How to become a Guardian Ad Litem for Abused and Neglected Children
Please be a voice. Make a difference in a childs life!
How to become a Guardian Ad Litem or CASA Volunteer for Abused and Neglected Children
What is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)?
*The CASA/GALs exact legal authority and duties depend on what statute he/she was appointed under.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) and Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) are volunteers who undergo extensive training and background checks to become certified to work with children who are involved in court proceedings. After the training and certification is completed, the volunteer is sworn in by the Court to serve as an officer of the Court. The CASA/GAL volunteer usually works on only one case at a time, so that he/she can devote the necessary time to get to know the children involved and to establish a trusting relationship with them, so that the children will feel comfortable confiding in the CASA/GAL regarding their concerns and wishes. CASAs/GALs can also assist with supervising custody exchanges or visitation; interviewing caretakers, counsellors and physicians to determine what they know about the children; and gathering records and information about the children. When it is time for a trial or hearing in court, the CASA/GAL can be a friendly, neutral person that the children can rely on for comfort in the unknown setting of the courtroom.
In some cases where the law does not require an attorney as Guardian Ad Litem, the court may appoint a CASA volunteer as GAL, to actually represent the child in the courtroom. In other cases, a CASA may be appointed in addition to an attorney GAL, and the two work together to represent the child. When a non-attorney GAL is appointed without an attorney, the law generally requires that an attorney be available for the non-attorney GAL to consult on legal issues affecting the child.
CASA is also the name of a national organization that provides standards and training for local associations of Court Appointed Special Advocates. Here is the National CASA Association Home Page and CASAnet, which has resources for CASA volunteers and GALs. If you want to find out more about CASA, or apply to serve as a CASA volunteer, you should contact your local CASA association. Here is the National Directory with addresses and telephone numbers for local associations.
When a child is involved in a court case, it is common for everyone involved to be represented by an attorney, except for the child. The CASA/GAL is a person appointed by the court to represent the child in court and to make recommendations to the court regarding the best interests of the child (some states may refer to these volunteers as Guardian Ad Litems (GALs), Law Guardian or Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
The role of GAL/Guardian or CASA, is not exactly the same as being an attorney for the child. The GAL/CASA has to consider the child's wishes, but also is required to make an independent judgment of what is in the best interest of the child, even if that is not what the child wants.
Personally, I believe that the children receive better representation from the Guardian Ad Litem volunteers/CASA volunteers. Attorneys are often appointed to these children as pro bono cases. They are typically already over extended in work within their practice of law, so the children get little to no one on one attention from the Attorney, and mostly the case worker notes are what is relied upon to make determinations on what is the best interest of the children. There are no true personal visits and time to really establish a trust and repore with the child.
Whereas with a CASA/GAL Volunteer, they want to take the time to spend with the child and learn their wishes, their past and make better recommendations on what their futures will hold. You have a personal stake in the outcome of their case. A good volunteer must know that they did everything possible to provide the best possible outcome for this child. It helps you sleep better at night knowing you took this on to do what is right, and for the right reasons versus someone who HAS to do it because the courts ordered it so.
People take on this volunteer role for different reasons. You should really take inventory of what you are willing to do and not do in your role as a volunteer. You have to be compassionate, but also be able to separate your emotions from rational decisions. You need to be a good listener and know that not all children are going to trust you just because you tell them you are a CASA/GAL. Trust is earned by patience, time and understanding. The title to a child just means you are another person sent to talk to them and ask questions. You may not get the answers you need on the first visit and you really shouldn't push if they are not willing to trust or open up right then. Earn it by not being intrusive. Compassion, patience and the trust that comes with not giving up on them is what will open the door and communication line. These children don't know who to trust right off the bat. They are still feeling out everyone that approaches them to see who is worthy of their trust and who is not.
There are also places that you will go that are not going to be clean, not in the best areas of town and in some cases in areas that you are not going to feel safe. You need to follow your instincts. If it doesn't feel safe or right, it probably isn't. Regroup and partner with the local Reps at the CASA or GAL office and allow them to establish a safer environment for you to meet in if necessary. The reason you want to go to the home is to be able to see what the environment is like for the child that would be living there. It's really important to know where you could be potentially sending them back to. You don't want to rely on the notes of someone else who may or may not be as thorough as you. You should check things out for yourself.
