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The Role of Court Appointed Special Advocates in Engaging Families

Vickie Scott GroveVickie Scott Grove, Executive Director, Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, CA

Summary: The author shares the many benefits of having CASA volunteers form positive, constructive relationships with the relatives of the children they represent.

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CASA programs are focused on giving a voice to children in our dependency courts. CASA volunteers offer an important and independent voice for children in dependency hearings, where children’s, parents’ and social workers’ interests are often in conflict. This potential for conflict has created concern about advocates’ engagement with family members. Our agency’s experience supports encouraging volunteers to make consistent and sustained efforts to form positive, constructive relationships with family members to facilitate the most informed level of advocacy and to benefit the long-term well-being of the child.

Our advocates report that developing relationships with family members is extremely helpful in gaining a fuller perspective of the child’s situation. Family can provide information about children’s past and experiences that the child may not remember or be able or willing to articulate, such as prior school success, interests and talents and medical and developmental issues. Advocates find that the family members can provide missing puzzle pieces to inform better recommendations to the court. As one advocate commented:

“I have developed a positive relationship with my youth’s mother, and she has improved my insight into her case. While I don’t believe reunification is in the cards, or the best course, I see that the mom is very motivated to make sure her daughter is safe and happy.”

Many children enter dependency having been separated from their family. Their experience of loss is profound and overwhelming. An advocate who can reach out to assist in their remaining in contact with family members can connect with a child on a deeper level. In the words of a sixteen year old youth:

“What's on the child's mind right after separation is, most logically, the family. It was on my mind for over two years, and it was painful knowing that everyone thought less of my mother. She has always been both parents, mother and father, and I knew she was better than what everyone thought…At first I knew that my advocate was a little cautious about meeting my mother, but I believe it is an important step in connecting to the foster youth, to me. My mother agreed that my advocate was here to help me and advised me not to push her away. I then began to open up and express myself explicitly to my advocate.”

Despite having family in close proximity, when services have been terminated, children may have only the smallest reminder of a parent to cling to, a tiny photograph, a blanket or favorite toy. CASA volunteers can assist the youth and family members in accepting an ongoing relationship which may be defined and curtailed by the court, but still permit a loving bond:

“My advocate gave my mom advice on how to deal with the fact that my brother and I were no longer going to be able to return to her care. My mother is now comfortable with the fact that I am living with ‘strangers,’ strangers that I have come to love.”

From the perspective of the executive director of the law firm representing our parents, AnnaLisa Chung, advocates who reach out to parents and other family members strengthen their ability to serve a child:

“The best results are often reached when an advocate engages with a child's biological parents and family members. Parents may be understandably concerned about a new adult forging a relationship with their child, particularly when their own access is limited and supervised. This may engender a feeling of distrust that carries throughout the dependency case. Advocates who have a relationship with the parents can assuage this fear and often form a deeper connection with the child who may be looking to his or her parent for approval.”

Advocates can also support families on a reunification path, easing transitions, providing encouragement and nonjudgmental advice when things don’t go smoothly. One advocate supported three children through reunification with their mother only to have her relapse and soon thereafter pass away. The children were traumatized but reunified with a grandparent. The advocate persisted with the family, making possible outings for the children, providing calm support for the grieving grandparent, and joining in special family events. In this case, the advocate’s relationship endured well beyond the closing of the children’s cases.

Our agency’s experience has been that volunteers seeking to become advocates do not always come ready or prepared to reach out to family. Indeed, we sometimes have volunteers who ask for children who are no longer in contact with family members. We have found that the challenges and rewards of reaching out to and working with family members must be addressed in our initial CASA training. We coach volunteers to be forthcoming with parents about their focus on the best interests of the child. We also support advocates through continuing education workshops on understanding addiction, working with families and diversity training. Our county’s Mentor Parent Program has provided wonderful speakers for training and board events. Equipping supervisory staff to encourage and support family contact has been critical to our program’s success. And we have been greatly encouraged by positive feedback from our supervising judge, Katherine Lucero:

“In Santa Clara County, CASA volunteers have stepped up to the plate to support children and youth who want to stay connected to family. It has made a huge difference for the long term well-being of our youth.” 

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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