July-August 2014

Those in the legal field can be powerful advocates for children

Callie Langford

Marketing & ­Communications ­Manager at CASA of Travis County

People who work in law—both attorneys and non-lawyers—make mighty good CASAs (court-appointed special advocates), a volunteer position meant to watch out for the best interest of children who have been abused or neglected.

CASA speaks up for children who’ve been abused or neglected by empowering our community to volunteer as advocates for them in the court system. When the State steps in to protect a child’s safety, a judge appoints a trained CASA (which stands for court-appointed special advocate) volunteer to make independent and informed recommendations in the child’s best interest. CASA volunteers come from every walk of life and bring a variety of skills and life experiences to each case they work on. We recently interviewed three current CASA of Travis County volunteers with jobs in the legal field about their experiences working with children and how their legal background helps them be powerful advocates for children in our community.
    Mandeep Chatha is an attorney working in civil litigation for Stack and Davis, LLP. She’s been a CASA volunteer for a year and has worked with two children.
    Michelle Iglesias is a board-certified paralegal working in family law. She’s been a CASA volunteer for a year and has worked with one teenager.
    Tanya Johns is the general counsel for P180 Investments. She’s volunteered with CASA for three years and worked with five children.

Why did you decide to volunteer with CASA of Travis County?
Mandeep: I have always had an affinity toward volunteering with kids. I decided to volunteer at CASA because I was looking for something long-term, something more tangible than just volunteering for a few hours. It’s been really nice to see a child go through this whole process, work with them for a year, see them grow up and then give them a healthy goodbye and know they’re in a good situation.
Michelle: CASA gives me a more direct way to work with the community that I’m already involved with. Child advocacy is high on a lot of people’s lists. It’s something everyone would want to be passionate about, but it’s difficult for people to find ways to put action to those words. CASA is a great way for people to do that.
Tanya: In law school, I worked with the Children’s Rights Clinics as a student attorney ad litem for several children going through the system. One of the things that I took out of it was how much better my kids who had CASA volunteers fared during their involvement with the department than the kids who didn’t. As attorney ad litem, I had to do what my kids wanted, and it was usually not a very good decision that they wanted to make. When I had a CASA on a case, it was so much easier to advocate for my kid and to know that I had somebody involved with the kid on a weekly basis who took the time to understand what the child needed and wanted.

What do you do as a CASA volunteer?
Tanya: For me it’s getting to know as best I can the kid in my care. I have an obligation to that child to understand who they are, what they need, and what needs to happen to either reunify their family or make a transition to a different family if possible. So what I do generally is read case files, get to know the other advocates on the case, and interact with parents to find out what they’re doing and what they might need that they’re not getting to be as successful as possible in the program. My primary duty is to build a relationship with the child I’ve been entrusted with so I can make a good [recommendation to the judge] about what is going to be best for that kid going forward.
Michelle: Most importantly the work is about listening. The families and children involved with CASA, they’re being talked to a lot, and not everyone has the time or even the ability to listen to these families. As a CASA volunteer you’re able to hear or see things others may overlook, mishear, or misrepresent. That might really be the key to helping the family become whole again.

How has being in the legal field helped you on your CASA cases?
Michelle: It has given me a huge advantage. I found a lot of volunteers in training felt intimidated by the court process and the courtroom in general. With my experience in cases and court presentations, I didn’t have to spend time getting through that stage; I was able to just jump in and start talking to attorneys and caseworkers. It’s helped me to understand where those other players may be coming from in a case. I understand what [an attorney’s] caseload looks like.
Mandeep: I think it helps me analyze issues a bit harder than I would if I weren’t an attorney. I don’t take a lot of things at face value. When someone tells me something, I ask for documentation. Being able to read something and analyze it and ask the appropriate questions going forward—being an attorney I know what info is critical to making a decision. I have those questions in my head. I think one of the most important things that we learn as lawyers is that often the resolution won’t be perfect. It’s about being able to compromise and find something both sides can live with. I draw on that a lot when going through a case, when I’m frustrated by CPS not returning my phone call, not being able to get enough information, or feeling like I should do more and I just can’t.
Tanya: I know when things can be accomplished more quickly than they’re being done. I understand the statutes that can help back me up when I request that the department do something. I’m trained to analyze a situation. Those skills help me keep in context the procedural process that has to happen in court and advocate for my kids so that process happens as quickly as possible. In the long run, having a kid whose status is unsettled is not good—they really need to be with a permanent caregiver as quickly as possible.

What kind of impact do CASA volunteers have on kids?
Mandeep: It’s just about being there. You can go and visit kids and sometimes they won’t have much to share with you, but it’s just about building that consistency with them. They know you’re going to see them and you’re going to follow up—that is the presence that CASA volunteers bring: “I’m here and watching everybody.” Just because you see an environment that looks great, it doesn’t mean you stop asking questions. As a CASA volunteer you don’t ever just assume everything’s great.
Michelle: For my teen, there didn’t seem to be a history of having an adult in a position to follow through with what they were telling him. He had become jaded. Early on in my case he didn’t return calls or talk to me much, but he understood over the course of a year that when I said I was going to call, I did, and that I would always try to pick up the phone, and I did.
Tanya: CASA volunteers make recommendations about these children’s lives that are going to impact them forever. A kid may not realize it, but that CASA volunteer can change that child’s life for the better if they’re on top of what’s happening in the case and understand the needs of the child economically, socially, and emotionally. They can help keep families intact.

What have you learned about yourself through volunteering with CASA?
Michelle: I don’t think anybody can go through this process and not learn things about themselves. That’s a great thing CASA offers. As strong as my legal background was, I’m continually learning about team approaches and wrap-around services. I’m learning about my community and what is and isn’t available for kids here. Until more people become aware of gaps in the system meant to care for these children, they’re not going to advocate for things to be different.
Tanya: I have learned that I can make a difference. I’ve learned that I have the capacity to be a role model, to be a friend. It’s a difficult thing when the relationship with your kids comes to an end because they’ve become so much a part of your everyday thinking and care and consideration. Being able to put their needs ahead of yours, that’s a really big deal.

Anything else you want to share about CASA?
Tanya: I just think that the CASA program is so important. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything but the fact that [CASA volunteers] continue to try says a lot of good things about our community and people in general.
Mandeep: If CASA volunteers weren’t on cases, there would be huge cracks in an already complicated child welfare system. I think about how difficult life already is for these kids. They could be lost in the system if CASA wasn’t there.

How to volunteer
If you’re interested in volunteering with or supporting CASA, you can learn more online. The volunteers interviewed here come from CASA of Travis County in Austin (www.casatravis.org). Across Texas there are 71 local CASA programs with more than 7,600 volunteers advocating for nearly 24,000 children in 207 counties. Find your local program at www.becomeacasa.org.
    You must be at least 21 years of age and able to pass extensive reference, Child Protective Services, and criminal background checks before becoming a CASA volunteer. You may not be a current foster parent or be in the process of adopting a child from Child Protective Services. Attorneys or staff working in district or county attorney’s offices should consult with leadership in their offices to determine whether serving as a CASA volunteer would create any real or perceived conflict of interest.