EVERETT — A court program that became the center of a controversial child custody case will soon change ownership.
The Snohomish County Council voted unanimously in late January to move the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, or CASA, from the Superior Court to the executive’s office, effective April 15.
The move is an effort to remove any perceived conflict of interest in oversight of the program. CASA’s volunteer guardians are sworn officers of the court tasked with gathering evidence and making recommendations about what’s best for children as they move through the legal system. The volunteers must pass a criminal background check, but there’s no requirement for qualifications in legal or social work.
At issue was a custody case that began in 2013, when the state weighed whether to terminate a mother and father’s parental rights over their baby girl. The father had a documented history of substance abuse and domestic violence, and both the mother and baby tested positive for methadone.
Child advocates, working with what was then called the Volunteer Guardian Ad Litem Program, had intervened just days after the girl was born. For years, staff and volunteers lied, spied and withheld and destroyed evidence to keep the child from returning to her parents, or from regular visits. Court records detail retaliation against attorneys, breaches of confidentiality to benefit the foster parent and an illegal audio recording in open court. The original trial judge labeled the misconduct “pervasive and egregious.”
In an Aug. 12 opinion from the state Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel ruled that the wrongdoing deprived the family of its right to due process. They ordered a new trial in King County to determine parental rights and possible sanctions over the misconduct.
Superior Court administrator Shane Nybo said changes and improvements were already well underway before the August decision. Court officials changed the program’s name, updated policies, clarified roles and brought in new employees. A new 90-day shadowing period was introduced, as well monthly training and annual evaluations.
CASA currently has nine staff members and 54 volunteers serving 175 children. Another 22 volunteers are inactive.
“I think we’ve really tried to work on being more transparent and making sure there’s clear direction to the volunteers, as to their role, on these cases,” Nybo said.