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Volunteer Voice

Equity for Children With Disabilities

Judy Fortlage
2010 G.F. Bettineski Child Advocate of the Year
Clark County CASA Program
Vancouver, WA

Over my past 20 years as a CASA volunteer, I have worked with 78 children and teens, many with severe mental health issues and educational deficits. As a mother of five and a former English teacher, I love talking to children. I enjoy their wisdom. It’s amazing the kinds of answers you get when you ask children open-ended questions. When dealing with children who have been abused, it often takes a while to establish a relationship. They’re understandably wary. But it’s worth it to hang in there and get them to trust you and to understand that you really are there to help.

An Equal Chance to Be Heard

I believe that fairness, or equity, is a very important principle. Years ago I had a case involving a child who had a severe disability. She was developmentally challenged as well as nonverbal. In order to communicate, we found that she really needed a machine called VOCA (Voice Output Communication Aid). It would allow her to push a few buttons and say what she needed. The Department of Family Services didn’t have the money for this technology. So I said, “Wait a minute—doesn’t the school have to pay for that?” That was the solution. The school provided the VOCA, and the girl’s life changed because she was finally able to communicate easily.

Fair Access to Mental Health Care

There’s also the question of equity of care. I believe there should be mental health care for children and families in the dependency system equal to that available to people with private health insurance. I’m often very distressed to find that children and youth are given medication without any psychiatric diagnosis—and without any cognitive therapy. They just don’t get better with this approach. And sometimes when we can arrange for therapy, we get someone who is not trained to work with the population.

In advocating for mental health care or other needed services, I’m thinking about what the children need—not what the Department of Family Services can afford. I tell kids, “I’m asking for the sun and the moon for you because you deserve it!”

My Motivation to Volunteer

Someone once asked me, “Why do you do this?” I do this work because it needs to be done, and someone needs to do it. And because I see that I’ve made a difference. Sometimes it takes a little longer to see the impact you’re having, and sometimes it can get frustrating. But you have to persevere for the child’s sake. You come to see the benefit of a child knowing that there’s a person in their life who’s just not going to give up on them.

I think my impetus to join the CASA program goes back to the 1960s, when I worked as a probation counselor at Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall. It was apparent that many of the youth we were dealing with were victims of abuse of one kind or another. This was never addressed until they got into the criminal justice system. Many had learning disabilities that had never been dealt with either. Just listening to their stories and seeing how they could bloom once they got into a stable environment had a profound impact on me.

My fellow CASA volunteers are great people to work with as well. I’ve made some good friends over the years. I’ve also found that I’m learning constantly. It’s challenging and never dull. In my book, volunteering as an advocate sure beats playing golf!

How Children Benefit from Advocacy

I have a friend who once worked in a war zone as a social worker. She describes what she refers to as the “orphan look.” It’s a look of bewilderment and pain and confusion. And CASA volunteers know that you don’t have to go into a war zone to see that look. You can see it in children who have living parents. You see it in children whose homes are a war zone. And as CASAs, we want that look to go away. We will do what we can do to see that they have permanency, safety, love and a future.

Some of us have heard the statement, “Oh well, you can’t save the world.” But we can save the world of one child. One of my favorite sayings, which hangs on my wall, is, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people who are doing it!”

Judy Fortlage


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Anonymous @ 12/27/2010 11:41:03 AM 
Thanks for writing. Because we have 1,000+ local CASA/GAL program offices, policies and requirements vary. I'd enourage you to call your nearest program, which you can find at Or you might want to post your question on our Facebook page at --Editor
Anonymous @ 12/24/2010 8:36:07 AM 
I saw the Dr Phil show that caught my interest in being a CASA. However, I certainly would not want to disappoint a child so I do have some questions. I hope some one can answer these. I see retirees or a person with no children have become a CASA. I am mother of four; ages 25,24,14, & 12 years old. Only the 14 and 12 year live at home with me and their step dad. I do work full time 40 hours (sometimes more). I always felt to do some thing as this. I know I can do the 30 hr course, the few or more hours to meet with the child. I'm not sure I can make every court date due to work (but I believe I can make arrangement given enough time). How do you not get attached? Do you think I can qualify as a CASA ? Thx
Anonymous @ 10/30/2010 9:11:56 AM 
I commend you for all your hard work with these deserving children. It takes much patience, tolerance, and commitment to do what you have done. Congratulations to you. You should be so proud of yourself for making a difference in the lives of these kids. You are making the world a better place. I simply wanted to say thank you.
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