Colorado has a big shortage of volunteers to speak up for foster kids in court

That gap has sparked Colorado court appointed special advocates to make a plea for more volunteers — they want 2,020 new ones in 2020

by Jennifer Brown

(Originally published December 30, 2019, by The Colorado Sun)

One person in a foster kid’s life isn’t paid to show up.

Attorneys are paid. Teachers are paid. Even foster parents are paid. The person volunteering their time to make sure a child’s voice is heard is a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, and only about one-third of children who were abused or neglected in Colorado last year were lucky enough to get one.

Of the more than 13,200 cases of child abuse and neglect in Colorado in 2018, just 4,800 kids were appointed a CASA. That means about 8,400 children were not.

That gap has sparked Colorado CASA to make a plea for more volunteers — they want 2,020 new ones in 2020.

“There is no incentive for them to do this but wanting to help someone else,” said Zane Grant, executive director of CASA of Pueblo. “That’s a special thing to tell a child. There is something profound in that.”

In Pueblo, the local CASA organization has two or three advocates available to take new cases in a typical week. Problem is, there are often seven or eight new dependency and neglect cases each week in which a court eventually will decide whether children who have been abused or neglected will return to their biological parents or be adopted. A judge decides which kids will get a CASA and which will do without.

Across Colorado, there are 2,179 CASA volunteers and each takes one case at a time. Four of the 22 judicial districts in the state have no CASA program, meaning kids there do not get a special advocate — no matter how challenging the case. Those districts are in Alamosa, Lamar, Trinidad and Sterling.

“If we had enough, our judge would appoint them to every case,” Grant said. Instead, CASAs are typically appointed to the most complex cases and those where children have been the most traumatized.

The Pueblo program — which covers Pueblo, La Junta and Cañon City — has grown to 145 advocates and 450 kids this year from 11 advocates and 40 kids in 2002, its first year. In rare cases, Pueblo’s CASA program has sent a volunteer to the Alamosa area, but this is tricky since the program has no judicial rights in that court, Grant said.

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A CASA’s job is a bit like a detective or a reporter, with the first duty as a fact-seeker.

Advocates have access to the case files, including caseworker reports about abuse and neglect in a child’s home. They begin by meeting and interviewing anyone involved in the child’s life who is willing to speak to them — biological parents, foster parents, relatives, doctors, therapists, teachers, coaches, family friends and the child or group of siblings at the heart of the case.

The information is written up in a report for the court, which uses it to determine where to place the child. It also helps to ensure that a child is making it to school and therapy appointments, and that biological parents are putting in the effort to improve their relationship with their children.

Much of the time, the CASA’s duty evolves into mentor. Advocates are asked to meet regularly with kids until the resolution of a case — when a judge decides whether the child will reunite with their biological parents or remain in foster care until adoption.

Lindsay Gilchrist, a Denver CASA, took two preschoolers to the park twice a month for two years. When the judge in the case decided to terminate the biological parents’ rights, Gilchrist continued meeting the children, slowly tapering off the visits.

“It did not feel right to me to say, ‘I’m done,’” said Gilchrist, who became a CASA five years ago when she lived in Los Angeles. Her cases have ranged in length from a few months to two years.

And Gilchrist’s recommendations have ranged from starting mental health therapy for children to getting bus passes for biological parents to help them make it to meetings. “Your voice is heard by a judge. You have to write a court report,” she said. “You help kids who deserve the absolute best and have not been getting that most of their lives.”

“You’re on the side of the kid,” said Gilchrist, who is also a foster parent and works as an advocate for nonprofits.

Foster children also have a guardian ad litem, or a GAL, whose job is to represent a child’s legal rights in court. In Colorado, GALs are attorneys and typically represent multiple children at one time, unlike a CASA, who has just one child or group of siblings.

Some CASAs keep contact with their appointed children for years after the case is resolved, more often when the foster child is older and less likely to get adopted.

Job turnover among caseworkers is so high that many foster children will have more than one caseworker, sometimes several, during their time in the child welfare system. They also might live in numerous foster homes. A CASA can become the one constant in their lives.

Advocates have to complete 37 hours of training, which includes court observation. They must be at least 21 years old, per Colorado law, and are asked to commit to at least one year.

“The children we are working with have been disappointed by adults time and time again in their lives and we don’t want to be part of that disappointment,” Grant said. For those who find the CASA commitment too steep, the organization also needs school supplies, clothes and help with office work.

Pat O’Brien, a rancher and cowboy, did not fit the typical profile of a CASA volunteer. He died recently after receiving an award from CASA of Pueblo in 2018. (Provided by CASA of Pueblo)

Among the most revered CASAs in Colorado was Pueblo’s Pat O’Brien, a rancher who worked in water rights appraisals and did not fit the typical CASA profile of a middle-aged woman. O’Brien, who died recently after receiving a volunteer-of-the-year award in 2018, found his niche holding foster babies born with drugs in their system.

“We called him the baby whisperer,” Grant said, recalling how O’Brien could soothe opioid-addicted babies who are not easily consoled. “Everything he touched just seemed to be calm.”