The Woman Who Finds Advocates For Neglected Children

“We had a volunteer take the stand in court and say she didn’t think the children were on a good diet because they ate potato chips all the time. That’s really not our concern here.”

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I’m in charge of coordinating a program that trains community volunteers to advocate for abused or neglected children in court. The national association is called CASA, for Court Appointed Special Advocates, and I run one of the 1,000 regional programs. I oversee the recruiting, screening, training, and retention of volunteers. Nationwide, we have 77,000 volunteers. Each CASA volunteer is assigned to one case and is responsible for visiting the child monthly to decide whether there is still danger in the home. They stay with the case for its duration, which is typically one to two years. When the case goes to court, the volunteer serves as an advocate for the child, offering an objective opinion on whether the children should return to living with their parents, or if they should be placed in foster care.

Most of the volunteers come to us through word of mouth or volunteer fairs, but Dr. Phil and Judge Hatchett are also big proponents of CASA. So whenever they mention it on their show, we’ll get an influx of applications. About half of our volunteers don’t work full-time, so a lot of them are from wealthy backgrounds. It’s hard to get them to understand what a “minimum sufficient level of care” means, which is what’s required for a child to be able to stay with his or her parents. The goal is for families to stay together. Removing a child from the home is the last resort. We had a volunteer take the stand in court and say she didn’t think the children were on a good diet because they ate potato chips all the time. That’s really not our concern here. Another volunteer bought the family she was working with a new refrigerator. You’re not supposed to be buying things for the child. We also get volunteers who assume everyone is Christian. They want to talk about Jesus being their best friend. They want to take the kids to church. But this is not a mentorship program. The volunteer is really just another pair of adult eyes and ears. Sometimes the volunteer is the only consistent adult in the child’s life, since caseworkers have notoriously high turnover and kids are often going in and out of foster care.

We really get three types of people wanting to volunteer. The first are people who may have had a tough past, but are doing well now and want to give back. The second are typically students, or young lawyers, who need relevant volunteer experience. The third are people who want to use the program to work out their own issues, such as abuse or neglect as a child that they are still trying to overcome. Unfortunately we really cannot have that third kind of person. You can’t use this to fix a situation that didn’t work out for you. Volunteers can’t have an agenda. They have to be unbiased and objective about the situation as much as possible. We ask a lot of questions in the interview process, to make sure this isn’t a problem.

It’s tougher getting men to volunteer, because there’s a perception that men who want to work with children must be pedophiles. This is a big recruitment problem for us. The recent Penn State and Catholic Church scandals haven’t made this easier. Of course, we do extremely thorough background checks, including fingerprinting, to make sure we have safe people. Fortunately, I’ve never had or heard about a problem like this with any of our volunteers.

We do see some really upsetting cases, and it is tough. There are kids who have never been to a dentist. I’ve seen babies with cocaine in their systems. One woman tried to tell the court the baby must have just eaten her sister’s cocaine by accident. I once had to wait outside a courtroom with a mother who had allegedly beaten her child. I really didn’t want to talk to this woman; but I noticed we had the same cell phone and we started chatting about that. You find some common ground. You have to.

As told to Hillary Reinsberg

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