CASA volunteers learn what it takes to advocate for children

  • Michael Shaw of Pesom, CASA volunteer, July 28, 2017 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Family Court Judge Susan Carbon talks with the CASA program students last month in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • CASA volunteers look over the Manchester District Court with Judge Susan Carbon (center) during their week-long orientation last month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Molly Hill, one of several managers with the New Hampshire chapter of a group called CASA, leads a class into the Manchester District Court last month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, August 12, 2017

I didn’t really understand the reality of helping children caught in the drug crisis until I heard the story of the metal spoons.

The incident was told by Molly Hill, one of several managers with the New Hampshire chapter of a group called CASA, during a weeklong class for people who want to become court advocates for children who may be removed from their parents, often because of drug problems.

Hill wanted us, a group of 20 people who were living comfortable lives, to get a sense of the complications that arise when judging the lives of families in very difficult situations.

The story she told began with a foster parent who was puzzled by the action of a small child who had moved in with them while the kid’s parents tried to kick their heroin habit. Given silverware, the child would happily eat with forks and knives but refused to have anything to do with spoons unless they were plastic.

The reason for this odd behavior eventually came to light, Hill said. The kid’s parents had been cooking their heroin in metal spoons and didn’t want the child to accidentally get a drug overdose.

“They said: Don’t eat off those spoons, you always eat off the plastic. That was the lesson the child learned and brought to the (foster) home,” Hill said.

Then she added the really startling thing: “The parents, they were being good parents in their way.”

A person who injects heroin in the same room as their young child is trying to be a good parent? That struck me as a crazy idea, but as I learned during the weeklong course, minimizing the harm done to children of badly broken families requires adapting to a lot of crazy ideas.

“This is the land of gray. There are a few times when it’s black and white – but it’s mostly gray,” Jonelle Gafney, program director for CASA, told us would-be volunteers. “Which is where you come in.”

Volunteering for CASA

The class, held last month in the basement room of a former parsonage in Manchester, consisted of 13 women and seven men who were interested in volunteering for the New Hampshire chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA.

For four decades, including 29 years in New Hampshire, CASA has trained and overseen volunteers to provide a voice for children during long legal battles over their future.

In New Hampshire, CASA is called in to cases after the Division of Children, Youth and Families takes a child or children into temporary custody following an emergency call. The calls can involve allegations of abuse, sexual or physical, and allegations of neglect, often related to mental disabilities or drug use by parents. In the past two years, as news reports have made clear, use and overdosing of opioids by one or both parents have swamped the social services and legal system, to the point that CASA has stopped taking on many neglect cases that it would once have participated in because of a shortage of volunteers.

After social services are called in and a child is removed, a legal case follows in family court. Under state law, a final decision much be reached within roughly 12 months of whether the parent’s rights should be permanently terminated and, if so, whether the children should go to foster homes, adoptive parents or other programs.

Twelve months isn’t much for a parent struggling to kick a heroin habit, but state law is specific about the deadline and for good reason, the class was told: We’re dealing with the “child’s sense of time.” One year isn’t much to an adult but it’s a huge part of the life of a 3-year-old or 8-year-old or even a teenager, and we don’t want to leave them in limbo any longer.

Child’s advocate

CASA was started because parents have an attorney in these cases and so does the government, but nobody is advocating just for the children. It may seem strange to solve this lack by using lightly trained volunteers into to be what is known in legal parlance as “guardians ad litem” rather than using paid legal help or social workers. But fans of CASA, and there are many, say it’s a key to success.

“The value that CASA brings is that you’re reflective of the community. You’ve got incredibly broad and varied experiences: age, gender, background, interests,” Judge Susan Carbon in the family division court system told the class when we visited her courtroom in the Manchester courthouse. Carbon described herself as an “unabashed, unequivocal, absolute fan of CASA.”

There’s another advantage to volunteers: They’re cheap. The operating budget of CASA of New Hampshire to pay for staff and facilities overseeing the programs is about $2 million a year, said its CEO Marty Sink. Roughly one-third is state funds and one-third federal, with the rest from grants and donations.

