Thursday, September 23rd, 2021
Court seeks volunteers for cases
By William Kincaid
Mercer County Common Pleas Probate/Juvenile Court Judge Matt Gilmore has launche. . .
This is the third and final part of a series looking at the effects of the diminishing number of local attorneys.
CELINA - Mercer County Juvenile Court is seeking volunteers to represent the best interests of children are involved in court proceedings because they have been abused or neglected.
The court has launched a Court Appointed Special Advocates For Children program that will train volunteers to become a child's voice in court. Volunteers will advocate for a safe, permanent and loving home for the juvenile, court officials said. It's one of 45 such programs in the state serving children in 56 counties, according to Ohio CASA.
Many professionals may be involved in a case, but the CASA volunteer is the only person who is solely focused on protecting the best interests of the child, court officials said.
It's the brainchild of Mercer County Common Pleas Probate/Juvenile Court Judge Matt Gilmore, who began his first term this year after working as a local attorney for 25 years. The program was formed in part to free up the time of local attorneys, who are increasingly scarce due to multiple factors, including retirements, or in Gilmore's case, moving from working as a private attorney to judge.
"While running for office, I knew that that was going to further kind of decimate the roles of private attorneys, and this court in particular eats up a lot of attorney time," he said.
Typically in an abuse, neglect, dependency case, each parent is represented by an attorney.
"And then typically have a guardian ad litem who's an attorney not representing the child but looking out for the child's best interest, and in an abuse case I have to appoint an attorney for the child," Gilmore said. "We've had five, six attorneys on a case in here."
Through the new CASA program, it iss hoped that volunteers can relieve the strain on overburdened chid welfare systems and court dockets, officials said.
"With the dwindling attorneys in this area, a lot of attorneys or the guardian ad litem attorneys get a lot of cases," said county juvenile court magistrate Richard Delzeith.
"A CASA volunteer is only going to have one case, so they will have a lot of time to help those kids," Delzeith said.
Perhaps most importantly, they will provide quality representation of children, offering recommendations to the judge based on their independent investigation of facts.
"They are the liaison between that child and the court," Gilmore said. "That CASA would be reporting back to the court, same as a guardian ad litem, 'Judge, here's what I think is in this child's best interest.'"
Gilmore explained the roles of a CASA volunteer and an attorney.
"They would perform different functions. The CASA is solely interested in the best interest of the child. The lawyer for an abused child is an advocate for that child," he said.
For example, a CASA volunteer assigned to a case, based on his or her interactions, observations and evidence-based practices, might advocate that a 14-year-old be placed with the mother. But the child might want to live with the father.
"The attorney has a legal obligation to advocate for that child going to the dad," Gilmore said. "When children reach a certain age or have a sufficient level of maturity to have their own opinions, that attorney is bound to advocate for what that child wants."
The ultimate decision lies with the judge, who may be able to come to a more informed ruling based on input from the CASA volunteer.
"They're going to look out for the best interest of the child and they're going to make sure that they can do anything to help that child," Delzeith said.
"Overall the role is going to be the voice for that child to the court, and I think that's very distinctive from essentially a guardian ad litem which is … more from a legal standpoint whereas the CASA member is going to be very involved in the kids' lives," Delzeith said.
CASA volunteers will get to know a juvenile in various settings, including school functions and maybe even sporting events, said Kip Wright, county CASA coordinator of volunteer services.
"The comfort level of the CASA and the age of the child and the circumstances in where the child is placed, I think will play a huge role in how involved that CASA is," Gilmore said.
Additionally, CASA volunteers will interview parents, siblings, relatives, foster parents, doctors, teachers and other significant people in the child's life, according to program information.
"By court order, when the judge appoints this CASA, the CASA has legal right to go to the school and look at the child's records - medical records, treatment records," said Nick Schulze, county CASA executive director.
"Getting the title of CASA volunteer and getting a case gives you a lot of responsibility but also with that a lot of opportunities to really impact a kid's life," Schulze said.
Any adult 21 or older with sound character and committed to representing the interests of abused and neglected children can apply to become a volunteer by calling 419-586-1249 or emailing CASA@mercercountycourts.com.
A public presentation will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 in the juvenile court on the third floor of the courthouse, on the CASA program and how to become a volunteer.
Candidates must complete an application and screening process, participate in an interview, complete 30 hours of in-service training, commit to two years of service (the average length of a child's case) and be able to dedicate five to 10 hours a month.
"Basically what we're looking for right now is anybody that's willing to fight for the best interests of a child," Delzeith said.
He also noted potential good matches may be former teachers and social workers who are not afraid to ask kids tough questions.
"Put yourself in the mind of a child who is a victim through no fault of their own, whose life now is kind of turned upside down and maybe living in a new community with people they have no idea who they are," Schulze said. "What kind of person would they want to help them through this? It's somebody with a big heart. It's somebody that loves kids. That's what we're looking for."