The girl’s eyes followed me. She glanced sideways, wordlessly imploring for help. I had to respond. But how?
Thankfully, this child was not on the street but in a photo superimposed with the words “CASA of New Hampshire.” It was an ad seeking advocates for abused and neglected kids.
Much as an image like that tugs at my heart, I like to see the big picture before joining anything.
Here’s a sketch of what I’ve learned about CASA of NH and the state’s child protection process.
CASA is a 33-year-old statewide nonprofit organization. With almost 40 paid staff and 642 active volunteers, the organization’s goal is to serve 100 percent of New Hampshire’s abused and neglected kids. In 2022 that meant 1,538 children.
When a problem is reported to the State of New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), a social worker investigates. If corroborated, a petition is filed in family court against the parent for abuse or neglect. A Court Appointed Special Advocate or “CASA” is brought in to represent the best interest of the child.
DCYF proposes a plan to protect the child, either leaving them in-home with services and check-ins or placing them with relatives or foster families. The court specifies what actions must be taken for the family to be reunified, and what supports DCYF must provide.
Over the course of the year, as the parent works to address their issues, the CASA meets once or twice a month with the child. The CASA also gathers information from the parent, foster parents, social workers, health care providers, therapists, educators and others. The CASA writes a quarterly report to the court and attends the case hearings. Everyone’s goal is to get the family back together.
A year is not a lot of time to resolve some of the most difficult physical and mental challenges a person can face — problems such as addiction, domestic violence or mental illness, not to mention housing, food, transportation and employment. Sadly, reunification is not always possible. If the parent can’t convince the court that the child will be safe and secure in their care, DCYF typically requests that the plan be changed to adoption. If the court agrees, then a different legal case is filed to terminate the parent’s rights, and DCYF works to find an appropriate permanent home for the child.
Two years in as a CASA, I am astounded at the twists and turns abuse and neglect cases can take. Much as I want to know what’s ahead, it’s impossible to predict. I do know for certain these children need more advocates as well as foster and adoptive families. They need all of us.
Susan Hatem, former Director of Programs and Grant Making at New Hampshire Humanities, is a CASA of NH guardian ad litem and a connector, mentor and writer. Email her at email@example.com.