I have been volunteering as a New Hampshire Court Appointed Special Advocate Guardian Ad Litem since 2013 and have been assigned to one child’s case during that time. CASA of NH is part of the national nonprofit organization National CASA and helps to ensure abused and neglected children in New Hampshire have a voice in the court system and their best interests are represented. According to the National CASA website, “last year, more than 76,000 CASA and guardian ad litem volunteers helped more than 251,000 abused and neglected children find safe, permanent homes.”
CASAs are not attorneys or required to have intimate knowledge of the legal system, but are every day citizens. To become a CASA GAL, I went through 40 hours of training that taught my classmates and I about the New Hampshire court system, court report writing, childhood development, issues/scenarios I may encounter with children and their families and ways to handle these scenarios. The training was thorough and comprehensive, but still did not fully prepare me for what I would feel and experience when I took my first case.
When I was assigned my first case in 2013, it was very eye opening to me to realize the types of situations children in the state are experiencing. As a CASA, I am expected to meet with my child and all the people in my child’s life, including teachers, relatives, parents and anyone else that may be involved, to learn what is going on now, and leading up to the court finding. I attend education meetings, team treatment meetings, meetings with my child’s Division of Child, Youth and Family services worker, family visits and more. I meet with my child at least once a month, and through these visits over the years, I have developed a relationship with her through hours of talking, playing basketball, running, eating ice cream and various other things we have done together.
I have seen her grow up, from an angry little girl to a strong woman. Her resilience, ability to advocate for herself and cope with what has happened to her continue to amaze me and make me want to fight harder for the things she needs. I come from a nuclear family and never experienced any type of neglect or abuse in my home. Learning about her experiences in life, seeing these things occurring and being intimately involved in the situation has given me an empathy and investment in her, my community and those that live in it, that I did not have previously. It has exposed me to the struggles that families and children both have that are so powerful and so unlike my own experience.
Along with expanding my awareness of the issues going on with families in my state, I have learned about the court system and the process that abuse/neglect cases must go through. Speaking publicly in court or in meetings in confidence, and advocating for the needs of my child has become easier and something I have become more skilled at with time. It has amazed me that when you believe in something and someone so strongly, you are willing to overcome your trepidation to make sure the issues are heard. Your need for comfort is secondary to the needs of the child you are responsible for representing. You are their voice; you are their chance at change. You are the difference. That is powerful and unlike any other thing I have been involved with.
Being a CASA not only improves skills such as negotiating, conflict resolution, public speaking, writing and interpersonal relations, but also builds you up as person, sometimes breaking you down, but ultimately making you stronger in ways you did not know were possible. To help you understand these changes and ways to deal with things you may be struggling with as a CASA, you have a full time, professional supervisor to consult with and there are support groups that you can attend comprised of other CASAs to surround you. You are not alone in the journey, but have support to see you through it.
Volunteering as a CASA has formed me into an entirely different person who is more aware and empathetic to things going on around me and who wants to advocate for change. One of the mottos that I have connected with through my experience as a CASA is “become the person you needed when you were younger.” As a person that did not have abuse or neglect in my life, I still wish I had someone other than my family and friends to help me navigate things I was going through. The children that we work with are experiencing really rough times and need people who care, and who are willing to help navigate the system they are in and the things that are going on around them. CASAs can be those people.
CASA trains volunteers around the state every few weeks. The next training in Manchester begins Oct. 17. To learn more about how you can become a CASA or to apply, visit www.casanh.org. Have specific questions? Call 800-626-0622or email email@example.com.
By Kristin Wege, CASA Advocate