Going All Out for Kids
Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Court Appointed Special Advocates
When a caring teacher, school nurse or counselor is concerned about a child’s welfare, they file a report with the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families (DCF), which then investigates the family’s situation. If a high level of risk for the child is determined, the child is removed from the home and placed under the jurisdiction of the legal system. The court has the option of assigning a Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteer, who makes sure the child’s well-being is considered. The limited number of volunteers makes it impossible to assign an advocate to every child that needs one.
“Most of these kids come from a family where there is substance abuse, domestic violence within the home and/or educational neglect,” says Connie Ricketts, director of Essex County CASA, which operates under the umbrella of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley and is part of a national network of 951 community-based programs of its kind. “When a parent is so under the influence that the child can’t get to school, isn’t being fed, is not safe—that is the highest level of risk and abuse.”
CASA volunteers don’t need any particular educational or medical background. According to Ricketts, “We need ordinary community people who want to look out for the best interests of children.”
As a CASA volunteer, Nancy Barry has been an advocate for four children over the last two years. “We are given access to the child’s family, social workers, attorneys, health collaterals, teachers and day care. We gather information from these providers and objectively write a report that has the child’s best interest [in mind],” she says.
CASA volunteers go through 40 hours of intensive training. They become a consistent person in a child’s life, even though the social workers, therapists and foster homes might change. CASA volunteer Carol Carbonell says she was “drawn to the program because it offered in-depth involvement in a child’s life over several years.
I feel that I have had significant influence over a variety of decisions affecting children in crisis, and that’s been very rewarding.”
“I so enjoy my monthly visits,” Barry says. “The children and I play, read books, talk and … bond.” Barry’s first case involved a baby born with clubfoot in both feet. “When he was fitted with braces and shoes and was able to walk for the first time, it was amazing.”
In the Family Services of Merrimack Valley’s CASA program, volunteers receive strong support. “If you don’t know what to do or how to handle something, they [officials from the CASA program] are right there to advise you,” Carbonell says. The program also provides ongoing opportunities for training, along with some social get-togethers.
Parents have to remedy the cause of the removal before the child can return home. The court looks at parents’ compliance, and what the CASA volunteer reports, in order to make an informed decision. Once permanence has been achieved (the child returns home, is assigned a guardian or is adopted), the CASA volunteer steps away and begins work as an advocate for another child.
According to Family Services, there are more than 1,100 children under court jurisdiction in Essex County due to abuse and neglect. CASA volunteers currently serve only 120 of these children, so more volunteers are needed. Family Services’ CASA program currently operates in three of the four juvenile courts in Essex County (Lawrence, Newburyport and Salem) and soon will begin work in Lynn. CASA volunteers are needed in all of these areas.
Family Services of the Merrimack Valley
Top photo, left to right: Connie Ricketts, director of the Essex County Court Appointed Special Advocates program; Liz Sweeney, executive director of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley; Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteer Carol Carbonell; CASA volunteer Nancy Barry. Photo by Kevin Harkins.