Feature article published
in the East Bay Papers
CASA -- Speaking Up For
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.
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
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
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
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
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.