There was a standing ovation from the chamber and gallery when Nicki Vaughan was at the Georgia State Capitol earlier this year to honor the 30th anniversary of the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program.
That type of warm response was a far cry from what she experienced in the beginning.
“I just thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is so different from when we were trying to sell it and trying to explain to people why it was a good thing to do.’ … But it worked and it’s still working, so I couldn’t be prouder,” said Vaughan, a co-founder of Georgia CASA along with Karen Sibley and Kathie Gannon.
Vaughan, now a Hall County public defender, said she and Gannon both had backgrounds as Child Protective Services caseworkers, and Sibley and Vaughan envisioned bringing a version of the national CASA program to Georgia. Hall-Dawson CASA was one of the first programs established 30 years ago.
When children are being neglected or abused by their caregivers, the CASA program provides them with volunteers to look out for their best interest and present that to the Juvenile Court.
“You really get embroiled in a family’s life and a child’s life if you’re doing a good job,” Vaughan said. “It can be heavy. It’s a heavy load to carry, and you can’t wave a magic wand.”
Hall-Dawson CASA volunteer Brigitte Miesch has a case keeping her up at night.
“These are some serious considerations that could impact a child’s placement again, and that’s not easy,” she said.
She’s been been a Hall-Dawson CASA for roughly three years and spends 30-40 hours a month on one case.
There aren’t enough volunteers like her, though.
Hall-Dawson CASA leadership and its supporters are working to recruit and retain enough volunteers to serve the increasing numbers of children in the Juvenile Court system. At the annual fundraising event Sept. 28, Hall-Dawson CASA raised more than $55,000, which will go toward recruiting and supporting volunteers.
What they do
More than 130 volunteers for Hall-Dawson CASA work roughly as the eyes and ears for the Juvenile Court judges in dependency cases.
When the Division of Family and Children Services finds some evidence to support a report of suspected abuse or neglect of a child, a DFCS attorney calls a Juvenile Court judge to have the child removed from his or her home, beginning the dependency case.
It’s often a battle between two sides: the Division of Family and Children Services proving its case against the parents, while the parents’ attorneys try to bolster their clients and denigrate DFCS’ case.
In the middle are the children, who until 2014 were not guaranteed an advocate.
A juvenile code rewrite ensured they now have an attorney in addition to possibly having a volunteer CASA.
The child’s attorney often represents the child’s wishes, while the CASA independently argues for what is considered the best living situation for the child.
Often, they can devote all their time to one or a handful of cases whereas attorneys are often appointed to represent a long list of cases.
To determine what’s best, CASA volunteers speak with teachers, therapists and neighbors, obtain medical records and follow any other investigative avenues they can to decide what they believe will be the best environment for the child.
A CASA is making at least one visit to the child a month, and working with Hall-Dawson CASA doesn’t mean the kid lives in those two counties. Some children are placed far from home due to the scarcity of foster homes.
When taking on a case, the CASA investigates to see if the child has an adequate home, has enough food and is in a safe environment.
CASA volunteering rates
28% volunteer less than a year
29% one year
16% two years
19% five or more years
Back to the beginning
Children didn’t have representation by CASA or an attorney in earlier days.
“The way it caught on so quickly from the beginning is testimony to the fact that it was needed,” Vaughan said. “The judges wanted children to be able to have independent representation.”
Luckily, in Hall, Vaughan had members of the bar such as David Fox and Doug Stewart in her corner and a supportive delegation including Reps. Nathan Deal, Carl Rogers and Jane Hemmer.
“We had an all-star cast of people who were convinced that it was going to work. It helped that John Girardeau, who was the chief Superior Court judge then, accepted it, because Juvenile Court is below the Superior Court. There were a lot of places where the judges didn’t really want to do it,” Vaughan said.
Retired Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff was appointed to the bench in 1990, a year into Hall-Dawson’s program.
“I think they were reticent just because judges can become creatures of habit,” Jolliff said. “They felt like their system was fine and they weren’t so sure about having a layperson — a person that’s not trained in legal proceedings — coming in.”
One piece Jolliff said he found valuable, beyond their investigation, was CASAs putting a face to the case by bringing photos and reminding judges of how long a child has been in foster care.
“You’re not just staring at a file. These are little children whose fate you’re deciding. It helped make it a little more human,” Jolliff said.
And it gave younger children a voice.
“I felt like I could really benefit from CASAs in cases involving younger children who couldn’t speak, who couldn’t give information,” Jolliff said. “Teenagers can talk and express opinions and sometimes can even testify about what did or didn’t happen.”
The first class of CASA volunteers had six women. Though there are more than 100 volunteers now, the number of foster care cases has outpaced CASA’s resources, Hall-Dawson CASA Executive Director Janet Walden said.
In August, 335 children from Hall County were in foster care, according to Walden.
In 2014, there were 14,000 children statewide in foster care. Last year, that number was 21,000.
New reporting systems created around that time led to a roughly 30% increase in abuse and neglect reports, with substance abuse in the home being one of the leading factors for removal.
“Those numbers increasing were just really difficult for us to keep up with,” Walden said.
The agency cannot at this time serve 100% of the children.
In 2018, 541 abused and neglected children had a CASA in court for them in the Hall-Dawson circuit. Walden said CASA is serving roughly 78% of the children in foster care.
“We can serve any child that’s in a dependency state, so there are more kids than just those in foster care. If you look at all of the kids that would be eligible for a CASA, we’re more likely in the 60% range,” Walden said, noting that some are family preservation cases. “We certainly need to focus on the foster kids, because that’s what CASA was set out to be. But we can and should be serving all the kids that need us.”
CASA has started a new campaign to better recruit and retain volunteers, she said.
In early September, Hall-Dawson CASA held a brainstorming session with community leaders as part of the group’s collaboration with the Wisdom Project 2030, a nonprofit that was an offshoot of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2030 program. The result of the meeting was more than 130 ideas on how to improve CASA, including revising and clarifying the volunteer role and expanding and restructuring volunteer opportunities.
According to data provided by Walden, 28% of volunteers stay less than a year and another 29% stay only for a year. Some may only make a commitment to see one case through to the end, and others may realize this work is not for them.
In terms of age, 54% of volunteers are older than 60, and volunteers between the ages of 21-39 make up a combined 10% of the group.
Tag team investigators
Miesch is doing her part by not only volunteering but also recruiting her husband, Arnie, to volunteer.
She has a background in psychology and he in law enforcement, having served as the chief of police in Redington Beach, Florida.
He was sworn in as a volunteer last month.
“Watching and seeing the joy that Brigitte got from what she was doing was definitely a factor in if I wanted to get involved in this or not,” he said.
The two got to work on their first case together last week.
“I now, as a CASA, have more access to information on an individual than I actually had as a law enforcement officer because of the court order. The court order allows me to talk to just about anybody I deem necessary to talk to. It allows me to obtain records that I might not have been able to obtain as a law enforcement officer,” Arnie Miesch said.
With their two different backgrounds, Arnie Miesch said he believes their strengths complement one another.
“She sees things that I don’t, or I may see things that she doesn’t. Between us, I think we make a very strong team,” he said.