While justice is supposed to be "blind" in application, it cannot be unknowledgeable or unreasoning in coming to decisions. For Lonoke County Circuit Judge Barbara Elmore, the knowledge and reasoning in her most heart-rending, difficult decisions, those in child custody hearings, are guided by Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs.
CASAs have become Elmore’s eyes and ears, and she fears the possibility of being blinded.
A CASA is a trained community volunteer who collects information in child custody cases. Elmore said she depends on the information collected by CASAs to make sometimes-agonizing decisions. Attorneys ad litem ensure legalities are met, caseworkers ensure the state requirements are met, but CASAs ensure the child’s needs are met, Elmore said.
Ultimately, the goal is reunification of the family, Elmore said. But when that cannot or does not happen, the overall health and well being of the child is what matters most, she said.
"Everyone else is represented. The parents, the agencies, but there is no one else watching out for what is best for the child except for the CASAs," Elmore said.
But there are too few CASAs, and she fears what may happen if more people in the community do not help care for the families and children who find themselves in court, Elmore said.
"I am scared the [CASAs] we have will get overworked, burned out, and we will lose them. I am scared of losing them. I depend on my CASAs," Elmore said.
CASA of Lonoke County executive director Delyce Palik said the basic requirement for becoming a CASA is to have a heart for helping children in crisis. There is no specific educational or skill requirements to enter the program.
A CASA must be at least 21 years old, able to commit to being a CASA for one to two years, complete 30 hours of pre-service training and pass background checks, and be able to stay objective while advocating for children’s best interests while keeping confidentiality, Palik said.
There are "roughly" about 45 CASAs in Lonoke County, Palik said. The number changes and volunteers are needed all the time; in 2012, there were more than 200 children cared for by Lonoke County CASAs, she said.
Phyllis Danielson of Cabot, who has been a CASA for more than 10 years, said the work is rewarding, but not for everyone. "You have to have a heart for children," she said.
It can be difficult, Palik said. "These children have been neglected, beaten, burned, raped." The need for volunteers and other resources is becoming crucial, she said.
A CASA typically carries one case at a time, although experienced volunteers can handle two. In contrast, state caseworkers may have to take care of 20 to 30 cases at a time, "CASAs are personal in a way caseworkers are simply unable to be," Palik said.
Danielson said CASAs are able to spend more time with the children. "We can put more heart into it," she said. "We get to see the kids, we get to be there for them … We get to know them and what they need," she said.
Danielson said her involvement in CASA was a natural progression from her previous work at a halfway house for women released from prison. It soon became apparent to her that her passion is for the well-being of the children.
Her turning point came after battling for a woman to retain custody of her child only to have the woman later "Just run away," leaving her child behind, Danielson said. There was a certain frustration in seeing the child deserted a second time; she has since taken up ensuring children are cared for, she said.
It was about that time she learned of CASA. "I knew that is what I want to do," Danielson said.
Elmore said CASAs have become a critical part of the county’s juvenile justice system.
"I do not know how [juvenile court] functioned before CASA," Elmore said. "What CASA does for me is they go to the schools, they go to the foster home, they go to the biological home. They go on sibling visits because the kids are often separated … they might have one case and six kids.
"They take that one case and they go everywhere," Elmore said, and the information CASA volunteers glean is "gold" for her. "[CASAs] paint the whole picture for me … they understand where the child is coming from," she said.
CASAs have made recommendations to her that no one else has seen because, "They take in the whole picture," Elmore said. "I have ordered those recommendations, too," she said.
Drug and alcohol rehabilitation, substance abuse recovery and parental counseling are only a few of the recommendations made by CASAs for parents to correct themselves, Elmore said. "I give [parents] the rope. Either they can take it home and take the kids home, or they can hang themselves with it. Whichever way they want to do, it is up to them," she said.
But often that "rope," the chance to change, is offered only because of CASAs, Elmore said.
Elmore’s worries about the well-being of children are identical to those of Judge David Soukup of Seattle, Wash., whose sleepless night in 1976 led to establishing the program that has grown into the now-national Court Appointed Special Advocates.
In written and video accounts, Soukup said, beginning with his first day sitting as a Juvenile Court judge, he found himself frustrated by a system that did not provide children with the same court representation enjoyed by anyone in any other type of court proceeding.
After years of hearing criminal and civil cases, spending days and weeks coming to decisions, Soukup said his first day as juvenile judge was dealing with a "light" docket of eight child custody hearings. In the first hearing, "I looked around the courtroom and there was no one there whose only job was to investigate [the child’s] case, and come into court to speak for her, and tell us what was the best decision for Sarah that would affect the rest of her life."
Soukup recalls finishing the day knowing he was going to wake up at 4 a.m. worrying about the children affected by his rulings.
Finding relief from that worry led to developing a program to train community volunteers to investigate children’s cases, and then appear in court to recommend what was best for the children.
Granted, not everyone is cut out to be a CASA, Palik said. But for those who see the need but cannot take on the work, there is still a way to help.
"Get certified to be a foster parent," Palik suggested. Or, consider being certified to adopt an at-risk child, she said.
There is always a need for personal items, too, Palik said.
Individual or organizations could collect diapers, baby wipes, shampoo and conditioner, baby wash, baby shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste or other such items, Palik said. Even collecting items for "birthday bags," for children in foster care, is a great help, she said.
Of course, money donated to CASA is much appreciated, Palik said. It costs more than $1,000 a year to serve one child; CASA is privately funded, reliant on the support of the community, she said.
Elmore said that keeping families together remains her priority. "Even kids who have been abused still love their parents," she said.
For Elmore, her decision in one case shows how effective a CASA can be. In that case, her decision to end parental rights flew against recommendations from all others, including the CASA upon whose report she relied, Elmore said. "They all said to give [mother] one more chance.
"But from what I saw in the [CASA] report, I decided it was time to end parental rights. It was not long after that that [mother] was in back in court and ended up in prison. I made that decision on the good information I got from my CASA. I need my CASAs. I need more of them," she said.
CASA of Lonoke County began in October 2000, and is a 501 (c) 3, non-profit organization governed by a board of directors.
Directors are president Connie Mason, secretary Ginger Stuart, treasurer Mary Eddleman and members Lori Cossey, Thad Finley, Mike Freeze, Karen Hardke, Tim Lemons, Melissa Pack, Crystal Payne, Janet Stewart, Mary Beth Trammell, Jeff Venable and Beth Wright.
To learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer, or how to help support the program, call 501-676-6533 or go online at www.lonokecasa.org. The office is located at 119 W. Front Street in Lonoke.