I have been looking for a good opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of local children and this program makes sense for all of those reasons.
— Josh Smith
After serving for many years on the boards of multiple area nonprofits, Tonkon Torp attorney David Petersen realized he wanted to take a different, more direct approach to community service. Another attorney had encouraged him to check out Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), which coordinates volunteer advocates who focus on children in the foster and family court system.
CASAs advocate for children in dependency proceedings. Some are in foster care; others live with their parent or parents, or extended family. David thinks a CASA’s role can best be described as the eyes and ears of the judge, who might have 100 cases on his or her docket and requests that the case get the extra attention of an advocate. A CASA, on the other hand, has only one case to monitor, although it may involve one child or multiple siblings. CASAs collect facts for the judge, make recommendations for services to both the child and the parents, and keep the child’s short- and long-term welfare at the forefront while making sure that all parties involved in the case are doing what they are supposed to do. CASAs need not be attorneys, and in fact most CASAs have little or no legal training or background.
The CASA program was originally an experiment started by a Seattle juvenile court judge in 1977, and today, the program is established in 49 states, as well as the District of Columbia. The CASA program first appeared in Oregon’s Multnomah County in 1986. The authority and responsibilities of CASAs is now codified into Oregon law at ORS chapter 419B.
After attending a mandatory orientation which helped David confirm that the CASA program would be a good fit, he signed up to complete a six-week, 35-hour training with CASA for Children of Multnomah, Washington & Columbia Counties. As a CASA, David has agreed to be assigned a child dependency case by a judge and to stay with the case for as long as it takes for the children to find a safe and permanent home. The length of each case varies widely, with some taking months and others spanning years. David has been on his first and only case for three years representing three siblings, and will remain so for as long as his clients’ case remains open.
The bedrock of the CASA program is that volunteers provide a stable adult presence whose sole purpose is advocating for the best interests of children in the child welfare system. As a legal party to the case, CASAs are entitled to access information about the child on their case. While David uses his legal acumen to review information about the case and make decisions for what he will recommend to the Judge he does not serve as an attorney in any way. “A child in a dependency case has his or her own attorney who advocates for the child’s wishes and desires,” David explained. “As a CASA, I take my child’s wishes into account but my role is to be more of a facilitator and collaborator with all those involved and to share my opinion on what steps should be taken for the best interest of the kids.”
David visits his clients once a month to check in, and see what they need. David is also in continual contact with the kids’ attorneys, as well as the other adults involved in the case such as their caseworker, therapists, doctors, teachers and foster parents. David’s check-ins include meeting with the children’s biological parents to gauge their progress on the plan adopted by the court to facilitate reunification with their children. Like most CASAs, David is adept at mining his network to find resources for the children in his case. For example, he recently set one of his kids up with a mentor through Faithful Friends, a faith-based mentoring program with which fellow Tonkon Torp attorney Max Miller has long been involved. He also has provided assistance to his clients’ mother to find opportunities and funding for her children to take martial arts classes, something they have long wanted to do but have been unable to afford.
Three years after signing up, David is glad he made the switch to serving as a CASA. He says, “I find direct service to people in need to be much more fulfilling than serving on a board, although board service is certainly important and many nonprofits provide essential services to our community. I also like the ability to use my skills as a lawyer in a non-lawyer role. And plus, I just like working with kids, which is something that I don’t get to do in my regular job.”
Although it’s not common for attorneys, or men, to be a CASA David has found service in the program to be fulfilling. And while he is the first Tonkon Torp attorney to become a CASA, David will soon be joined by Tonkon Torp attorney Josh Smith. After hearing David talk at the firm’s annual retreat about his work with CASA as an example of a community-based pro bono activity, Josh decided to complete CASA training in the Spring of 2020. “David’s presentation was compelling and my wife’s college sorority is also a long-time sponsor of CASA,” shared Josh, “I have been looking for a good opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of local children and this program makes sense for all of those reasons.”
CASA is an intensive, hands-on program that provides vital stability in the lives of Oregon’s most vulnerable children. The firm is proud to add CASA to the roster of youth-focused organizations that our attorneys work with in order to promote and encourage the well-being of children in our community.