CASA: 25 years of protecting New Hampshire’s most vulnerable children
Every day, we see news reports of children who have been abused through neglect, through physical assault, and who are in situations that result in the unimaginable; unimaginable to most of us at least, yet a reality for far too many children of all ages, from infancy to teens.
We wonder how this could have happened, and how anyone could put so little value on the life and well-being of a child. And when someone gets arrested for such a heinous act, we can’t help but worry who will speak for the child when the case actually goes to court.
That’s where Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire comes in. Now celebrating its 25th year of protecting abused children’s right to grow up in a loving family, CASA of New Hampshire has helped more than 10,000 Granite State children throughout those years and still, it’s not enough. Although more than 2,000 adult volunteer advocates have served on cases, there is a tremendous need for even more.
In 2013, the nonprofit child-advocacy organization was able to help 87 percent of the children in need of their vital services, yet it’s the other 13 percent – the children that end up with paid court-appointed advocates – that weigh greatly on CASA of New Hampshire founder Marcia (Marty) Sink’s mind.
While she greatly values each accomplishment made on behalf of children by the 400 active CASA volunteers, and knows that the other 13 percent are in good hands, Sink understands there’s much more that can be done by CASA of New Hampshire. She wants 100 percent coverage by CASA, and believes it can be done through the work of more volunteers.
Twenty-seven years ago Sink was a foster parent, and was well acquainted with the role that the paid court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) played in advocating for abused and neglected children in courtrooms. She also knew that GALs had huge caseloads and couldn’t necessarily devote the time to the kids – and in many cases, never even had an opportunity to meet the children beforehand.
One Sunday morning, Sink settled down to read Parade magazine, focusing on an article that spoke of foster care drift and the children that couldn’t necessarily be tracked down as they went from foster home to foster home. The article mentioned a program called CASA, which utilized community volunteers as GALs, and included a toll-free phone number. Given that New Hampshire was one of just three states at the time without a CASA program, Sink called the number to learn how she could become a volunteer, which led to the creation of CASA in New Hampshire
She soon found herself spending a year doing a feasibility study throughout the state, speaking to judges about using lay people in the highly confidential role of a Guardian Al Litem. Just two judges were willing to pilot this program, and with a $5,000 grant from CASA headquarters and 10 volunteers, Sink founded CASA of New Hampshire in Goffstown and Manchester.
According to Sink, children are appointed directly through the court system, brought to legal attention by the Department of Children, Youth and Families and by local law enforcement that investigate reports of suspected child abuse.
Meet the Desmarais family & Pam McKinney
Paul and Julie Desmarais have gotten to know many of the children that have been the victims of child abuse or neglect. Throughout the last 18 years, their family has fostered about 45 children in their home, ranging from just a few weeks old to teens. While some were with the family for several days, others spent several years. Two of those children became their legally adopted sons.
The boys each had volunteer Pam McKinney of Mont Vernon as their GAL. Involved with CASA of New Hampshire since January 2001, she has had seven cases representing 10 children in total, with children ranging in age from just a couple of months old to teens. Of those cases, she said that two ended with reunification with biological parents, four cases ended with adoption after terminating the rights of the biological parents and one case is still open.
As for Blake and Connor, McKinney said, “Both boys were babies, so my relationship with each was limited. Their cases were different, but we were able to place them in a wonderful foster home with the Desmarais’ where they were able to thrive and have their extensive needs met. Of course for both of them the foster placement ended up being their forever home.”
Blake came to the Desmarais home at just 7 months, and was put up for adoption at 18 months. It would not be until he was two-and-a-half, that the adoption would be finalized due to a long legal battle.
“When Blake was available for adoption, we discussed the possibility of permanently adding him to our family with our two birth children, Lauren and Greg,” said Julie Desmarais. “Up until this point any children who had been in our home were ‘on loan’ to us until such a time that they would ultimately be reunited with their birth parent(s). Adopting Blake would mean that they would be taking on a new little brother forever.”
Both children, however, could not say ‘yes’ fast enough. Desmarais said they pretty much told their parents that this little boy was not going anywhere, and was already their brother.
When Blake was about three, Connor came to stay with the Desmarais family. At just five months old, the baby had been the victim of severe abuse and had been hospitalized for multiple broken bones and fractures.
