I speak for the forgotten ones, those whose voice is lost amid the clamoring of competing interests.
An advocate is one that pleads the cause of another. The job of the child advocate is to speak for the child’s best interests. Not those of the birth mother, the extended kin family, the welfare department or the foster parents. While all these parties may be important advocates, the courts have created a special role for someone to speak exclusively for the child’s safety and well-being. Defining what is best for a minor child is the first and most important issue for the advocate.
The person advocating must have a thorough understanding of what is in the child’s best interest. Most would agree that a child’s primary needs include physical safety, emotional well-being, and permanent placement in a stable and nurturing home environment that fosters the child's healthy growth and development.
The concept of Guardian ad Litem (GAL) grew out of developments in U.S. law in the late 19th century. Until then, Common Law had severely restricted who could bring lawsuits in federal courts. Changes in the 1870s relaxed these standards by bringing federal codes in line with state codes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the importance of the Guardian ad Litem grew in response to increased concern about children's welfare. Two social developments brought about this growth: a rise in divorce cases and greater recognition of the gravity of child abuse and neglect.
The Court-appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program began in 1977 when a Seattle juvenile court judge became concerned about making drastic decisions with insufficient information. He conceived the idea of citizen volunteers speaking up for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom. From that initiative, the CASA and GAL programs have grown along parallel lines to combined networks of more than 933 volunteer programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia. A recent year saw more than 77,000 CASA and GAL volunteers assigned to represent 234,000 abused and neglected children.
While they had different beginnings, the roles of CASA and GAL have more similarities than differences. Both are composed primarily of volunteer everyday citizens who have undergone local screening and training. Both may be legal parties and can file motions in proceedings involving the child. Both may or may not be an attorney. Differences exist more in the way they are used in various counties and states than between the entities of CASA and GAL.
The responsibility of the Court-Appointed Special Advocate and Guardian ad Litem is to plead the best interests of the child before a tribunal or judicial court. They are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make certain the children don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish overlong in inappropriate group or foster homes.
Children are a valuable future resource. When allowed to grow and develop haphazardly, they can create serious problems for society. Helping to keep these young vulnerable citizens on a positive path is a job of great importance and deserves the CASA/GAL’s full and committed attention.
What qualities make a good child advocate? Such a person is one who…
- Makes no judgment until relevant information has been thoroughly gathered.
- Keeps a focus on the goal of a stable permanent home.
- Knows the child and the living situation.
- Is aware of pros and cons of possible alternative options.
- Knows the law about review hearings, mandated deadlines and financial incentives.
- Prepares a written opinion to present at case conferences and in court based on his or her own personal observations and knowledge. He or she should never simply parrot the recommendations of the other parties.
In practice, a child advocate should care about only one issue: the child’s best interests. Every other party or participant in the child’s case plan presumably has an agenda that includes the best interests of others, so in this respect the CASAs recommendation to the court is unique. For example, state law may require a birth parent to meet a bare minimum standard to get a child returned. Meeting that minimum standard, however, should not automatically guarantee reunification. The advocate’s job is to include this information in providing an opinion about the best interests of the child. The advocate’s ultimate recommendation to the court should be wholly independent.
Whether by a personal visit, telephone or email, the CASA/GAL should be in regular weekly contact with every participant who has contact with the child. The important players may include the child, the case manager, birth parents, foster parents, school teachers, therapists and service providers. With today’s technology, checking by phone or email can be relatively easy and quick.
The role of the CASA or GAL becomes more important when the foster parent and the welfare department have conflicting views or interests. The welfare department may feel strongly about following certain policies, saving the state money and/or supporting the opposing adoption petition of another party. The foster parents may have a different opinion about what they perceive to be the child’s best interests. They may want to adopt the child against the continuing wishes of the birth parents. When disagreements occur, the court may welcome a third opinion, especially when the CASA or GAL has obtained first-hand information through home visits.
Favorable independent research on the effectiveness of CASA/GAL volunteers is provided by CASA for Children. They cite 18 references to document that children with a CASA or GAL volunteer are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care and less likely to reenter care, and more likely to find a safe, permanent home. They are more likely to have a permanency plan, especially children of color, and less likely to experience multiple placements. They do better in school and score higher on various supportive and protective factors than children without a designated advocate.
These studies are impressive. Nevertheless, care must be taken to avoid the logical fallacy of confusing a correlation with causation. Cases that merit the appointment of a CASA or GAL are likely to include many other favorable factors that contribute to success.
The ideal underlying the CASA and GAL programs is of great merit. Many CASAs and GALs perform an outstanding service. Nevertheless, the evidence remains spotty. Many foster parents we have spoken with are less enthusiastic. One foster parent overheard the CASA ask the case manager on the way into court for the name of the child followed with a request to tell him what she recommended. Prior to court, this advocate had never seen the child or any of the other parties.
An executive representing foster parents commented: “Ninety percent of the CASAs and GALs in my experience overstepped their bounds and did things against their own policies, giving recommendations without listening to all the parties. I know there are good ones out there, but we just did not have them in our area. Judges need to listen to foster parents with at least as much credibility as the CASAs and GALs.”
An attorney for foster parents estimated that that 20 percent of CASA/GAL volunteers went the extra mile, 50 percent did their job, and 30 percent misinformed the court because of ignorance or bias.
This problem of hit-or-miss effectiveness results from the absence of enforceable national standards. Guidelines for coverage, training and accountability are local or lacking. What a special advocate can and should do is not always what actually happens. The ideal may be diminished in practice by several basic problems in the system.
- Any person, with training and approval, and in some states with no training at all, may be appointed as a CASA or GAL. Qualifications vary by state.
- Opinion may be offered without research, evidence or even talking to the child.
- Even those who are qualified may harbor biased opinions or may not be objective in their view of a parenting situation.
- Accountability varies and is generally minimal.
The concept of a volunteer advocate as an independent voice remains an excellent one. The courts, case managers, foster parents and birth parents need to look for and insist upon a child advocate who truly does the job. In simple terms, the CASA or GAL should be knowledgeable about child development and well-being, and informed by regular contact with the child and other parties.
Chapter 15 Advocating for the Child: The CASA and the GAL Notes