News and Information from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association

From the CEO

Justice and Children’s Best Interests

Michael S. Piraino
National CASA CEO

I have been looking back recently at the many descriptions former foster youth have shared with me about their experiences growing up—both in foster care and before. I’ve been writing down the words they used to describe how they felt about their lives. Here is what I found. Some words are repeated over and over: lost, alone, worthless, unheard, hopeless. This does not sound very promising, yet every one of these young people has within them the strength and the desire to succeed and to do all they can to make sure that no one else has to write their life history in such words.

One word was missing from all of the young people’s life stories: justice. This seems about right when you look at the record—the huge racial inequities within child welfare systems, the disturbing sense that the system gives up too easily on older youth, the damaging effects on child development that result from separation and impermanence. It cannot be a just world that tolerates such treatment for any of its young people. It is against all our best values that these circumstances still exist in the second decade of the 21st century.

Our country can do better for these kids. Yes, we have economic problems. Yes, there is reason to be concerned about the ability of political leadership to come together to solve social problems. But children and their well-being are not a partisan issue, and the case for doing justice for them is clear.

Our nation cannot succeed economically unless we do this. We cannot afford the cost of not doing right by them. For example, the economic cost of losing just one 14-year-old to a life of crime is over $3 million (“New Evidence on the Monetary Value of Saving a High Risk Youth,” Mark A. Cohen and Alex R. Piquero, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 2009). How much better, safer, more economically responsible to spend just $1,000 to make sure this young person has an advocate for her best interests? Someone who will stand up for her well-being, with no loyalties other than to her best interests, and who will refuse to give up until justice has been done.

I am always struck by those statues of justice you see high up on our courthouses; the blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice suggests it is something impartial and remote. If you only follow the rules correctly, justice will be done.

That’s not the kind of justice I am thinking about. Court decision making about children’s lives is full of considerations having less to do with procedure and more to do with the human side of carrying out justice. That is the idea of justice that is so essential to the success of CASA/guardian ad litem work. When we talk about advocating for the child’s best interests, we are talking about giving these youth an opportunity for the things they most want: a happy, productive life; a life of value; a world that allows you to believe in justice.

The juvenile and family court judges I have known over the years are some of the most compassionate proponents of justice for children that I have ever known. When he served on our board and executive committee, the late Judge Steven Herrell of Oregon was a constant, thoughtful and gentle reminder of why we do what we do: to do right by abused and neglected children. Judge William Thorne of the Utah Court of Appeals, who also served on the National CASA Board of Trustees, is a passionate proponent of the rights of American Indian and Alaska Native children.

When I became the CEO of National CASA, Judge Michael S. Town of Hawaii sent me an article about therapeutic justice, an idea that was getting a lot of attention. In “problem-solving” courts such as drug courts and unified family courts, there was a focus on holistic approaches and collaboration between the legal community and external parties in order to achieve positive outcomes for everyone involved.

As independent advocates for our children’s best interests, CASA and guardian ad litem volunteers are also engaging in the most constructive mission of the 21st century: to build a fairer, more inclusive, more just society. When we bring justice to those who have been abused and neglected, our lives and our country are enriched in more ways than one.

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Anonymous @ 2/25/2011 2:10:27 PM 
Thank You Michael for "believing" in all children....speaking in their best interests may protect the child in the long run....this morning I worked on a referral for a child that was advocated for when he was 5.....he is now 17 and expressing some difficulties...his extended family who he has been with since 5 are going to help him...the road is hard sometimes however, we do not give up....
Anonymous @ 2/18/2011 2:44:24 PM 
Hi Mr. Piraino , thanks for the informative article , ``just follow the rules and justice will be done`` well said. just like in the un universal rights of a child , eh? thanks Mr. Rune Jacobsen
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