CASA volunteer Susan Bowling, left, spends hours helping neglected and abused children one case at a time. Judge Lilynn Cutrera, right, was instrumental in getting the CASA program up and running in Southwest Louisiana. (Brad Puckett / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, July 02, 2012 1:27 PMFor the past 16 years, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) have served neglected and abused children who find themselves in the 14th Judicial District Juvenile Court System.
Judge Lilynn Cutrer and CASA volunteer Susan Bowling spoke with the American Press about the volunteer program and how it benefits children and the court.
American Press: What is CASA an abbreviation for?
Judge Cutrer: Court Appointed Special Advocates.
And what is its goals?
Cutrer: To be the eyes and the ears for the court about the children and what the children need.
How did it get started in Lake Charles?
Susan Bowling: Through the Junior League.
Cutrer: I chaired a committee with the Junior League back in 1996 and we started it and Family and Youth took it over in 1999. But it was a project. I was not working in the juvenile arena but was practicing law and knew there was a need and was involved in non-profits for child abuse victims. That’s how I learned about the program. It was started in Seattle, Washington by a judge in 1977. He saw the need. And I knew we needed it here so the Junior League took it on as a project.
How did you find out about it?
Cutrer: Eleanor Moffett and I were involved in a lot of non-profit work with the Louisiana Council on Child Abuse and I was at a conference and they were doing a presentation and I said, ‘‘That’s awesome.’’ So I came back and actually talked with Judge (Billy) Ezell who was on the (14th Judicial District) bench and he said that it would be wonderful. And we went to the Junior League and they took it on as a project. And they went with it.
And how has it grown?
Cutrer: Significantly. When Family and Youth took it over it was just Calcasieu. It now covers Allen and Jeff Davis parishes as well as Calcasieu.
It’s significant because in court every party has an attorney to represent them — the state, the parents and the child. But their interests are not always the same. Even with the child’s attorney in Louisiana, they have to represent the child’s wishes or what the child decides and as a parent, or even not as a parent, most of us know that what a child wants and what’s best for them is not always the same thing. So CASA can go out for the court and he or she only answers to the court and doesn’t answer to anybody else and goes out and does the legwork to find out what really is best for the child. And it is an awesome power.
And what does that entail to be empowered to do that to be able to investigate and find out what is in the best interest of the child?
Bowling: We’re kind of like Dick Tracy. We go and investigate basically. We have an opportunity to meet with the parents, the child, anybody who is involved with the child we have the authority to go in and talk to them and gather data to see what would be in the best interest of the child. We meet with the child and we say we can’t make any promises because a lot of times these children, even though they have been abused or neglected, they still love that parent and they still want to go back to that parent.
Cutrer: It’s all they know.
Bowling: And that might not be the best interest for that child. You always have to say you can’t make any promises for that.
Cutrer: And one thing that CASA can do that other attorneys may not be always able to do, easily at least, they probably could legally under subpoenas, but the CASA can talk to teachers and counselors who are working with the child. So they become the one person for the court, other than the court, that can get all this information and report back to the court as a neutral party just looking out for the child and not for the state and not the parents. So it’s really helpful.
Bowling: And sometimes the parent will open up more to the CASA worker than the state social worker or their attorney because we’re kind of that neutral party and we’re not there ... when they find out when we’re really there for their child then they really kind of open up and try to work it out.
What kind of training do the CASA volunteers get?
Bowling: We actually have over 32 hours. Basically, we have a class that entails eight hours every Saturday where you are trained as to what to say in court and we have to write court reports for the judge and we have classes on how to do court reports.
I had no law degree. All of our CASA counselors are from all walks of life. Basically to be a CASA volunteer you just have to want to make a difference. And that’s one thing I chose.
I’ve been on a lot of other committees, but the one thing you do (as a CASA volunteer) is you do one person at a time. It’s a real person and you can see the rewards. You kind of start out thinking what it does for them, but actually you see a lot what they do for you. You get more out of it than the child does because you do see that they taught me a lot of things. And I think that’s a great thing.