In 2015, CASA’s 465 volunteer statewide advocates represented 1,198 abused and neglected children, which equates to about $1,700 for a full year of advocacy for each child. If a CASA volunteer can’t be found for a case, the state must hire a professional guardian ad litem, which costs considerably more.

Not everybody is a fan of CASA, however. The question of when – or whether – the state should remove children from their parents is a divisive and controversial one, and although CASA is independent of DCYF and law enforcement, it is often lumped in with them as part of the discussion.

Most prominently, CASA-N.H. was named as one defendant in an ongoing Hillsborough County lawsuit filed on behalf of the adoptive parents of two children who suffered sexual and physical abuse during unsupervised visits with their biological parents in 2013. The civil suit was filed against DCYF and Easter Seals, which supervised the visits. CASA volunteers sometimes observe visits between children and their parents but are not given a supervisory role.

Equal standing

Over the course of a year or more for each case, a CASA volunteer meets with the child or children and with parents and other relatives, talks to teachers and social workers who know the kids, visits foster homes and other possible locations for placement, reviews court and legal documents, and gives reports in open court during at least six hearings before a judge decides on the child’s fate.

The recent training session in Manchester is one of a half-dozen given around the state each year.

Following criminal background checks and initial interviews, we went through five days of training that lasted seven to eight hours a day. Topics included the biology of drug addiction, the best methods for talking with highly stressed people, the history of child welfare laws, some development patterns of children from birth through late teens, and even how to park your car to make a quick getaway if you fear a home interview with a parent might get testy.

Amid this flurry of information, the issues that caused the biggest concern among fellow classmates was knowing how to act while in court, including how to file legally admissible documents. In New Hampshire, unlike in Massachusetts and many other states, CASA is a full party to the legal case which means that volunteers sit at their own table in front of the judge, separate from but with equal status to attorneys for the parents and for DCYF.

Creating this unusual
status almost kept New Hampshire from adopting CASA in 1988, said it’s founder, Sink, because it drew opposition from one of two judges who were pitched the idea.

“Allowing lay people into the closed system of the court – that was something he was not comfortable with,” she told the class. Eventually a test run was allowed with 10 volunteers, and it has been growing ever since.

“I think it speaks well of the court system that they’re welcoming to civilians from many different walks of life, using our common sense, our life experiences, to advocate for the needs of the child. Sometimes we might be able to see through all of the red tape and emotion going on, and I think it’s wonderful that the court system recognizes that and welcomes us so warmly,” said Judy Pellettieri, a trainee who had retired after 24 years as principal of elementary schools, including Simonds Elementary in Warner.

In the class I attended, ages ranged from 30s to 60s and the backgrounds were much more varied than I expected. Many of the 20 students were retired but many were working; all were parents or grandparents but with a wide range in families – one has six children – and backgrounds included working in I.T., managing an auto-distribution firm, being an accountant, law enforcement, two who are transitioning out of the military, and several from education or family services.

Two things were universal: We were all white, which isn’t surprising in New Hampshire, and we were preparing to donate hundreds of hours of our time because we wanted to help children. Which probably isn’t surprising, either.

Fixing broken homes

It’s safe to say that visually, the standout member of the class was Michael Shaw of Epsom, a corrections officer and former Army medic whose muscular build drew jokes from classmates about using him as bodyguard.

Shaw said his 23 years working in the prison system has made him more than familiar with the need for programs like CASA.

“I’ve seen the end results,” he said. “I see learned behavior from their parents, I see broken homes. … I wanted to see early intervention, early recognition and to help a child somewhere along the line.”

Shaw said his determination comes from seeing the awful effects of drug addiction.

“You realize that their addiction comes far before their children, I think some people may not understand. I have seen it,” he said. “(Addiction) is just so powerful. I think I bring some understanding of that – and definitely patience. You need patience.”

Pelleterri, the former school principal, also knows the need for patience when dealing with children. She dealt with CASA when she was in education, and says that experience prodded her to volunteer.

