will follow that child or group of siblings throughout their interactions with Family Court.
Volunteers will meet with the children frequently, talk to other adults involved in their lives, attend every court hearing and write reports about the case for a judge to review.
While attorneys are involved in cases to advocate for what a child wants, a CASA volunteer will advocate for the best interests of the child, which could mean separating kids from their parents or siblings against their wishes if they’re in a dangerous situation, Muscari said.
The CASA program has spread to 49 states with more than 97,000 volunteers since it was established in the late 1970s, according to the national association’s website. In June, Muscari was awarded the advocate of the year award at the national CASA association’s annual conference.
Muscari said that in the program’s beginning, the judges and Child Protective Services employees in Las Vegas didn’t trust the volunteers, and thought they were interfering in cases. But over the years the CASA volunteers have earned respect in the courthouse, and the judges listen to their advice, she said.
“I don’t care if everybody else disagrees with me, I’m going to do what’s best for the kid,” Muscari said. “That is my only priority.”
Muscari is tenacious, and will challenge attorneys and judges on behalf of the children with whom she works, said Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan, who has overseen the CASA program for nearly 20 years.
If there were an entry in the dictionary to define a CASA volunteer, it should come with Muscari’s photo, Sullivan said.
“She really advocates for them no matter what, and she takes on the system as a whole without any hesitation,” he said.
‘You always find a way’
Muscari moved to Las Vegas with her family as a child, when her father got a job working on Hoover Dam. She grew up dreaming of being an attorney like the ones in evening courtroom TV dramas.
She was 17 when her father died, leaving her to help take care of her family. She abandoned the idea of going to college and settled down with her husband, Nick Muscari, who died in January after 57 years of marriage.
Muscari was working as a sales director in the hotel industry when she applied to be a CASA volunteer in 1981. She kept working while volunteering with cases, sometimes waking up on Sunday mornings to write reports in her pajamas while her husband made her breakfast. She later took sociology classes at what is now known as College of Southern Nevada and switched careers to work for 18 years as an advocate for domestic violence victims.
Sitting in her home lined with dozens of family pictures and portraits of smiling grandchildren, Muscari joked that her kids put up with her spending more time with her CASA children.
“It was kind of tough, but you know, I feel that you always find a way to do things that are important,” Muscari said.
Recruiting more volunteers
When first volunteering with CASA, Muscari said, she would stay up at night fretting about the children for whom she advocated. She recalled crying when an adoptive father told her she had done more for his children than anyone else, even though she felt like she hadn’t done enough.
Eventually, Muscari learned to establish boundaries so she could keep volunteering. She realized that the children didn’t need her to feel sorry for them, they just needed her to help.
CASA currently serves about 1,000 children a year in Clark County, but there are more than 3,500 children who need to be assigned a volunteer, said Shelia Parks, the administrator for Clark County’s program. The organization needs more than 1,000 additional volunteers to serve every child.
Muscari said she encourages people who want to help vulnerable children to make the two-year commitment to volunteer with the program. She said she still serves as a mentor for new volunteers, and she tries to help recruit for the agency whenever she can.
Working with CASA for 40 years has been her purpose in life, and Muscari said she has no plans to quit anytime soon.
“I always tell everybody it’s the best paying job I ever had, and I never made a penny,” she said.
Las Vegas native Nick Gates, who plays for the New York Giants, plans to wear the Court Appointed Special Advocates program logo on his NFL cleats on Sunday to raise awareness about the need for volunteers.
He will wear the logo as part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats, in which players can pick a cause that is important to them and represent their chosen organization on custom cleats.
“I’ve always had people in my corner advocating for me. I want to pay-it-forward and spotlight the huge need for CASA volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected kids,” Gates said in a statement.
Gates was originally signed as a rookie free agent by the Giants on May 10, 2018. He played at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, where he helped lead his team to three straight state titles.
For more information about the CASA program in Las Vegas, call 702-455-CASA or visit www.casalasvegas.org.