Being a CASA “is not for the faint of heart.”
It takes passion and perseverance to participate in the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, in which volunteers represent abused and neglected children, Adair Waldenberg said. She’s been a CASA since 2007, when she moved to Santa Fe from the Chicago area.
“They are the most vulnerable children,” Waldenberg said. “Some have been through things you don’t want children to go through.”
CASAs, appointed by a Children’s Court judge in state District Court, are on the front lines of the state’s efforts to protect children. They help judges make decisions about whether a child in state custody will be returned to the care of the parents or be freed for permanent adoption.
Recent incidents have increased scrutiny of the state’s child protection agency, the Children, Youth and Families Department, prompting criticisms that the state isn’t going far enough to safeguard kids living in potentially dangerous situations.
This week, Gov. Susana Martinez issued a number of executive orders aimed at preventing tragedies, such as the case of an Albuquerque boy who police say was kicked to death by his mother. Police and CYFD officials have been criticized for leaving the boy in his home despite prior reports of abuse.
The state faced similar criticism in the case of Leland Valdez, a Pojoaque boy who died from blunt force trauma in 2011 while in the care of his mother and her boyfriend. The child’s father had warned CYFD of suspected abuse, and the mother recently pleaded guilty to the crime.
Martinez is proposing high-level reviews of families who have been investigated by CYFD two or more times.
That’s a “no-brainer” said Suzanne Farley, executive director of the First District Court’s CASA program.
She observes the system up close and sees its successes and shortfalls. “This work is damned difficult. It is tough, dangerous work,” she said. “ … The system really needs to be looked at. And [Martinez’s] reforms seem like a good step.”
CASAs, she said, are critical to the system. “They can push back, ask the hard questions — ‘Are we sure we have done everything we can to find good, safe family members to take care of these children?’ ”
The volunteers work directly with family members, foster caregivers, courts, lawyers, guardians, social workers and service providers to plan a future for the children and help prevent them from falling through the cracks. They explain the legal process to families. They monitor the child’s well-being during face-to-face visits. They help identify special needs and recommend services. They focus on what’s best for the child.
To become a CASA, a volunteer attends a 35-hour training course and must provide references and pass background checks.
Currently, there are about 30 active CASAs in the First District Court, where the program started in 1995. Most of the volunteers are women. Last year, the First District CASAs served 93 children in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.
Each CASA has one or more cases at a time. Sometimes a case involves siblings. The CASAs work 15 to 20 hours a month and drive all over the state. Last year, they logged a total of 31,000 miles, according to Farley. They advocate for a child from the beginning of the case to the end, which can often mean more than a year.
“The CASA cares about that child and that child’s future,” Waldenberg said. “We have a responsibility to help offset some of the difficult experiences they’ve had.”
Paula Miller had the right background to become a CASA when she joined about three and a half years ago. She had been a psychoanalyst and before that a paralegal. She also had worked with Planned Parenthood, mentoring programs and hospice care. “It seemed like a good match,” she said.
Of the 11 cases Miller has handled so far, nine of them have resulted in a better life for the child. And all of her cases were resolved in under two years, so children are “not in foster care forever.”
In two of her cases, Miller said, the child was reunited with one or both parents; in the others they were freed for adoption.
A lot of the time, Miller said, she is working with grandparents because of parents’ long-term drug and alcohol problems.
“It’s tough work,” she said, “but for me to see a child have a chance is really important.”
Waldenberg had no legal experience when she moved to Santa Fe, but she was looking for a serious volunteer activity. An economist by training, she had been a dean at Northwestern University in Illinois. “I’m passionate about helping children,” she said, and “a strong believer that we can change the world.”
She currently has three cases — a small load compared with those of social workers, who might juggle more than a dozen cases. But the smaller caseloads give CASAs time to develop strong insights into each child’s needs. They know when a child might benefit from equine therapy or after-school sports, and when to suggest the child should see a different therapist.
Sometimes CASAs don’t prevail in swaying the court system, Waldenberg said. Early last year, for example, a judge returned three siblings to the custody of their mother, even though Waldenberg didn’t think the woman was able to care for them. A year later, two of the children were back with Waldenberg. The third is in treatment foster care in Texas.
“I knew it was wrong” of the judge to return the children to their mother, Waldenberg said. “Do I feel I made enough of a difference the first time? Nope. But you can’t win all the time.”
Other frustrations for CASAs are the lack of funding and support for CYFD’s in-home services, a high turnover of the department’s staff and a lack of treatment foster care. There’s only one family in Santa Fe to provide that service, Waldenberg said, so kids might have to be sent to Las Vegas, N.M., Albuquerque, Moriarty or Los Lunas.
Sometimes a CASA faces the unpleasant task of persuading parents to relinquish their children.
“A lot simply realize they can’t parent their kids, and they make this loving sacrifice,” Waldenberg said. “And sometimes you’re there to help them make that decision. But it’s not for the faint of heart.”
The work can be frustrating, she said, but when she’s advocating for a child, “I don’t shy away from a fight.”
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or email@example.com.