Some of the most vulnerable victims – children who have been abused or neglected – have new advocates in the 6th Judicial District, which includes Archuleta, San Juan and La Plata counties.
Four volunteers were sworn in last week to help observe and advocate for children caught in the legal system, at no fault of their own, usually after the Department of Human Services removed them from their home for their own safety.
It is part of a program called Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, which screens volunteers and trains them to provide objective feedback to judges about what might be going on in a child’s life and what might be in the boy’s or girl’s best interest, said Barb Casey, executive director for CASA of the Southwest.
“Our function is to be the voice of a child in court,” Casey said. “We’d always ask a child, ‘Is there something you’d like us to tell the judge?’ We function as another set of eyes and ears, particularly on the children.”
CASA is a national program with state and local chapters, including in 16 of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts. The 22nd Judicial District, which includes Dolores and Montezuma counties, has had CASA for about 10 years, Casey said.
The best CASA volunteers typically have extra time to devote to a child – getting to know them, attending court hearings and seeing a case through from beginning to end, which can take more than a year, she said. Volunteers are often parents or have done something to make a difference in a child’s life, and “really have a heart for helping kids.”
“It’s a big commitment to make,” Casey said. “We’re always looking for volunteers, and we’ll have more trainings throughout the year.”
Margo Lee has volunteered with CASA for 27 years. She started in Maricopa County, Arizona, and has been doing it in the 22nd Judicial District for the past eight years.
“You can make a difference in a child’s life,” she said. “You can see it, you can feel it. It’s there. You become that child’s voice, and you can make a difference as to how that child’s life continues to grow.”
Volunteers appointed in the 6th Judicial District include Amy Johnson, Steve Johnson and Steve Krest. The fourth volunteer asked to remain anonymous. Two volunteers have been assigned to a case with four children.
After spending time with the children, advocates provide judges with an independent view of what issues might be relevant in helping judges make important decisions.
“When we advocate for them, we’re not taking sides with anybody, only representing what we find is in the best interest of the child,” Casey said. “We need to be objective. We make it clear that if the child tells us something, we might need to tell that to another adult.”
She added: “Sometimes these problems seem overwhelming, as far as society’s problems, and if we can help one child and make a difference in the direction of that child’s life and open them to new opportunities, then that’s a great thing.”