During the Texas girl’s checkup at the local clinic, the doctor
was surprised by what he found. Brittany* had a sexually transmitted
disease. She was three.
Quickly after that, into Brittany’s life came a host of police
officers, some child abuse investigators, a judge, and a public
defender. Luckily someone else came along at the same time. That
person was a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer named
I’ll call Mary.
Brittany’s mom was taken off to jail for meth abuse, the mom’s
boyfriend arrested for child molestation and the little girl was
placed in a foster home. Mary became Brittany’s voice during
the subsequent years of legal procedures that followed the discovery
of her STD. She came alongside this little girl who was navigating a
court system that often is overwhelming and hard to understand for
an adult, much less a three, four or five-year-old. Mary kept
up with Brittany at school, tutoring her to help her catch up with
her kindergarten class. Mary also told her she was a special girl.
Brittany had a hard time grasping the first several times she heard
Mary tell her that, since it was the first time an adult in her life
thought she was loveable.
The CASA movement started in Seattle in 1977. Superior Court
Judge David Soukop was concerned that he was only hearing the
information brought to him by the child protection officials, but he
needed a more complete picture about the home and school life of the
child. So he created the important job of a CASA volunteer who would
be an advocate or a voice for the voiceless children who were being
shepherded through the legal system by sometimes harried social
workers, police officers or child abuse investigators.
The CASA volunteer’s caseload would be no more than one or two
children at a time, much, much less than the typical social worker.
The CASA volunteer would also stay with the child for the entire
process, as a stable element in a very unstable environment. Today,
there some 1,300 CASA programs operate in 49 states. The national
CASA office is now funded by the Department of Justice’s Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
After 30 plus hours of training, the CASA volunteer will provide
a judge with “a carefully researched background of the child to help
the court make a sound decision about that child’s future,”
according to the National CASA website. The CASA volunteer is often
in court assisting the child and helping the adults to determine
whether it’s best for that child to be reunified with a parent or
guardian, to be placed in foster care or to be made available for
adoption. All of these decisions are difficult to make and will
impact the child’s life forever.
The typical CASA volunteer is someone like you or me. They’re an
adult who has empathy for abused or neglected children and is
willing to make a total commitment to one or two children. They may
tutor a child in school, take them for a play date or call the
proper authorities when they discover the child is in danger.
Brittany’s CASA volunteer recently dropped by her home to take
her to the park. When she arrived, she found her mom (the court had
reunited her with her daughter) in a stupor in the bedroom under the
influence of meth and a one-month-old baby being “taken care of” by
Brittany. Brittany already knew how to make formula, warm up a
bottle in the microwave and how to change a diaper. Obviously she
was being taken advantage of and not having her own needs met, which
necessitated a call by the CASA volunteer to her social worker to
check things out.
And, did I forget to mention the tears a CASA volunteer sheds?
CASA volunteers are people who love and want to protect children. At
this point, it’s very tempting to sweep up the babies and take them
to a warm, loving home, but the legal system has to wend its way
down the river of law to do the right thing in this case. The best
attributes of a good CASA volunteer are patience, fortitude, a
strong mind and a soft heart.
Unfortunately, not every child returns to live with a biological
parent. Many are put through a parental termination process which
then releases them for adoption. CASA volunteers have navigated
these choppy waters with more than 2 million children, eventually
seeing them adopted into safe loving homes.
CASA is a volunteer tribe 73,000 strong. Unfortunately, there are
more children needing assistance than there are volunteers. Research
has shown that children who are assigned their own CASA volunteer
spend less time in court and the foster care system than children
who do not have representation.
Within the next few months, Mary will be attending Brittany’s
next court date. It’s been a two-year process for this little girl
and her mother. The judge will be considering the public guardian’s
request to terminate Brittany’s mother’s parental rights. As he
considers this decision, he’ll be relying heavily on the testimony
of Mary, the CASA volunteer. She has documented a lot of information
that he’ll sift through to help this little girl. Hopefully, he’ll
also “hear” the voice of the little girl, Brittany, in these
proceedings. The CASA volunteer is available to interpret her life
for the court.
CASA volunteers are my heroes as they give a voice to the
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the
individuals in this case.