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Volunteers Guide Children in Legal System


When abused children fall into the legal system, it's a trip through a bewildering maze. But for some, there is special help along the way.

CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) is a program that matches volunteers with children who have become dependents of the court. The CASA volunteer becomes the child's advocate during the journey through the legal process, which can take years.

The volunteer attends court hearings, visits the child weekly, monitors the case, and becomes a friend and role model. He or she reports on the child's progress and, as the voice for the child, makes recommendations to the judge about the youngster's future.

"Our perspective is the child," said Susan Fine, executive director of the program, which opened in Ventura County in 1985. It's among 390 similar CASA programs in all 50 states.Here, 78 CASA volunteers work with 92 children--only 10% of the children in the court's custody. The volunteers are assigned the most complex cases.

Before that happens, though, they undergo 40 hours of training, covering everything from the dynamics of sexual abuse to good communication skills, Fine said.

The volunteers are an eclectic bunch: a retired military man, a 19-year-old college student studying children's mental health, nurses, businessmen.

Peter Gartlan of Ventura is a retired real estate broker who signed on as a CASA volunteer a year ago. He plays chess occasionally with his 13-year-old charge.

"I was astonished at the plight of these children," he said. "It's Third World conditions for an incredible number of them. Society is asleep on this."

Fine told the story of a brother and sister living with their father at a campground. Their mother was in jail. They didn't attend school. They were malnourished, sick and afflicted with lice when they were placed in a foster home.

A CASA volunteer was assigned to their case. The children were returned to their father, who showed a marginal ability to care for them. Then the family disappeared. Through her connections at the children's school, the volunteer learned where the family had moved to. She informed the judge of the move and her belief that the children would be better off in Ventura County. The judge agreed and had the children returned to foster care.

"The CASA has been with them for two years," Fine said. "They have just blossomed." For the first time the children, now 8 and 11, began and ended a school year in the same school.

"She went to the beach with them, the park, the mall. They were both in sports and she went to games. She went to court every time they went to court. She was part of the healing process."

Another volunteer, concerned because her assigned child had run away, tacked a note to the bulletin board at a bowling alley, urging the child to call relatives. It worked.

"We don't go out on the street," Fine said. But because volunteers are usually with the children longer than caseworkers, they become walking histories of the children.

The CASA program, based at the courthouse in Ventura, gets by with a staff of three and subsists on funding from numerous charities and foundations, as well as fund-raisers.

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