Court Volunteers Help Rescue Children in Abusive Situations
Gary Askew, Art Thomas, and Shannon De Bra are some of the people who care enough to act. No hand-wringing over child abuse for them. As trained CASA volunteers they head for the front lines to find solutions for children caught in abusive homes.Skip to next paragraph
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CASA - the acronym for court appointed special advocate - consists of some 42,000 trained volunteers throughout the United States.
Working with attorneys, judges, and social workers, CASAs cut through bureaucracies and excuses. They endure frustrations, hours of waiting outside courtrooms, or visiting foster homes and blighted neighborhoods to see first-hand how children are living.
And remarkably in the end, sometimes after six to 18 months or more on a single case, when they have used their court-mandated authority to assemble the facts and gather opinions, they say the gain is far greater than what they gave.
"My life has been enriched," says Ms. Askew, a Harvard University administrator in Cambridge, Mass. who has worked on four cases. "I know a much wider range of people and behavior in an intimate kind of way," she says, "but I have met people who should not be on the same planet with kids. Overall I don't think about success, but what can I do to improve the chances for a child."
Watchdogs of child cases
CASA efforts are having a dramatic effect on an overworked juvenile-court system dealing with increasing numbers of complex children's cases. Unlike social workers or court appointed lawyers, CASA volunteers work only on one or two children's cases at a time. They are independent fact finders for judges, not mentors to children.
They function as watchdogs during a child's court case, carefully balancing their inevitable emotional connection with their mandate to work in "the best interests of the child." The CASA's final written recommendation is often the basis for the judge's decision in placing the child.
Janet Reno has called the organization a "mighty network." She wants it established in "every community throughout America."
Already CASA volunteers have been involved in an estimated 25 percent of all dependency proceedings in the US in recent years, according to the National CASA Association in Seattle. To meet the growing demand, some 80 more communities are planning new CASA programs.
The need is great. According to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, 14 out of every 1,000 children in the US were substantiated as victims of maltreatment in l996. And six out of every 1,000 children under 18 in the US are now in foster care.
The complexity of CASA cases is illustrated by the plight of one mother on cocaine. She had had her first child at 14, then three more while living with a violent boyfriend. She continually refused treatment. Her neglected children were taken from her and placed in a foster home. With a different man, an alcoholic, she had a fifth child, born prematurely and placed in foster care.
Then, the mother became serious about treatment and wanted her children returned. More than 18 months had slipped by, the mandated period in which a legal decision was required. But the state hadn't complied. In addition, the mother was following the social worker's reunification plan.
After months of work, the CASA recommended the children stay in foster care until adoption. But because of conflicting assessments of the mother's capabilities, and to avoid a protracted lawsuit, a mediated agreement was reached. The mother's two marginally healthy sons went to homes and she was reunited with her daughters.
Meanwhile, the foster mother, having been led to believe that adopting the girls was a possibility, had become emotionally involved with the girls. Just weeks ago, the judge returned the girls to the mother favoring reunification with the biological parent.
How CASA was born
This level of complexity, common in such cases is what prompted the birth of CASA in the courtroom of Seattle's Superior Court Judge David Soukup in l977. He realized that despite the best efforts of overworked social workers, more objective information was needed for him to decide each case. He trained 110 volunteers in the first year.
Today, after a 40-hour training program, CASAs go to work and spend weeks unraveling and verifying the facts about parents and children in crisis. "The training was excellent," says Mr. Thomas, a commercial real estate investor in California's Marin County. "We had speakers talk about substance abuse, domestic violence, and other issues like foster care, and a presentation of juvenile laws by a judge."