Elaine French recalled her first meeting with the boy she volunteered to take care of as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
“He was there and that was about it,” she said.
Throughout their 18 months together, though, meeting once a month, she eventually saw a transformation
“I’ve watched the child bloom into a happy and content child in the foster home,” said French, of Littleton. “And the parenting skills of the parents involved have improved.”
CASAs are volunteers who help children in foster care navigate the court system and act in their best interests as parents involved with counselors work to improve their family situation so the child can return to his or her biological family.
Getting to know a child, they make recommendations to the court, help to ensure that a child, whether an infant or a 17-year-old on the verge of becoming a legal adult, is in a safe and stable environment, and they partner with a team to provide the services necessary for the well-being of a particular child.
Currently, there are some 600 CASA volunteers across New Hampshire and 39 in the North Country, where more are needed.
On May 19, a CASA informational session will be held at Rek-Lis Brewery in Bethlehem for those interested in volunteering, followed by a virtual Zoom presentation at 5:30 p.m. June 6 with a focus on needs in the North Country.
Need For Volunteers
With those 39 CASAs, the organization has been able to assign a CASA to about 80 percent of cases, said Andrea Brochu, North Country outreach coordinator for CASA.
“The other 20 percent, unfortunately, we have to return to the court because we don’t have a CASA advocate for them,” she said. “We are seeing a greater need for volunteers because the cases are lasting longer than what is typical, so CASAs are remaining tied up on a case for a longer period of time. Other than finishing a case in a year to 18 months and moving on to another one, they could be on a case for 2 to 2 ½ years.”
Driving the need for more volunteers is the opioid epidemic as well as case reports that were put on hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and are now proceeding.
In any given year in the North Country, because of regular volunteer attrition, about 10 people are needed to come forward and get trained, said Brochu.
While that doesn’t sound like a large number, it’s not always easy to reach in a part of the state that presents its own unique challenges.
“The most common challenge we deal with is we are very spread out,” said Brochu. “The CASAs in the North Country are driving the most miles to visit their children to go to court. It’s a greater burden for driving more so than anything else.”
Access to services can also be difficult when a parent, for instance, wants to get into substance abuse or mental health treatment and encounters a waiting list, or when children need to get into counseling, she said.
“Access to services and the rural nature of being spread out are two of the greatest difficulties and we do everything we can to support the CASAs,” said Brochu.
She described the qualifications a volunteer needs and what exactly they do.
“First and foremost, you must have a desire to positively impact a child’s life,” said Brochu.
The ideal volunteer will also be familiar with basic computer programs like Word and have sufficient communication and writing skills.
“But most importantly, what a CASA does is make a relationship or bond with the child that they’re advocating for and gather information from the child and present that information to the court and tell the court what they believe to be in the best interest of that child,” said Brochu. “They ensure that the child is not left behind and does not slip through the cracks in what is a very stressful and traumatic experience.”
She said, “These are children who’ve experienced abuse and neglect, been removed from their homes and are in foster care or group homes and that CASA is most usually the one constant that they have experienced in their life and that CASA ensures that the child has a voice in what is going on in their life and ultimately what is in the best interest of that child.”
CASAs visit the child on a monthly basis, get to know that child, and try to create some happiness in his or her life and see that child loved, which Brochu said many CASAs feel is the most rewarding and meaningful part of their work.
“These are cases from the state in which DCYF [New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families] has been investigating a family and has found it necessary to remove the child or children from the home for safety reasons,” she said. “Those children are then in the custody of the state, and they may be in foster care or a group home or in the care of another family member while the biological parents work through what the court and state are telling them they need to do to right the situation so that their children are in a safe home.”
Training And Choice
The first step for those interested in volunteering is to fill out the application on the CASA website, answer several questions, and include biographical information about where one lives and what one does, said Brochu.
That gives the organization a chance to see a prospective volunteer’s writing skills and if they’d be a good fit for the program.
Candidates are then interviewed (a remote option is available), and Brochu said that interview will also determine how a volunteer would handle certain situations and if there is a traumatic past in that CASA that could be triggered by the work.
