Every child deserves a voice. Foster children, however, are often denied any chance to be heard.
That’s where the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) come in. A CASA, or a guardian ad litem (GAL) as it’s called in some states, is a volunteer who represents the foster child’s interests in court.
The program began in 1977 in Washington, because Seattle juvenile court judge David Soukup was “concerned about making drastic decisions with insufficient information,” according to the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association’s website. He “conceived the idea of citizen volunteers speaking up for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom.”
Now, 40 years later, there are nearly 1,000 CASA and GAL programs across the country, including programs in every state, with more than 77,000 advocates. Not all programs are the same, but their goals are.
They all work to “promote the best interests of the child who has come before the courts due to abuse or neglect,” said Kathleen Foreman, district administrator of the GAL program for the First Judicial District of North Carolina.
“The North Carolina GAL program is a state program,” she explained. “It falls under the umbrella of the administrative offices of the courts—that’s the judicial branch. Trained community volunteers work in a partnership with an attorney advocate.”
Becoming a GAL requires a “rigorous background check and vetting process,” she added, including “FBI fingerprinting, references, criminal history checks … the volunteer goes through 30 hours of training. At the end, they are sworn in as an officer of the court.”
Volunteers start off investigating the circumstances of the child, Foreman said. They are given a court order, signed by a district court judge, which allows them to interview and review any records they think are relevant to the child’s case, including the records of doctors, therapists, teachers, and social service professionals. All of this information, combined with information gleaned from visits with the child, the foster parents, the biological parents, and other family members and friends, is combined into a written court report.
“There is a designated day on which this volunteer comes to court,” Foreman said. “They sit with the attorney advocate, who presents the guardian’s work to the court. They make recommendations about what is in the child’s best interest. (The guardians) are well received by the judges; they look to the GAL for information and perspective. The volunteers don’t get paid for the very intensive duties they carry out, but they carry a lot of weight.”
The advocate’s report is included in the court file right beside the social worker’s report, Foreman continued, and the volunteer returns to court every 90 days or so with an update.
“The volunteer stays with the case until relieved by the judge, when permanence is established,” she said, adding that permanence could mean reunification with a biological parent, placement with other relatives, or ultimately adoption.
When a volunteer agrees to take on a case, it usually means about a year of commitment, she said, which offers consistency to the child.
“If the case has any longevity to it, that child might see several social workers. We ask that the GAL stay with the case until it is closed. So, it’s someone the child can always look to. This is the child’s voice. Part of the job is to ask what the child wants, what (he or she) thinks of all this, then relay the wishes and desires to the court, even if the wishes and desires are not consistent with the child’s best interests.”
In North Carolina’s First District, Foreman feels she is lucky to have “100 percent coverage of our cases—we have a volunteer for every child in our caseload,” she said. “Truthfully, my attrition rate is pretty low.”
Sandy Briggman and her husband, Dave, are a volunteer guardian ad litem team in Foreman’s district. She estimates that together they have advocated for about 35 children in the 14 years they have been GALs. They usually take on more than one case at a time. “We have four right now,” Briggman said.
One of the most difficult things as a volunteer, she added, is “realizing that innocent children have been harmed or hurt in some way before they even are assigned to us. That affects their whole life—it changes who they are. If we can help in any way to turn that around or make it better, it’s well worth any work we have to do.”
At the beginning of a case, the time commitment can be heavy.
“Really, this program is how much time you want to put into it. We have in the past put 40 hours a week in a case,” Briggman said, but she added that it evens out to approximately 20 hours a month.
Foreman said that most volunteers can expect to commit about 10 hours or less a month, after the initial time investment when they are assigned a case, which can take about 30 hours of time over a period of three to six weeks. “We ask that each volunteer goes and lays their eyes on their child client once per month,” she said.
While Foreman has found that the program tends to attract a lot of retired professionals, “that’s not a requirement,” she said. “Anybody who has a sincere willingness to help a child will bring to the program their life experiences, which will help them. You don’t have to be a college graduate or PhD. You just have to be someone of good, solid character who cares about children and cares about what happens to children.”
Foreman added that the training guardians are given in the beginning doesn’t just stop. “We try to offer (education) to volunteers on everything that’s going on in this community,” she said. There are trainings on “mental health first aid, dealing with the topic of suicide, bringing people in from the state office to keep us current with changing legal issues, having our state training administrators come and do workshops with us on how to work best with the Department of Social Services, how to testify in court. Some of the more recent issues we were trained on are working with LGBTQ children and some of the unique challenges that can present. We are planning something in the spring about the opioid crisis and how it’s affecting children, babies in particular and families in general. We’ve done an in-service on working with children of incarcerated parents.”
“It’s not the easiest volunteer job you can take,” Foreman added. “It can be very emotional, it can be very involved. It requires commitment and a certain dedication. (But I think volunteers) want to do it because everyone comes to this work because they want to help, they want to give back, they want to make a difference.”
Briggman agrees, adding that one of the best things about being a GAL is “when it’s a good outcome and you see that precious child smile and know they’re going to have a chance at life—the chance they should have been offered at the get-go.”
There’s a misconception about children in foster care, she continued. People seem to think “it’s almost like there must be something wrong with this child to have this happen to them. I think people kind of shun children who are in social services. (But) it’s the parents they should be looking at differently, instead of the children. It’s awesome that you can be a voice for a child that doesn’t have a voice. They’re innocent, they can’t go to court, they’re not adults—even the teenagers, which can be more challenging to work with. You’re a voice for them, and I look at it as a responsibility to speak for them. It’s very fulfilling knowing you can help in that way.”
For more information on the CASA/GAL program or to find a program in your area, visit www.casaforchildren.org.