So what separates court appointed special advocates from other volunteers who work with foster youth? There are many organizations which may do advocacy or mentorship work for youth in foster care, such as the Youth Advocacy Program; the Denver Children’s Advocacy Center; teachers; medical providers; personal attorneys; and family members.
The main difference is the CASA volunteer’s role as an objective eye, ear and mouth for the child. Programs such as the Youth Advocacy Program are an excellent resource for young people, and are generally involved in much of that child’s case, but they do not have the legal allowances and obligations offered by the Order of Appointment given by the courts. Programs such as schools, medical providers, attorneys and family members may advocate for a child, but are not necessarily obligated to act in their best interest and may instead focus on a child’s wishes.
CASA volunteers provide an unbiased view of the child’s complicated situation. They have the ability to investigate and report information directly to the person who makes the big decisions in the child’s case—the family law judge.
The judge assigned to your case will hear arguments from both sides, listening to many opinions from parties who have much at stake regarding the outcome of the hearing. What they likely haven’t heard is a thorough and organized representation of the facts of the matter. What is really happening?
If you viewed the D&N system as a great battle, the CASA volunteer’s weapon would be their Report to the Court. It is in wielding this that CASA makes change in a child’s case. But that change will not come about if the judge is not able to make an informed decision based on inarguable facts and supporting evidence.
What it means for the court:
The court report is a vital source of information for that judge, particularly when the only other information they are offered is a hasty or boiler-plate document drafted by an overwhelmed case worker. CASA volunteers have the gift of planning their reports and of review of these documents by an experienced supervisor, to ensure that the report meets is goal of providing thorough, objective information to the judge.
This document also has powerful influence over the other individuals on your interdisciplinary team. While a judge cannot necessarily order a team to research summer camps, or for a foster parent to utilize respite care on their own dime, the inclusion of some of those items in your recommendations may prompt those topics to be brought back to the table for discussion. In my current case, my report is often the only opportunity I have for communication with the respondent mother in a candid and firm way.
We also have the opportunity to bring new and refreshing information to a case that may have been going on for a long time. It’s easy to see from a case file that many reports by therapists, case workers, and other members are often form documents. Language, and even entire paragraphs, may be re-hashed over and over again for numerous hearings (particularly in exceptionally long cases). It is hard to remember that the judge on the other side of the podium is a real person, an individual who has to sit and read all of these documents day in and day out, but that is really important. When writing a report, I imagine the judge sitting in their office, picking up my report, number 75 out of 100 documents they may be required to evaluate that day.
We have the resource of time (relative perhaps to the others on our teams) available to us—I feel it is our duty to use that resource to provide new information, new vocabulary, new subjects that have not been discussed in prior reports. You can be certain that a judge will pay particular attention to your report if they liked reading it.
For volunteers, I want to know if you have a particular instance where your recommendations caused change in your child’s cases. Has someone approached you and thanked you for your reporting? What is the most important thing that you think you’ve uncovered during an investigation? If you’re not a volunteer, what writing techniques do you think are most important when presenting facts to others? Should volunteers use a casual, more journalistic approach, or should they stick to normal conventions of professional writing? Where is the line between those techniques?Send comments to Jesse at [email protected]!
About Jesse: Jesse Griffin has been a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate in Denver since October 2013. Although she had never volunteered before, she was drawn to the program after reading an editorial in the Denver Post (Caldwell: How you can help abused and neglected children, April 30, 2013). She says that Denver CASA has made a profound impact on her life.
In addition to volunteering with Denver CASA, Jesse works as a legal assistant and is working on her undergraduate degree in Human Services at Metropolitan State University. She has five pets and enjoys backpacking, riding bikes, knitting, sewing and baking. Jesse has a passion for writing and reporting to the best of her ability.
If you have any questions, comments, ideas for future posts or resources for CASA youth or volunteers for Jesse, please email her at [email protected]