Volunteers train and prepare so they may speak in the child's best interestSeaside resident Julie Spath fiddled on the witness stand.
She shuffled in her seat. She stuttered through answers raising the pitch as if she's asking a question. Spath was only playing the part of a parent on trial for negligence and abuse, but she was playing it well.
As she prepared to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate, Spath played the role of a mother in a mock trial for negligence. Judge Paul Brownhill presided and decided - as in real life - where the fictional child would live.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian
Newly appointed Court Appointed Special Advocate Barb Greenawald testifies during a mock trial in July.Three decades ago, Spath was a 7-year-old whose parents had just divorced. Spath's custody was always safe with her father. But when her mother showed up at the front door offering to take her three daughters with her, Spath couldn't help let it affect her.
The woman, who is now a waitress at the Seaside Pig 'N Pancake, hopes to donate her time and energy to children who may be experiencing the same confusion she felt when her mother left.
"If I can make a kid laugh, or have a good afternoon, when we're spending time together, then I feel like I can make an impact."
Spath and two others took the CASA oath to speak for the best interests of children whose future custody is in jeopardy due to abuse and neglect. On July 31, they joined about 30 people who actively represent the best interests of children in cases when the court must find children a place to live.
In 2002, Department of Human Services reported 8,424 cases statewide of founded child abuse, according to a DHS report. Founded cases require DHS caseworkers to have face-to-face contact with the family and establish legitimate evidence of abuse or neglect involving relatives. Some 79 founded cases were in Clatsop County, which is average for a county of its size, Pilotti said. Last year, county and city agencies received about 788 reports of child abuse and neglect, he said.
"Even when they're not founded, usually there's a strong basis for concern," Pilotti said.
In some cases, parents settle out of court. In some cases, children are removed from their parent's home and become wards of the courts system.
"In any given year, we are intervening judicially in 40 or 50 cases," he said. "In some of those cases, children are not being removed from the home."
Approximately 90 children have been removed from their homes - 80 are in the court system, Pilotti said.
Each one of those children needs a CASA, said Lovenia Warren, who directs the Clatsop agency, but not all of them have CASAs.
"We have child abuse in this community," Warren said. "Until I stepped back into human resources, I didn't know ... We need people to step up and say, 'Enough.'"
The Department of Human Services seeks places for the children with relatives or foster care. For a year, DHS must work to reunite parent and child, said Pilotti, who's supervised DHS in Clatsop County for four years.
DHS is not the only party with a claim in the trial. The district attorney's office speaks on behalf of state interests. The child's mother and father often each have attorneys. Law enforcement officials often serve as witnesses. Involved step-parents may even have a say in the case.
The central character - the child - is often silent, especially if he or she is young.
"It's a cumbersome difficult process for children to understand, but it's not really appropriate until they reach a certain age," Warren said.
CASAs speak for the child's best interest. The program was started in 1992 and is funded through United Way and grants.
The volunteers commit anywhere from 10 to 60 hours a month for two years, have access to all the court documents and are sworn to confidentiality. Because of lower caseloads than DHS, CASAs devote more time to visit the child's home and interview parents, teachers, doctors among others.
"They have more time to devote to each family," Pilotti said. "A case worker may be able to devote an hour each week."
While his father was always supportive, Spath said another adult could have helped.
"My dad was great," said. "We could have probably used somebody out of the household at the time."
Myrna Patrick has fulfilled that role for the past year. When she is not tending to her garden in Knappa, Patrick manages two cases.
She visits the children - an older child and two toddlers - about once a month. When struggling to glean information from the younger children, so she reads books to them to open up discussion.
Once, a child told her, "I want to live with my mom."
Patrick didn't want to interfere with the child's understanding of the situation, so she asked: "What have you been told?"
"You're the Costco lady," the toddler responded.
Patrick, who retired as a philanthropic manger, became the CASA lady at friends' urgings.
When Patrick became a CASA, she was worried about explaining her concerns during the pressure of a trial. But 40-hours of training set her at ease.
"The training's not difficult by any stretch," she said.
Patrick came back for a mock trial, which Brownhill hosted in her courtroom in July - the first time Brownhill has hosted a mock trial in a couple years.
CASAs adopted roles in the case so the three newest advocates - Spath, Barb Greenawald and Christina Booth - could experience a case.
CASA trainees also observe cases real cases, but Brownhill takes the time for the trial so they will be prepared for court.
"The more information I have, the better decisions I can make," Brownhill said. "Sometimes, the CASA's opinion may be the deciding factor in the case."
In one case, Brownhill said she might have removed a mother's custody forever if a CASA hadn't argued that the woman was turning her life around. The mother and child were reunited, and the state is no longer a part of the case, Brownhill said.
"Because of the CASA's thorough research, she made a very convincing case," she said. "It turned out very well."
Patrick said that sort of response is gratifying.
"It's a good feeling to know you're being listened to," she said.
Brownhill remains focused the children in her courtroom, said Warren, who has observed several cases since she began directing CASA last year.
"I constantly hear her say, 'This child needs a family. What are you doing to find this child a family?'"