A CASA (court appointed special advocate) volunteer shares what it’s like to advocate for a child in the justice system.
By Jane Hess Collins
Linda Franz was at a crossroads. Her daughter had graduated from college and her son was about to start. Her husband, newly retired, had begun a master’s degree at the University of Virginia. Franz, a program manager with the U.S. Census Bureau, was nearing retirement herself but not sure what she wanted to do. Then she found a SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now of Northern Virginia) recruiting table at an Alexandria volunteer event. Becoming a CASA volunteer with SCAN seemed like the perfect transition for her newly empty nest.
Franz was drawn to SCAN’s mission of protecting kids from harm. Her nearly 40 hours of training taught her about the legal definitions and thresholds of what constitutes “abuse” and “neglect,” and how the court system operates within that. She learned about foster care, child development, cultural sensitivities and what factors might contribute to family problems, including past histories of abuse or domestic violence, economic stress, poverty and mental illness. Social workers and guardians ad litem (someone appointed by the court, usually an attorney, who protects the rights of children in the court system) shared their wisdom, stories, and interactions with CASA volunteers.
While Franz can’t revealed any details about the families she’s worked with, she shared with Washington Life what it’s like to be a CASA volunteer:
What exactly does it mean to be a CASA volunteer?
It means I am responsible for learning what is going on with a family and reporting that to the court. A CASA volunteer acts as the child’s voice in the court system in custody cases, allegations of child abuse or neglect, and in cases where a child is in need of services. As an advocate for the child, I make recommendations to the court in a written report on what I think is in the child’s best interest for the future.
How does a child enter the court system?
It might start with a phone call from a child, a parent or an anonymous 911–anything that could alert police or child protective workers that something might be wrong at home. Mandated reporters-a doctor or teacher, for example-may suspect a child is abused or neglected and contact authorities.
After you accept a request from SCAN to take on a particular case, what happens?
First I visit the entire family and get to know them. I gather as much relevant information as I can by visiting and talking with the kids in their home and at their school. I put the information into reports that go before the court prior to the hearings. I also talk with their social worker, guardian ad litem, parents, foster parents (if that applies) and teachers. I also can access the kids’ medical, school, foster care and other relevant records.
How does the family receive you when you contact them to schedule a visit?
It varies, but so far every family has collaborated with me and some are very welcoming. The first step is always to visit the family, and I am required to visit the kids at least once a month.
What have you learned from being a CASA volunteer?
Kids really love their parents and want to be with them no matter what. I’ve learned to suspend any preconceptions about what makes a happy family. What makes a safe home and a good relationship between a parent and a child is not always obvious. All families have strengths, although they don’t always jump out at you right away.
What else do you do as a CASA volunteer?
We are someone independent that the kids can talk with. We set positive examples for the family by being a reliable presence. We show up to the appointments on time and stay engaged with them until the case is over. We might fill in the information gaps for the social workers who are dealing with the entire family.
What has surprised you the most about being a CASA volunteer?
Being a volunteer is different from being a professional. When I worked with the U.S. Census Bureau I was a collaborative supervisor but still, people working for me were supposed to do what I told them (laughing). As a volunteer you seek cooperation of families and other professionals who are busy and have their own jobs. I’ve used a lot more relationship-building techniques and persuasion to get done what needs to be done.
I have also learned how to gain the trust and cooperation from other very busy people. It’s been a little bit of a surprise to me how cooperative my families have been. That’s not always easy because we’re encountering people at what’s not the happiest moment in their lives. I’ve learned that when you approach a family with respect, they understand that you are there to advocate for their child.
Do you keep in touch with the kids who have been assigned to you?
Generally we don’t have a relationship after the CASA assignment is over but I find myself wondering how the kids are doing and hoping I’ll run into them. The families want to go back to being a family and living their lives. Being under court observation is very difficult and very time-consuming for them.
Does your CASA volunteer work ever discourage you?
No. Not every case is horrible, although I have been extremely concerned in some instances about what is going on in a home. Sometimes it may be part of larger cycle of violence, and the parents may have their own past issues that are coming out. I wonder if the kids are properly supervised or getting adequate medical care.
Have you ever felt after a case closed that things may not turn out well for a child?
I’ve certainly had concerns about some of them, but the courts keep a case open as long as there are still threats to child safety or neglect. Parents have to get over a bar before any protective order is lifted. All families have challenges, but some families face external challenges like poverty that may never go away. If necessary, the court can order parents to take classes, enroll in drug treatment programs or receive therapeutic services to help them cope with difficulties.
Have you ever seen anything that broke your heart?
Yes, and I’ve seen parents and kids with broken hearts. Mine is broken when I see a kid who is not a high priority in a parent’s life. When I see that I just focus on what I am there to do.
Would you recommend CASA volunteering to someone?
Yes, I would and I have.
How much time does it take?
It really depends on the complexity of the case and where it is in the court system. I’d say about 15 hours a month on average, but depending on the other factors, it could be more or less than that. In my experience an average case takes about 14 months.
Can someone who works fulltime be a CASA volunteer?
Yes, it is possible. I worked my first case when I was still working for the Census Bureau.
What kind of person would be an ideal CASA volunteer?
You need common sense, a sense of fairness and persistence. Good communication skills are very helpful since we deal with sensitive conversations. Good writing skills help make a good report for the court. Knowing a language other than English is a big plus, and SCAN needs volunteers from all demographic groups. Finally, you need a commitment to the welfare of kids and their families.
What kind of person would be a bad CASA volunteer?
Being a little humble about your role in the process is an asset. Volunteers will struggle if they are not open-minded and willing to initially suspend judgments about the situations they encounter with the families. A volunteer will have a hard time if they go in with the attitude of, ‘I’m going to save the kids of Alexandria and Arlington and I’m going to turn these kids’ lives around and be a hero and make all these differences in a kid’s life.’ All families have problems and the SCAN/CASA goal is to promote the best interests of children and when possible, keep families together. We have some huge success stories where families flourish and set examples for others. We can make a big difference in people’s lives.
Have you ever met a family where you thought that they shouldn’t be together or couldn’t function?
Have you ever felt threatened?
What have you learned about yourself?
I like to be challenged and I am a continuous learner. Being a CASA volunteer has raised my level of tenacity and improved my ability to deal with uncomfortable situations. Meeting families out of the blue made me nervous in the beginning but I’m much more comfortable now. I’ve learned to deal with situations that were more initially challenging to me.
What do you like the most about being a CASA volunteer?
Being around the kids is the most fun part. I’ve learned to think of an activity or bring a game that the whole family can enjoy. You can’t just show up and say, ‘OK, tell me what’s going on.’ You have to learn to meet the kid where they are. Some kids are young and some are teens and they have different levels of interaction with adults. I have to find ways to get where kid is and engage them. That’s fun.
Any final thoughts?
We have a special responsibility to the children in our community to make sure they have a good, safe place to grow up and flourish. All of us have to take responsibility for the kind of community we’re going to live in. Promoting the welfare of kids is an important part of that. I get a great sense of satisfaction being a CASA volunteer. It’s really rewarding.
For more information about becoming a CASA volunteer, or about other SCAN volunteer programs, click here.
Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website. If you’d like her to volunteer with your organization, contact her here.