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Ensuring That Youth Are Heard in Court: A CASA Program’s Perspective

Angie Pitre, Program Manager, Capital Area CASA Association, Baton Rouge, LA

Summary: The author describes her CASA program’s efforts to ensure that youth have a voice in court through activities including attending court hearings and writing youth court reports.

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I can only imagine what it might feel like for a young person to walk through the doors of juvenile court—entering a room filled with adults who are making decisions that directly impact his life. He wonders: Will he be returned home to his biological parents? Will he get to see his siblings more often? Will he walk in and find the person who abused him? How helpless and alone that youth must feel.

Thankfully, when our youth attend court proceedings, they are not alone. They have the support of their CASA volunteer. Over the years, staff and volunteers at Capital Area CASA Association have staunchly supported youth in foster care not only attending youth welfare court proceedings, but also actively participating in them. As scary and overwhelming as court may seem, having virtual strangers making decisions about your life without your input or, at the very least, your presence, seems far more damaging than the presumption that the court proceeding may be too traumatic for the youth.

In addition to youth regularly attending court hearings, our juvenile court judges often speak with youth during proceedings. Judges often ask the youth about school, future plans and how a foster home placement is going. As you might imagine, our youth often reply in simple terms like, “Things are fine,” or “School is good,” but at least they are learning how to advocate for themselves. While they often don’t say much, they are learning they have a voice—a voice that matters. 

Our philosophy with regard to self advocacy was further reinforced in 2010 when the Capital Area CASA Association was one of 16 sites selected by National CASA Association to pilot its new training initiative, Fostering Futures. Fostering Futures is a training curriculum for CASA volunteers that focuses on improving outcomes for older youth. The curriculum’s recurring theme is the importance of giving a young person the opportunity to have a voice in his or her own life. Unfortunately, it’s rare that youth in foster care get to make decisions on their own. Unlike those of us who grew up in more traditional home settings, foster youth are mostly told where to live, when to visit with biological relatives and when to attend  a scheduled medical or mental health appointment.

Capital Area CASA Association staff began to look at additional ways to involve youth in decisions that affect their lives. In 2011, older youth were invited to participate in a focus group hosted by CASA where they were asked what they felt they needed to be better prepared for adulthood. Their responses were used in the development of a manual to assist older youth as they leave foster care and enter adulthood. The manual focuses on education, housing, employment, healthcare, transportation and overall independent living skills.  

The staff continued  brainstorming about how we could give youth a more formal voice in court. The answer came in the form of a youth court report. The report we developed allows youth to describe to the court—in their own words—their wishes and specific needs, where they would like to live, and anything else that they would like the court to know about their life. Juvenile court judges in our area have been extremely supportive of youth writing their own court reports. During court hearings judges acknowledge the receipt of the youth court report. 

CASA volunteer Keshala Jackson remarked about her CASA youth using the youth court report. “I know writing her own report made her feel empowered to actually speak up in court. Her thoughts and feelings were already in writing, and all she had to do was stand firm on what she had written. I also know that it has helped her feel more comfortable, because now she wants to write the judge ALL the time!  She is also more verbal in court—still shy, but definitely more involved,” Jackson said. 

Author biography:

Angie Pitre joined the Capital Area CASA Association staff as Program Manager in December 2007.  She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Louisiana State University, and her professional experience includes multiple years with area nonprofit organizations. 

 

 

 

 

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