Advocacy program gives children a voice in court

They are the voice of the child. In abuse and neglect cases, they give sound to the wounded child.

That, says Carla Grau-Egerton, director of the Island County Court Appointed Special Advocate program, is the underlying mission of the volunteer advocates who do the organization's work.

Formerly known as the Guardian Ad Litem program, CASA is designed to represent the interests of neglected or abused children who have been taken into custody by the state Child Protective Services agency.

"The mom has an attorney, the dad has an attorney ... even the social worker has an attorney," Grau-Egerton said. "But the children involved in family court cases often don't have any, so CASA volunteers are their voice in court."

Two South Whidbey residents, Linda Heierman and Janice O'Mahoney, recently joined the 18 other CASA volunteers to handle the 126 cases currently open in Island County.

A precedent was set last week when the new volunteers were sworn in by Superior Court Judge Vicki Churchill. It was the first time any CASA volunteers had officially been sworn in after training to work on child abuse cases.

Churchill said CASA volunteers are a big help in court.

"They are able to assist the court in understanding family dynamics from the child's point of view," said Churchill.

New volunteer Janice O'Mahoney had a career in juvenile justice as a probation counselor.

"I felt like I was driving an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. I want to be on top," she said. "What I learned is my older clients started out with abuse and neglect issues."

Volunteers are the heart of the program. The Island County organization is funded mainly through the state CASA program. But it's not a lot of funding. Volunteers, like O'Mahoney, do much of CASA's work.

"We do a lot with a little money," Grau-Egerton said.

The volunteer advocates, who come from a variety of professions and careers, are appointed by the court to speak on a child's behalf through all dependency actions.

Grau-Egerton said a CASA advocate provides a fresh perspective in the court process, an independent assessment of the factors surrounding a child's life. An advocate "takes a look at the big picture," she said, evaluating the roles of everyone involved, including the mother, father, foster parents, schools, doctors, daycare providers and other family members.

Based on their findings, advocates then make recommendations to the court about how a child should be cared for.

CASA currently has a team of about 22 volunteer advocates, each of whom handles up to six individual cases at a time.

Each CASA volunteer goes through an intensive training course before entering the field. Then, as they start their advocacy work for real, they are paired with an experienced mentor.

"We just don't take a new volunteer, and say 'Go,'" Grau-Egerton said. Volunteers are put to the test by attending court hearings and participating in a rigorous 30-hour training session. Some don't stay with the program. Grau-Egerton said some volunteers drop out after they attend their first court hearings.

"They realize they can't handle it," she said.

Volunteers are also monitored after the training period is complete. Grau-Egerton said she wants to know that the volunteers feel emotionally and physcially safe. She contacts them once a week to touch base.

But once trained, CASA advocates introduce stability into processes that likely feel intimidating, confusing and frightening to children.

Grau-Egerton says poverty and addiction to drugs, particularly methamphetamines, are key factors in many child abuse cases. Causes vary somewhat between North and South Whidbey. In Oak Harbor, the Navy draws a more transient population and all the problems attached to that lifestyle. South Whidbey is a more rural setting and attracts people who are seeking isolation, isolation that oftentimes hides what goes on in homes where children are abused, Grau-Egerton said.

"By the time social services removes a child, there is compelling evidence of abuse, corroborative reports from numerous sources," she said.

Often if there is one type of abuse in a home, there is another. Children often won't talk about sexual abuse until they are out of the home and in the security of a foster home.

Grau-Egerton said there are two basic parameters that are used in deciding whether to remove a child from a home -- a determination that the child is in imminent danger, either physical or psychological, or the absence of a parent in the home capable of caring for a child properly and keeping the child safe from a parent that may be an abuser.

But if the child is removed too soon, without enough documentation, there may be accusations of interference in family affairs: Without sufficient evidence, the caseworker may never get an abused child out of a home.

This is a particular problem when it comes to drug addiction.

"CASA is seeing huge meth addiction problems," Grau-Egerton said. "It is very serious in how it affects the children of young adults who are addicted. When the addicts are high, they can go three days without caring about anything, and that includes their children."

Grau-Egerton remembers some cases in which babies had been ignored for days, going unfed and living with diapers unchanged with rotting formula bottles on the kitchen counters of rodent-infested homes.

CASA volunteers are out there in the trenches right along with the social workers and other community interventionists.

"To a tee everybody that participates in this program is really committed," Grau-Egerton said.

In the meantime, she said, CASA will continue giving hope to as many

children as it can.

"We're seeing more community involvement and more education about the issues CASA is concerned about," Grau-Egerton said. "CASA is helping."

They need that involvement, since in Olympia are also affecting Island County and her program.

"I am counting on one hand the people out there taking care of children on the front line," Grau-Egerton said.

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