CASA volunteers’ advocacy work takes many different forms, from ensuring the rights of the children they serve are protected, to supporting access to a quality education and standing up for their physical and emotional needs. One of those forms of advocacy is to speak to a judge in court about the child’s best interest.
Read on to learn all about what court hearings can look like for CASA volunteers, why CASA volunteers have the right to testify and why the recommendations of CASA volunteers are so important for judges to better understand and assess a child’s case.
It’s important to note that this is not an exhaustive explanation of CASA’s role in the courtroom—it’s meant to provide an overview of core concepts. Interested in diving deeper? Check out our free, in-depth e-course, Online Core Advocacy Skills Training (OCAST)!
Let’s start with the basics. What gives CASA volunteers the right to testify in court?
Technically, CASA volunteers are not a party to the case, but are appointed by the judge overseeing a child’s case to represent the child’s best interests.
There are different types of appointments for CASA volunteers in Texas. A CASA volunteer can be appointed as guardian ad litem (GAL), which is the most common appointment type for CASA volunteers and programs here in Texas. Chapter 107, Subchapter A, of the Texas Family Code details the legal role of a GAL—the excerpt below details the GAL’s opportunity to testify:
(e) Unless the guardian ad litem is an attorney who has been appointed in the dual role and subject to the Texas Rules of Evidence, the court shall ensure in a hearing or in a trial on the merits that a guardian ad litem has an opportunity to testify regarding, and is permitted to submit a report regarding, the guardian ad litem’s recommendations relating to:
(1) the best interests of the child; and
(2) the bases for the guardian ad litem’s recommendations.
In approximately 9 of the 219 Texas counties currently served by a CASA program, judges don’t appoint CASA volunteers as guardian ad litem, but as a friend of the court. Because this role is not as clearly specified in statute, CASA volunteers in these counties get their requirements and direction from both a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the court and their court’s Order of Appointment. The Order of Appointment for a friend of the court usually includes “rights and duties described in 107.002,” (section on the powers and duties of a GAL)—essentially giving the volunteer GAL status. In these documents, judges will usually give more specifics of what they expect of the CASA volunteer and what the volunteer has access to related to the child and court process.
Why is it important for a CASA volunteer to attend children’s court hearings?
CASA volunteers serve a crucial and unique role in the case, as they represent the best interests of the child. Think about it this way: the child’s attorney is representing what the child wants, which might be what is in their best interest, or might not. On the other hand, the child’s caseworker represents the state and they are sometimes constrained in what they can advocate for in court. As the name implies, CASA volunteers are volunteers. They are not being paid—they are there to get to know everyone on the case, to get know the child, to make determinations based on the information they gather about what is in the child’s best interest, and then to present their conclusions to the judge.
Sometimes, the child’s attorney, CASA volunteer and caseworker agree—that is the best-case scenario. However, sometimes the child’s attorney, caseworker and CASA volunteer disagree. In those cases, it is important for the judge to hear everyone’s perspective so that the judge can make the most-informed decision about what to order.
In addition to the fact that they play an important role, CASA volunteers are also required to be there since they are appointed by the court. If a CASA volunteer cannot make it to a court hearing, then their supervisor, who is also familiar with the case, will speak on behalf of CASA.
How do CASA volunteers prepare for court?
The main way that volunteers prepare for court is by writing a court report. CASA volunteers must write and submit a court report in advance of a hearing. The court report is broken out into sections, such as fact-based updates on a child’s educational progress, medical needs, connections, etc.—all the types of things that the judge needs to know to make informed decisions for the child’s well-being. CASA volunteers should also review the CPS report so they can become familiar with the state’s position and recommendations to the court.
CASA volunteers submit their draft court reports to their supervisor, who then provides feedback and support, and ensures the report is objective (fact-based and free of opinion, assumption or bias). Once it’s finalized, they submit it to CPS, the attorney ad litem, and the court no less than five calendar days in advance of a hearing.
Overall, CASA volunteers should always strive to be respectful, objective and professional in court. If a CASA volunteer does not feel comfortable with public speaking, they can prepare their testimony in advance with the assistance of their supervisor. Depending on the court, they may also be able to bring bulleted notes to help them remember what they need to say or highlight. In terms of attire, business clothes are the norm.
What do CASA volunteers report to the judge about? What does the process look like?
At each hearing, the judge will typically ask the caseworker for their updates, then the attorney ad litem for the child, then the CASA volunteer.
With the court report as the baseline, the CASA volunteer should give updates about how the child is doing, highlight any strengths and challenges the child is experiencing, and respond to any questions the judge may ask. They also should address anything they believe the judge should order for the child or family. For example, if they believe it’s in the child’s best interest for the Department to facilitate parent-child visits twice a week instead of once a week, they should request that. They can also respond to anything that the caseworker or the attorney may have brought up.
A CASA volunteer should always talk about anything they feel is important to highlight from their court report, such as information about placement changes, how the child is doing in school, if there is a need for something in the child’s life and more. Sometimes, but not always, the judge will explicitly ask the CASA volunteer a question, to which they should respond objectively with the facts they’ve gathered.
When a CASA volunteer is appointed as guardian ad litem to the case, it is rare that the judge will not address the CASA volunteer or ask them any questions. However, if that happens, the volunteer can consult with CASA program staff on the best way to share meaningful testimony and recommendations in court.
How are cases resolved?
In order to ensure that children and families don’t languish in the foster care system, the judge must either dismiss the case or issue a final order within one year. A final order does one of the following:
- Returns the child to a parent;
- Grants managing conservatorship to a relative or other person;
- Appoints CPS as the permanent managing conservator; and/or
- Terminates the parent-child relationship.
The top priority for CASA, the Department, the judge and everyone else involved in the case is for the child to safely return to their parent(s) as soon as possible. Sometimes, this is a monitored return—where the child’s CASA volunteer and caseworker is still checking in from time to time.
If, for whatever reason, the child’s parents have not addressed the issues that brought the child into foster care in the first place, the case would typically go to mediation to try to resolve the case without a trial. CASA typically participates in mediation and offers their perspective and recommendations about what should happen. The goal of mediation is for everyone to agree on a resolution to the case that keeps the child safe and is in the child’s best interest. Sometimes parents agree to relinquish their rights, sometimes everyone agrees to give the parents more time to work on their issues while the child stays in conservatorship of the state, or sometimes parents agree to let a relative take custody of a child. As long as all of the parties agree to the solution, there are a variety of legal options that can occur in a mediation.
If the parties are unable to come to an agreement during the mediation stage, then a trial is typically set. There are two types of trials: a bench trial, where the judge is the only one present, and a jury trial. Most of the time, CPS cases go to a bench trial. A trial can be for both parents or one parent, depending on the circumstances. CASA volunteers are typically expected to testify at trial and will work with their supervisors to ensure that they are ready and know what to expect.
“I’m looking for CASA volunteers to bring courageous and common-sense recommendations.”
– Local Judge
It is an honor, and an incredible responsibility, to be appointed as a CASA volunteer. Since CASA volunteers spend so much time getting to know the child and family, judges tend to weigh their recommendations heavily.
Presenting in court and making recommendations that will change the course of lives is not insignificant, nor is the positive difference a CASA volunteer can make. Thank you to the 10,000+ CASA volunteers in Texas currently advocating for children and families, and thank you to those who support them!