Speaking Up for Children in Court
SUSAN MULLIN, a former stockbroker, squeezes past tearful mothers, social workers with armloads of files, and lawyers clutching stuffed briefcases jamming the hallway leading to Boston Juvenile Court. Ms. Mullin is here making sure the four children in her case don't fall through the cracks. Mullin is a volunteer with Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a national organization of trained local citizens appointed by judges to speak up for abused and neglected children in court. It's one time when a citizen can get up in court alongside lawyers and present information that may have some impact on how the case goes.
Since its inception in 1977, CASA has grown to 19,000 volunteers in 500 groups in 47 states. Each CASA is funded separately, with private or public money. Some, like the Boston group, are part of the juvenile court. The American Bar Association endorses the national association. The US Justice Department funds it. And President Bush honored it as a "Point of Light."
The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 requires states to provide a representative, called a guardian ad litem (GAL), for every abused child in juvenile court proceedings. In its last session, Congress authorized $5 million to expand CASA nationwide and is now considering the actual appropriation.
Those who work in the teeming halls of juvenile justice say these volunteers ease a system overloaded with crack-cocaine and sexual-abuse cases. In 1987, there were 200 cases of children in protective custody in the city, says Boston Juvenile Court presiding Judge Francis Pointrast. This year, he estimates, there will be 800 cases.
In Los Angeles, says Beth Waid, executive director of the National CASA Association in Seattle, the number is 15,000.
"It's unbelievable," says Judge Pointrast. "We had six families recently whose kids were lost in the system. No one knew where they were. In another case, reports kept coming in on some kids who turned out to have been adopted months ago. We have to have someone who prevents us from losing the kids."
David Soukup, a retired judge in Seattle, says he felt that way when he started CASA in 1977. "The most difficult job I had to do as judge was being asked to make a decision whether to take three-year-olds out of the only home they know because they might be abused, or to leave them in the home and find out in the newspaper that something serious had happened to them. It's never an easy decision, and it's impossible if you don't have someone who can look at the facts from the child's standpoint and make
a recommendation to you of what's best for the child in that case." SOMETIMES lawyers or law students serve as court guardians; in other cases, CASA volunteers are assigned to cases. Most are women, and 98 percent have full-time jobs.
The volunteers talk to the child as well as everyone connected with the child's life. They present their findings and make recommendations in court.
"With 200 cases, no way can you give individual attention to keep kids from falling through the cracks," says Katherine Donnelly, a probation officer.
"They're sure able to visit children more often than we can," says Gerry Campanil, an attorney who represents children.
"CASA's been a boon to us," says Judge Pointrast. "This is the best program the courts have come up with to help in this area. Even though it's not that old, it's integrated into the system well."
Paul Lewis, another Boston juvenile court judge, says, "The opinions of CASA volunteers are refreshing. I postponed a case once because the volunteer couldn't make it, and I wanted her opinion."
CASA volunteers say they recognize that their presence can be interpreted as an encroachment on social service's department turf. So they work hard to keep their relationships positive with the social workers.
Boston's CASA program is able to serve only one out of every seven children because the demand is so great. The national situation is comparable; there are only 500 CASA groups in 3,000 jurisdictions.
Despite the 1974 ruling requiring special court guardians for every child, a US Department of Health and Human Services study showed that some states are not in compliance. CASA says some states are not providing any representation for any children.
But for Susan Mullin, the 12 to 15 hours a month she puts in tracking down the facts of her clients lives are "terrific. Seeing when you can make a difference in someone's life," she says, "you feel elated."