Advocates program looks out for children’s best interests in court system

By Leslie Radford: CNJ Staff writer

To know that an abused or neglected child has an opportunity for a better life is why Beth Fisher volunteers for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a state program that looks out for the best interest of children as they move through the court system.

“If I can make a difference in one child’s life, that means the world to me,” Fisher said. “If I can reach just one child, I have been successful. And I’ve seen it happen. When someone’s grades go up that I’m helping — I would like to think I helped them better themselves.”

Fisher has worked as a CASA for more than a year. She’s worried about what will happen to the teenager she was assigned to if Cannon Air Force Base should close under recommendations from the Pentagon. Her husband is in the Air Force and she wonders if they will be forced to leave before the case concludes.

She said she has followed this particular case, which she can not disclose due to confidentiality laws, for almost a year. Should Fisher have to leave with her husband if the base closes, her case would be assigned to another CASA volunteer.

“Sixty-six percent of our volunteer staff comes from the base,” said Catharine Johnson, CASA program coordinator. “Regardless if Cannon closes, we need more volunteers. Right now we have over 80 cases and only 22 volunteers to help these kids.”

Recently, the CASA program held an information night for those interested in volunteering. Johnson said eight people showed up and two of them had their forms filled out to become an advocate before the session even started.

Johnson said CASA helps children from getting shuffled around the foster home system and provides recommendations to the judge regarding a child’s case. Without the aid of a CASA, children up to the age of 14, may get lost in the court system and not receive the care they deserve, Johnson said.

“This can be a stressful job,” Fisher said. “But it’s not as bad as people may think.”

Johnson said the mission of the CASA program is to speak out for the best interests of abused and neglected children involved in foster care and the juvenile court systems. She said a CASA volunteer is a trained citizen appointed to a child’s case by a judge to represent the best interest of that child while involved in the legal system.

A volunteer works one-on-one with the child to discover their needs and wants and makes a recommendation to the judge based on the child’s situation.

Johnson said there’s not a specific quality the program looks for in their volunteers, but recommends a CASA to have a general knowledge of the law and a genuine compassion for children.

“There’s no cookie-cutter mold,” she said. “If you care about children, that’s what we’re looking for.”

There are some qualifications and requirements that need to be met to become a CASA. This information and applications can be picked up at their office, 708 Mitchell St.

• Ninth Judicial District
• Family and Children’s Court Services
• Court Appointed Special Advocates Program
• 708 Mitchell Ave., Clovis
• 769-2656

Qualifications to become a volunteer:
• Be over the age of 21
• Must not have felonies or misdemeanors involving children
• Have some free time to dedicate to a child in need
• Possess report writing and information gathering skills
• Ability to maintain strict confidentiality

Duties of an advocate may include:
• Review case records
• Interview family members, foster parents, teachers, social workers and other associated parties
• Meet with the child
• Attend all court hearings and meetings regarding the case
• Explore alternatives for the welfare of the child