“When we picked up Connor from the hospital, he was already in casts and needed immediate attention,” Desmarais said. He, too, would be adopted by the family at the same age that Blake was.
Desmarais said, “The CASA volunteer is an integral part of the legal journey and is there to ensure that the child’s needs are always kept at the forefront, not to be ignored or put on some back burner, while the legal system churns its way to a decision.”
Because McKinney already lived in the same town as the Desmarais family, she knew of their involvement with foster children throughout the years. Desmarais said while they didn’t know McKinney very well when she was first assigned to Blake, she quickly bonded with Blake and the family.
“It is unquestionably true, that without Pam and CASA representing Blake and his best interests at every twist and turn in this custody battle, things may have turned out differently for Blake and our family.”
The Desmarais family had such faith in McKinney that when Connor came into their lives, they immediately requested she serve as his GAL as well.
“Although Connor’s adoption journey was very different and much less complicated, it still made the process more comforting, knowing that Pam would be involved right to the end,” said Desmarais.
Interestingly enough, Julie Desmarais’ mother also became involved with CASA of New Hampshire as a result of her daughter’s involvement as a foster parent.
“After a few years of fostering, my mom asked us how she could help out,” said Desmarais. “She helped out in so many ways with her generosity and support, but we knew that she wanted to do more.”
The couple told her about the CASA organization, and she saw firsthand how CASA supported Blake, Connor and other children, which led to her decision to contact CASA and she how she could get involved. That was 12 years ago, and her dedication is still going strong.
“As for our involvement with CASA, we could never pay back what we have received from the people in this organization and it starts right at the top with Marty Sink,” said Desmarais. “The role that CASA volunteers take on for these children will always be underestimated and never overvalued.”
Becoming a GAL
Sink says the organization prides itself on the professionalism and integrity of its volunteers, and that retention is huge among their volunteers. Some have been involved for more than 20 years and others between 10 to 15 years. As for who volunteers as GALs, it’s across the board. There are some volunteers who are directly out of college, and some who are in their early 80s.
“There is a fair amount of folks age 50 and up,” said Sink. “They have the time and energy now, and some are retired folks, who are lively and active and want to help others.”
There’s a need for a certain amount of flexibility in a daytime schedule for court dates, as GALs must be present in court for the children they represent, although the number of court dates is not particularly cumbersome. GALS must be comfortable in articulating the specific needs of the child, yet there is plentiful training to establish that comfort level and lots of support in place for volunteers.
Bernadette Melton-Plante is one of the two program directors for CASA of New Hampshire. Each has five program managers in place under their direction, and oversee programs and staff along with GALs. Melton-Plante began about 19 years ago as a GAL and volunteered for six years before joining the staff at CASA. “It’s in my blood,” she said, and as a former GAL, she certainly understands the experience as she lived it firsthand.
Melton-Plante said that many of the GALs she works with are retired military service members, are from church groups, or are retired teachers or judges. Yet, others are from the nursing field, artists, coaches, from book club groups and the list goes on. The commonality is the desire to help children.
While the volunteer role can be challenging, as these children are often the victims of extreme neglect or abuse, the majority of the GALS say this: “I wish I had done it sooner.” When one was asked if these cases break their hearts, the response regarding the volunteer’s own role was, “It fills the heart.”
And while the role of GAL is not for everyone, it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone can’t lend support in some capacity. Whether it’s attending or organizing a fundraiser event, providing personal financial assistance, getting involved as a board member, or volunteering at the CASA of New Hampshire office in a clerical or project support role, there are many needs that don’t involve becoming a GAL. In fact, simply inviting CASA of New Hampshire to visit the workplace, a church service, a community meeting or other public gathering is one way to help the nonprofit spread the word and find new volunteers.
Twenty-five years later, what keeps Marcia Sink going? “There are children that need this kind of support and advocacy. I’m in awe of our volunteers, what they take on – and they come back for more. Watching them grow inspires me,” she said. “In the courts, the judges say time and time again that they can’t imagine what they would do without CASA. There’s such respect for our advocates in the courtroom. We are fortunate to be a part of this amazing process and system.”
Learn more about CASA of New Hampshire at casanh.org.
Pamme Boutselis is a N.H. based-writer, a content director at Southern New Hampshire University and a serial volunteer. For more information, go to pammeboutselis.com or follow her on Twitter @pammeb.