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Erica Fischer-Kaslander ’13 MA

When Erica Fischer-Kaslander ’13 MA began as the first executive director of Passaic County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), the organization was little more than a dream and a borrowed office cubicle. In the 15 years since, Passaic County CASA has advocated for more than 1,000 children and trained hundreds of volunteers to serve as champions for abused and neglected children

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Erica Kaslander

Erica Fischer-Kaslander ’13 MA studied sociology in undergraduate school, with a plan
to pursue a degree in law. But as graduation drew closer, a different vision began to

“Law school no longer felt like a good fit,” she says. “My internships and early career
experiences were pointing me in a different direction. I wanted to contribute to the
community in a more hands-on way.”

As a case manager with the Gift of Life Foundation-Rotary International District 7490,
Fischer-Kaslander was the force behind the "Internet Lifeline" project that used internet
technology to locate, acquire, screen and coordinate pediatric patients with high-risk
congenital heart disease in developing nations. In 2000, the initiative was recognized as
a Stockholm Challenge finalist, an international award program for innovative use of
information technology.

Fischer-Kaslander brought her unique brand of dynamism to subsequent positions at
Bethany Christian Services and Madison Adoption Associates, before taking on the
most challenging role of her career: founding Passaic County Court Appointed Special
Advocates (CASA).

“We started from nothing,” she says, recalling her first days as the organization’s
executive director.

That was in 2007. Since then, Fischer-Kaslander’s leadership has guided Passaic
County CASA through exponential growth. In its 15 years of operation, the organization
has advocated for more than 1,000 children and trained 440 volunteers who serve as
champions for abused and neglected children.

“We currently have 150 active volunteer advocates,” Fischer-Kaslander notes. “As a
result, since 2019 we have been able to serve 100 percent of the children who enter the foster care system in Passaic County. Typically, a child’s case is assigned to a CASA volunteer within two weeks of entering the system.”

Because of the strength of the Passaic County program, the organization can invest in
ensuring a good match between child and CASA volunteer as well.

As Fischer-Kaslander’s responsibilities grew, so did her desire to expand her expertise.
“Montclair’s master’s program in Child Advocacy and Policy, very new at the time, tied
in perfectly with the work that I was doing.”

Fischer-Kaslander appreciated the program’s thoughtful course scheduling and the
willingness of the faculty to accommodate students who were building careers while
pursuing graduate study. “The professors were also working in the field, and in the
community,” she says. “There was great crossover between school and career. I would
see professors in class, and then again in the courthouse. It tied things together
beautifully and gave me a solid foundation of both knowledge and professional

Fischer-Kaslander enjoyed the close-knit, non-traditional class environment. “Since the
program was so new, my first classes were in an old house at the edge of the campus,”
she says. “The program quickly outgrew the building, but I really liked the cozy feel of
that space.”

Fischer-Kaslander, an active volunteer herself who holds the honor of serving as the
youngest president of the Paterson Rotary Club, returns to campus for workshops and
conferences, and whenever possible she recruits interns from Montclair. And she has
kept in touch with a few of her professors, who provide continuing education for her
CASA staff and volunteers.

“Leading Passaic County CASA has been an amazing journey,” she says. “In the last
two years alone, we have doubled our staff, and we launched the New Jersey Safe
Babies Court Team, an initiative that uses the science of early childhood development
to improve outcomes for infants, toddlers and families. The program is operating in
three counties – Passaic, Essex and Hudson.”

“The program won a highly competitive five-year grant from the U.S. Health Resources
and Services Administration,” Fischer-Kaslander adds. “We are continuing our focus on
child advocacy, safety and well-being, while expanding our services in a holistic way
through evidence-based processes.”

The Safe Babies Court Team initiative has also led to a deeper connection with
Montclair through a partnership with the University’s Center for Autism and Early
Childhood Mental Health. In fact, Dr. Gerry Costa, recently retired as director of the
Center, has joined the Passaic County CASA board. “Having this level of expertise right
in our backyard has been incredible,” she says.

Fischer-Kaslander is putting her education, her drive and her partnerships to good use,
and it’s making an impact. In August she was included in the NJBIZ Forty Under 40 list,
which recognizes 40 business men and women under the age of 40 for their notable
successes and demonstrations of strong leadership in the state.

“The connections and professional relationships I formed at Montclair have been so
important to my work, especially in my early career. When I began my graduate studies
at the University, I never imagined I could be in the place I am today professionally, but
now I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”