How does a case come into the courtroom, and how does CASA get involved? We hear these questions pretty frequently and, sometimes, we get calls from people who want us to help them. We have to tell them, 100% of the time, that CASA can’t just pick up a case of our own volition, no matter how much we may want to. Whether its a disagreement with an ex about a child with red flags for abuse, grandparents who have witnessed concerns when a child has come to stay with them, or a strong feeling from another interested party that a child is suffering CASA cannot directly get involved. All of these callers are directed to call the DCFS hotline at 1-800-25-ABUSE (252-2873) or CASA will call this number if information is shared that needs to be reported through the proper channels.
Why can’t CASA get directly involved? CASA doesn’t fulfill the function of investigators. As the GAL, we are not first responders and, without a court order, hold no jurisdiction over a child while in the care of their parents outside of the scope of the courtroom. CASA advocates are officers of the court, not law officers. Until a case is in the purview of the court, it is outside of CASA’s official awareness.
How does CASA hear about new cases? Typically, CASA staff is busy in the office and gets a call from someone at the courthouse to announce that X amount of children have been placed into Temporary Shelter. This means that, after completing a thorough investigation, a DCFS team has removed the children from the care of their parents and placed them either with an appropriate family member, godparent, ‘fictive kin’ (which means someone who knew the child before placement such as a teacher, a neighbor, or a known family coworker), or in traditional foster care. A hearing must be had “within 48 hours of the child(ren) being removed or within 24 hours of an alleged offender being removed” of a child being taken. This is to ensure that the child is safe and that there was good cause to remove the child from his/her home. Its a big deal to pack a kid up and take him/her/them to somewhere they’ve never been or never lived. All parties here in Boone County definitely know this and respect it.
Within that time frame a hearing is had. This is called a Temporary Shelter Care hearing. Typically, at the start of the hearing, Boone County CASA as an organization is appointed to serve as the child’s Guardian ad Litem. It is up to CASA which advocate to assign to the new case, if it passes Shelter Care. CASA will approach the most fitting unassigned advocate to take the case. If the parents do not stipulate (agree that the court would find cause to place their children out of their care) then a full hearing with lawyers making arguments is had. After the State’s Attorney and the parents’ attorneys present their cases the judge will make a finding of probable cause (mistreatment probably happened, a lesser standard of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt) and urgent and immediate necessity (if the child wasn’t taken quickly the harm would be great, could increase, would cause irreparable harm, etc.) for out of care placement or not. If not, the case is closed and CASA has no further contact with the family. If it is found then CASA begins the long road of working with the family by meeting with the child, speaking with the child’s parents and foster parents, speaking with teachers and counselors, collecting medical records, and all manner of other things.
At Shelter Care CASA has many jobs. Staff must speak with the investigator to get the full story i.e. when and how the abuse/neglect happened, what the parents have said so far concerning the maltreatment, and find out where the children were placed after custody was taken. After that, CASA must get contact information about the foster placement and then speak with the biological parents to get their contact information and ask if there is anything important about the child they would like their CASA advocate to know. This information is often very useful.
CASA cases come in for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps a child was drug exposed in utero. Perhaps a child was spanked to the point of leaving lacerations or bruises. Perhaps a child wasn’t fed a wide array of food not due to poverty or had food frequently withheld as a punishment, leading to undernourishment. Perhaps a child was isolated in a small space regularly. All of these reasons and many more are cause for Shelter Care and, immediately after, CASA involvement.