Hometown Heroes: Abused and neglected kids have Charlene Baxter in their corner 

  • New London resident Charlene Baxter became a volunteer for CASA of New Hampshire in 2014. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New London resident Charlene Baxter became a volunteer for CASA of New Hampshire in 2014. CASA stands for court-appointed special advocates, trained volunteers who advocate for a child’s best interests in court after the Division for Children, Youth and Families has made a finding of abuse or neglect. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New London resident Charlene Baxter became a volunteer for CASA of New Hampshire in 2014. CASA stands for court-appointed special advocates, trained volunteers who advocate for a child’s best interests in court after the Division for Children, Youth and Families has made a finding of abuse or neglect. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/30/2022 8:01:34 PM
Modified: 1/30/2022 8:00:06 PM

For the past six years, Charlene Baxter has accompanied New Hampshire kids through the court system as a fierce advocate for those who have been removed from their families because of abuse or neglect.

The New London resident became a volunteer for CASA of New Hampshire in 2014. CASA stands for Court-Appointed Special Advocates, trained volunteers who advocate for a child’s best interests in court after the Division for Children, Youth and Families has made a finding of abuse or neglect.

Volunteers like Baxter get to know the child or multiple children involved in a case and advise judges on what they believe will best serve the kids, which is not always the same outcome desired by parents or other adults involved in the case. Last year, CASA-NH accepted 87% of cases in which children or youth required an advocate in court.

The New Hampshire CASA program is one of 900 programs across the country. The private nonprofit has more than 620 volunteers in New Hampshire, including 150 volunteers trained last year. Volunteers receive 40 hours of education on topics like relevant legislation and how substance abuse and addiction function before they take on any cases.

“One of the really, really important things about our role is that we are not DCYF, we are not the state, we have to work as hard as we can to make sure the parents can see that we’re trying to be neutral,” Baxter said. “We’re not there to take sides. Our job is to assess the situation and try to ascertain what’s in the child’s best interest.”

Baxter volunteers her time primarily in courts in Newport and Claremont, but the kids she works with come from all over, even from out of state. Before her retirement, Baxter worked for the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension on youth and family policy.

“I’d sort of seen family policy from the 30,000-foot level and I really wanted to get down to ground level, I really wanted to work with families on the ground and understand better the family dynamics,” she said.

In a typical month, Baxter meets regularly with the children for the cases that she is responsible for, as well as DCYF caseworkers and other service providers assisting the family. She writes reports to submit to the judge in a case, speaks on behalf of kids in court and mentors newer advocates.

Between July 2020 and July 2021, 194 kids served by CASA were reunified with their families, 150 were adopted and 12 were placed with a guardian. During that year, 1,412 children had CASA to advocate for them and support them through the legal process.

Over the years, Baxter has witnessed the toll that the opioid epidemic has taken on families in New Hampshire through her volunteer work. “It opened my eyes,” she said.

Although she has seen the havoc substance abuse can wreak on families, treatment does help some parents reunite successfully with their children. “I’ve seen some disasters but I’ve also seen some real success stories where it works. The help that’s provided to a parent makes the difference,” Baxter said.

Baxter said the first few cases she took on as a CASA volunteer involved kids who had been sexually abused, cases which were both challenging and rewarding. She prefers working with school-age kids, who are old enough to better understand what’s happening and the role Baxter is there to play in their lives.

After the pandemic began, hearings went virtual, but cases didn’t let up. Visits with kids moved online, and CASA-NH began training volunteers remotely.

When kids went back to in-person education after months of remote schooling, advocates braced for an onslaught of new cases, since time away from teachers and school staff can mean issues are not identified as quickly.

But that jump did not happen as expected, said Johanna Lawrence, CASA-NH’s Director of Community Relations.

“To date, we have not [seen an increase] and we don’t know why, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Lawrence said. “What we have seen is an increase in severity of the cases that are coming in.”

Baxter said that the pandemic increased stress for families in a variety of ways. “There was economic stress, health issues, just the fact that people weren’t working,” she said.

CASA of New Hampshire is always looking for more volunteer advocates, Lawrence said. There is a particular need for advocates in the areas around Keene and Concord, as well as in Claremont and the North Country. An info session for prospective volunteers in the greater Concord area will be held virtually on Feb. 24.

When she first started as a CASA volunteer, Baxter was surprised to learn the children she advocated for nearly always wanted to return to their parents, even if they had been living in a bad situation. “But it’s not for me to ask why,” she said. Her job is to make the process clear and to tell the court what she believes is ultimately best for the child.

For building trust with abused or neglected kids, Baxter said there’s no big secret involved: “Just be genuine and be myself, ask a lot of open-ended questions and just be genuinely interested in them.”


Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.



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