The Role and Responsibilities of the CASA/GAL Volunteer: What Do Judges Think?

Originally printed in March 2009 Judges' Page newsletter

J. Dean Lewis, Judge (retired)
Former Member, National CASA Association Board of Directors
Past President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Summary: Judges from CASA programs across the country share what they find to be most valuable about the role and responsibilities of the CASA/GAL volunteer and how that role affects the outcome in dependency court cases.

The first CASA program was established by a judge and judges continue to play a key role in developing new CASA/GAL programs, sustaining existing programs and expanding the CASA/GAL network. The role and responsibilities of the CASA/GAL volunteer are established by National CASA standards. There are four core CASA/GAL volunteer responsibilities:

1.      To obtain firsthand a clear understanding of the needs and situation of the child through review of records and personal interviews documenting the information gathered in a court report that establishes the volunteer’s recommendations

2.      To identify and advocate for the child’s best interests

3.      To seek cooperative solutions by acting as a facilitator among the parties

4.      To monitor the child’s situation and implementation of court orders

In 2005, the National CASA Association conducted a national survey of over 550 dependency court judges. Judges surveyed indicated that the CASA/GAL volunteers’ activities are very useful, that their input in informing court decisions is valued and that volunteers are very effective in supporting court processes. In fact, the survey revealed that judges frequently incorporate CASA/GAL volunteer recommendations into the court’s order.

The Judges’ Page recently asked key judicial leaders from diverse jurisdictions what they find to be most valuable about the role and responsibilities of the CASA/GAL volunteer and how that role affects the outcome in dependency court cases. These judges, who sit in courts across the nation, share their personal observations and experiences below.

Judge Patricia A. Macias, 388th Judicial District, El Paso, TX
President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Independence is what judges find most critical about the CASA volunteer’s role. The child’s voice demands an advocate who fulfills their role and who speaks clearly and with determination about what is best for the child, even if that position stands alone.

Judges listen carefully to each word, written and spoken, by a CASA volunteer. The judge depends on them to gather all the information, to facilitate communication among all the collaborative team members, to master the skill of advocacy, and to have commitment in monitoring the case progress to permanency. But for the judge to make a sound decision, it requires much more. While maintaining positive relationships with all individuals surrounding the child, the CASA volunteer is obliged to be self-determined and not swayed or influenced by others.

Upon taking the oath to serve, a volunteer commits to act as a principled participant in legal proceedings. This means offering a position on behalf of the child based on unbiased information and free from outside pressure or personal interests.

Judge Ernestine Gray, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, New Orleans, LA
President, National CASA Association
Past President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

What I find most critical about the role of the CASA/GAL volunteer is the fulfilling of the core responsibilities of gathering information, advocating, facilitating and monitoring. What comes to mind is the CASA volunteer who drives 5-1/2 hours to attend a twenty minute staffing (the staffing was longer because he was there) and challenges everyone in attendance to say at least one positive thing about his CASA child; who ensures that his CASA child takes his meds, which have been appropriately prescribed; and who challenges his CASA child to live up to his potential. He is not afraid to let his CASA child know that he cares and wants him to do well.

Judge Michael Nash, Presiding Judge, Los Angeles Juvenile Court, CA
2006 National CASA Judge of the Year
Secretary, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

To me, CASA volunteers are the most independent persons in our process. They are not beholden to anyone but the children each of them represents. When you combine that notion with their training, their desire to help one child at a time, and the lack of a caseload, it almost always results in information and recommendations that not only help me as the judge make better decisions, but also lead to better outcomes for each child. I have seen CASA volunteers help find services for children that I was told were not available and I have seen them find permanent placements for children when our system faltered in that regard. In many instances, the efforts of CASA volunteers were absolutely heroic.

Judge Lisa Jones, Juvenile Court Judge, Southwestern Judicial Circuit, GA

I rely on CASA volunteers to provide the court with an independent recommendation specific to each child. It is comforting to know the volunteers are meeting with these children, their families, their doctors and teachers—with all those who impact the children’s lives—and compiling all of this information in a report to the court.

Judge Douglas F. Johnson, Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County, Omaha, NE
President-Elect, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Recently, I accepted a 12-year-old boy’s admission that he pointed a pistol at his 15-year-old friend’s head and pulled the trigger. Casey said he was only trying to scare his friend, Joe. Unfortunately, when the pistol fired, Joe was killed. At the dispositional hearing his advocate spoke eloquently through her tears about Joe whom she had come to know as his CASA volunteer.

The courtroom was absolutely still as Nancy spoke. She asked of Casey and I that Joe’s life not be forgotten nor in vain. Being Joe’s CASA volunteer, Nancy readily recounted that he was a wonderful young man, so talented, loving, caring and fun to be with. She could see the promising life Joe once had. She wanted Joe to be remembered as the victim in this case. She hoped that somehow Casey would come to understand the senselessness of his actions and the resulting needless loss of a young life.

