CASA Volunteers: In the Best Interest of the Child

Imagine you’re 11 years old. It’s the middle of the night and police have arrived to investigate a report of domestic violence. Tempers flare and it’s obvious you’ve been abused. For your safety, a social worker is removing you from your home. You’re going to live with a foster family in another town. You’ll be safe, but it will take a year, maybe two, before you’re living in a permanent home and the legal case involving those who abused you is resolved in court.

Actually there’s no need to imagine this scenario. It’s tragically common. Due to no fault of their own, children who are victims of abuse or neglect get caught up in the court system. They attend hearings with judges. They meet with lawyers, therapists and case workers. They move between foster homes and transition to new schools. It’s a heavy burden—on top of the emotional toll of abuse or neglect—and the cast of adults involved constantly changes.

But what if there was one adult who was always looking out for the child’s best interest? One constant presence who puts the child’s needs above everything else? Actually, there is such an adult: a CASA.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. Judges appoint CASAs to serve as Guardians ad litem, a special relationship created by court order for the duration of a legal action. CASAs, who are volunteers, act solely in the best interest of the child. They investigate circumstances, gather information and make recommendations to the judge so the child doesn’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system. CASAs continue to serve the child until their case is resolved and the child is placed in a permanent home.

In Hampden County, CHD directs the program for CASA volunteers. “CASAs come from many different backgrounds,” according to Cassandra Hildreth, Assistant Program Director for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Hampden County. “Some are working and raising families, others are retired. Many were teachers or worked in social service settings, although that’s not necessary. What is necessary is a willingness to make a significant commitment. We look for volunteers who will commit to at least a year and a half, about how long it takes to resolve a court case involving abuse or neglect of a child.”

Consistency is important for a child moving through the court system, and a CASA provides it. Lois Eaton, First Justice of Hampden County Juvenile Court, says CASAs work tirelessly to be there for the children they serve. “A CASA is that rock solid person who makes the effort to understand what’s going on in the child’s life over time,” said Judge Eaton. “A child’s foster parents, therapists, social workers and attorneys may change, but their CASA stands with them, constantly taking in information. If something is going wrong, they bring it to court’s attention. The CASA program is not driven by budgets or regulations or what an organization thinks should happen. It’s about putting kids’ needs first. That’s very empowering for kids.”

In carrying out a judge’s direction to act in the child’s best interest, a CASA becomes a negotiator. “Often I am a liaison between people who don’t agree,” said Shira McCormick, a CASA volunteer since 2013. “The lawyer tries to do what the child wants and the Department of Children and Families works for the best interest of the family, but the CASA does what’s in the best interest of the child. That isn’t always what the child wants. For example, a child may want to go back with their father, but after investigating the circumstances and meeting with all interested parties, the CASA may conclude that isn’t in the child’s best interest. The CASA presents their findings to the judge to consider in making decisions.”

Mary Andrewes has been a CASA volunteer since 2014. “Honestly, the first I heard about CASA was on the Dr. Phil show,” Andrewes acknowledged. “It turns out he and his wife are big advocates of CASA nationally. As I listened to him talk about how the organization helped children who have been removed for their family because of abuse or neglect, I wanted to get involved. For over 35 years, I worked in the school system with children and families. Being a CASA sounded like an opportunity to use my skills to help kids. I found the CASA chapter in Hampden County and made a call. Soon after I went into training.”

The 30-hour training program for CASA volunteers is based on a curriculum from the national CASA organization (casaforchildren.org) and delivered locally by trained facilitators. Instruction covers topics such as impacts of childhood trauma, workings of the court system, and roles and responsibilities of a CASA. “A CASA volunteer then serving in Hampden County came in to talk about her work,” Andrewes recalled. “We all had a chance to ask questions and learn directly from her experience.” After completing formal training, Hampden County CASA volunteers attend a swearing-in ceremony with a judge in Springfield Juvenile Court.

CHD’s CASA program was a recipient of the first-ever Doing Justice Award from the Massachusetts Judges Conference (MJC), the professional association of state court judges. The MJC presented the award to the six regional CASA organizations in Massachusetts, including CHD CASA. In making the award, the MJC cited CASA volunteers as “silent soldiers in their tireless effort to resolve disputes peacefully under the rule of law and to rebuild lives.”

To learn more, call 413-781-CASA.

Your contribution can help a child who has been affected tragically by domestic violence.

You can make a difference

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