Selected Writing - Features

Public Relations  ~  Media  ~  Creative  ~  Scripts  ~  Corporate  ~  Web
Feature article published in the East Bay Papers

CASA -- Speaking Up For Children

Last year three-year old Bradley McGee died when his father held his head in a toilet. This didn’t happen in Rhode Island, but it could have. Cases similar to this tragic incident are growing in number throughout the country and Rhode Island is no exception. Bradley died because he was the victim of abuse which was well documented but he did not have legal representation in court even though his home state of Florida requires it. He was, in fact, one of 15,000 children in that state without representation. In other words, no-one was looking out for Bradley. Had there been someone at his side to advocating for his rights, he could well be alive today. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) was formed in early 1970 to help prevent such tragedies.

“Last year three-year-old Bradley McGee died when his father held his head in a toilet.”

Each year one million American children suffer from child abuse, and more than 2000 of them die as a result. For many of those who live, the hurts inflicted on them as children influence their entire lives. In Rhode Island alone there are more than 2,800 children who are the victims of abuse or neglect, and have been removed from their homes because of it. They live in foster care or institutions awaiting a final determination by the court as to whether they will be returned to their families, be freed for adoption or remain in long-term foster care.

Despite its increased reporting in the media violence toward children is not new. Violence toward children has been accepted, condoned, endorsed and ignored throughout history. Child abuse laws are, in fact, very old. Punishment for the mis- treatment or murder of children (infanticide) can be found in the laws of ancient Egypt and Rome. Yet much of what we consider abuse today has been generally sanctioned in the past -- abandonment of children by their parents, harmful child rearing practices such as “swaddling” of infants (wrapping the body so tightly that the child is unable to move) was nearly universal, and beating children was a discipline not only practiced but recommended by experts.

But it was the case of Mary Ellen, in 1874, that forced the issue of child abuse into the public eye. This case represented the first time child practices became an issue considered by the social welfare and judicial systems in this country.

“Violence towards children is not new.”

Mary Ellen was an illegitimiate child whose mother and father were both dead. The New York Commission of Charities and Corrections had given her into the care of a Mr. and Mrs. Connolly who were to report each year on her progress. Instead, they abused her. In her own words Mary Ellen said: “My father and mother are dead. I don’t know how old I am. I call Mrs. Connelly mama. I have never had but one pair of shoes, but I cannot recollect when that was. . . My bed at night has been only a piece of carpet stretched on the floor underneath a window.

Mama has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip -- a raw hide. Mama struck me with the scissors and cut me... I haven’t ever been kissed by anyone – never been kissed by mama. Whenever mama went out I was locked in the bedroom. I didn’t want to qo back to live with mama, because she beats me so.” Her case stirred public attention and complaints began to pour into the commnission. In fact, so many cases of child-beating and cruelty to children came to light that that at a community meeting of citizens was called and an association for the defense of outraged childhood” was formed. That association gave rise to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was formally incorporated the year after Mary Ellen’s case.

In 1899 the first juvenile court was created to deal with maltreated children but most of the children brought before these courts were placed in homes for wayward children or reform homes. It was not until 1944 that the courts involved themselves in guarding a child’s well-being by making decisions to restrict a parent’s control. Parallel to the court’s development, in the 1940's and 1950's, physicians began to note and document injuries which could not be adequately explained, and in 1961, C. Henry Kempe and his colleagues coined the term “battered child syndrome,” focusing the attention of the American medical community on one of the dramatic manifestations of family violence. The outcry following Kempe’ s awakening of the medical community led to a model Child Abuse Reporting Law backed by the U.S. Children’s Bureau. By the mid-60's the law was adopted in some form by all states. Additional laws and statutes relating to the treatment of children have since been enacted in an effort to continuew to define how cases of abuse or neglect should be approached, and what is best for the children involved.

In 1974, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) initiated a two-year study of children placed in care by the Courts. The data collected showed a need for regular, systematic review of the status of these children. Other studies have also shown that prolonged foster care, or frequent moves in foster care, have serious long-term detrimental effects on a child.

Spurred by the need for a system that would track such children, the NIJFCJ endorsed the idea of a volunteer program advocating for the rights of children. Historically, advocates for children in legal proceedings have been attorneys so to distinguish a vounteer advocate the term CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) was coined.

The first CASA program began in King County, Seattle, Washington. Rhode Island Family Court established the natin’s second program in 1976. There are now over 125 CASA programs in 47 states in the United States serving 67,000 abused and neqlected children.