But we also have to have continuing education. Once you are part of the court system, every year you have to have 12 hours of training. One thing is that Family and Youth does a great job with the training and they also do help you, they provide the continuing education. It’s not like you have to go out and find the continuing training. They provide the continuing education for you. And then they have on staff to support you also.
Cutrer: And as years go, issues that these children face are different. So the on-going training is really important. I didn’t realize it was so many hours but that’s good. We have new issues like every day like the case I just did with human trafficking of juveniles across state lines and country lines and we have issues of sexual abuse. And now with cuts in services from the state, there are significant issues and one thing that the CASA is awesome at doing is reporting to the court what services those children need. Because the case load on the workers — they care too about the children — but they’re case load is huge because of budget cuts and everything else. The CASA volunteers only take a case at a time, maybe two. Usually it is pretty restricted so that you can give everything you’ve got to that child and they’ll come tell us they really need a tutor or they really need counseling or whatever it is and that’s an awesome thing so that we can order and make sure it happens for them.
How many CASA volunteers do you have right now in the system?
Bowling: Probably about 80 active right now. But we’ve served over 200 kids.
Cutrer: For the three-parish area, they’ve served 936 kids (since 1996). They’ve spent 25,174 activity hours on these children, trained for 10,692 hours and have driven 299,491 miles to serve these kids. As she can tell you, the kids aren’t always placed in Calcasieu. They may be in a group home in another part of the state and they’ll go see them. And they’ll do what they need to do to speak to the child.
How have you seen the impact of the CASA volunteers in your courtroom?
Cutrer: In a lot of different ways. I think the children are better served. We get better services. They are more likely if we are going for adoption, they are more likely to be adopted, to find an adoptive resource. If we are trying to reunify them either with their parents or a family member if the parents aren’t a possibility, they are more likely to be reunified and find family members. And if they are reunified, they are less likely to return to the foster care system because their parents messed up again or abused them or neglected them again.
So the whole picture is better. Everything that we want to do and the goals of the court are better served by having a CASA on a case. If we could have them on every case we would do it. We just don’t have enough CASAs.
Bowling: And actually there is a class starting in July and you can contact Ann Bruner at Family and Youth Counseling.
How many CASA volunteers could you use?
Cutrer: Gosh, I think we currently have three- and four hundred children in Calcasieu in the foster care system. They may be placed outside, but that’s how many and that’s a typical average. If every child had a voice, it could be a lot. But they do serve sometimes a family, all the kids in the family. I’m not sure that we would have too many CASAs.
How often do they have these training classes?
Bowling: About three times a year. One during the summer, one during the fall and one during the spring. And a lot of times, even like for instance I was interested in it but at a time of my life I wasn’t ready. There’s a point at a time in your life that you are ready to do that. If you’re not ready to do it, you can come back.
Cutrer: Family and Youth is very good. If you need a break or you have issues, something at your home to address or work or whatever, you cannot have a case and wait until you are ready to get back on it because they work with you.
Bowling: Eighty percent of our CASA workers do have a job. They do a job outside of this. It’s just their way of giving back to the community.
Cutrer: When they finish with their training we do sign specific orders and they get name tags and that’s for when they come to court. They actually get sworn in, they actually take an oath as to what they’re going to do.
Bowling: The tag is what kind of gets us into everything.
I saw a photo of a recent class. It covered all demographics, all ages.
Cutrer: It is. Which exactly reflects the children in care. They’re not just white or just black or just girls or just boys. They cover everything. So we have couples that volunteer after retirement age and they work as a team. We have young professionals. We have everything just like we have in everything.
Bowling: You can be an ordinary person and become extraordinary.
You touched on it a minute ago. What has been the specific returns to you being involved in this program? And how long have you been involved in the program?
Bowling: I’ve been involved in the program for about three years ago now.
Cutrer: And she’s had some significant, tough cases.
Bowling: I guess the one thing that sometimes amongst everything that they come across, they can still be positive. Resilient is probably a good word. You realize how with human nature you can survive. And that’s basically a lot of times these kids are just surviving.
