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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Volunteers Needed to Represent Vulnerable Children in Custody Cases

Posted by on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 11:53 AM

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.


Comments (6) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
This is all fine and well, but CASA still falls short of the type of advocacy that these children really need. They need access to actual attorneys that can fully navigate the legal system and understand the nuances of the justice industry.

There was a state supreme court hearing on the matter last year, which essentially punted on making a decision. While CASA is a positive, it's another example of doing the minimum and hoping for the best.
Posted by AnonymousCapHiller on April 4, 2012 at 12:15 PM · Report this
One of my colleagues did incredible CASA work, but holy shit what an exhausting gig to do with such minimal support funded. The CASA administrators did their best, but she had to stop accepting new cases after her last couple put her through the wringer with worry. Wonderful people all around, genuine heroes.
Posted by gloomy gus on April 4, 2012 at 12:20 PM · Report this
I was a CASA volunteer ~10 years ago, when it was still called the Guardian ad Litem program. What #2 said - it's incredibly exhausting physically and mentally, but you can see what sort of impact you can have on a child - and see how the process works out, for better or for worse. I gave it up when life got more complicated, but would love to return someday.
Posted by ScottScott on April 4, 2012 at 1:06 PM · Report this
A public function this consequential, time-consuming, and emotionally demanding shouldn't be left to unpaid, minimally trained volunteers. It sounds like a job for professional social workers. Maybe we should ask Washington's billionaires and multimillionaires what kind of taxes they'd be okay with in order to support a publicly funded program. A surtax on cigarettes and cheap booze, perhaps? A special surcharge on dollar-menu fast food, bus fares, and payday loans? I'm sure there's something they'd be willing to authorize, seeing as how it would be for the children.
Posted by PCM on April 4, 2012 at 4:30 PM · Report this
@1 & 4: We live in a shit country where we can't even get health care to all of our citizens and you think we're ever going to get attorneys or trained professionals to look out for vulnerable children? What do you think this is, Sweden?
Posted by Mason on April 4, 2012 at 8:47 PM · Report this
Sorry to bust the bubble here, but many CASA volunteers, like my wife, are working attorneys who do this 'pro bono' work to help. It isn't a perfect system, true. But it's much better than doing nothing. The problem is not CASA, but that there are too many people like you folks who complain about an organization rather than sign up and help out. Or better yet, if you want a judicial system that works better than it does currently, get off the comment page and send a note to your elected representatives to push change in the system. Do something more than bitch.
Posted by paulus22 on April 5, 2012 at 9:58 AM · Report this

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