Each year in the United States there are more than 500,000 children placed in foster care and plunged into the court system. These children have not committed any crimes; these children are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Once these children are in the court system, it is up to a judge to decide where their future lies. Due to reports of neglect and abuse increasing at a steady rate, overburdened child welfare workers and appointed attorneys are often faced with limited time and resources. Both time and resources are needed to thoroughly investigate what is truly best for the welfare of each individual child.
For many years attitudes about neglect and child abuse were considered family matters and children were rarely removed from homes in which a parent or family member inflicted physical harm and abuse. Neglected or abandoned children were placed into institutional settings such as asylums or orphanages. It was not until the 1960’s that judges began placing children with families instead of in institutions. This is what has led to the current foster care system as we now know it. By the 1970’s foster care became a way of life for many of the children removed from their homes. For many of these children, introduction into the foster care system meant the loss of family for the remainder of their childhood. It was not uncommon for a child to be placed in multiple foster homes with no efforts made at reunification with their birth families or attempted placement with permanent families.
In 1977, Superior Court Judge David W. Soukup saw a recurrent problem in his court room. He felt he was not getting all of the facts that he required to make the best informed decisions affecting the future of the children whose cases were presented to him. Decisions he needed to make included where the child would live, for how long and under what conditions; what services or treatments should be ordered; and/or what steps should be taken to reunite the child with the birth parents or to place the child in a new family unit. In the Seattle court room and which is often still the case in many court rooms today, attorney Guardian ad Litems are appointed to cases of abuse and neglect; however they often lacked the time and specialized training to conduct in depth investigations. Social workers also responsible for many of the cases and carrying a high case load are also over burdened with cases and short on the time needed to devote to each child. Judge Soukup believed that individuals other than attorneys could be trained to effectively speak on behalf of children. He thought that it was feasible to recruit and train qualified individuals to come into the courtroom and advocate for children. His vision became a reality in 1977, when volunteers began representing the best interest of children as court appointed Guardian ad Litems. This program later became known as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
The current Guardian ad Litem program, implemented by the Honorable Judge Wagner, already addresses many of these issues. Advocates for Victims of Abuse is proud to announce a modified CASA program in Humboldt County. If anyone is interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, please contact an AVA representative through the provided information at the end of this column. Volunteers will be thoroughly screened, both in terms of safety and suitability for mentoring, in addition to ensuring that the volunteer does not have a criminal record. All volunteers must meet requirements for working with youths and complete all required training. Volunteers will work with the Judges, and Guardian ad Litems, and be appointed by the court, to match young people in the court system with trained and caring adults who can offer support, guidance and encouragement through to any child in need.