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News and Information from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association

Before and After

A World Without Advocates

Chris Steigerwald, M.Ed, LSW
Program Director
CASA for KIDS of Geauga County
Chardon, OH

In a county without a CASA or GAL program, a 1-year-old girl we’ll call “Annie” was removed by Child Protective Services due to substance abuse by her parents.

After several months, Annie was placed with a relative who lived in an adjoining county. No one told the court that this cousin was mildly mentally impaired. No one investigated to find that she had a previous CPS record with substantiated abuse regarding her teenage children. How might things have been different with a CASA volunteer?

Court records indicate that the parents reached an agreement for the relative to be awarded legal custody. No one asked for a mental health assessment or home study of the cousin. How might things have been different with a CASA volunteer?

A one-line entry in the same court document that awarded the relative legal custody stated “that all parental rights are hereby terminated.” There was no discussion in the court order of the grounds for termination of parental rights or whether such an action was in Annie’s best interest. How might things have been different with a CASA volunteer?

Several years went by. Annie and her legal custodian moved to an adjoining county. Child Protective Services became involved when the school reported concerns. It was found that Annie had many bruises in various stages of healing. Annie was removed from the home by CPS and placed in foster care. Fortunately, there was a CASA program in this county, and a volunteer was appointed by the court to represent Annie’s best interest.

Here’s how things were different with a CASA volunteer.

Once assigned, the volunteer spent time with Annie and the people in her life. Annie’s CASA volunteer learned that her custodian had severely physically abused her and punished her by withholding food. The volunteer also learned that Annie’s legal status was in doubt because her parents were deprived of due process.

Once she had a CASA volunteer, everything in Annie’s life was different. Annie was placed in a caring foster home. The volunteer facilitated communication and coordination to address Annie’s health, emotional and education needs. Annie experienced significant physical and academic growth after finally receiving good nutrition and a safe, nurturing home. The CASA volunteer secured funds from Friends of CASA to provide tutoring, in addition to special services at school, to enhance her academic performance.

The new judge declared the previous court order invalid and ordered that Annie’s parents be included in court proceedings. The birth parents were still not able to provide an appropriate home, but the birth father gave the name of his adult daughter in another state. She did not initially respond to the CPS agency. But the CASA volunteer persisted by calling the sister directly.

This sister had learned of Annie’s existence only a year before and was searching for her. She was very interested in being considered as a placement option but was confused by the requirements made by the CPS staff. The CASA volunteer helped her to feel comfortable with the process. The sister complied with all requirements to prove she could provide the safe, nurturing and permanent home that Annie deserved. She came to visit Annie, and they began to develop a strong relationship. The CASA volunteer helped the sister prepare to meet Annie’s academic and counseling needs. After several months, Annie was excited to move to her sister’s home.

A happy ending certainly—but one that could have happened so much sooner with so much less damage to Annie had a volunteer advocate been assigned to the case in the beginning. What if Annie’s custodian had not moved to a county with a CASA program? Would Annie be the lead story on the news: another one of those tragedies that provoke our grief and anger because “things didn’t need to happen that way”?

Annie’s story reminds us that there are many more children still in need of the powerful voice of a volunteer advocate. Those children can’t afford for us to be complacent.

 

The author with her grandson, Jacob


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