Then there are the children who are going to love you and want you to take them home with you because you are someone they trust. You have to be able to keep perspective and know that you are doing a better job for them by being their Guardian. You must remind them and establish those boundaries. If you can't then it is going to take a toll on your emotions. Some of the children you will want to bring home. But, know that your role is more important and vital to them as their CASA/GAL.
For me, the reason I became involved just became my worse fear. There was a young man that attended school with my son. I also was very close to his older brother as he was engaged to someone in my familiy. This young man I will call Michael was a gentle soul. He was innocent in so many ways. He loved to be hugged, treated with kindness and accepted. Yet, he walked with his shoulders curved in, eyes and head pointed to the ground and rarely made eye contact. He was quite, but had a pure soul. His hair was black and his eyes were just as dark as his hair. When you did get him to make eye contact with you, it was like looking through a two way mirror. On one side you could see that he felt accepted because you were taking the time to talk to him, console him in a troubled time. I saw a small child in fear in this half grown young man, and on the other side of the window I saw so much pain, fear and dread for what the outcome would be for him time and time again. Michael experienced a life that no one should ever endure. He was abused repeatedly by his father. The mother was in her own nightmare and would never go against the father and not only allowed, but often contributed to the abuse.
This boy would have guns pulled on him, and threats by his father to shoot him. He was beaten and even handcuffed to a piece of furniture and kicked in the head, face and body by his father. His face was beaten and swollen so badly you couldn't recognize that it was him.
Social Services and the Sheriffs Department were called to this home repeatedly. Once we were actually successful at getting him into fostercare where he was very happy and well taken care of. But, Social Services and the Judge handed him right back over to his father and mother. Even though the father was charged with assault and battery. Michael ran away often and would rather sleep outside than go back to the home where he was clearly not cherished or loved. The older brother had a nice home of his own and wanted to take his brother into his home and care for him. But, because he was not 21 he was not eligible by law to take him in. He was destined to get the phone calls, run to care for him and talk to the police time after time. Yet, Social Services and the Police never felt it wasn't bad enough on him to really remove Michael permanently from the home. I went and spoke with the Police once when he was hit in the face by his father, his ear ripped with blood coming out, shirt torn around the neck and red whelps on his arms and neck from his father. The Police Officer made a smart comment about how often he comes to the house and then turned to the child and said "What did you do to piss him off this time"? Not, I'm sorry this happened to you, lets get you medical attention; Not we are going to remove you from the home. No, he said "I spoke to your Dad, and it appears from our conversation that this is your fault." That was the last time that Michael called the police and asked for help from anyone. He felt destined to endure the life given to him.
On January 31, 2010, Michael took a 22 rifle and shot himself in the head. He was 17 years old, he had already spoken with a recruiter for the Navy and signed up to enlist after graduation. Michael spent 4 years in the ROTC at his high school and had 3 Gold Stars, 4 Bronze Stars, 3 honors and was the Orienteering Team Leader of the Rifle team. All of which I learned as I helped to write his obituary yesterday.
His parents did not know about any of his commendations aside from the Team Leader position which was not anything that he was ever celebrated for. I can't fix what happened to Michael. I was to late. I finished my classes to late to be a GAL to make a difference for him. But, I can promise, that I will always treat every child I see like they were Michael and give them their dignity, respect and kindness they deserve, I will earn their respect and trust and I will not let them down. I will not take sloppy work from the police as acceptable and short investigations from Social Services as ok. I will have a loud and clear voice for my kids and when it is all said and done, they will know that there is someone out there who doesn't want anything from them but to know that they are safe, healthy, happy and bound to grow up with a future that they have a say in making.
There are so many Michaels out there that need a voice. Every State has a need for volunteers who are willing to be that voice. If you have an open mind, a kind heart, patience, time and a desire to make a difference in a childs life. Please sign up to become a CASA/GAL volunteer. It will be one of the most challenging, rewarding and memorable thing you will ever do in your life! Give a child back their voice!