The Power of a CASA Volunteer in Juvenile Court

Carrie-Leigh CloutierCarrie-Leigh Cloutier
Executive Director
Chaves County CASA Program, Roswell, NM

Summary: CASA volunteers are valued in juvenile court just the same way they are in dependency court. The Chaves County CASA Program has been training volunteers to provide advocacy in juvenile court since 1995.

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I’ll never forget the first time I met Bill. He stood six foot three inches tall, weighed 260 pounds, was pale and blond, shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit as he sat in the courtroom waiting for his hearing. The glare on his face thinly masked the fear behind his eyes. His open anger revealed even more dread. The constant tics and grunts of his Tourette syndrome grew more pronounced as every second passed. There was no doubt in my mind that this child needed CASA advocacy, so I raised my hand right there in court and CASA became part of Bill’s life.

The Chaves County CASA Program has provided advocacy in juvenile court since 1995. Judge Alvin F. Jones, recognizing the effectiveness of CASA volunteers in dependency court, got the ball rolling by appointing CASA volunteers in cases with dual jurisdiction. Shoplifting, substance abuse and violence against a household member are common crimes committed by foster children. Already a population with poor social skills, these children are vulnerable to peer pressure and often act out inappropriately in new foster homes. 

The problem in juvenile court is that there is no one who advocates for the best interests of the child in that setting. The defense attorney works to get the child off. The prosecutor works aggressively to charge them with a crime. With foster children, neither path may be the best option. Often these children need consequences for their behavior. However, institutional punishments are often black and white and do not address the reason for the crime. Did the child hit the foster sibling out of fear? Did she steal food because that is the only guarantee she has had of eating? Did he take drugs in order to feel like he belongs to something? Does she need a medical evaluation for depression? Did he act out in school over embarrassment about his illiteracy?

CASA volunteers are valued in juvenile court just the same way they are in dependency court. Advocates talk to all parties involved, make sure the child is receiving appropriate services, and make recommendations to the court on the child’s behalf. CASA volunteers in juvenile court receive five to eight additional hours of training on juvenile matters on top of the National CASA curriculum. Often these appointments are much shorter than the typical dependency appointment, which requires a commitment of one year. Because the CASA volunteer works closely with both the defense and prosecution, they often act as behind-the-scenes mediators, working to find creative solutions to problems. Unlike children in abuse and neglect cases, these children receive more services and are generally in the juvenile system for a shorter length of time.

Bill had a hard time growing up. But he eventually made it through and became an independent adult. He wrote of his experience:

In my 18 years of life, there has been tragedy after tragedy with my family. By public standards, my family would have been categorized as dysfunctional. This is largely true under the circumstances— namely physical, mental and sexual abuse. From age four I underwent extensive psychotherapy only to have them tell me the same thing each time: that I was a discipline problem. This was largely true. But unfortunately, it said nothing of how I became that way. My brother is the biggest tragedy in my life. It was due to my actions toward him that I was to be introduced to the most caring group of people I have ever met. CASA.

I was arraigned in court for mercilessly beating my younger brother. Before the sentencing was ordered, this lady in the court whom I had never seen before asked if she could have a meeting with me. When the judge ordered it so, I thought she was another lawyer out to hang me. It was odd to me that her first words were “I want to help you.” With that introduction I began a three- year experience with the CASA program.

The next three tumultuous years would find me in institution after institution. All the while my CASA was fighting for me in court. She saw in me that I was intelligent, talented and worthwhile. Traits I never even admitted to. She helped to bring them out in me. And through it all, she even got me on even ground with my mother.

My CASA and I are still close and see each other quite frequently. Today I am productive in society. I am currently enlisted in the US Military and due to ship out on August 20. Very ironic, isn’t it?

Thank you, CASA, for all that you’ve done.   

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