Ian Kallay first learned about the Court Appoint Special Advocates or CASA program, which pairs community volunteers with foster children to provide those children another voice in the court system, while he was living in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It sounded like a great program. That was about three or four years ago," he said, noting that he moved to this area some two years ago. “About a year ago I wanted to start getting involved in some volunteer positions and I found that program.”
In June, Kallay became one of the latest CASA volunteers sworn in to serve in Carroll County Circuit Court. It is his first introduction to foster care and the family court system, “so I am learning a lot,” he said.
In Carroll County, the CASA program is known as Voices for Children of Carroll County, and is managed jointly with a Frederick County program by the nonprofit Frederick County Mental Health Association, according to Jennifer Fuss, program manager for the CASA programs in both counties.
“They are both fairly small jurisdictions, so it just makes sense to have them operate together,” she said.
There have been CASA volunteers active in Carroll County since 2001, Fuss said, although the origins of the program go back around 40 years to Seattle.
“It was started by a judge who wanted more information while he was hearing cases of children in neglect and abuse cases,” Fuss said. “He was concerned that he wasn’t getting enough objective information into the courtroom, so he engaged volunteers from the community to do that.”
That means volunteers getting to know children who have been removed from their homes and placed into the foster system, often due to some form of abuse or neglect, according to Fuss.
“What I always say is we are looking to put the right adults into children’s lives. These are vulnerable children,” she said. “We work with older children as well because children don’t age out of foster care in Maryland until 21, so we can work with children from zero to 20.”
“People who complain about the judicial system and stuff like that, this is a way to fix it,” he said. “This is the opportunity to go in and make a difference and not have some hidden agenda alongside.”
CASA volunteers fill a unique niche, according to Fuss. They are not social workers, they are not parents or judges or attorneys.
“Our volunteers are screened and trained to be advocates for children’s best interest in a very complex process," she said. "We are not representing anyone else’s agenda, we are strictly looking at the child’s best interest."
That interest may not always align with what a child themselves desires and expresses through their attorney, or with what a parent express, Fuss said, but the CASA volunteer’s job is to get an informed, but outside opinion into the court process.
“Judges and magistrates tell us it’s really helpful to have this other perspective,” she said. “We think of it as knowing a child on the court’s behalf.”
The value of the program to courts in Carroll County can only be inferred by the courts continuing to use the program. A request for comment from Carroll County Circuit Court Magistrate Kathryn Brewer-Poole was forwarded to Terri Charles, an assistant public information officer with the Maryland Judiciary Administrative Office of the Courts, who declined to make Brewer-Poole or any other Carroll County judge involved in foster cases available for an interview.
Fuss said the program is always looking for new volunteers.
“Right now we have staffing for 45 volunteers in Carroll County and we are getting close to having that many, but we have a natural attrition,” she said. “People move away, their situation changes, their availability changes.”
Volunteers are asked to make an 18-month commitment to the program, going through a screening process and then a 30-hour training program before being assigned a case, according to Fuss. The next training cycle will begin in November, she said.
Kallay has been on a case for just a couple of weeks, and he said he is already glad he volunteered, even with the time commitment.
“I work full-time and then I work a part-time job, too, and I’m still doing it. It’s very much if you want to do it, you can do it,” he said. “It’s definitely worth it at the end of the day.”