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Naira "Nonny" Soifer, Esq.                                         
Interviewed December 2001 and January 2002 via email from West Bath, Maine.

CASA: A Voice for Children in Court
"The role of a CASA volunteer or guardian ad litem (GAL) is to act as the independent, impartial eyes and ears of the judge in a child protection case."

"The CASA program seeks people of good judgment who have the skills and commitment necessary to accept appointment by the court to speak up for an abused or neglected child."

"Also, the Maine Court system is very supportive of the CASA program. After the newness wears off, most CASA volunteers feel very comfortable appearing in court."

"It is by far the most interesting, challenging work I have ever had the opportunity to do."
Q: Where did you go to law school and when did you graduate?

A: I graduated from Boston College Law School in 1980.

Q: Why did you want to become a lawyer?

A: To be an advocate for people who are denied access to justice for economic or other reasons.

Q: What did you do after you received your law degree?

A: I had an E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship at Georgetown University Law School. I represented low income clients in criminal cases and then supervised third year law students who were representing low income clients in criminal cases.

In 1983, I moved to Maine. I worked in a law firm for a brief period of time and then joined the faculty of the University of Maine School of Law. In addition to teaching academic courses, I was a faculty supervisor in the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic - a program in which third year law students represent low income clients in court cases.

I have also been the director of a rape crisis center and was the first managing attorney for the Legal Services for the Elderly Hotline in Maine.

Q: What do you do now?

A: I am the Director of the Maine CASA Program.

Q: What do the letters "C" "A" "S" and "A" stand for?

A: CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate.

Q: Can you give some background on how CASA came to be?

A: CASA started in 1977 because Seattle Judge David Soukup was concerned that he was making decisions about the lives of abused and neglected children without sufficient information.  He felt that trained community volunteers could provide an effective voice for these children in court.

[Go to Top]                                   Role of a CASA Volunteer                                      [Go to End]

The role of a CASA volunteer or guardian ad litem (GAL) is to act as the independent, impartial eyes and ears of the judge in a child protection case. A CASA volunteer is appointed by the court to act as the child's GAL. The role requires that the volunteer conduct an independent investigation and make both written and oral recommendations to the judge regarding the best interests of the child.

Judge Soukup believed that people from the community, who had experience with life, would be good at presenting useful, balanced information to the court. As a result, the CASA movement was born.  In 1990, the US Congress encouraged the expansion of CASA with passage of the Victims of Child Abuse Act.

Q: Did the ideal spread rapidly to other states?

A: There are now CASA programs in every state. In Maine, and about a dozen other states, there is one statewide program. In some states, there are private non-profit CASA programs based on a county model. There are now 900 individual CASA programs with 53,000 individual volunteers advocating for 207,000 children.

Q: When did Maine start a CASA program and how did Maine's program begin?

A: The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) endorsed the idea of a trained volunteer program advocating for the rights of abused and neglected children.   In 1984, Maine District Court Judge Bernard M. Devine, who was an active member of the NCJFCJ, established a committee to assess the feasibility of establishing a CASA program in Maine.

The first Maine CASA director was hired in June of 1985.

There are volunteers currently with the Maine CASA program who were trained in 1985.  The Maine program exists as part of the Maine Judicial Branch and the main CASA office is in the West Bath District Court.

Q: You say that it is a volunteer program. How does one go about volunteering?

A: Potential volunteers usually call (207-442-0226) or e-mail (casamaine@yahoo.com) to the West Bath office. An information/application packet is then sent out. Once a completed application is received, criminal and DHS background checks are done. The CASA applicant is then contacted for a personal interview.

Q: What kind of screening process does an individual go through?

A: The personal interview uses a lengthy, standardized format that is designed to explore the applicant's suitability for CASA work. The interview is personal and generally takes about one and a half to two hours.

If the results from the background checks and the interview are both successful, the potential CASA volunteer is invited to attend a three-day pre-service CASA training program. After the training, a final exit interview is conducted over the phone. This is the opportunity to explore any final concerns about taking on the sensitive and serious job performed by CASA volunteers.

[Go to Top]                              Good Judgment and Commitment                            [Go to End]

Q: What kind of person is the program looking for?