I received a probation officer’s predisposition report and an evaluation about Casey. But when the CASA volunteer spoke, I learned about the tragic loss of life and the promise of a remaining one. She gave heartfelt and personal reflections because she knew Joe so well. Trying to help yet another child, she asked that I help Casey take responsibility for his actions, improve and rehabilitate himself, make something positive out of his own life, and thereby honor Joe’s life. 

A CASA volunteer speaks up as a strong advocate for a child, even when he is dead. And in this case, she even had the wherewithal to speak up and help the boy who killed his friend.

Judge Leonard Edwards (ret.), Judge in Residence, Center for Families, Children & the Courts, Santa Clara, CA
1992 National CASA Judge of the Year
 Past President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

I have found that the most important aspect of the CASA volunteer’s role is the relationship that is formed between the volunteer and the child. When a volunteer has been appointed, I know that there is a person in the child’s life who will get to know that child personally, on a one-to-one basis. The advocate will be focusing on just one child and will give that child the feeling that at least one person is truly dedicated to her. When the child has an important matter to discuss or needs support, she is more likely to turn to the advocate than anyone else. In fact, children trust volunteers more than anyone else in the child protection system (our recent survey clearly demonstrated that fact) because they know that the volunteers are not paid (and everybody else is). So what courts are doing when they create, expand, and support CASA programs, is providing a significant relationship for each child for whom an advocate is appointed. It is a gift, the gift of an important person in a child’s life.

Judge Louis A. Trosch, District Court, Mecklenburg County, NC
Board Member, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

CASA/GAL volunteers keep judges’ eyes on the prize. They make sure that abuse and neglect hearings focus upon the children, who are at the center of the proceedings and the most important people in the process. All too often the child's best interest gets lost in the shuffle of legal arguments, case plan monitoring, statutory requirements and budgetary constraints. Because CASA volunteers are the only people in the case unencumbered by county or state budget woes, bureaucratic red tape, policy restrictions or crippling caseloads, they can focus all of their energies upon the needs of the children. The resulting insights may range from a child's placement preference to a favorite toy being lost, but they always represent the voice of the child. That voice is paramount and it is also fragile. Unfortunately, without CASA volunteers, that voice is also, all too often, silent. To make sure that the needs of my children stay front and center I try to hear one last time from the CASA volunteer at the end of every hearing.

Judge Patricia M. Martin, Circuit Court of Cook County, Child Protection Division, Chicago, IL
Treasurer, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

I remember my first experience with a CASA volunteer. I was a new judge and my initial reaction was, “Who is this person and what is CASA?” I quickly learned how valuable these dedicated volunteers are. I came to rely on them as my eyes and ears in child protection cases. Because of CASA volunteers, I was able to see numerous abused and neglected children leave the system to permanent homes to be raised by loving families, both biological and adoptive. As presiding judge of one of the largest child protection court systems in the nation, I have expanded my reliance on the CASA program, often asking the volunteers to help develop innovative solutions to the problems that confront the child welfare system. The volunteer has always come through and has proven to be a valuable partner in numerous court programs.

Judge Leslie Kirkland Riddle, Family Court Judge, Fifth Judicial Circuit, Columbia, SC
2008 National CASA Judge of the Year

Be “the voice of reason” is what I enjoy telling new CASA guardians at each swearing-in ceremony. CASA guardians have the unique ability to bring a calming sense of reason in many volatile family court cases. I often share the dear lesson learned from my father: “You can catch more bees with honey!” Families who feel respected and heard are far more receptive to services and intervention resulting in expedited permanency for our children. The CASA volunteer is the child’s appointed voice in court, the eyes and ears of the court, and the arms of hope to a maltreated child.

I recently received a letter from a young man who is incarcerated. After reading a newspaper article about my selection as the 2008 National CASA Judge of the Year, this young man wrote to me. In his letter of congratulations, he stated that I was the judge who had first sentenced him to incarceration at Department of Juvenile Justice. He recalled the words I said to him and shared “how much he wished he had listened.” I have difficulty expressing the heartfelt emotions I experienced reading this letter. Since that time, the two of us have exchanged mail and I frequently read his letters to troubled youth and families before me. Needless to say, the message from this young man has a tremendous impact on them. I share this story to illustrate the power of CASA’s voice! My guardians provide heightened advocacy for children, and I depend on them in all child maltreatment cases. And through the CASA network, winning the 2008 Judge of the Year Award was a great honor and one that led to a reconnection with a young man whose story has since helped many troubled youth.

