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CASA volunteer Margaret Stewart and others are committed to helping children

Gainesville woman completed 40 hours of training to help make a difference in kids' lives

POSTED: March 19, 2017 1:30 a.m.
J.K. Devine/The Times

For the past five years, Margaret Stewart of Gainesville has volunteered her time, serving as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Hall and Dawson County. She acts as investigative advocate for children in Juvenile Court, talking with the people involved in the child's and parent's life. She then reports to the judge about the best interest of the child. Sometimes she spends time with the children at Little House, which is the CASA headquarters. It has room filled with toys for children.

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Decades ago, Margaret Stewart’s friend suggested she look into volunteering at the Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocate Program. But her own family — a husband and two now-grown children — and activities kept her busy.

“But I kept thinking about it and it intrigued me,” Stewart said. “I’ve always worked with children.”

About 20 years later, Stewart finally took the 40 hours of training to become a full-fledged CASA volunteer in 2012.

“It seemed like a good fit, so I went through the training and ultimately started volunteering,” said Stewart, who has six grandchildren who live out of state. “I don’t get to see my grandchildren as often as I would love to. Maybe that’s another motivation why I’m involved with children at church and through CASA.

“They’re not substitutes for my own kids at all,” she continued. “I naturally love kids. They crack me up, they frustrate me, all of the above.”

A trained speech pathologist, Stewart began volunteering as a guardian ad litem, who is a person appointed by the court to advocate for the best interest of a child involved in a juvenile court dependency proceeding.

Stewart said in the last year, 643 abused and neglected children had a CASA volunteer advocating for their best interests. The families and children served are from high-risk environments, including domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, unstable housing, unemployment, developmental disabilities, school drop outs or mental illness.

Georgia law requires both an attorney and a guardian ad litem to be appointed in juvenile court dependency (abuse and neglect) proceedings and specifies a CASA volunteer should be the guardian ad litem whenever possible.

“I advocate for the safe and best interest of children or teenagers,” Stewart said.

Stewart said once she receives a court order or case from a local juvenile judge, she is like the eyes and ears for the judge.

“I can go into the homes,” she said. “I can go into the schools. I can go into doctor’s offices, access medical records, school records and talk to teachers.”

She then listens and observes the children, encourages them and gives them small gifts for their birthdays or Christmas. Stewart said she can’t talk about her specific cases, because confidentiality is key. Stewart said the children that she and other CASA volunteers work with deserve privacy.

“The children are innocent victims who are in the court system through no fault of their own,” she said.

Stewart logs many hours and miles each month visiting children, families and others involved with the case. Some weeks she works very few hours, while she puts in 50 hours other weeks.

“You can rack up a lot of hours when you’re waiting for your turn in court or when you drive out of town to visit a child or children,” she said.

Despite the time commitment, Stewart said her favorite part of volunteering is understanding where people are coming from and finding ways to help them find the best solution.

Steward explained when a child is removed from their home, it often takes up to a year for the issues that brought him or her into the court system to be resolved. She said it can be particularly frustrating when adults do not make changes that could keep the family together. It is hard to see a child’s life disrupted because of the caregiver’s poor choices, Stewart said.

“It’s not the easiest volunteer job I’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s very heart-wrenching at times. But on the other hand, it’s really rewarding when you can see a placement that you believe is the best situation for the kids.”

During her tenure, Stewart has worked with five different families, including 12 children.

“These children lived in 23 different homes during the time I was advocating for their best interests,” she said.

Stewart and other CASA volunteers are prepared for the situations they encounter with their initial training as well as 10 hours of in-service training every year.

“I am no hero. I am still learning,” Stewart said.

Kristin Lesutis, a staff attorney and volunteer supervisor with CASA, said the training is intense. Volunteers learn about how to meet the child, the importance of confidentiality, courtroom decorum and how to talk to parents and communicate professionally and effectively with various government agencies.

“Some people get two sessions in and say ‘I’m out,’ which we get,” Lesutis said. “But the ones that love it and are great at it usually stick with us for quite a while, like Margaret.”

CASA asks volunteers commit for at least a year, preferably the length of their assigned case.

“We ask that they commit to us for a year, because so many of these kids have had people in and out of their lives that don’t stick around,” Lesutis said

Potential volunteers also must undergo an extensive background check as well, including fingerprinting.

Each guardian ad litem also reports to a supervisor at CASA.

Sally Patrick is Stewart’s CASA supervisor and deems Stewart as a “very valuable” asset.

“She has done a lot of hard cases and had good results,” Patrick said. “She’s great. I wish I had about 100 more of her. She’s wonderful.”


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