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 voiceless.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals in this case.