Champion for the Children: Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Jul 15, 2018 10:00AM
By Kayla Sosa | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Barbara Bechtel wasn’t sure what she was getting into at first, but now she can’t imagine her life any different. A little over a year ago, Bechtel was looking for a volunteer opportunity, when she came across Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a national volunteer program that bridges the gap between the child and the court with a court-appointed special advocate.
“We speak for children that are in the foster care system,” Bechtel explained. “Children that have been removed from their homes due to, whether it be, domestic violence, neglect, or violence against them personally.”
A little over a year ago, Bechtel was looking for a volunteer opportunity, when she came across CASA.
“I have a soft spot for children in particular,” Bechtel expressed. “This popped up, and when I first read it, I thought, ‘There’s no way I could do all that.’ It just really seemed quite daunting.”
After thinking over it more, Bechtel decided to go for it. But the process to become a CASA is not quick and easy. After 30 hours of intensive training, volunteers are sworn in by a judge. There was a swearing-in ceremony on the same day Bechtel met with the director of the program.
“It was very moving,” she divulged. “And to hear what the judge had to say, how these advocates for children really make a difference and how much the judges appreciate it, and the fact that we can make a difference in the life of a child.”
CASAs are required to commit to at least one year and must meet with their assigned children weekly.
Once a case of Children’s Protective Services child removal goes to a judge, that judge decides whether a CASA will be appointed to the case. Because there aren’t enough volunteers for every case, the ones assigned a CASA are usually more difficult. Volunteers are then able to review cases and pick one with which they are comfortable. The first step is to meet those involved— usually the children, foster parents or guardians/family members and the biological parent(s). Then, there are weekly meetings and time spent with the children. CASAs must be at court every 90 days to report on the child or children; this includes submitting to the judge a 4-5 page objective report that consists of an update on the biological parents as well as the how the children are doing mentally, physically and emotionally.
“Ideally, the goal for CASA is reunification with the (biological) parent,” Bechtel said. “Regardless of what kids go through, it’s still believed that the best place for them is with that family. Which is hard, but luckily there are programs that the parents are also supposed to be participating in while the children are not with them.”
The role of the CASA is to not take sides, and just speak the truth of the situation.
With every other role being attorneys and overloaded case workers, sometimes the CASA is the most informed on the personal side of things.
“We’re there to speak for the child, in the best interest of that child,” Bechtel expressed.
But more than that, Bechtel is a friend, a parent-figure, a confidant to the children to which she is assigned. In her first case that has now lasted a year, she has spent time with the five kids she advocates for every week.
Not every case is five children. Bechtel originally was “co-CASAing” with someone else. But when that person dropped out, she decided to take all the kids on herself.
Though there have been some family struggles, Bechtel absolutely adores the kids — four girls and one boy, ranging from ages 11 to 3 years old — and, at this point, can’t imagine not seeing them each week.
“I’ll drive the girls home, and we’ll go to McDonald’s, or we’ll go to the library, or we’ll go to the park; we just play games and get silly,” Bechtel said. “The whole time I’m with them, I’m observing how they’re doing — if they seem down, if they seem troubled by something. And sometimes they’ll tell me when they’re sad, or about something going on that they’re unhappy about. They do open up to me, which is good because it takes a while to gain their trust.”
The children’s lives are sometimes chaotic, and the role of the CASA is to be an anchor in the midst of all that.
“These kids may move from foster home to foster home, and I might be the only steady person in their life,” Bechtel said.
Through the negativity, children always find a light that reminds us adults to step back and appreciate life for what it is. Bechtel sees this in the kids she works with as a CASA.
“I do see them happy, and that’s a blessing, that’s what I love to see,” she said. “When I come to pick them up, and they come running to me, ‘Barbara’s here!’ I love that.”
What is especially needed now are more people to fill this role in these children’s lives.
“If people think that they might be able to do it, we need people like this in the world,” Bechtel said. “I wish we didn’t; I wish we could just do away with the whole program, in a perfect world where kids were never taken away from their parents. But as long as we have that in the world, we need people to be there for the kids.”
To become a volunteer CASA, visit casakentco.org.
Kayla Tucker is a journalism student at Grand Rapids Community College and editor-in-chief of The Collegiate newspaper and website.