Written by Kristen Balelo, J.D., Director of Advocacy
The first time I walked into a Juvenile Dependency courtroom, I was a 30-year-old law student on a summer internship. On one wall, toys and stuffed animals sat neatly on a shelf, the other side, a long list of cases to be heard that day written on a whiteboard. A sheriff and a court clerk quickly ushered people in and out of the courtroom adorned with kid’s movie posters. The judge at the back of the room overlooked a long table where attorneys in dark suits rotated in and out as each hearing was called. The families sat at that table, too; mothers and fathers next to their attorneys on the left, the social worker and their counsel to the right. In between sat the youth; their attorneys usually forgoing a chair so the children were more comfortable.
Most people will never see the inside of a Juvenile Dependency courtroom, but many children do. It is where a court of law will decide the fate of a family after allegations of child abuse. Unlike criminal and civil courts, dependency hearings are confidential to protect the privacy of the children and their families. By the time they get to court that first time, the children have usually been removed from their parents’ custody and placed into foster care. This courtroom is where a child’s journey through the dependency system commences, and where Voices for Children’s work begins. This is when we begin assessing each child’s need for a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a volunteer advocate whose mission is to make a difference in their lives.
During the next few weeks, the social worker conducts an investigation into the reported abuse, compiling a comprehensive report proving why the children are not safe with their parents. It could take one to four, or even more, court hearings before the judge rules on whether the abuse actually occurred. Then, a case plan is created, the barometer for which the family will or will not reunify.
The goal for every child who enters the court system is to return to their parents’ care. The case plan lists services and programs in which the parents must participate to regain custody. The law categorizes abuse as physical, emotional, sexual or neglectful, usually stemming from alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and a lack of mental health resources. Each case plan addresses the aspects of abuse for that particular case. For example, if a parent is abusing drugs, a drug abuse program, inpatient or outpatient depending on the severity of the drug use, along with drug testing will be ordered. In almost all cases, parenting classes and individual counseling will be included in the case plan. Once the case plan is in place, the assigned CASA gets to work.
All of the attorneys, the judge, and the family will be back in the same courtroom six months later. Another report from the social worker, detailing the parents’ progress in their court-ordered programs and services, as well as their visits with their children, is submitted. The CASA will also write a report for the judge’s consideration. Many of the San Diego County judges have reported that the CASA reports bring the children to life; where the judge learns about the children’s favorite activities, foods, and colors, their aspirations and dreams for the future, even special talents the children possess.
The CASA report includes much more than that, though. The report describes the CASA’s monthly visits with the children and incorporates information the CASA has gathered since the last hearing. During that time, the CASA has connected with all of the important people in the children’s lives and reports on the quality of the children’s placement or multiple placements; their visits with each other if placed in separate homes; how the children are doing in school and what might be needed to help them succeed; whether the children are in the therapy and the progress they are making; and whether any and all medical issues are being addressed. Most importantly, the CASA will observe visits between the children and their parents, and give the Court a summary of those interactions.
With this information, the judge will decide whether the children can safely return to their parents, whether the parents will receive another six months of services, or whether the progress is so minimal that the Court will terminate the parents’ opportunity to reunify. In an overburdened and underfunded system, CASA volunteers provide vital information to the Court to assist in making these decisions.
Parents have between six and 18 months to reunify with their children. It is a happy day in court when a family can be reunited. If the Court finds that it cannot, an alternative permanency plan must be found. Those alternate living arrangements could include adoption, legal guardianship, or long-term foster care. In all cases, court hearings occur every six months until the child reunifies, is adopted, or ages out of the system. A CASA’s goal is for each child to be in a safe and stable forever home, whether that is with their family of origin or in an adoptive home. If that is not possible, and long-term foster care is the permanent plan, the CASA role becomes even more significant.
For the youth who are in long-term foster care, the courtroom seats reserved for supportive relatives, friends, and caregivers usually remain empty. Their CASAs, however, sit with the youth at the counsel table during hearings. CASAs continue to work behind the scenes and advocate for permanency. For older youth, the volunteer may assist them in applying for college scholarships and researching vocational schools or help them write resumes and fill out job applications. Since these young adults don’t always have a family to rely on, many times it is their CASA they call when they need help budgeting, are having issues with their roommate, or even need to learn how to do their laundry.
Over the last 15 years, I have witnessed thousands of Dependency Court hearings. While I would like no child to ever walk through the doors of those courtrooms, they have passionate attorneys, hard-working social workers, and conscientious judges on their side. They also have CASAs, an ordinary person making an extraordinary difference in their lives.
If you are an ordinary person wanting to make an extraordinary difference in a child’s life, we need your help. Attend Voices for Children’s next Information Session to learn more about how you can become a CASA volunteer.