Often new advocates are surprised by the amount of people in the courtroom (and these are closed, confidential proceedings). In a newcomer’s mind, I think, there will be parents and an attorney or two standing before the Judge, a scant and well-dressed group in on a secret-like hearing. This is usually not the case.
Like Family A’s* case. The mother, Marnie, was found to have delivered a baby exposed to marijuana. She refused to admit she had a problem when DCFS made contact with her and would not enlist the help of drug treatment, despite her baby showing all the signs of withdrawal. Therefore, her baby was taken away and placed in temporary custody. Marnie claims she does not know who, exactly, the father of her baby, Victoria, is. Marnie is married to a young man named Trent, though they are often estranged. Marnie says that it is possible, though not likely, that Trent is the father. However, she has stated the more probable father is her neighbor, Bobby. Bobby is the father listed on Victoria’s birth certificate. Marnie also has an older child, a four year old girl, named Yvette. Victoria and Yvette are placed in two separate foster homes. Yvette’s father, Marnie’s ex-boyfriend Taj, is in prison, and it is his mother, Lindsey, (Yvette’s paternal grandmother) who is caring for Yvette. Though asked to, this grandmother would not take Victoria in order to keep the sibling group together. Therefore, Victoria is in traditional foster care with a single nurse named Karla.
When the case comes in for Shelter Care Marnie is present with her attorney, Trent is present with his attorney, Bobby is present with his attorney, Taj is writ from prison and is present with his appointed attorney, CASA is present with an appointed attorney, Grandmother Lindsey is present, as is Karla and the DCFS investigator. This means there are at least thirteen people standing before the Judge! If a DCFS regional attorney and the caseworker who will be handed the case from the investigator are both there, that would bring the number of people to fifteen.
All these people can be hard to keep track of, and all these people have inherent rights to know about the child and give voice to their thoughts about the child’s well-being. Until paternity is established (and perhaps even after) both Trent and Bobby have legal rights to the child as one is married to the child’s mother and the other is listed on the child’s birth certificate.
This is where the importance of a CASA advocate comes into play. All of these people, all of their opinions and ideas, can make a lot of chaos for a child as well as a Judge to wade through. CASA has, always, only one focus. CASA focuses on the child. When Victoria, still in care, learns to toddle CASA will write that in a report that gets submitted to the Judge. When CASA sees that, after a sibling visit, both Victoria and Yvette are tearful and cling to each other that too will be reported. Perhaps CASA will suggest that the children be assessed for therapy together. When CASA, a year into the case, receives information that Taj has been released from prison and Lindsey is allowing him to have access to Yvette without DCFS’ permission or knowledge, CASA can inform the caseworker and write it in the report. When a drop-in visit is made and Taj is found to be home alone with Yvette in Lindsey’s residence CASA can advocate for Yvette being moved to be reunified with her sister in Karla’s care (the Judge can’t order specific placement, though he/she can highly recommend a certain living arrangement). CASA, while being considerate to and caring about the family as a whole, focuses always on the needs, wants, and development of the child.
For these cases, it certainly does take a village to determine a child’s best interest. As a CASA drill, can you make a chart showing the relationship between all the parties? Ours looks as follows-