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CASA: The benefits of volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in law school

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CASA Advocate

I started law school in one of the most difficult ways I could have ever imagined starting law school. Six days before 1L orientation, I suffered a trimalleolar fracture of my ankle—basically, it was broken in three places—which required surgery for two plates and nine screws. That’s how I showed up to orientation—not even a week removed from surgery, my right leg splinted from my toes to my knee, hopping on my left leg with the assistance of a two-wheel walker. Three weeks later, I needed open knee surgery to repair a dislocated kneecap and a torn ligament suffered at the same time I broke my ankle.

Let’s just say, I was a mess.

Ok, I’m sure you’re wondering what exactly this has to do with anything related to pro bono work. In honor of Pro Bono Week, which is from October 20-25, I wanted to share with you my pro bono story.

While recovering from the above-mentioned injury, I couldn’t drive. I spent 16 weeks taking Lyft from my apartment to school and back. And five days a week, my ride drove by the building which the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Douglas County calls home. They have a beautiful mural on the back wall, on which I never noticed the same thing twice in all those drive-bys. Next thing I knew, I was doing research into what exactly was a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

How did I become a CASA?

Fast forward a year later, to the Fall 2018 semester, where I spent those 16 weeks sitting in the classroom of Judge Douglas Johnson, a Douglas County Juvenile Court judge, who happened to be teaching my Juvenile Law course. Not a week went by where Judge Johnson didn’t stress the importance of a CASA to a child’s life. He emphasized how a CASA was sometimes the one constant a child in the system had in their life. Foster care parents can change, attorneys can change, foster care specialists can change. But a CASA, is usually appointed for the life of the case.

A CASA is a volunteer, appointed by the court—meaning you are also a friend of the court—who works with the case professionals and family of a juvenile in the welfare system. In a nutshell, I work with foster care specialists, parents, foster parents, lawyers, guardians ad litem, and the court to help ensure the best possible outcome for a child who is in the foster care system for any reason. As a CASA, your job is to advocate for the best interests of the child. If your CASA child is of speaking age, then you can speak for that child and tell the court what the child wishes to happen. If your child is not of speaking age, then you still speak for that child and tell the court what your recommendations are for the child as is relates to their case in juvenile court.

In November 2018, I made the decision to volunteer my time with CASA. In order to start the process, I submitted an application and then had an “interview” with the recruitment coordinator, where I was asked about my childhood and my relationship with my parents—definitely not something you would encounter in a normal interview. After my interview, I had to submit to a background check, a registry check regarding child abuse, and have three of my friends, who had all known me a good length of time, submit questionnaires about my character. Once all was submitted, I was approved to start training. The advocacy recruitment coordinator was also completely understanding of my needing to take time off for the bar exam!

Learning more about the juvenile system

Training consisted of 30 hours spread across five weeks. There was three hours of online work, consisting of watching videos and writing discussion posts, and then three hours of in-person training with other trainees. During training, you learn about the workings of the court system as it deals with juvenile welfare and you read training case files to see how you, as a CASA, would make recommendations.

… 1) my duty is to their child and what I feel his best interests are, and 2) I’m not an enemy out to hurt them.

Up until this training, I had never really realized what exactly goes on the juvenile court system and with agencies like CPS (it’s not called CPS so much here in Nebraska). In training, I learned about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which has impacts on the operation of the juvenile court to a case that involves ICWA, and about how poverty, mental illness, cultural competency, domestic violence, and substance abuse affects juveniles in the welfare system. Honestly, it was some of the most in-depth training into the welfare system, as it relates to juveniles, that I had ever engaged in up until that point.

The final week of training culminates in writing a mock court report, which a CASA writes an official court report every six months or so, depending on when the court holds a Review & Permanency Planning hearing to determine the next steps for the child(ren) in the system. This hearing is where it is discussed if the court wants to reunify the family unit, keep the child in foster care pending the actions of the parents, discuss termination of parental rights, or work towards adoption. Luckily, I was able to fit this five-week training into the start of Spring semester of my 2L year, without an effect on my school work.

My first CASA case

Five weeks later, in February 2019, my training classmates and I were sworn in by Juvenile Court Judge Chad Brown at a modest ceremony with our family, friends, and CASA staff. Five days after that, I was appointed to my first case: a little boy who had been in foster care since he was born.

As a CASA, I am expected to see my child at least once a month, attend family team meetings, as well as go to any and all court hearings. I went to my first hearing two weeks later and saw a family unit that was struggling. The parents were upset with the court and the system and just simply wanting to take their boy home. But they were determined to make the best out of the situation. At that hearing, the court set forth the orders the parents would have to follow in order to bring their child home.

The next week, I spent some time with my CASA child and met the foster family—who have always been supportive of the family being reunited together. After that, I went to my first family team meeting where I met with the case professionals (the foster permanency specialist, visitation workers, attorneys, therapists, parents, foster family, etc.) to discuss the progress and next steps. We do this at least once a month.

I have also been welcomed into the parents’ home to visit with them and their little boy at the same time. I wanted to see how they interact with one another and let the parents know: 1) my duty is to their child and what I feel his best interests are, and 2) I’m not an enemy out to hurt them. Through this approach, I have built a great rapport with both parents to where we have regular conversations, about menial things, in the hallways waiting for court hearings.

The greatest feeling I’ve experienced in all of this? Watching the family grow! The family I met in March is definitely not the same family I interact with today. And I let them know every time I see them how proud I am of the work they have done to bring their boy home and the progress they continue to make as a family.

What has this done for me?

Honestly, I questioned taking on being a CASA while still in school, but it has helped me so much. In going through training and taking on my first case, I had my best semester in law school to date! I found out that I am better at time management than I thought I was. I have learned more about the juvenile court system by being actively involved in it than I did in 16 weeks of Juvenile Law class (sorry, Judge Johnson!). I have learned how to deal with frustrations and “adversaries” who may not agree with the things that I say, which is huge in the practice of law. And, it has gotten me involved in a focus of law that I never thought I would get involved in.

When I came to law school, I had a firm stance that I wanted to do criminal defense work. Since being involved as a CASA, I have found that I have a real knack for juvenile law to where it is a field I may practice in upon graduation. Even friends of mine who know I have been involved in CASA have commented on their belief in my ability to practice juvenile law and how even they feel I have found a niche I didn’t know I had.

Jessica Gilgor Jessica Gilgor is a 3L at Creighton University School of Law. A native of Las Vegas, she graduated from the University of Nevada Reno, where she studied Professional Chemistry and minored in Physics. Jessica was a part-time sports journalist for the United States Bowling Congress during their Open Championships tournament under the tutelage of Matt Cannizzaro and Aaron Smith.