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CASA gives judges child’s perspective

Christina Proctor

Who speaks for the children?

It’s a question that largely went unanswered in the court system for years. Parents had lawyers. The state had lawyers. The children were often left with heavily overburdened social workers. In 1984 a Washington judge started a program utilizing Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA. The CASA worker was a voice to speak independently and without bias for the child.

“The CASA program helps in immeasurable ways,” said El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury. “It allows us to look at the case from the child’s prospective. Prior to the implementation of CASA, and prior to the time that courts were appointing lawyers to children, cases were decided without really looking at what the child wanted from these procedures. Children were frequently foisted off onto the foster care system and sometimes taken away from family situations that could have been solved.”

CASA El Dorado began in Placerville in 1992. Case Manager Julie Henry said South Lake Tahoe now has 32 active volunteers serving 68 children. The trained volunteers are appointed by the judges to be a voice for the children, who are often the victims of abuse and neglect. The workers conduct an independent investigation of the case by interviewing teachers, counselors, foster and birth parents, social workers, and spending time with the children. The volunteers make a report and recommendation to the judge based on their findings.

Rey Reyna is going on five years with the program.

“I do this for two reasons – one, they need to be done, and two, I can do them,” Reyna said. “The rewards are intangible. They’re your own and difficult to share with other people. You’re disappointed sometimes when you see how the system works or doesn’t work. Sometimes you wish you could make arbitrary decisions, but I can see the difference I make in these children’s lives.”

Melissa Bornstein, a teacher, got interested after two of her students were placed in foster care.

“There have been times when I’ve definitely shed some tears. You hear about what’s going on at home and it kind of breaks your heart.”

The CASA worker is assigned to the case until is is permanently resolved or the child is placed in a suitable home. Henry said commitment time ranges, depending on the case, but it averages about 10 to 12 hours a month. How long a worker is assigned to a case also varies. Bornstein has been with her current case for more than two years. She said establishing a trust with the children is paramount.

“Here we are another adult, saying trust me. It’s something they’ve heard from a hundred other adults,” Bornstein said. “I feel strongly about the commitment part of it. We’re not dealing with paperwork we’re dealing with a real child. If we can make some normalcy in that child’s life we need to stick with it.”

Judge Kingsbury said the CASA worker gives her a vivid picture of what’s going on with the families she sees in court.

“In the days of budget cutbacks for social services – even though our social workers do an excellent job – they have far more cases to attend to than they have time in the day to work with. CASA really helps bridge that gap,” Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury said the need for more volunteers is constant, and several are now being assigned to family law cases.

“I would love for us to have the ability to assign a CASA worker to every disputed custody case as well as abuse cases,” Kingsbury said. “I don’t have time to go into a home and see the people and family interaction outside of the court room. Having a CASA worker helps me make a more informed decision.”

Volunteers complete 30 hours of intensive training through Lake Tahoe Community College. Not everyone who take the class becomes a volunteer, but those who do take an oath of confidentiality.

The next Court-Appointed Advocacy Training course is being offered Sept. 23 through Oct. 30 on Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The classes are held a the Superior Court.

For more information call 573-3072.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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