In a large, open room in Capitol Hill’s Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies, about 20 adults are sitting around tables and chatting quietly. A few scoop up popcorn and grab cookies from a long table. The room is too warm; a fan in the far corner tries and fails to push out the late July heat. The scene is the perfect archetype of the bad church meeting room.
Everyone here is a stranger to me, but we’re a few sessions into what will be a series of six three-hour meetings, and their faces are becoming familiar. There are the women who are my mother’s age, the college students, and the twentysomething professionals who’ve clearly scrambled to get here from work. (I hear one of them tell another, “This popcorn is my dinner.”) At 40, I’m the sole representative of Generation X.
We’re all here because we’re training to be court-appointed special advocates (CASAs), volunteers who mentor and support children with open dependency and neglect cases—that is, civil cases in which parents have either harmed a child, allowed a child to be hurt, or failed to provide a safe environment for a child—in Denver juvenile court. These children are arguably some of the most vulnerable members of our community: kids whose parents can’t currently take care of them, so the local Department of Human Services (DHS) removes them from their homes, opens a petition with the court, and initiates a series of events over which these children have no control.
The need for CASAs is great. Between July 2017 and June 2018, 12,904 children in Colorado had open dependency and neglect cases. Although the child welfare system provides a team of professionals—caseworkers from DHS; special attorneys called guardians ad litem (GALs) for the child; clinical consultants and counselors; attorneys for parents—very often those children do not have a voice in court. The GAL doesn’t even technically represent the child; he represents the child’s “best interest,” which might be different from the child’s wishes. Because kids can’t always miss school for midday hearings or because some children are too young or too intimidated to speak in court, they can’t always advocate for themselves. So without a CASA, it’s very possible that the judge making decisions about the child’s life never hears the child’s perspective.
As I work with my fellow trainees through case studies, I realize that despite the stifling heat, I’m shivering. My body can’t help but react to the thought of a kid whose opinions about things as personal and fundamental as where she lives and who cares for her aren’t heard. I think of my own children, who are seven and 10 years old. They have very strong voices and very clear preferences—about everything. As their mother, I know how they like their grilled cheese and which books they’ve loved and their favorite bedtime songs. I tremble at the thought of them on their own, trying to be heard in an adult world that may not be truly listening.
It was a typical workday in 1977, and Seattle Judge David Soukup had a difficult decision to make. The case before him involved a three-year-old girl who had shown up at a local hospital with injuries, which the doctor who treated her believed to be the result of physical abuse. The physician called the authorities. The child’s mother told police the girl had fallen off a swing.
The judge faced a dilemma: to order the child to be removed from the only home she’d ever known and make her live with strangers, at least for a while, or to leave her in a place that might be unsafe. As he reviewed the facts, Soukup says he wished there had been an adult in the courtroom—a trained volunteer—who could be an impartial party to the case and speak for the child. With that in mind, he asked his bailiff to call a few community members to come to juvenile court for a brown-bag lunch and to explore his idea. Fifty people attended that meeting, which led to the start of the first CASA program in the United States.
Today, 49 states and the District of Columbia have CASA programs (North Dakota is the holdout)—which are tied to judicial districts—though not every district in those states has one. In Colorado, the first incorporated CASA program was started in 1984, and today, 18 of the state’s 22 districts use court-appointed special advocates. Even so, last year there were only enough CASAs in the Centennial State to serve about a third of the children with open cases. In an effort to up that percentage, the Colorado CASA, which supports individual programs, recently launched a campaign to add 2,020 more volunteers to its roster in 2020. If it succeeds, the number of CASAs in Colorado would nearly double. “We have to close the gap,” says Jenny Bender, executive director of Colorado CASA. She acknowledges some statistics for children in the child welfare system are sobering, but, she adds, “We know a single, steady adult presence in a child’s life has incredible protective power. The outcomes improve for vulnerable children who have this kind of support.”
Every judicial district and CASA program has slightly different requirements for volunteers. In Denver, a CASA sees the child (or, in the case of siblings, children) on her case at least twice a month. She attends meetings with court-assigned professionals—such as GALs, caseworkers, and counselors—visits schools, and checks in with foster parents and biological families. CASAs log these interactions in a secure online database and, of great importance, submit reports before each hearing on the case. These provide insight into the child’s circumstances: How’s the foster placement going? What’s happening at school? How is the child’s behavior? How do the biological parents seem to be doing? Are the child’s needs—emotional, mental, medical, dental—being met? And what does the child say he or she wants? The report ends with the CASA’s recommendations to the judge. Although cases vary wildly, typically every 90 days the team serving the child shows up in court for a hearing, during which the CASA can reiterate or clarify anything she has recommended.
