A Child's Friend In Court

A Child's Friend In Court
by William L. Bulla

"If you really want to make a difference in the community, you reach out to someone one-on-one, and that's what being a volunteer Advocate is all about," said Lea Adams, a 3-year volunteer.
"You don't have to have a college degree to be an Advocate. You just have to want to work with kids having problems, and have the desire to help keep them from trouble," said Robert Mothershed, a 10-year veteran volunteer.
"Working as a child advocate is therapeutic. I found it doing as much for me as it was for the child to whom I had been assigned," said Jennifer Silbert, an Advocate volunteer for the past 3-years.
These are individuals speaking of their experiences of being Court Appointed Special Advocates.
They are your neighbors! They are caring citizens! They are trained volunteers appointed by a judge to represent the best interests of children, who must appear in court because of parental or guardian neglect or abuse. Their role as Court Appointed Special Advocates in the courtroom is as basic as speaking on behalf of the children and assuring that their needs are met.
Deborah Elwood, a recent addition to the Court Appointed Special Advocates said, "Working as a child advocate provides me with an avenue I can travel to help children in our community."
The role of a volunteer is to provide a judge with carefully researched background of the child, so the court can make a sound decision on the child's future. Their research and evaluation is often the determining factor whether it is in the child's best interest to stay with parents or guardians, be placed in a foster home, or be freed for permanent adoption. After making a recommendation to a judge on the placement of a child, the Advocate follows through on the case until it is permanently resolved. It is important to note that the Advocate does not speak to the child's wishes in court, but speaks to the child's best interest.
"Some of the children have been in the system for a number of years. I was assigned a case where one girl had been placed in twenty-seven different places in a twelve year period," said 5-year volunteer, Donna Palmer.
To make the proper recommendations to the court, the Advocate must do adequate research to fully understand the situation and present it to the judge in court. They must have talks with the child, parents, family members, social workers, school officials, health providers, and all other persons with knowledge about the child's history. The Advocate must review all previous records pertaining to the child...school, medical, case worker reports, and any other available documents.
"The Social Workers are so busy that they are unable to spend as much time as we can researching a case. We can sit in the classroom and observe the child, and get more involved in the child's history. What we do is a help to both the Social Workers and the judge in reaching a decision," explained Lori Connolly, a 2-year volunteer.
You might ask, "Is there a need for child advocacy programs?" The answer to that lies in the results of a study by the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. It revealed "a child is abused every 10 seconds, and more than 3 children die each day as a result of parental maltreatment."
The next question is "Do we need more trained advocates?" Again the answer is yes! Social Workers have very heavy caseloads limiting the time that they can spend with each child. The Advocate works with only one child or 2 or 3 siblings, therefore, having more time to research the child's individual needs. The volunteer stays with the case until it is resolved, then they are assigned another one. However, it means there are many children without advocates.
The Court Appointed Special Advocates program is not new to Washington County. It has been here since 1991. Funded by a $40,000 matching grant provided by the Maryland State Administration Office of the Court, the program was created to provide critical aid for the Juvenile Court system in Washington County. It functioned as a program at the Parent-Child Center until June 2005, when it was moved to the Washington County Health Department. The program serves thirty to forty children each year. Some children bond with their advocates. Advocates Robert Mothershed and Donna Palmer indicated they had developed an attachment to the children they had helped and looked on them as part of their families.
There are twelve active Child Advocates at this time. There is a need for more. There are cases in the court where advocates do not represent children, because trained volunteers are not available. The program is looking for more persons interested in serving as child advocates.
Prospective volunteers undergo a thorough screening process that include reference checks, personal interviews, and criminal background checks, Child Abuse Registry checks, and a post-training assessment. Volunteers receive 30-45 hours of training, which includes both classroom instruction and courtroom observation. Professional Court Appointed Special Advocates staff, as well as attorneys, mental health professionals and representatives of the Department of Social Services, and other collaborative agencies conduct the training. Advocates are also required to complete 12 hours of in-service training each year.
It is very important that only volunteers, who have the time, interest, ability and commitment to serve, are selected. While each case is different, an Advocate volunteer usually spends about 10 hours doing research and conducting interviews prior to the first court appearance. Once the case is initiated into the court system, volunteers spend an average of 10 to 15 hours a month.
Studies indicate that the Court Appointed Special Advocates program shows positive results for the children involved. The records reveal that children who have been assigned Advocate volunteers tend to spend less time in court and in the foster care system than those who do not have Advocate representation. Court Appointed Special Advocates help children have a better chance of finding permanent homes than those without the program's support.
Individuals interested in becoming part of this important program can The Court Appointed Special Advocates office by calling 240-313-3383.