Cutrer: And we complain about what we’re going through in life and when you see what they go through, I think that’s what always, at least me, makes me think we’ve got it good. We shouldn’t complain with what they go through and they still come out surviving.
Bowling: I think it has also taught me how the system works, and whether it be good or bad, you’ve got to work within the system and you can survive and help these children improve their lives.
And can always say there is a need of improvements, especially with budget cuts, it’s very challenging through the program, and I think that’s where the community needs to step in and help out because as you know, these children are our future and they’re the most vulnerable and they can’t speak and I’m the voice for that child. And I think that really makes an impact.
Cutrer: And there’s another important thing about CASA. A lot of times for these kids, workers change, lawyers change, but a CASA when they get on the case, unless there’s really something extreme, they stick with that child. That’s the one person that that child has a connection to through the life of the case whereas workers have a high turnover and attorneys can change and the counselors can change. We just went into the whole managed care through (Governor) Jindal’s new initiative and even counselors have changed for these kids. So the one person that stays can be the CASA and so that’s the one person that we hope can give the judge the information to make the right decisions as well as give the children hope.
And that consistency is important because that may be one of the few consistencies those children have in life.
Cutrer: That’s exactly right.
What we’re going to have to do in the state system of foster care is have mentors because we will never have the funds and the workers to make the system work perfectly. We just keep really going backwards. It is frustrating for the ones who aren’t what I call the line workers, who are in the trenches, to make budget cuts — and we have to cut the budget — to make these calls without really walking it and seeing what we’re going through every day. It’s so easy to say we’re going to cut this part of the budget but then they don’t realize that’s just one child that didn’t get counseling after she was sexually abused or that’s one parent who wants their kids back but doesn’t have the money to drug test them to make sure they are clean.
So it is huge impacts in the day-to-day things and I’m not sure at this stage we’re going to change much on budget stuff so it is going to take people who are willing CASA and volunteers that are going to be on the line and work with these kids one-on-one and find out the information and help them individually because it will be hard to solve the whole system. We can’t focus on that and get overwhelmed and not try.
Bowling: That’s one thing. Abuse and drugs, they don’t see your pocket book. It doesn’t matter where you are in society.
Cutrer: And that’s why there’s a move almost every session to open juvenile court. And I see understand both sides. I wish people would understand what is going on, not just in Calcasieu, but everywhere. I think they don’t realize that, ‘‘Oh, my gosh, someone would actually do that to their child?’’ Unless it’s one of the ones that hits the TV because of the adult criminal side, they don’t know.
Is there human trafficking in Calcasieu Parish? Yes. They don’t know that. Are there drugs and all these things? There’s a part of you that wants to open it and there’s a part of you that (says) ‘‘Why would we ever want this child’s name ever to be out there? Let them have a fresh start in life.’’ I see both sides. But it would be nice if some could understand what is really happening to this children and what they are facing.
Bowling: For the amount of money that we spend on entertainment, if we just input that into education or our children, what do you think the United States could really be like? ...
A lot of people don’t believe that Lake Charles can have these things happening because we are a small community.
Cutrer: All parishes have it, but one thing that we do have more than others is the prescription drug problem. They hear about that so often from the adult side and (District Attorney) John DeRosier and his initiatives which have all been very positive. But because of Juvenile Court being confidential, they are not aware of those people that are all over TV are losing their children and having them removed because they are obvious prescription drugs. Our numbers have skyrocketed in Calcasieu Juvenile Court because of the prescription drug problem. It’s something that Calcasieu Parish is unique because we’re on the highway to Texas. ...
Cutrer: One thing I want to mention because I have friends who say this, I think sometimes people are intimidated to be a CASA volunteer because of the legal, going into court and the fear of being in the courtroom. I would just say it’s not, it shouldn’t be intimidating. They are there for the children and once they come and observe they will see that it is not an intimidating situation and the role they play is powerful and important. I would encourage them not to be intimidated. The thought of having to speak in front of a bunch of people or appear in a courtroom, it’s really not that kind of setting because it is closed and it is not like you necessarily see on TV.