For the past nine years, Family Law Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) has devoted thousands of hours to representing the best interests of children in divorce settlements and other contested custody hearings, with the help of a robust volunteer base.
When a judge feels that parents aren’t protecting their child’s best interest, or if the court wants an objective opinion about a child's home environment, they call Family Law CASA in for an evaluation. Frequently, these families have a record of drug use, domestic violence, or mental illness, which compound the normal conflicts that arise in divorces or contested custody hearings. But as CASA's client base has continued to climb (the nonprofit also represents mostly low-income families), its caseload has grown out of step with its volunteers, to the point where organizers now face a shortage of volunteer child advocates.
“In the last year we’ve increased the number of cases we take by almost a third," explains Caroline Davis, director of Family Law CASA, "we know that there are a lot more kids that are going without a voice in court because there just aren’t enough resources."
In other words, they're desperate for volunteers willing to devote at least a year to speaking up for the best interests of children in court.
What does it take to become a volunteer, you ask?
Volunteers need to be at least 21 years old and own a car (or have access to a car) and a computer. They can't have a criminal record to apply, obviously, and they can't be in the midst of your own divorce or custody case.
Once vetted by CASA, volunteers undergo a 21-hour, four-day training seminar before being assigned a case. They conduct home visits with each parent, observe parent-child interactions, and interview other pertinent adults in a child's life—teachers, therapists—and then write a 20+ page report of their observations and recommendations to present to the court, and testify if the case goes to trial.
Naturally, each case is its own unique snowflake but Davis estimates that volunteers spend an average of 60 hours on a case over a four-to-eight-month period. A lot of that work can be done on weekends or evenings (like home visits), although interviewing teachers, therapists, and court appearances must be done during normal working hours. "We give advocates a few weeks advance notice of when those daytime appearances are," Davis says. "There's some flexibility but it does involve a serious, significant time commitment."
Family Law CASA opened in 2003, after budget cuts eliminated funding for a similar King County-run program in 2001. Davis says the organization expects volunteers to sign on for one year but "ideally, we'd like to have people stay longer," she says. Without an uptick in volunteers, a talking sock with googly eyes might soon be representing vulnerable children in court. Which would be unfortunate, wouldn't it?
Family Law CASA's next volunteer training sessions are scheduled for May 31, June 1, June 7, and June 8. Visit the organization's website for more details and application information.