Driving Forces for Permanency: Using Court Observation

Amia Barrows, Training Coordinator, Newport News CASA and Jennifer King, Program Operations Director, Georgia CASA

As the national child welfare landscape evolves, CASA/GAL programs must continually reflect on how our advocacy efforts remain relevant and effective. Many states have undergone a transformation of service delivery for families, by focusing on new models that encourage family engagement in permanency planning. The improvements to our advocacy efforts must be rooted in best practices, the most accurate and current data available, and with the safety and well-being of children and families as the fixed center of our work. However, to effectively navigate through the child welfare and juvenile court systems, a comprehensive understanding of child welfare practice, federal and state laws, policy, and research is needed. For CASA programs, this is often an ever-evolving and collective understanding that is shared between volunteers and staff through training, supervision, and support. It is no surprise that we are dedicated to continuous improvement through the many learning opportunities we experience in pre-service training and beyond.

During pre-service training, CASA volunteers face the daunting task of understanding their role as advocates, the court process, the roles of court personnel, legal jargon, and the court’s expectation of its advocates. CASA trainers and staff can take advantage of courtroom observation, maximizing the experience and helping to increase the volunteers understanding of the system prior to, and during, training. The ability of CASA volunteers to improve the court process depends on their understanding of not only the court system, but also the more subtle details of how each courtroom is managed. Local programs can maximize this opportunity and expand the volunteer’s possible limited view on where and how they can implement change.

Courtroom observation can include (but is in no way limited to) a brief overview on the goals of family court, key players involved, and a localized, step-by-step guide as to how cases enter the system and how they are processed. Programs can then include a guide with specific questions touching on particular areas volunteers need to be focused on, such as: child-centered and family-focused service delivery; length of time the child has been in the system; whether the child’s attorney is advocating for their best interest; and addressing concerns regarding the child’s education, physical and mental health as well as their overall well-being. Programs can then ask volunteers to be creative and suggest measures they would take to advocate for the needs of a child. Volunteers can benefit even more from this rare view into courtroom procedures by calling attention to the court’s culture and norms. CASA volunteers may use this experience to get acquainted with the judge’s courtroom expectations, demeanor, mannerisms, and interactions with others.  With these goals set in place, it will be easier for volunteers to draft ideas of what should be included in a court report, along with specific guidelines from their CASA program. The report will then serve as a powerful vehicle delivering the steps that volunteers feel are necessary for the court to consider and/or implement on behalf of the child. 

The court observation experience can be the basis for continued dialogue and learning that provides volunteers with a variety of ways to utilize their special skills, talents, and role as CASAs to advocate for change, increase their understanding of the court expectations, and move forward for children. Understanding the scope of the law can dramatically impact the CASA volunteer’s investigation and inevitably affect the outcome of the case, and what will or will not happen for the involved child. Courtroom monitoring helps bridge the volunteer’s initial interest into advocacy and creates a foundation of action that will inspire change. More specifically, volunteers can learn and understand the purposes of each hearing, issues addressed at the hearings, and how to bring the child’s voice forward in court. Through courtroom monitoring, volunteers are also learning more about the complexities and dynamics of child maltreatment, family reunification, the availability and quality of services (or lack thereof), and how they (as volunteers) can effect change in the courtroom. 

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