Perhaps no duty performed by a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is more consequential than delivering a recommendation to the court regarding a child assigned to them, but if CASA volunteers have done their due diligence, they can be confident in their findings, said this community's longest-serving CASA.
While reuniting children who have been removed from the custody of their biological parents with those parents is "optimal," unfortunately it isn't always in the best interest of those children, and "our focus is on the kids," said Janet Lovelady, who spent 18 years as a CASA in Whitfield and Murray counties for the Family Support Council before retiring last month. "To know a child is loved, safe and nurtured, that is success to me."
Determining the best situation for children is no easy task, but Lovelady based her judgments on facts, evidence and information, she said. "Gut feelings cannot come into play."
"You fastidiously follow the breadcrumbs and go where the evidence leads you," echoed Chelsea DeWaters, manager for the CASA program. "You have to follow the evidence."
"Some people 'present' well, and you have to learn not to jump to conclusions," Lovelady said. "That's a lesson for all of life, but especially as a CASA."
Lovelady "has been an example to CASA volunteers of holding high standards for the role, (as) she is known for her professionalism, and for being level-headed, a critical thinker, and willing to fight for the children she serves," DeWaters said. "She carries out this doggedness in a way that has consistently earned the respect of her peers, (and) it is known that she will never make a recommendation without considering all possible options."
During her 18 years as a CASA, Lovelady learned how to "find the tidbits that will be beneficial," she said. "I know what to look for, (as), like any job, you hone your skills the more you do it."
In Whitfield and Murray counties, the Family Support Council's CASA volunteers become "that person" for children removed from their homes and deemed deprived due to abuse and/or neglect, according to Tracy Harmon, CASA's volunteer outreach coordinator. Assigned to cases by judges, CASA volunteers establish bonds with children but also build relationships with biological parents and foster families in an attempt to decide what is in the best interest of the child before delivering recommendations to the court.
Each parent is given a case plan they must complete, and how they fare on that is "a big signal," Lovelady said. "A woman in Murray County completed her plan in less than five months, and she got her child back," while others who dismiss the plan demonstrate a lack of seriousness regarding their circumstances.
A CASA must make recommendations based on the truth, "not dictated by any personal biases, and keep an open mind," she said. "Don't make snap judgments."
In the CASA world, "things don't always go the way they look like they're going to go," DeWaters said. "You have to keep asking questions and follow the path wherever it leads."
CASA training "gives us a good foundation, an understanding of what it will be like, and part of that is observing court," Lovelady said. "I'd watch the lawyers, see how they think, why they ask questions."
The next CASA volunteer training begins March 1. Anyone interested in learning more about the opportunity can contact Harmon at (706) 428-7931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A CASA has to be "teachable, tenacious and able to roll with the punches, but you don't need a law background or even a college degree," Lovelady said. Most important is simply "a desire to help children."