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Fayette County family court judges: CASA volunteers ‘amazingly vital’ to helping abused, neglected children

For Fayette County family court judges Lucinda Masterton and Libby Messer, making difficult decisions about cases involving child abuse and neglect is a regular part of the job. One thing they say helps them make better decisions is the work of court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers.

Masterton and Messer spoke to the UK Women Lawyers Association this month about the vital importance of the local CASA program. CASA volunteers advocate for children’s needs in 49 of the 50 states and more than half the counties in Kentucky, but many in the public are unaware of just how useful the unique program has proven to be for family court judges.

“The first thing I read is the CASA report,” Masterton told the WLA members who attended a virtual training session Oct. 21. “It’s important for us to hear about all the details that are going on with these children. And the CASA reports do that for me.”

The two judges, CASA of Lexington Executive Director Melynda Jamison and CASA volunteer Julie Butcher spent an hour explaining how CASA works. Volunteers undergo a comprehensive, 30-hour training and then are assigned to cases involving child abuse and neglect. The volunteers meet regularly with the children on their cases and develop a rapport with them.

They also interview adults involved in the children’s lives and have a court order granting them access to essentially all records concerning the children. CASA volunteers condense this information into regular reports to the judge and make recommendations based on what would be in the best interest of the child.

“If we are not working on that case or with the children, there’s no one providing the exact same role as a CASA volunteer,” Jamison said. “Our objective and mission is to find a safe and permanent home for that child. We are there solely for what’s in the best interest of the child.”

Judge Messer said CASA volunteers’ recommendations may concern big decisions, such as reunification with parents or termination of parental rights. But many recommendations also focus on smaller things that can make a big difference – like in the case of one girl who was struggling to read. It turned out the girl just needed glasses, but no one else had caught the problem until a CASA volunteer was appointed to the case.

“It’s a very, very different relationship than what a social worker has, whose focus is divided between, ‘What can I do to help these parents get better?’ and then, ‘Are these kids OK and safe where they are?’” Messer said. “It’s much more (on the) surface for the social worker than it is for the CASA.”

Messer said CASA volunteers also provide a much greater depth of knowledge than guardians ad litem – attorneys appointed to represent children’s legal interests.

“The CASA and the GAL often work hand-in-hand, but the GAL is there to make sure the legal interests of these children are being met … whereas a CASA volunteer is truly involved with this child,” she said. “They are that steady person the child can rely on and they are the voice for the child in court on those little things that maybe wouldn’t be something that an attorney is looking for.”

Judge Masterton said she believes it is “amazingly vital” to have someone who can be focused on a single child or case like a CASA volunteer can. She pointed to one case involving a child who had been removed from the home due to medical neglect, and problems were continuing after the removal.

“This kid was in serious trouble and really needed to be seen by a therapist,” Masterton said.

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But it wasn’t until the first review hearing in the case that the CASA volunteer on the case pointed out the child still had not received therapy, even though it had been 90 days since the removal.

“In 90 days, this kid had had a whole raft of social workers and there was nobody else who really was paying attention to what was going on with the kid – except the CASA,” Masterton said. “That CASA’s voice moved the case forward and I started having reviews much more often because of that. I wanted to make sure we didn’t get lost in the shuffle again.”

Masterton said unfortunately, getting lost in the shuffle can happen all too easily for abused and neglected children. It’s a problem CASA volunteers help prevent – when there are enough volunteers.

“Our social workers are incredibly overworked. They have way too many cases. They can’t pay the kind of attention to these children that we need to,” she said. “So then we have situations where the kids just kind of disappear. We need a CASA for every kid in care. Because that’s the only way we can feel comfortable that this kid’s needs are absolutely being met.”

In 2019, there were more than 1,100 new substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect in Fayette County alone. Since cases often last 18-24 months, there could easily be more than 2,000 children with cases in the family court system at any point in time. Last year, CASA volunteers served 534 of those children, meaning hundreds more did not have a CASA volunteer to ensure they were not overlooked.

Masterton said she clearly sees the need for more CASA volunteers.

“I would highly recommend that anyone who has a little bit of time and has a great big heart – and doesn’t mind having it broken – signs up to be a CASA,” she said.

Julie Butcher, a local attorney, also spoke to the WLA members about her experience as a CASA volunteer.

“I had a bit of overload at first,” she admitted, but added that support from the CASA of Lexington staff was outstanding. “It really is probably the best thing I’ve ever done outside of family stuff. It’s very important work, it’s fulfilling, and yes, you truly can make a difference in children’s lives.”

From CASA of Lexington

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