Training totals 40 hours, done through 10 four-hour blocks during a period of four to six weeks.
“We have a training coming up in June, which we’re hoping to fill with people throughout the state,” said Brochu.
CASAs work primarily on one case at a time and it could be a single child or a sibling unit.
“It could be an infant who is born addicted to substances who isn’t in the bio parent care or it could be a 17-year-old who needs a CASA advocate and voice in that court until they age out of the system,” she said. “The most average age is in grade school, in second, third, or fourth grades.”
A new CASA would not be offered a complex case, said Brochu.
“The important thing we stress is they’re offered a case from the court of their choice,” she said. “If the case does not sound like a good fit for you, you can say no to that case. We want the volunteer to connect with the child, for the child’s sake and also for the best outcome.”
Those CASAs who might have their own traumatic experiences triggered do not have to take a case, and if they do, there is a CASA support group that meets to talk, prop each other up, and share experiences and advice, said Brochu.
“People can be very intimidated by the volunteer work,” she said. “You don’t need any special training or any special background. We provide you with that training. You just have to have the heart to do it.”
Along with a peer support group, CASA, which launched in 1989, has three staff attorneys that ensure everything is reviewed and volunteers are protected, said Brochu.
“You’re not out there alone,” she said. “We work hard to make sure these advocates who are doing the hard work have every support necessary to do that work.”
A Volunteer’s Experience
French, a former state representative who takes cases out of Littleton District Court, joined the CASA team five years ago, after speaking with former state representative Sue Ford, a CASA from Easton.
Not long after, in 2017, she went to Houston to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and met a CASA in that state. Soon after that, back in the North Country, she saw a CASA ad in the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation newsletter.
French said she took that as a sign and did the interview and completed the training.
She’s taken four cases in five years.
Her current child is under 10 (because of confidentiality reasons she can’t name him or disclose his exact age).
“The requirements for me are to interact with the child, the foster home, and however many parents are involved in the case at a minimum of once a month, and then write up reports,” she said.
Her work comes out to about five to 10 hours per month.
French said the New Hampshire court system prefers what are CASA guardians ad litem, which are volunteers, as opposed to paid CASAs who are only required to meet with the child once a year, because the volunteers meet with the child more frequently (and save the state some $3 million a year).
“Each parent that’s involved in the case has a lawyer, but a child doesn’t have a lawyer and has a CASA,” she said.
Along with meeting the child in the foster home setting and with the parents separately, she will occasionally meet with the child’s teachers to see how things are going at school and then write up reports to present to the judge on what’s going well and what might not be going well and what she sees as a problem that needs to be addressed.
Being a volunteer and not a state employee can help the process, said French.
“I think it helps the parent form a bond with you and be willing to talk with you because a CASA is an average every day person,” she said. “It’s not somebody with a PhD in psychology or someone like that. We stress to them we are not employees of DCYF. We say I’m a volunteer and I want to help you through this and see if we can get everything straightened up so you can get your kids back or your child back. I think that helps them to trust us, to give the information that can help us in figuring out what needs to happen.”
She spoke of a deepening connection with the boy for whom she currently advocates.
Last summer, French hadn’t been to the foster home in a while.
“I get out of the car and he says, ‘Do I know you,’” she said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I come and see you every once in a while and I haven’t been here for a while.’ Then he started talking to me. There was this huge pile of dirt where they were doing some renovations. Another family showed up and kids started playing and he turns and looks at me as they’re running toward the pile of dirt and says, ‘Well, come on.’ I went over there and got to play in the dirt. He picked a flower and gave it to me. The work makes you feel good.”
The May 19 informational session at Rek-Lis will include CASA volunteers recounting their experiences and why they chose to be a CASA, along with raffle prizes and a trivia contest.
The event will give people the opportunity to learn more about what CASA does, said Brochu.
“We need 10 volunteers and we ask people if they think they might be one of those 10 or if they know of somebody who might be a good fit for the CASA volunteer role,” said Brochu.