When home isn’t so sweet

CASA Program of Johnson County
serves the best interests of children

By Rebecca Berfanger

Imagine that you are a small child. Maybe you only have one parent living at home or a grandparent is taking care of you. Maybe you have missed a lot of school, even if you weren’t sick. Maybe you haven’t eaten much today. Maybe you haven’t had a bath in a while. Maybe that’s normal in your home.

Maybe a neighbor or a teacher or another child in your class suspects something is wrong; maybe this person told someone they didn’t think you were safe. Maybe a caseworker shows up at your house. Maybe there is a police officer with her. Maybe the caseworker tells you and your siblings to grab whatever you can fit in a plastic trash bag.

IMG_3248Maybe you remember to grab your favorite stuffed animal and you hug it tight as the car drives away from your house.

Two days later, you haven’t been back to your home. In a courtroom you see a person in a black robe, more strangers, the caseworker who came to your house, an aunt you barely know. The person in the robe orders a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, to represent you.

That CASA will likely be involved in your case for the months, if not years, that your case is open. He might be the only consistent person on your case, even if case managers or therapists come and go.  That adult will get to know you and your family. He will ask you questions about how you are doing in school, if you are getting along with your siblings, and questions that are all about you.

Before that adult was appointed to the case, he first decided to volunteer for an organization like the CASA Program of Johnson County.

The need for support

Since 1988, CASA Program of Johnson County, one of the first CASA organizations in the state, has been the voice for cases involving children in need of services (CHINS), as well as termination of parental rights (TPR) cases. In such cases, the goal is no longer to reunite the children with their parents.

Johnson County CASA Director Tammi Hickman had been a CASA volunteer since the late 1990s. She first got involved when she was a stay-at-home mom and saw an ad for volunteers in the Daily Journal.

Hickman says that the need for Johnson County CASAs is greater now than ever because of the high number of newly filed CHINS cases. While she currently has 50 to 60 dedicated volunteers, she would like to have double or even triple that number to meet the increasing demand.

The number of new cases spiked in 2011 to 249, Hickman says. Each case number represents one child, something she attributed to high numbers of meth-related arrests of parents. The number decreased to less than half, 107, in 2013 thanks to the work of local police officers in handling drug cases in Johnson County.

However, that decrease would be short-lived. The numbers have steadily crept back up: 157 new cases in 2014, 159 in 2015 and 208 in 2016. The new cases filed in 2017 are on track with 2016 numbers at this time last year, says Hickman. She added that while each case represents one child, CASAs are assigned to cases by family, which could be one or several children. New volunteers are assigned one family at a time.

As for the recent increase, Hickman says more cases involve parents who abuse heroin and prescription opioids, as well as meth and other types of drugs.

“I used to see maybe four heroin-related cases a year 25 years ago, now I see four or five every day,” says Johnson County Circuit Judge K. Mark Loyd. “Those cases include criminal cases, but also domestic relations and CHINS cases.”

Loyd says that if a parent is arrested for stealing due to a drug addiction and it’s discovered there is no one else to take care of the kids while he is in jail, or if due to addiction the parents are leaving the children alone or not meeting their basic needs, it’s likely that DCS will file a CHINS case as a result. There have also been a number of cases in which a parent’s mental health is an issue, Loyd says; many new CHINS cases will also have a combination of drug use and mental health concerns, he added.

Those cases also are staying open longer, Hickman says. Cases close when the court decides there is no longer a need for intervention. In 2010, the average timeline of a case was eight months. In 2017, the average span of a case has jumped to 15 months. That increase can be linked to the high numbers of drug-related cases, Hickman says.

“When you’re dealing with drug addictions, the minimum amount of time for a person to get into a program and stay clean is about three years,” she says. “If parents are serious about it and are attempting services, even if they are relapsing, we’re not going to terminate on them.” She adds that if the parents are not seeking court-mandated help, they are more likely to ask the court to change the child’s plan to adoption after the case has been open at least a year, especially if there is another family willing to adopt the child.

Training days

To train volunteers, Stan Piercefield, who has been a volunteer along with his wife since 2004 and is a former director of Monroe County CASA, will meet for a total of 30 hours with them. The training includes how to investigate cases, which Hickman says is the most time-intensive part for the CASA volunteer. That’s when the volunteer is first learning about the family, reading the case file, meeting the case manager and service providers. That part of the process can take five to 10 hours, depending on how in-depth the volunteer is in her reporting.

To help learn how to interview, Piercefield says they do a role-playing exercise with the volunteers to give them a taste of what it will be like to speak with uncooperative parents, grandparents, even teenagers.

According to former CASA trainer Ebbie Crawford, the most important thing to stress with volunteers is the importance of values when it comes to their investigations.

“We live in a world of gray. The continuum is lighter gray versus darker gray,” Crawford says. “They have to take a step back and look at that child in that own child’s environment and try to understand that particular family, not from a middle class perspective, but that family’s perspective.”

Similarly, Hickman says that she and Piercefield remind volunteers in training that the goal in the beginning of the case is always reunification of the family. “Often volunteers think if this child has been neglected or abused, we need to find them a better home,” she says. “That is not what our role is.”

Following those investigations, the CASA then drafts a report, which Hickman will review before it’s submitted to the court. This can be daunting to volunteers, but they write a practice report as part of the training.

After the initial investigation, even though some cases last 18 months or longer, the CASA’s tasks are mostly follow-up and maintenance of the case, such as reading the monthly reports by the case manager and service providers. The exception is when the case goes to trial or if something changes.

“I try to make the CASAs feel like they are parties to the proceedings, because they are,” says Loyd. At the end of training, they are sworn in as officers of the court and reminded of the importance of their role.

Hickman says that she encourages anyone who is interested to contact her about upcoming trainings and ask how they can observe court proceedings; CHINS cases are generally closed to the public. She also appreciates it when people take their time and consider all that is involved with being a CASA before they step up to volunteer.

“I have found that my volunteers who are the most successful and longest-serving are the ones who approach me and say, ‘I heard about CASA a few years ago, it wasn’t the right time. But I kept the notice on my fridge, and now I’m ready,’” Hickman says.

She also realizes that the gig is not for everyone, but it is ultimately rewarding to make a difference for a child.

“I joke and say I have a box full of name tags and hair nets at home because I’ve worked so many different jobs,” Hickman says. “But the thing that always kept me coming back to CASA was that every case was different. Not every case was wrapped up with a nice little bow the way I wanted it to, but every time my spirits got down, I got another case with a positive outcome, and it would keep me hooked.”