“I always found it refreshing that they came in with a focus on the child, they were there for the child,” she said. “I tried to be student-centered as a principal. There were teachers with their needs, parents with their needs, the central office with their needs, and I always tried to keep my eyes on the child. CASA work seems to me, the same: You’ve got DCYF and their lawyers and agenda, parents and their lawyers, so being able to keep focus on the child and the child’s needs seems perfect.”

One of the biggest questions was whether the volunteers had the time to do the work properly. Many CASA families have more than one child and each child can require touching base frequently with multiple people; it’s easy for a volunteer to put in hundreds of hours of meeting people, driving among locations and reading documents in a year.

“My husband supports
me, but when I first told him that I wanted to do this, he thought I was joking,” said Wendy Lambert of New Boston, who helps her husband’s business, has three teenage children, and is also chairwoman of her local school board.

“To be honest, yesterday, I started questioning it. There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of people involved, it can be complicated, But sitting in that courtroom this afternoon – Judge Corbin was so convincing. There’s such a need,” she said.

“You know, there’s never a good time to do things. I figured, why not now?”

‘Make my daddy love me’

Focusing on what’s best for the child is the whole point of CASA but as we were told repeatedly during the course, determining what’s best in broken homes isn’t straightforward. Just asking the child doesn’t always work, especially for young kids.

“Even sexually abused children will ask to go back to the family,” said Bernadette Plante, CASA program director. “That’s what they know, that’s what they’re used to, that’s what they want.”

She gave the heart-wrenching story – social service workers who deal with children are full of heart-wrenching stories – of a young boy asked by his CASA volunteer what message to give to the judge. “He said, ‘Could you ask the judge to make my daddy love me?’ ” she said.

The goal for DCYF and CASA during the year-long legal process is to reunite the family as long as the health and safety of the children aren’t compromised. But at what point are the benefits of being with biological parents over-ridden by problems in the parents’ lives?

“There’s some juggling you have to do – the best interest of child vs. reunification,” said Plante.

The juggling is more complicated because options are being strained by the opioid crisis. There is a shortage of foster homes, which house children for months or even years while their future is debated, and for adoptive families. With fewer homes available, siblings are more likely to be split up or sent far away from other family members, which just adds to the trauma.

The shortage is one reason the state recently passed laws making it easier for grandparents to get guardianship – although CASA frowns on guardianship as a solution because, unlike adoption, it can be terminated at any time, potentially putting children back into the social services system.

This is where the debate over what’s best for the child gets complicated. Part of what many CASA volunteers do is check up on, and even try to help, the parents’ progress to sobriety so that children can safely be reunited. The goal isn’t the impossible one of turning the family into a happy home suitable for an uplifting sitcom, but to determine whether life has improved enough for them to be safely reunified.

To put it more simply, as we were told many times in class, when deciding on a family’s future, “D-minus is a passing grade.”

We were also told that it’s not uncommon for CASA volunteers and DCYF workers to reach different conclusions and present different recommendations to judges about such issues as amount of visitation during the legal proceedings and where the child will end up. That’s a reflection of the way CASA is deliberately kept independent of DCYF – there’s a reason CASA volunteers sit at a separate table during court hearings – although we were told that parents often find this hard to believe and are likely to regard the volunteers with suspicion at first.

Sitting on the balcony

The point of all this effort, of course, is to help the children, preferably by reuniting the family. A question that came up repeatedly, particularly after hearing how very difficult it is for parents to kick an opioid habit, and how many cases end up with parental rights being permanently terminated, was whether it was worth it.

The answer – given with the mix of soft-hearted empathy and hard-headed pragmatism that marked the entire course – is that the need is so great that we can’t help but try.

“I love being part of making it a little better,” said Molly Hill.

Or, as CASA program manager Joy Nolan put it:

“You are on the balcony, watching what is happening. You are the eyes and ears of the court and it can get very frustrating. You want to fix things … but sometimes they can’t be fixed,” she said.

“But when you look back on your life, sitting in the rocking chair, this will matter.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)