Bender understands that her pool of prospective volunteers—adults older than 21 who pass a background check and who can commit to 30 to 40 hours of training—might see the list of responsibilities as unattainably long. The truth, Bender says, is that being a CASA “fits in the nooks and crannies of your life.” Seven months out from my training in that stuffy church meeting room, I had learned that Bender was right. Making room for a CASA kid happens more easily than one might think. Isaac Sargent, a 26-year-old college student majoring in psychology, has been a CASA volunteer for four years. “[Volunteering] is showing up to a kid’s basketball game or talking to Mom and Dad,” he says. “Hearings can be as quick as 10 or 20 minutes. Our work is just about slowing the process down. When you think of kids floating through this system without knowing that someone cares, how can you not show up?”
The night that her four-year-old son, Daniel, was taken from her Loveland home by the Larimer County Department of Human Services, 31-year-old Heidi Erikson tried to kill herself. It was May 2016, and she’d been wrestling with her mental and physical health and struggling to care for her son’s needs. Daniel was eventually placed in what the system calls “a modified kinship placement”—that is, a home with someone related to or with close ties to Erikson. Erikson alleged, however, that the placement was dangerous for Daniel, and as the months of their separation added up, Erikson grew more distraught. “I only saw him for two hours every other week,” she says. Erikson advocated for Daniel to have a CASA but was told that no volunteers were available at that time in Larimer County.
The case dragged on, and in December 2017, the county moved to terminate Erikson’s parental rights, even though, she says, Daniel repeatedly asked his caseworker and GAL if he could go home. Finally, after much urging from Erikson and her attorney, the judge agreed to a closed interview with Daniel. Ultimately, the judge denied the county’s motion and ordered an immediate increase in parental visits and a plan for reunification. Just about that time, to Erikson’s “enormous relief,” CASA Eric Wurtz was assigned to the case.
Wurtz, 61, a retired air-traffic controller and the married father of two grown children, admits that early on, he wasn’t connecting well with Daniel. He tried playing catch with him or kicking the soccer ball around. “But I could tell he wasn’t really into it,” Wurtz says. Then he discovered Daniel’s love for the outdoors, and they clicked. “We’d go to an open space and get about 50 feet into the forest,” he says, “before Daniel would find something interesting to him, and we’d spend an hour looking at it.” Daniel was also eager to go fishing, so Wurtz learned to fish—sort of. “I’m so glad we never caught a fish,” he laughs. “I would have had no idea what to do with it.”
In May 2019, Erikson regained custody of Daniel, and the case closed in August—more than three years after the night Daniel was removed from her home. She credits Wurtz with giving Daniel a voice and “making him brave” as he moved through the foster care system and waited to be reunited with his mom. Wurtz says he’s pleased with the outcome, but he still worries. “What happened is what should have happened,” he says. “Although I do wonder what Daniel will be like when he’s 18, with all the trauma he’s been through.”
Wurtz’s ruminations hint at one of the more unsettling aspects of being a CASA. These adults step into children’s lives after they’ve been hurt. They show up in the middle of a family’s nightmare and try to help them become whole again, even if their version of “wholeness” looks different from a CASA’s own. Yet they don’t often get to see these children through to adulthood. Whether CASAs get to keep in touch with the children after the cases close is up to those who end up with custody of the children and the kids themselves. Sometimes, CASAs can be a reminder of the worst season in a family’s life, a time they’d rather forget. Moving on can be healthy, of course. However, for the CASA, it can feel like forgoing the final chapters of a book in which you’ve become fully invested.
My 10-year-old daughter, Hadley, flips off her bedroom light, and I toss the novel we’ve been reading aloud in her bed to the ground. She rolls toward me, and in the darkness she mentions my CASA kid. “Tell me about her?” she asks. I give a brief description of her personality: She’s energetic and eager to please. She’s affectionate and hugely curious about other people. I might as well be describing the child lying next to me. Hadley stops me. “No, I want to know why she doesn’t have a family.”
For reasons I haven’t yet sorted out, my kids pose their heaviest questions right before they fall asleep. I know Hadley wants details, but I can’t give many because the facts of the case are confidential. I also can’t answer the bigger “why” she’s seeking, the push to make sense of a cruel world. Why do some kids get to have stable, safe families and some kids don’t? I explain big-picture problems, about how grown-ups can make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes mean those grown-ups can’t take care of their children, for a short time or a long time. “Raising kids is hard,” I say. “Sometimes people need help, so I’m trying to help. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do.”