A: The CASA program seeks people of good judgment who have the skills and commitment necessary to accept appointment by the court to speak up for an abused or neglected child.

Q: What is expected of the volunteer?

A: CASA volunteers are expected to fulfill all of the requirements of a GAL in a child protection case. These are outlined in Title 22 of the Maine Statutes and include visiting the child within seven days of the appointment by the court and at least every three months after that. CASA volunteers are also expected to gather a significant amount of information about the child from a variety of sources. They also must appear in court whenever their case is scheduled.

Q: Is a time commitment involved?

A: CASA volunteers can schedule much of their work at their own convenience. They must, however, be available to appear in court whenever their case is scheduled. Most cases will have very active times and then periods where monitoring is all that is needed. The volunteer should commit to remaining with the case until it is ended which, unfortunately, can often take several years.

Q: Do state programs have to follow standards set by the national organization?

A: The National CASA Association (www.nationalcasa.org) has established standards for both CASA programs and CASA state associations.

Q: Do state programs compare notes? Is there a wide or a small difference in the state programs?

A: National CASA arranges for the CASA State Directors to meet once a year. There is also a national CASA conference each year attended by state directors, program directors and many volunteers.

There are tremendous differences in the way that CASA programs are structured in different states. However, the CASA mission is consistent and, sadly, so are the issues of child abuse and neglect.

Q: Let's say that I have been accepted as a CASA volunteer. What do I do first?

A: You would have told the CASA office when you are available to take your first case and which court is most convenient for you. You would receive a phone call from the office telling you information about a specific case. The policy of the Maine CASA program is that a volunteer should never accept a case if it is not a good time or, for any reason, it is not a comfortable match.

If you accept the case, you will receive some basic information about the child or children, the state's allegations about the problems that have caused the Department of Human Services to ask the court to intervene on their behalf, and the first few dates at which you are expected to appear in court.  You will also get the name and phone number of the DHS caseworker assigned to the case and, through that person, will find out how to arrange to visit with the child.

[Go to Top]                                  A Supportive Court System                                  [Go to End]

Q: If I'm expected to go into Court and I have no legal experience, how will I know what to do at a hearing?

A: You will be assigned to a CASA supervisor when you first accept a case. That person, who is an attorney, will be available to assist you in preparing every aspect of the case.

Also, the Maine Court system is very supportive of the CASA program. After the newness wears off, most CASA volunteers feel very comfortable appearing in court. They know that the Judge wants to hear what they have to say in a simple straightforward presentation.

If necessary, the CASA program is able to arrange to have the volunteer represented by his or her own attorney.

Q: What are the benefits to having a CASA volunteer, as opposed to having a court-appointed attorney, act as a guardian ad litem in a case?

A: It is impossible to generalize about either CASA volunteers or attorney guardians ad litem.  The work is so complex and multidisciplinary that there are very few of us who excel at all the necessary skills.  Although it is true that the most sophisticated case analysis will not be useful if it is not effectively presented in court, it is also true that the best courtroom presentation is not meaningful if it is not based on a careful, informed investigation and evaluation of the child's needs.  

Although I am an attorney who has been involved with children's issues for a long time, my legal training did not include child development, the effects of abuse and neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, attachment disorders -- all topics which are essential for guardian ad litem work in child protection cases. Many of the CASA volunteers have professional training and/or experience in these fields.

One of the best parts of my job is learning from the substantial expertise of the CASA volunteers as I assist them in managing the legal component of their task.

Q: Is CASA controversial to attorneys?

A: I hope not.  There are many lawyers throughout Maine who have generously assisted the CASA program in a variety of ways.

Q: What percentage of guardians ad litem are CASA volunteers in Maine?

A: In Maine, the CASA program accepts between five and ten per cent of the child protection cases filed each year. 

Q: Any further thoughts?

A: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the CASA program. It is by far the most interesting, challenging work I have ever had the opportunity to do.

I would be happy to share any additional information about Maine CASA and welcome anyone interested to apply to join the ranks of the impressive, committed group of people who make up the Maine CASA volunteer program.

END  

January 2002
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