05 Jan Becoming a Voice
Whatever your skills, whatever your stage in life, whatever your experience, you can be a voice and an ally for kids who desperately need both.
God’s heart for justice, and in particular for the orphan, is certain. And this heart for justice isn’t passive, or static, or quiet.
Quite the opposite: we should be driven to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). Today, tens of thousands of children in Texas alone need us to speak for them, to stand with them, to defend their rights, just as Christ has done before his Father for us (1 John 2:1).
Texas – and every other state – has a child welfare system in place to protect, rescue, and serve children who have been abused or neglected. Child Protective Services, which is a branch of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, is tasked with the providing services to families and children in Texas. When CPS determines that it’s not safe for a child to remain in his or her home, the child might be temporarily placed in foster care or with relatives, and a judge will determine whether it is safe for the child to return home or whether the child needs to be permanently placed with a relative or in foster care.
In one way or another, I’ve been involved in the court side of the foster care since 2008, when I was in law school in Dallas. Without a doubt, the juvenile legal system can be confusing, intimidating, and unfamiliar for adults who don’t routinely encounter it; but for kids, it can be downright terrifying. In a matter of days, a child can be removed from his or her home and thrust into a new world of social workers, judges, attorneys, foster parents, psychologists, new schools and teachers.
That’s where CASA comes in: Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA volunteers are appointed by judges in particularly complex and difficult cases to help make independent and informed recommendations about the outcome of the case and to advocate for what is best for each child. The CASA volunteer is independent from all of the other parties in the case; CASA is not an attorney for any party and does not work for CPS, the attorneys, or the district attorney. CASA’s one job is to represent the best interests of the child or children in the case.
A judge typically appoints CASA at the beginning of the court case. Once the judge appoints CASA for the child or children, the local CASA organization (in Austin, it’s CASA of Travis County) will assign a particular volunteer to represent that child or children. CASA volunteers undergo extensive training on the Texas legal system, helping children who have experienced trauma, how to best speak for children in court, the process for cases brought by CPS, and the roles of all of the other parties involved in the court case and in the children’s lives.
CASA is empowered by the court to have access to all of the information and people that CASA needs to be able to tell the judge what is best for the child. The CASA volunteer will be authorized to speak with and gather information from all of the people in the child’s life, including teachers, coaches, therapists, doctors, biological parents, foster parents, other relatives, and day care providers. The CASA volunteer will visit with the child at least once a month to know first-hand how the child is doing in his or her temporary placement and, where possible, the child’s placement preferences.
Before any court hearing in the case, the CASA volunteer prepares and files with the court a report containing all of the information the CASA volunteer has learned about the child and the people in the child’s life and a recommendation for how the case should be resolved: is it safe for the child to return home with his or her biological family? Or, should the child remain in his or her temporary placement? Or, is it best for the child to be moved to a different temporary placement?
Because CASA volunteers typically handle just one case at a time, the judge looks to CASA to provide the most comprehensive, accurate, first-hand report and recommendation for the child. Most of the other players in the courtroom – attorneys for the biological parents and child, CPS, the district attorney – have overwhelming caseloads and are unable to spend the time and energy that CASA volunteers do to truly understand what is best for the child. No one else is positioned like CASA to advocate directly for the child and to make sure that the child is heard.
As we strive to have hearts like God’s, our care for children in foster care will likely involve the court. Though it can be unfamiliar at first, we should step boldly into learning how we can be advocates for children where they need us most, just as Jesus has advocated for us before his father.
If you have any questions about becoming involved in the justice system or becoming a CASA volunteer, feel free to reach out below:
* This article was written by Hallie Graves, a 30-something, energetic Jesus follower living the single gal life in Austin, Texas. Hallie is the director of Polished Austin and is passionate about encouraging women to live the fullest, most free lives that Jesus has called them to live. As a lawyer and passion-collector, Hallie’s advocated for budding entrepreneurs and Fortune 50 companies, and for children and families in child protection cases. Hallie is obsessed with Broadway shows, La Croix fancy waters (all flavors), hummus, red wine, group fitness classes, and her people, and she can almost always be found somewhere around Town Lake. Hallie’s involved in the Austin Stone Community Church (downtown AM!) and Restore Foster Care, and has degrees in voice, physics, and law. Connect with Hallie on instagram @hgraves03.