MOCASA: The View from 10,000 Feet

 by Megan Phillips

Ms. Phillips, a Kansas City native, served eight years on the Missouri CASA board of directors and two terms as President.  She is an attorney and judicial clerk for the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District and was previously a teaching fellow for the Family Violence Clinic of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.  Ms. Phillips is Chair of the Missouri Joint Commission for Women in the Legal Profession and former President of the Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater St. Louis.

Jackson County is one of 21 local CASA programs under the statewide umbrella of the Missouri CASA Association (MOCASA).   As a state office, MOCASA doesn’t provide direct services.  Rather, its role is to support local programs with technical assistance, funding, grant compliance, resource-sharing, and policy advocacy.

Currently, there are over 12,000 children in foster care in Missouri.  About 3,300 of them benefit from the powerful advocacy of the 1,300 CASA volunteers throughout the state.  Jackson County CASA is one of the largest local programs, serving approximately 1,000 children with the help of over 320 volunteers.   MOCASA’s mission is to help existing programs grow – particularly in smaller communities with fewer resources and staff – and to establish new programs where needed in order to deploy more volunteers to serve more children statewide.

MOCASA employs a highly competent and effective staff.  Beth Dessem, our Executive Director since 2002, possesses a wealth of institutional knowledge and expertise and is highly respected both in Missouri, as Chair of the Children’s Justice Task Force, and within National CASA, as a former officer on its board of trustees.  Deputy Director Leanne Reese, joined MOCASA in 2008 after years in private law practice, bringing an invaluable skill set to the team.  Operations Manager Marilee Fischer handles office administration and accounting with competence and a smile.  Finally, MOCASA is now hiring a director of development and community relations.  Everyone on the team wears a variety of hats.  Thanks to their remarkable effectiveness, MOCASA has become a leader and model for other state CASA offices across the country.

MOCASA’s board of directors is comprised of dedicated citizens from a variety of regions and professions.  You can read more about them here and we are always looking for new members to help us strengthen the organization in order to expand our reach and help more kids.

Last but certainly not least, MOCASA is fortunate to benefit from the insight of Jackson County’s Martha Gershun, who currently serves as the local programs’ representative and liaison to the MOCASA board.  The program director has a critical function on the MOCASA board by conveying the needs and concerns of the local programs.  Martha is the zoom lens through which the state board, flying at 10,000 feet, acquires an accurate view of the local programs’ work in the trenches.  We appreciate the passion and dedication of Jackson County CASA staff, volunteers, board, and other supporters, all who make a difference in children’s lives every day.

Some Thoughts About Representing Older Child Clients

Mary Kay O’Malley has been the director of the Child and Family Services Clinic and associate clinical professor since 2002. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute, Indiana and her Master of Arts from UMKC. After working as a social worker for the Missouri Division of Family Services for 13 years, she graduated cum laude from the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. Professor O’Malley was employed as a prosecuting attorney at the Jackson County Family Court for six years and a partner with Raith and O’Malley P.C., focused on juvenile and family law. Her other teaching assignments include the law school’s Guardian ad Litem Workshop, and she is the legal director of the Kansas City Youth Court program housed at the law school.

by Mary Kay O’Malley

Mary Kay O'MalleyThe most obvious difference between representing younger and older children is the older child’s ability to communicate. Along with a larger vocabulary, older children usually have more advanced emotional language skills and a better understanding of their circumstances. This raises the question of how much input an older child should have in what happens to them. There are many important reasons to engage older children fully in discussing their goals and some of the ways in which those goals might be achieved. Too often it seems that Guardians ad litem (GAL) merely ascertain the child’s feelings, but spend little time considering the child’s competence to independently see and assess his or her options. No doubt some older children would make bad choices and a GAL would have to recommend a course of action contrary to the wishes of the child. Still, many young people have good insight into their families and what to do to remain safe. In that case shouldn’t the Guardian ad litem engage the child in the representation and incorporate the child’s wishes as much as possible in any recommendations made to the court? It is the child’s life after all, and like anyone, older children may accept a contrary position as long as they feel their opinion was heard and respected. For this reason, the GAL will need to spend ample time talking with older youth.

