A group of volunteers in Alabama works tirelessly and often without recognition to care for a group often seen as powerless in times of distress: children.
Alabama Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) seek to find children in difficult situations — particularly abuse and neglect — and offer them a sense of hope and power as they endure the legal battles of their guardians.
“Some of them will break your heart, but in the end when the case goes to court, you know that had you not been involved, it may not have turned out the way it did. Nobody else speaks for the children. They have a guardian ad litem, who is an attorney, and that person speaks of their legal rights, but not necessarily their personal rights and what they believe will be best for the child,” Sherrie Cotrell, a four-year advocate with CASA, said.
Founded as a national organization in 1976, Mobile’s program was founded in 1997. The organization fosters an ideal to “ensure that every abused, neglected and/or abandoned child in Alabama has a competent, caring volunteer appointed to advocate for the child’s best interest in court,” as stated on the official website.
“The program in Mobile sort of works as a gap-filler, you might say, for what DHR does,” Executive Director Elizabeth Walter said. “There are a lot of cases where family members will go and they’ll file their own petitions instead of through DHR, where the allegations are the same but might not be at a level where DHR would open a case file. If the judge didn’t have a CASA volunteer going out and looking at the home situation of these kids, he wouldn’t have anybody in court except the two parties who are spinning it their way. With us, he has an objective third party who’s checking the situation out and giving him factual information about what’s really going on.”
When two parties battle it out in court — usually centered around allegations of substance abuse, domestic abuse, or neglect — an objective voice becomes the most important factor in providing a stable, healthy solution for the child. To perform that role, advocates diligently shadow the child and collect as much information as possible.
“We get to know the child, and I spend a lot of time with the child in the home. If it’s an allegation against another parent, we go to their home as well. If they’re school-aged, we go to school with them, we talk to their teachers. We just infiltrate their lives to get to what the truth really is,” Cotrell said.
Once they have compiled enough information and the family’s court date comes around, CASA volunteers offer their unbiased, personal opinions regarding what decision would create the best result for the welfare of the child in question.
“The judges here are very supportive of our program. They feel like we’re really filling a gap they needed. We certainly don’t tell them what to do, but they do take what we say seriously. They take our recommendations seriously. I’d say around 90 percent of the time, our recommendation gets followed, because it’s usually a common sense recommendation. If it doesn’t, there was probably a legal issue as to why,” Walter explained.
Walter has been with the Mobile program almost since its inception, joining as an advocate volunteer in the fall of 1997. She became the volunteer coordinator in August 2000 and finally took over the position of executive director in 2002.
The value of providing neglected children a safe, loving home originally drew Walter to the program and continues to motivate her to expand the initiative.
“I think it was just the idea of making sure that these kids had a safe place to grow up like I did. I was very blessed to have the parents I had, so I just wanted to make sure I passed that on,” Walter said.
As with many nonprofits, funding remains one of the main needs with the Mobile CASA organization. Currently, CASA raises money through fundraisers and yearly events, also putting grant funds to use. Mobile’s program is currently maxed out at 30 advocates, the most allowed under Walter’s lone supervision. Without additional funds to hire more supervisory staff, such as another director, the program can take on no more volunteers.
Each volunteer usually handles one (or sometimes two) cases at a time, and cases can take anywhere from six months to a year to be completed. Unable to take on more advocates, many cases and many children that could benefit from their involvement go without.
With around 1,000 total cases filed in Mobile County on a yearly basis, approximately half are private petitions not filed through DHR.
“We’ve got about 500 new cases every year, and I have 30 volunteers … So, they might work two or three cases a year, so we’re talking about 90 children out of 500,” Walter said.
The long term effects a CASA volunteer can have on a child transcends home life. According to AlabamaCASA.org, children with CASA advocates spend less time in the foster care system as a whole and experience more success in school. Additionally, CASA advocates typically spend more time with the child than a guardian ad litem, offering them a “consistent, responsible adult presence.”
The work, though essential and noble, often affects advocates emotionally. Cotrell explains that though she loves the work and receives so much satisfaction from helping the children, seeing the conditions they endure can be devastating. Similarly, Walter finds herself frustrated at encountering the same negative situations over and over again, watching children suffer through the same problems.
In the end, volunteers take comfort in their role of helping the child escape whatever troubles they can.
“The most rewarding part is knowing that you have protected a child from something that very possibly could have happened. Seeing the child happy and healthy and doing great,” Cotrell said.
“You’ve given them the best chance they can possibly have to go on and have a productive life,” Walter said. “I always wonder about them. Their names run through my head all the time and I wonder what’s happened with them.”
Walter also stressed the dire need for more community awareness of and involvement with CASA for the organization to continue to grow and thrive. Private donations help with operations, and Alabama CASA offers a Sustaining Partner program, which ensures that contributions go directly to helping local children as efficiently as possible.