Looking out for kids in court
Children need advocates when parents are in court.
Seattle Times staff columnist
When parents clash in court, children and their needs can be trampled underfoot.
It shouldn't be that way, but looking out for the interests of kids is largely left to volunteers called court appointed special advocates.
The two organizations that train them and support their work are looking for more, especially men, people from South King County, and members of minority groups.
Retired Superior Court Judge George T. Mattson is on the board of King County's Family Law CASA, and part of an outreach campaign to attract more volunteers.
Mattson said that as a judge he relied on information from volunteer advocates to help him make decisions that took into account what was best for children in custody cases.
"I just don't like to be shooting in the dark," Mattson said, "and the CASA comes in with a big flashlight." The advocates spend time with the children and interview parents, relatives, teachers — anyone who might help them understand the children's needs. Then they write a report for the judge with facts and recommendations.
Cadence Miller has been an advocate, and was one of the early beneficiaries of the program.
The CASA program started in King County in 1976, and became a national model.
In the 1980s Miller's parents were going through a divorce. She was 4 at the start of it and her brother two years younger. "Children can be used as pawns in divorce cases, and my brother and I were caught up in a bitter divorce," she said.
"Because of the (advocate's) report, the judge was able to make the best decision about where my brother and I were raised," she said.
In 2005, after she'd graduated from the University of Washington where she majored in philosophy, Miller became a CASA volunteer because she wanted other children to benefit as she had.
She had four all-day training sessions, learning about things like child development markers, fact-finding and interviewing.
Miller was assigned a paternity case right after training. That went easily, but the next one was more complicated.
"I was working then," she said, "so I would call the kids' schools on my lunch break, and schedule meetings with one of the parents or children on a weekend."
She checked in with a CASA supervisor periodically, and met with one when she had a particular concern.
When she submitted her report, supervisors went over it and suggested improvements before they submitted it to the court. That's the normal routine.
Once she was asked to testify before a court commissioner. That's rare, but whenever a volunteer is asked to appear in court, they are accompanied by the CASA staff attorney.
Last year, anticipating the birth of her son, Miller decided to take a break from working cases, but she stayed involved by joining the board.
It's not unusual for advocates to take a break, which is another reason it would be good to have more volunteers available, she said.
Because there aren't enough advocates to go around, Miller said, "judges are more selective in the cases they assign (to CASA) and that concerns me." Judges do the best they can with the information in front of them, but they can use the perspective of someone outside the family drama, whose only interest is the well-being of the children. That's why then King County Superior Court Presiding Judge David W. Soukup created the Dependency CASA program in 1976. That program, Dependency CASA, still exists to help in abuse or neglect cases.
Family Law CASA, which serves in divorce, paternity and other civil cases, became a stand alone nonprofit after county budget cuts in 2002.
"I think it really helped my family and me," Miller said. "I just think that should be available to other kids too."
There is plenty of time to volunteer before the next training session, in October.
For more information on Family Law CASA, go to www.familylawcasa.org/become-a-casa-advocate/.
For Dependency CASA, email: GAL.Group@kingcounty.gov.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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