According to the Missouri Supreme Court Guardian ad litem Standards (Standards) a GAL must relate to the child “according to the child’s stage of development.” Standard 4.0. Understanding the child’s development aids the counseling process, facilitates trust, helps determine the truth and identify appropriate services. It also allows the GAL to engage in collaborative representation that can actually help model good decision making for older youth. Young people involved with the juvenile court system are powerless in almost every aspect of their lives. They often can’t drive a car or even go to their grandmother’s home without a worker’s permission. Some opportunities to practice problem solving skills are denied them because they live under the authority of the system. Engaging these children in decisions about their circumstances can be effective education and advocacy.

Here are some categories of information the GAL should consider when determining a child client’s developmental level:

  •  Cognitive functioning, based on assessments, evaluations, caretakers’ descriptions, and the GAL’s own impressions;
  •  Educational History, including grades, teachers’ comments, IEPs, and number of schools attended;
  •  Medical records, noting child’s growth and developmental history, milestones, and any significant illnesses or injuries that could have affected development;
  • Home environment, observations of stimulation, opportunities for learning, parental physical and mental health, and cultural differences; and
  •  History of trauma, understanding especially the possible reaction to stress (flight, fight or freeze) to understand the child’s responses.

Understanding the child client’s development not only helps with communication, but also allows the GAL to assess the child’s competency to understand information the GAL is ethically obligated to provide. Pursuant to Standard 9.0 the GAL must explain the court process and encourage older youth to attend hearings. For this reason it is advisable to provide older youth with a glossary of legal terms they are likely to encounter. The terms should be simply defined and the GAL should answer any questions the child client may have. The GAL must also explain the child’s role during the proceeding. More often than not it seems like the old adage “children should be seen, but not heard” prevails during hearings. Beyond a few questions like “how are you doing?” or “how is school?” many children are talked about, but not directly addressed during court proceedings. Former foster children have mentioned this lack of input as one of their major complaints with the system. Adolescents naturally resent adults who are condescending toward them and will ignore or rebel against a system that does not appear to value their opinions. Believing a judge does not care about them will reinforce the low self-esteem that often plagues children who have been abused or neglected. The GAL who has established a relationship and learned to communicate effectively with the child client can make all the difference in how an older child views the court and their own value in the process. For a great resource see the ABA’s article Counseling Children and Youth in Times of Crisis: Tips to Achieve Success and Avoid Pitfalls by Lauren Girard Adams, Esq. and Maisley Paxton, Ph.D., (2009).

The Prevention of Sex Trafficking and Strengthening of Families Act


by Kea Bird-Riley, CASA Staff Attorney and Guardian ad Litem

Although political divisiveness in Congress seems the norm, one thing is certain: both sides of the aisle can come together to improve the child welfare system and to prevent children in foster care from becoming victims of sex trafficking.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, a bipartisan bill that President Obama signed into law this fall, is an important step in encouraging states to combat sex trafficking of youth in foster care. In addition to promoting normalcy for foster youth, the new law increases international child support recovery; and assists with placing children in adoptive homes or relatives’ homes.

Under this new law, the Children’s Division is required to identify, document and determine appropriate services for children in foster care. Children’s Division is also required to identify, document and determine appropriate services for children who are in the child welfare system or who are victims of sex trafficking or at risk of becoming victims.

Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act also renames the “Adoption Incentive Payments” program to “Adoption and Legal Guardianship Incentive Payments.” This new program provides more incentive for adoptive resources by extending the program through fiscal year 2015 as well as extending the Family Connection Grant Program for one year.

Title III of the act seeks improvements to international child support recovery. The act requires states to make necessary changes to implement the Hague Convention in enforcing international child support cases. States are also required to standardize data within the child support program in an effort to streamline with TANF, child welfare, unemployment insurance and SNAP. Finally, the law seeks to improve international child support recovery by requiring states to implement electronic processing of income withholding.

