Court Volunteers Help Rescue Children in Abusive Situations

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

Women make up 84 percent of CASAs and come from all walks of life. "It's probably the nature of the work," says Sonya Liles, a spokeswoman for CASA headquarters in Seattle. "Woman are more apt to think they would be good at working with abused or neglected children."

Michael Piraino, head of National CASA, says minorities and men "are underrepresented," and there are efforts to recruit for a greater diversity. While many CASA volunteers are retired, 52 percent have full-time jobs and many are law students.

"Judges know they would be at a loss without CASAs," says Joseph O'Reilly, chief probation officer of the Juvenile Court in Boston. "And when attorneys see how dysfunctional a family can be, they ask for a CASA."

Successful CASAs are usually good with details, understand how to remain objective while their heartstrings are tugged, and can plow through files for relevant material.

Often in such tangled cases, the CASA knows all the details and is the facilitator for exchanges of information between five to seven professionals involved in the case. In some cases, social workers and attorneys are initially skeptical of the CASA. But in most cases, everyone works side by side.

"You have to measure your success by your effort, not necessarily the outcome," says Thomas, who has had two cases. "Did you do everything you could think of to do, and did you do it as thoroughly as you could?" he says. "And did you do it with passion?"

Ms. De Bra, a recent Boston University law school graduate, was assigned a case while in the middle of training. "When I met the mom in court," she says, "she told me her neighborhood wasn't good, and not to come alone. So I went with her court-appointed attorney."

The go-between

De Bra found herself in a case where attorneys were not talking to one another. "But everybody is talking through me because all CASAs have a court order to get information," she says.

Her case involves a mother struggling with her undisciplined children while she adheres to a Department of Social Services plan for improvement. "This is not an abuse case, but one with serious questions about someone's ability to be a parent," says De Bra.

In Thomas's first case, decided a few years ago when the children were placed in foster care, he was amazed at their resilience. "They had led a horrible, neglected life," he says, "but there was such strength and goodness in them that made them survive and prosper as soon as they got in a stable environment."

For almost all of the cases that end up in court, drugs and/or alcohol abuse are directly or indirectly involved. Missing too is extended family to offer support.

"I think so much of this goes back to the fact that this country is not pro-child," says Askew. "There are people who are genuinely great parents with their own kids, but very few are concerned about other people's kids. If we were a different kind of society, everybody would worry about all kids, and everybody would feel more supported."

Who Am I?

There was once a tree full of apples

which was my family. Then one day I fell off.

Some grownups came and put me in a pear tree

Then I fell off.

A little boy came and put me in a tree with apples,

oranges, pears, and peaches.

Then I fell off.

Then I sat there forever wondering,

who will pick me up?

Where will I go?

Will I go where I belong?

Or will I waste my whole life living with fruits

who I don't belong with

because they can't encourage me

to accomplish my dreams,

or can't tell me who I am

because they don't know who I am.

It's up to you.

Who am I?

- Danielle Marie Bush, 11 year old in foster care

* 'When I talk to people about what I do, some tell me it sounds so depressing; how can you stand to get so close to that stuff? But to me it's utterly absorbing. If this is the life these kids lead, surely I can stand to get that close to help. It energizes me. Maybe I can help make it go faster. I know I have made a difference.'

- Mary Askew

* 'I go out and play soccer with the boy because so many of these kids don't have a man in their life. I do it on my own and hope he'll open up to me. I'm an adult showing up in his life, and I think for a long time adults haven't shown up in their lives.'

- Art Thomas

* 'When you like the people you are dealing with, it's hard not to be rooting for them, but I'm just trying to make the situation work, help her to get clothes, food, and her kids registered in the right school.'

- Shannon De Bra

* For more information: National CASA Association,100 W. Harrison, North Tower, Suite 500, Seattle, WA, 98119. Telephone: 800-628-3233, or e-mail: staff@nationalcasa.org

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