Courting change

Men’s roles growing in CASA program
By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2008

When Kevin Sanders walked into his first training session to become a court-appointed special advocate, he quickly realized that he was the sole man in a sea of women.

“I thought, `Wait a minute. Maybe this is for women,’” Mr. Sanders said. “I was a little leery.”

His wife, Joan, persuaded him to continue. “Don’t you dare stop,” Mr. Sanders recalled her saying. “You’re great with kids.”

That was three years ago. Mr. Sanders, 43, is now on his third case as a volunteer for the CASA Project. The job entails speaking for the best interests of a child who most often is the subject of a care and protection petition because of abuse or neglect.

When Mr. Sanders joined CASA, about 2 percent to 3 percent of the volunteers were men. That figure is now up to 19 percent. Still, the organization, which has been working with the Worcester Juvenile Court system for 27 years, would like to see more men among its 153 volunteers.

Last year, boys made up about half of the 302 children the juvenile court assigned to CASA. Many of the boys have never had a male figure in their lives, and they respond well to men, said lawyer Sue Ellen Scrogin, who specializes in family law and is the organization’s executive director.

“We love that positive response,” she said.

Mr. Sanders’ situation was unusual. He had injured his ankle so badly that he could not work. He had returned to school at Anna Maria College and was studying criminal justice when he came across CASA. He was intrigued. He wrote a paper on the organization and its mission.

A CASA volunteer has 30 hours of training and is then sworn in by a judge as a guardian ad litem, or court-appointed special advocate. The volunteer is eligible to be assigned to a case and is empowered by the court to investigate all aspects of a child’s life. Then, with the assistance of a CASA staff supervisor, the volunteer recommends to a judge what situation would best meet the child’s basic needs. The judge takes into consideration the views of medical, legal and other witnesses, as well as the statements of all involved, and reaches a decision.

Ms. Scrogin stressed that a volunteer is not supposed to develop a close relationship with a boy or girl, as would be the case in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“It’s not a personal role model,” she said. “We are people who are there to investigate to help judges make informed decisions that need to be made for children in the juvenile court.”

Mr. Sanders was assigned to a boy who had missed many days of school. The child’s mother was single and caring, Mr. Sanders said, but she had health problems. He talked to the mother, other family members, doctors, nurses, social workers and the boy’s teachers.

Mr. Sanders, the father of two children, had to straddle a fine line in his relationship with the youngster.

“At first he resented me,” Mr. Sanders recalled. “You have to come down to their level. He had a lot of interests, the same as my son.”

As the two became acquainted, the child talked about how he wished he had a father to take him to sporting events. Mr. Sanders was understanding, but always turned the subject to what was positive in the boy’s life – his friends and his spiffy bike.

The court closed the case when the child was back in school and the mother was working. Mr. Sanders became involved again six months later when the same problems cropped up. “His mother needed help,” Mr. Sanders said. “It was a vicious cycle.”

Ray Zeena read about CASA in the Telegram & Gazette. He immediately thought he would like to help out. Mr. Zeena is a field investigator for the Hanover Insurance Group. Criminal behavior plays a role in some CASA cases.

“Insurance fraud is a crime,” Mr. Zeena, 36, noted. “I’m in some bad neighborhoods sometimes.” CASA, he said, “is a comfort zone for me.”

His first case involved a small child who had been taken from her mother because their living conditions were unacceptable. The parents had been involved in drugs. The father had made some effort to get his life together, so the judge wanted to place the child with him.

Mr. Zeena, who lives in Worcester, met with both parents.

“The father seemed like he could snap at any moment,” Mr. Zeena said. “He smoked in the house and had no parenting skills.”

The mother had support from a boyfriend and her family.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the child was better off with the mother,” Mr. Zeena said.

The volunteers come from varied backgrounds but their motives tend to be similar.

John Gunther, the father of two grown children, recently retired as an intellectual property lawyer at EMC Corp. Given his own good fortune, he said, he was looking for a way to “give back to society.” He found CASA on the Internet.

In one case, Mr. Gunther, who is 62, was assigned a brother and sister. Their father was in prison and their mother had serious difficulties with her parental role. Mr. Gunther stayed with the case for a year. The boy was in a safe environment out of the home; the girl knew how to handle her mother.

“As an older teen, the daughter was not going to say, `Send me to a foster home,’” said Mr. Gunther, who lives in Webster.

He said he found the situation frustrating. “If they were under my care, I’d read them the riot act,” he said. “Parents have to be parents.”

A volunteer is asked to stay with a case for 15 months, Ms. Scrogin said.

“We feel if they give 15 months of their lives to a child or sibling group, we thank them,” she said. “We understand if they can’t continue.”

Mr. Gunther is not certain whether he will take another case, but he plans to help recruit volunteers.

“There’s a lot of learning on my part,” he said. “I’m a strategic and motivated person, so I have a lot of limitations when you are in the social-criminal justice type of situation.”

Mr. Sanders and his family now live in Westboro, in a dark green gambrel roof house with a bubbling brook in the back yard. He grew up in a single-parent home in Worcester. His mother always worked two jobs. He said he understands what life is like for people who struggle.

Both he and Mr. Zeena are on to their next cases.

“I love it,” Mr. Zeena said. “I feel like I did something. I contributed to society.”