When a case of abuse or neglect is brought before the court CASA is appointed by the court, to represent the rights of the child or children. A Volunteer CASA (VCASA) is then assigned to the case to ensure that the child’s progress through the .judicial process is closely monitored so that they are not allowed to “fall through the cracks.” The VCASA is there expressly for the child and has a direct and significant impact on the child and farni ly. Their involvement helps to shape the child’s future.

“Whenever Mama went out I was locked in the bedroom.”

For a case to arrive before the court someone must first report a situation to the authorities. In the State of Rhode Island there is a mandatory reportinq law (Rhode Island General Laws 40-11-3) which requires any person “who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that any child has been abused or neglected” to report the information to the Department for Children and Their Families (DCF) who will investigate the report immiediately. All complaints are channeled through the Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking Systems (CANTS) , a computerized information storage and retrieval system. Each complaint is assigned to a Child Protective Investigator (CPI) who conducts an investigation of the allegations. The child may be removed from the home at the time of the complaint, or at any time during the investigation, if it is thought that they are in danger or physical harm. If DCF determines that the allegations have merit they will file a petition. When the petition is filed a case may involve some or all of the following types of hearings: arraignment, probable cause, pre-trial conference, trial, and review.

All cases are heard by a Family Court Judge whose responsibility it is to hear the facts of the case, decide the relevant law, and make a decision. The Judge relies on the evidence presented and cannot pursue an independent investigation. Therefore, the VCASA is especially important to the case. The VCASA is appointed to provide independent representation for the child, and to present the court what they determine to be in the best interest of the child, both for the present situation and also for long-term planning. In this role the VCASA meets with the child, the parents, relatives, foster parents or other caretaker, DCF social worker, and any others having pertinent information about the child and the family. “The VCASA then formulates an opinion about the child’s placement, custody, visitation with parents, need for counseling, and so on. The VCASA presents their recommendations to. the court both in writing and orally.

CASA Volunteers fill many roles -- Investigator, Advocate, Monitor and Reporter. They gather all relevant facts and make sure that these facts are before the court at all hearings. They also make sure that the court, the social service personnel, and others involved with a case fulfill their obligations to the child. They monitor all court orders to ensure compliance by all parties and bring to the court’s attention any change in circumstances that may require modification to the court order. The court order may require the parents, or the perpetrator of the abuse, to go for drug counseling, alcohol counseling, marital counseling, psychiatric help, and more, if need be. The VCASA visits the homes or the foster care situation to determine if the child’s needs are being met. They will assess the situation, check to see that the child is being cared for, nurtured, and receiving appropriate medical care, and education. They will then submit to the Family court a written report with findings and recommendations based on the information gathered, and they appear at court hearings to explain and/or elaborate on these written reports.

Volunteer CASA’s are not social workers, nor are they a Big Brother or Big Sister. A VCASA is a concerned, sensitive, trained individual who is dedicated to ensuring that the best interests of the child are served.

In Rhode Island CASA is a state funded agency with two strategic offices: one in the Court House at Dorrance Plaza in Providence, and one in the Kent County Court House in Warwick. The agenc y is directed by Francis Brown, a career attorney who has taken on the role of Director as a “second career.” The agency employs 6 staff attorneys, 4 staff social workers, 3 program coordinators, and 3 clerical staff. But it is the volunteers who form the body of the organization, and without them the program would collapse under the weight of cases. Jim Pickett, the CASA attorney in the Kent County office, handles 400 cases with the help of about 70 volunteers.

“Children are not allowed to 'fall through the cracks.' ”

People wanting to volunteer as a CASA are very carefully screened. A thorough background check is doen, including an FBI check to make sure that the individual is trustworthy with no personal history of abusive acts. Personal referees are asked about the individual’s background and suitability for the .job. It is particularly important that the person be able to keep confidentiality. Breaking confidentiality when workinq with a child is very serious and warrants dismissal from CASA, When a candidate is successfully accepted into the program they are trained in the techniques of interviewing parents and others with information about the case, the legal system, the social welfare system, and particularly how to communicate with and handle an abused child. Continuous in-service training is given in all aspects of child abuse and neglect. When assigned to a case the VCASA works closely with the CASA attorneys, keeping them informed throughout. In return the attorneys advise and counsel the VCASA. Because this work is emotionally demanding there are active volunteer support groups where volunteers can openly discuss problems and cases, still without breaking confidentiality, and get help and advice from their colleagues and peers.

Volunteers are asked to donate only as much time as they can to a case. As far as CASA is concerned any time is a help. A typical case may require between 12-15 hours in the first month following assignment to the case, them maybe 8-10 hours a month after that.