JENNIFER JACKSON'S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Volunteer advocates make the case
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Jennifer Jackson/for Peninsula Daily News
CASA mentor Elsa Golts, second from right, talks with Bill James, from left, Paula Martin, Fran Joswick and Ellen Peterson in the Jefferson County courtroom. Martin coordinates the guardian ad litem program.

IT'S NOT SOMETHING you do once a week.

You don't set up chairs, send out newsletters or socialize at fundraisers.

In fact, you can't talk about your volunteer work at all.

But if you want to use your mind to tap into a sphere of community service with a big impact, Paula Martin has a job for you.

Martin is coordinator of Jefferson County's 25 guardians ad litem, or GAL, volunteers who have been trained to act as court-appointed special advocates (CASAs).

The local GAL program is part of the National CASA Association, the only organization that empowers everyday citizens to advocate as appointed members of the court.

But because of the confidential nature of the work, most people don't understand what a CASA does.

“That's the first question people ask me: ‘What do you do?'” Martin said. “The second is ‘How do you do it?'”

What they don't do

What CASAs don't do: deal with divorce custody battles or work with children who have been placed in the foster care system, though that may be the end result of their work.

What they do: gather information about the home situation, muster resources in the community to redress needs and recommend a course of action when a child is removed from the home because of abuse or neglect.

The CASA's report is presented to a judge, who can decide to return the child to the parents, give them more time to resolve issues or terminate parental rights.

Knowledge of the legal system is not a prerequisite, nor is experience in working with children.

“The majority are newborn to 5 years old, so they aren't aware of what is happening, at least at first,” Martin said.

What it does take to be a CASA: persistence and flexibility.

Deciding a child's future isn't straightforward; cases can take six months to six years, though the average is 2.25 years, Martin said.

During that time, things can change, including the way the CASA thinks the case is going.

“The goal is for the child to have a safe and secure home as soon as possible,” Martin said, “but we don't know what that's going to look like — or when that's going to happen.”

Martin compares the job to ice-skating on a pond: It might be smooth sailing for a while, then you hit some bumps.

But one thing that isn't a problem: working with the parents.

Working with parents

While they may identify the CASA with the agency that removed the child at first, she said, the initial meeting dispels that notion.

Ellen Peterson, a retired elementary school principal who's been a CASA for six years, said the first question she asks when she meets with the parents is “What is your plan for this child?”

“It gives them a chance to buy in,” she said.

Emotional involvement isn't an issue because the job has clear boundaries.

The CASA's job is to connect services in the community to the needs of the child, not provide services or mentorship.

The local Guardian Friends of Jefferson County helps meet material needs in the form of clothes or funds for school trips, Martin said.

“As a GAL, you are backing away and looking at the whole picture,” said Elsa Golts, who mentors volunteers in the program. “It's a different kind of caring.”

Bill James, who has been a CASA for two years, said you don't have to have all the answers, just know whom to call.

A retired sales manager, he was recruited by a friend but hesitated to accept because he doesn't like courtrooms.

Little time in courtroom

He found out only a small percentage of time is spent there and has gotten more comfortable with his role as an advocate in court, where the CASA is usually asked by the judge to take the stand to explain a point or answer a question.

“If you do all your homework, it gives you confidence,” James said.

Both Golts and Fran Joswick, a CASA for three years, have experience and education in social work.

Golts, a CASA for eight years, worked for Child Protective Services and as a consultant for the county's juvenile department.

Joswick was deputy director of a homeless facility in Hawaii.

That CASA volunteers are a mix of professionals and nonprofessionals is part of the program's strength, Martin said.

“We are supposed to be the average person,” she said.

The other frequently asked question — “How much time does it take?” — depends on the style of the CASA and the case, Martin said.

Last quarter, the number of hours logged ranged from zero to 119, but most people put in between 35 and 50 hours a quarter, Martin said.

CASAs take one to two cases at a time, but it's always their choice whether to take a case, she said.

The first one is usually the most labor-intensive, Joswick said, but being a CASA, like many jobs, requires keeping your perspective and maintaining a balance.

At the end of the day, Martin said, it's the CASA who makes the case, not the other way around.

“I don't have to know their background,” she said of the volunteers.

“If they know how to use the skill set they have and have a commitment to children, I know they're going to be a good GAL.”

Started in 1977

According to the national association's website, CASA was started in 1977 by a Seattle juvenile court judge who was concerned about making life-changing decisions without sufficient information and came up with the idea of citizen advocates.

The Jefferson County GAL program, founded in 1989, has served more than 700 children, according to www.jeffersoncountygal.org.

This year's CASA training starts Monday, Feb. 27, and continues for 10 sessions Mondays from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Upon completing the course, volunteers are sworn in as officers of the court and meet once a month at the courthouse, where they receive support and ongoing training, along with the satisfaction of knowing that the volunteer work they do makes a lasting impression on someone's life.

Which they keep to themselves.

For information on becoming a CASA, phone Martin at 360-85-9190 or visit www.jeffersoncountygal.org.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or email jjackson@olypen.com.

Last modified: January 10. 2012 4:58PM
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