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Not Child’s Play: a "Voices for Children" Volunteer
Holly Gilbert volunteers with Voices for Children› View larger image
Photo of Holly Gilbert. Credit: NASA
Although Solar Physicist Holly Gilbert does not have children of her own, she likes children and wanted to become involved in and give back to her community. In January 2009, she began training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Voices for Children, the state organization responsible for the foster care program for neglected and abused children. She completed 30 hours of required training, underwent a background check, and was ready to begin as a volunteer, which requires about 10 hours a week.

Gilbert explains, “A CASA is basically responsible for looking out for the best interests of a foster child. ‘The best interests of a child’ means making sure that a child is well cared for, is being provided appropriate medical care, is making academic progress, and is in a healthy and non-abusive family environment.”

Gilbert adds that there is another dimension to being a CASA. Specifically, Gilbert says, “The CASA is in contact with all of the people involved in the child’s life including the biological parents, the foster family, the Department of Social Services’ social worker, any therapists, and various school administrators. By seeing the child on a regular basis, the CASA is the one, constant person in that child’s life.” To reinforce this constancy, a CASA is usually assigned only one child at a time and takes that child on an outing every week.

One of the main responsibilities of a CASA is to write a report for the assigned judge about every three months recommending that the child either continue in foster care or be reunited with the biological parents. This report is based on the CASA’s interactions with the child as well as with all of the people involved in the child’s life.

Gilbert is currently still assigned to her first child, a five year old girl whose mother has been in and out of jail for drug related offenses. The child had been living with her purported father and his girlfriend, both of whom were suspected of physical abuse. The maternal grandmother alerted the Maryland Department of Social Services about her granddaughter, and the child was placed with a foster family.

Nine months later, around July 2009, Holly was assigned to be this child’s CASA. Remembers Holly, “My first impression was that she was an adorable, outgoing, and very well-adjusted little girl. But she was like a 16 year old in a five year old’s body because she had had to deal with very mature issues at such a young age.” They got along famously from the start. Once a week, Holly takes her charge out for an activity such as going to the park, to the mall, out to eat, to the library, bowling, or “just doing some fun thing.”

What worries Gilbert is how this child’s story will end. Gilbert knows that the final outcome will be either reunification with the biological mother or adoption unless the child reaches the age of majority, which is 18 in Maryland, before either event occurs. According to Gilbert, “Most of the time, reunification with the biological parent is our goal. To do so requires the biological parent to fulfill a certain set of requirements which depends on the individual case. For example, this child’s mother must complete a drug rehabilitation program, establish a steady income, and demonstrate a stable home environment.”

Gilbert is conflicted about what will happen to her child. Says Gilbert, “I’m hoping for reunification with her biological parent, but the child is thriving in her foster home and enjoying all kinds of opportunities that her foster parents are able to offer. However, the test is what is in the best interests of the child which, thankfully, is what the judge, not me, will eventually decide.”

Being a CASA is Gilbert’s way of giving back to her community. Explains Gilbert, “Too many abused and neglected children slip through the cracks. Programs like Voices for Children save these kids in need of assistance. Assigning one CASA per child means that each child will get individual attention.” Holly concludes that, on balance, “The emotional rewards of being a CASA far outweigh the emotional demands.”
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.