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Volunteers Help Children in Court

Child Advocacy Attracts Seniors

Cindy Egan had been a nurse, and when she retired, she thought she would do some volunteer work. The Springfield resident saw an advertisement for the Fairfax Court Appointed Special Advocates, more commonly known as CASA, and thought she'd give it a try.

"As soon as I started, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Like my profession, it's hands-on," Egan said.

CASA volunteers are appointed by the Fairfax County courts to represent the best interest of a child, currently in the local court system, who has been abused or neglected. The volunteers are given access to the child, parents, attorneys, social workers, school officials or anyone else with information pertaining to the child, as well as to any legal or personal documents CASA needs to render an objective opinion.

Egan said she remembers an incident where she went to pay a visit to a child whose case she was working on. The child had been placed in a foster home, but to Egan's shock, she was being abused by the foster mother's housekeeper.

"I could hear her screaming at the kids from the door. The kids were screaming, crying and really scared. I took them for a walk, calmed them down and reported it," Egan said. "CASAs have a chance to find out information social workers don't."

Egan said an investigation found several violations of the rules that govern foster parenting at the home, and the woman is no longer a foster parent.

It's the opportunity to help children like this that has kept Egan volunteering as a CASA for 11 years.

BETWEEN July 1, 2001, and June 30, 2002, Fairfax CASA, which covers all of Fairfax County, served about 525 children, from infancy to 18 years old, with an army of nearly 200 active volunteers. Combined, they worked an estimated 14,182 case hours, or the equivalent of $283,224 worth of volunteer services. By law, a CASA can be assigned to only one active case, consisting of either a single child or no more than three siblings, at a time — any more than that requires a special waiver from the courts — and the CASA will remain on a case until it is closed by the courts.

There are only 11 paid employees at Fairfax CASA, who serve as case supervisors or administrative staff. All of the court-appointed work is done by volunteers, ranging in age from 21 to 60-plus.

In all, there are 25 CASA programs throughout Virginia that operate as nonprofit, independent organizations, but they are regulated by the Virginia Department of Justice Services. Fairfax's program has been in place since 1989 and in that time has helped more than 3,326 children, as of February of this year.

"It's a great volunteer work force for seniors," said state Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th), former executive director of Fairfax CASA. "It calls on a lifetime of experiences. CASAs see the worst of the worst. Only one-third of the [abuse] hot-line calls are investigated, and 10 percent of them end up in the courts, and CASAs get two-thirds of that."

Bonnie Sullivan, the current executive director of Fairfax CASA, said a majority of their volunteers are retired or stay-at-home people, mostly because of the time commitment required of a CASA.

"When we interview people, we tell them if they are looking for warm and fuzzy, this isn't it," said Sylvia Schonberger, one of the few paid case supervisors. "There is 36 to 40 hours of intensive training, which is not for everybody, and we require at least a one-year commitment."

The average case lasts about 15 to 24 months, said Sullivan. It is the job of the CASA to thoroughly research the child's background and current situation and make a written recommendation on what is best for the child, whether that is returning the child to the parents or legal guardian, placing the child in foster care, or freeing the child for legal adoption.

"The report is just one stage. The CASA continues to monitor the situation until the courts find that what's best is for the child is to be home or in another safe place," said Schonberger, who has been with CASA since 1992.

WHEN IT COMES to abused children, however, there is no average case. Volunteer Colette Convisser once had a case that lasted five years and involved four children that were placed in temporary homes in other counties while their case went through the Fairfax County court system.

"With Colette's case, the judge developed a rapport with Colette. The judge would listen to everyone involved and would then say, 'Let's ask the CASA' and would usually do what she said," Schonberger said.

Convisser, a Lake Barcroft resident, was a psychologist before retiring in 1991. She became a CASA in 1995. She said she had spent some time working for a school system and as a family therapist, but she finds her CASA work much more liberating.

"There is a political agenda [when you work with organizations]. You absorb that agenda without realizing. All the time, you're pretending you are neutral, but you are sometimes a part of that agenda," Convisser said. "What I found in this job is there is not an agenda because nobody pays you. For the first time I find myself independent without constraints. You are supposed to be independent of all things. You are supposed to act on behalf of what is best for the children. That is a unique position to be in."

But unlike social workers, CASAs have no legal authority to determine whether abuse has taken place or to take any action other then to report the suspected abuse to the proper authorities. Even still, as an independent organization, CASA can carry a lot of weight.

"I like to tell people we are the Ralph Naders of the justice system," Schonberger said. "People tend to do a little better when there is another set of eyes."

EVEN PARENTS come to understand that having a CASA around is a good thing.

"One of the things I try to do at the first hearing with the parents is open the doors of communications. I make sure I explain my role as an advocate for the child," said Al Stolpe, a retired federal employee, who has been volunteering with CASA for a year. "No matter how negative the parent might be because they feel everyone is coming at them to take away their kids, when I explain we're there for the kids, they became positive."

Stolpe, a Fairfax Station resident, said the job requires a CASA to be able to work with a variety of people, all with different backgrounds. He is also undeterred by levels of abuse and neglect he is exposed to. Instead, he focuses on the positives.

"I see a good outcome when the child is taken from the family, and goes back to the family, and the family is getting counseling, and I see the kids doing better with the family," Stolpe said.

At times, Egan said what is best for the child includes steering the parents to helpful agencies such as drug and alcohol counseling or mental health. But CASAs have to remember not to become too attached to the children and to realize that sometimes they cannot save them all.

"It's important to remember, we are not miracle workers. We are just CASA workers," Convisser said.

CASA will be having a volunteer orientation meeting Jan. 15, 7-9 p.m., at its office, 4103 Chain Bridge Road, Suite 200 in Fairfax. Call 703-273-3526 or log on to www.casafairfax.org for more information.