Several law students at Washington and Lee School of Law recently completed training to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children appearing in local juvenile and domestic courts. The students received the training through Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children, part of an association of CASA organizations nationwide.
CASA volunteers are appointed by judges in abuse and neglect cases to gather information to help the judge decide what is best for the child, whether that means removing the child from his or her home or helping a struggling family get access to social services. The students’ duties will include talking to everyone involved in the child’s life – including parents and relatives, foster parents (if any), teachers, medical professional, attorneys, and social workers. The students will use the information they gain to provide information to the court and to assist with the determination of what would be the best placement for the child.
W&L adjunct professor Tammi Hellwig, director of externships and third-year program administration, serves as a facilitator for students volunteering for CASA. A CASA volunteer and former guardian ad litem herself, Hellwig says that the most important role these advocates play is as a reliable presence in the child’s life.
“Child abuse and neglect cases are very complex and children often interact with a number of different social workers or lawyers as the case proceeds through the system,” says Hellwig. “CASA volunteers are the one adult constant in the child’s life and they stay with the cases until it is closed and the child is in a safe, permanent home.”
“The students are given a unique opportunity to vigilantly fight for the rights of children in abuse and neglect situations and ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect,” adds Hellwig.
The CASA program was started in 1977 by a Seattle juvenile court judge concerned about making such difficult decisions about child welfare in the absence of complete information. Over 600,000 children are placed in foster care each year in the U.S., but with a nationwide compliment of fewer than 78,000, CASA volunteers are often assigned to only the most difficult abuse and neglect cases.
The W&L law students serving as CASA volunteers are Cara Parcell, Mitzi Hellmer, Alisa Abbott, Lydia Cancilla and Rebecca Reed. Reed, a second year law student, served in a similar capacity in Florida before attending law school. She says children show remarkable resilience in these situations, recalling one child she worked with who channeled her anger and fear into poetry, eventually winning a competition and a scholarship to a poetry camp.
“It is such a privilege to see how strong children can be and to help them along the way,” says Reed. “In these cases, the state has lawyers and both parents have lawyers, but the one person this is supposed to be about doesn’t have a voice unless you give it to them.”
Abbott, a third-year student, interned over the summer with the Office of the City Attorney in Richmond, helping represent the department of social services. She interacted with CASA volunteers during several cases and was eager to sign on to the program when it became available in the area.
The W&L students will receive their first cases soon, and after two years of mostly analytical exposure to the law, Abbott is eager to move even closer to experiencing the law’s true impact on people involved with the justice system.
“Law students don’t get much of a perspective on human interaction and how law changes peoples’ lives,” says Abbott. “This program helps make it real.”