Judge R. Michael Key, Juvenile Court of Troup County, LaGrange, GA
Vice President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

There are millions of good, caring, well-intended people in this world who never make a meaningful difference in the life of a child outside their family or circle of friends. Not so with CASA volunteers, who, on an average day, change for the good the lives of children with whom they had no previous connection and, on many extraordinary days, literally save children’s lives. While the later statement might sound like an overstatement, it is fact. Not long after we started our CASA program, we had a case where we had removed a child because of physical abuse, but we were planning on returning the child at an upcoming hearing. Even after the CASA volunteer filed her report, she continued to work the case. On a hunch, she checked with the local hospital and found out the child had been taken to the emergency room within the last few days with injuries that, standing alone might not justify a mandatory report (hence, none was made), but given the history of the case, confirmed that the child would have been at risk of serious injury or even death had we not had that information and had we returned the child home, which we surely would have done without that information. There are many other perhaps less dramatic, but equally important, examples of CASA volunteers providing information that keeps children safe.

CASA volunteers plug gaps in the safety net that should protect the children who come into the child welfare system, specifically those children who are in foster care. Having been found to be vulnerable in their own homes, we owe these children a duty to protect and nurture them. And that cannot be left just to the foster parents with whom we place these children, however committed and capable they might be. Nor can it be left to an over-burdened child services agency where the case is passed from case worker to case worker, sometimes due to turnover and sometimes due to established protocol. Except for those fortunate courts, like ours, where we have an attorney child advocate for each child in foster care, the volunteer is the only consistent source of information and advocacy for the child.

CASA volunteers benefit the court in fulfilling its role in two ways, one in court and one out of court. The decisions judges make are only as good as the information on which the decisions are based. It is absolutely critical that the court has information that is current, complete, accurate and relevant. In my court, CASA volunteers, more than any other participants, provide that kind of information. Even the attorney child advocate, because of significant case loads, cannot generally provide that kind of information without the help of the volunteer, who helps the court fulfill its role by ensuring that the child’s needs are being met. I think that CASA volunteers generally do a better job of improving child well-being than the rest of us.

Judge Elise Givhan Spainhour, Family Court Judge, Bullitt County, KY

I am so fortunate to be in a place with a CASA program. I know I can rely on the information I receive from a CASA volunteer in our program. The quality of my decision making is improved by every point of view and bit of information I know about a child and his or her situation. The quality of services received by a child is improved by the presence of a CASA volunteer. CASA participation lowers the chance I will make a mistake with a child and improves the odds I will catch the mistake if I make it. I know I am a better judge because I have CASA volunteers in my courtroom, and my county is a better place for children because of CASA volunteers.

Judge Susan B. Carbon, Supervisory Judge, Concord Family Division, NH
Past President, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

What do I expect from the CASA/GAL volunteer in fulfilling his/her role?

  1. I want a CASA volunteer who really knows the child/teen. This means developing a level of trust and respect, something which isn’t done easily, nor quickly.
  2. I want the volunteer to know what the child wants and what may be in the child’s best interests; to clearly understand if there is a difference, and if so to articulate it.
  3. I want the volunteer to understand the parents, their limitations, their potential, and how they are progressing towards reunification (assuming the child has been removed). This helps put the child’s wishes and needs in context.
  4. I want the volunteer to have spoken with the child protection agency, school and service providers to be able to make independent assessments of progress all around. This enables the them to identify gaps, and commend progress.
  5. I want the volunteer to be well prepared for the hearing, meaning his/her report is filed on time, and he/she has reviewed all other reports and is prepared to comment in court.
  6. I want the volunteer to feel free to speak her/his voice, independent of anyone else. The CASA volunteer needs to be free to, and must, voice his/her opinions.
  7. I want the volunteer to be confident enough to compliment those who are doing well (parents, child protection agency, service providers, child), and offer constructive criticism for those who are not.
  8. I want the volunteer to understand what needs to happen at each hearing so that reports and remarks are tailored to the decisions that must be made. Understanding the legal process is important, although the CASA volunteer certainly does not need to be an attorney.
  9. I want the volunteer to empower the child/teen to speak for her/himself; even though the CASA volunteer is the voice of the child, the child’s voice should be heard directly if the child so wishes.
  10. I want the volunteer to be there for the child from start to finish, so that the child will know he/she is not expendable, and that reliance and consistency mean something.
  11. I want the volunteer to hold everyone, including the judge, accountable so that every hearing has a purpose and is time well spent.
  12. Finally, I really like it when the volunteer brings a new photo to each hearing. It reminds me that the child’s life is ticking by so quickly.

As I write and reflect, this seems to be a huge load, and yet time and again, our very well trained CASA volunteers come through. We have an amazing group here, all of whom are respectful, courteous, knowledgeable, compassionate and well-grounded. Our kids benefit from their competence and preparation. We rarely have a hearing that was not helpful in moving issues forward. To the contrary, they are purposeful and productive due in part to the CASA volunteers. They support the kids in ways some parents never have, and they never give up on the kids. They guide them, support them, and stand by them, allowing the kids to flex their wings, but they are there to make sure they won’t be hurt in the process; most have suffered enough hurt already.

 One of my CASA volunteers told me that the child he was assigned to told him he thought the CASA volunteer was the judge. Given all that I expect, and receive, from my CASA volunteers, I took this remark as a compliment! So did he.

 

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