Did you know the last person to be personally represented in a juvenile court case involving custody is the child? Ever heard of CASA? I mean besides the first word in the last Mexican restaurant you enjoyed.
CASA is an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocate. www.casaforchildren.org. The program was started by Superior Court Judge David Soukup in Seattle, Washington in 1976 when he did not have enough information on juvenile cases to make a decision that benefited the child long term.
He wasn’t talking about unhappy often litigious custody battles in divorces of two basically good parents. He meant the court cases that hit the dead end of deciding if there is a parent or interested party who is capable and willing to care for a child who has been abandoned, neglected, or physically endangered. Some cases hit TV news when parents have a meth lab or get in jail for ___________ (name what you will). Others hit the morgue. Most you never hear about.
The CASA program enlists volunteers to be trained as advocates for the child. It was so successful in Washington that in time it was implemented in all fifty states. Each state administers it differently with most running the program through a non-profit 501(c). Arizona has tucked it under the judicial branch where it operates on unclaimed winnings from the state lottery. That pays for some staffing and training (I mean really, how many people don’t claim their lottery prize money?), but it relies only on volunteers to represent the child.
Well, here I am. I am one. Sixteen other people and I went to a two day training and I feel overwhelmed and scared in an adult way that knows physically it is not challenging. Emotionally I’m already scarred from living so another slash or two shouldn’t shatter this old heart though it may weaken it. More comforting is knowing there are people to guide me through the learning process.
Why am I doing this? A beauty of moving to a new environment is the power to recalibrate life to who I am now without encumbrances from where I lived. CASA is in Utah too, but I was involved in other things. I decided it was time to volunteer in a tougher, one-on-one situation. Nationally 77,000 other people are also doing this and 930 of them are in Arizona.
Parents have their lawyers who speak for them. The state case manager wants to do the right thing for the child via the laws, but with dozens of children to represent personal care can unintentionally be shuffled aside for administrative efficiency. Schools have thousands of children. Doctors have many patients. All of them care for the child but they have competing, sometimes higher priority interests.
Getting to know one child.
Verifying a safe environment exists for the child.
Working toward family reunification as the preferred conclusion.
Representing the child’s interest in that reunification or identify another permanent situation as the long-term solution when it isn’t possible.
Talking with teachers and checking at school records.
Knowing who is now taking care of the child.
Meeting parents or other involved family.
Making sure attention is being paid to medical issues.
Presenting an outsider’s view of the child’s interests with passion and informed knowledge to the judge who has the burden of decision in a child’s future.