We Are Family—Preserving Sibling Bonds

Kelle2by Kelle Gilmore, CASA Staff Attorney/Guardian ad Litem

Sibling relationships develop early in childhood. In fact, professionals now believe that the sibling bond is the longest-lasting relationship that most individuals form–longer than that of the relationship between parent and child, or between spouses. As professionals advocating for children, we should be concerned about how our decisions affect these relationships. Children in dysfunctional or abusive homes can forge especially intense bonds with each other as a support network. Often, children who come into care have been acting as the parent for their siblings: cooking meals, cleaning, bathing them, and helping them get dressed each day. At other times, siblings blame each other for their removal from the home. Whether the relationship is healthy or harmful, we know that the relationship between siblings affects future relationships they will form in life. Finding a foster home or permanent placement for a sibling group can be difficult. The more children involved, the more difficult it is to find a caregiver with enough room and resources to take them all. Sometimes siblings are separated when a child is placed with a different biological parent, or is in a residential facility or a specialized foster home. Regardless of the reason for the separation, professionals and caretakers should make a sincere effort to nurture and foster these lifelong relationships. When siblings cannot be placed together, every effort should be made to allow them frequent and meaningful contact. Sometimes this contact is more important than contact with a parent. The trauma for some children from being separated from their sibling becomes a secondary trauma to the removal from the home. This trauma does not go away overnight. It can have a lasting effect on the child’s future relationships. As child welfare advocates and Guardians Ad Litem, we have a duty to do all we can to push agencies and workers to find homes that are willing to take entire sibling groups. At the very least they should find homes that have foster parents or placement providers who know the importance of sibling relationships and are willing to work to maintain them. We should request Court Orders that require sibling contact and make sure those Orders are followed. We should also encourage foster parents, relatives, parents, and others to make this contact a priority. Educating the adults and professionals on our caseload is the first step in making sure we are doing all we can to protect these vital bonds.

Why Does Advocacy Matter?

We are pleased to be able to share with you a post by our first guest blogger, Jill M. Katz. Ms. Katz is a sole practitioner in the area of Family Law in Kansas City, Missouri. She is a frequent lecturer in the areas of mediation, family and juvenile law. She is currently the Chair of the Missouri Bar Juvenile Courts and Law Committee and in her second term on the Executive Counsel of the Missouri Bar Family Law Section. She was recently honored as the 2014 Volunteer Attorney of the Year by Jackson County CASA.  

by Jill M. Katz

JMK Headshot

The law in Missouri makes reunification with parents the focus in the majority of cases filed alleging abuse or neglect. While children are in foster care, their foster parents provide for their needs. CASA and other Guardians ad Litem advocate for the child client to ensure all of their needs are met. The needs of the child go beyond ensuring that the child has the right therapist, dental and doctor appointment or has appropriate school resources.  One of the most important needs the child has is for the parent to remedy the cause of the removal of the child. That means that the Guardian ad Litem must also ensure that the entire family has their needs met. The advocate must consider what may be needed for the child to safely return home to their biological family. The advocate then must work just as hard to ensure that the tools are provided to the parents so that if/when reunification occurs, the reunification will be successful.

A parent’s attorney works at the direction of a parent. The parent’s attorney cannot ethically ask the Court to order their parent client to engage in services, unless the parent allows the attorney to ask for those services. That is the attorney’s job – asking for what the parent wants to occur.  Consider this, if no one asks for the parents to engage in services directed toward reunification, months may go by and appropriate services are not even offered. Six months after adjudication of the abuse or neglect, suddenly the parent wants to engage in services. While that is great, you have lost six months of services. Identification of appropriate services and asking for participation in these services, and possibly even getting a court order for the services, may encourage the parent to engage early in the process. Engagement in the process by the parent early in the litigation will lead to a greater chance of successful and timely reunification. As time passes and the parent who was offered appropriate services fails to provide evidence that the child can safely reunify, then the child is in a position to move toward permanency. The offering of appropriate services from the beginning of the case now becomes an element that will help achieve timely permanency for the child.

This kind of advocacy takes commitment to the process. It takes commitment to ensuring that laws are followed. It takes commitment to identify the right service provider and the right type of services that will be needed to provide the parent the ability to learn to provide a safe and stable home for the child.

Nothing a Guardian ad Litem does will ensure that a parent will accept and utilize the tools that are made available to them to aid in reunification with their children. But if the Guardian ad Litem has advocated for the provision of these services, the child either gains a parent who provides a safe and stable home, or acquires facts that will allow for a permanent placement  sooner rather than later.

The bottom line is that advocacy for a child is advocacy for the family. And advocacy does matter.