Guardians ad litem there for kids put in tough situations

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, May 18, 2002 9:00pm
  • Local News

You are little, 6 or 7 years old. A police car drives up to your school. You are called to the office. You wonder, "What did I do?"

You may already be afraid, having lived with domestic violence or drug use at home. You are driven off with all the kids looking. You are taken to a receiving home, and then to a foster home or to stay with a distant relative.

You never go back to your old school. You don’t get your clothes or your old toys. You don’t have your pets and may not see your siblings.

"Imagine the impact on a child," said Kirsten Haugen, attorney for the Snohomish County Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program.

"My children would be unsettled if I moved the furniture," said Haugen, the mother of two grown sons. "Most of these children feel they were bad, that’s why it’s going on."

It goes on, for hundreds of children in Snohomish County, because of suspected abuse or neglect.

Haugen oversees volunteers in the program, also known as Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. In dependency actions to determine whether a child should be removed from a home, the volunteers represent the interests of the child.

These are not criminal cases. They originate through a referral — from a teacher, neighbor or doctor, for instance — to Child Protective Services. In court, parents and the state have lawyers. The volunteer guardians represent the children.

Since 1977, when King County founded the country’s first guardian program, children have had the special advocates who report directly to judges. Snohomish County was second in the nation to adopt the program, which Haugen said has "spread like wildfire" to all 50 states.

Haugen spoke Thursday night at the annual meeting of the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County. She addressed the need for more volunteers and the program’s new focus on education.

About 750 children in the county are currently represented by CASA, and there are about 150 volunteers. In Snohomish County, Haugen said, about 2,000 children are separated from their families.

"We represent children in the worst of the worst cases, but we don’t have enough volunteers," she said.

With Haugen at their side, volunteers go to court to speak for the child. But much of their time is taken by old-fashioned detective work, shoe leather and tough situations. They make home visits, talk to teachers, child-care providers and the children.

It’s work that tugs at the heart, said Ruth Nelson, one of several League of Women Voters members who are also guardian ad litem volunteers.

When Nelson retired as a reference librarian three years ago, having raised her five children, she found a new mission "that’s kind of the love of my life." Nelson recalled making a surprise home visit to find that a baby she had been worried about was being given cocaine.

"What volunteers face are not always the safest, most comfortable situations. But that’s what Ruth does," Haugen said.

Among her cases now, Nelson represents the children from a family of six children now living in six separate homes.

"When people ask why I don’t demand a paycheck, I say there’s not enough money in the world to get me to do this kind of work," Nelson said. "I lie awake at night before a child-protective pickup. It hurts right here," she said, pointing to her heart.

Haugen is excited about a federal grant the program has received. "The focus is on keeping kids in their local schools," she said. There’s also a push to provide the means for participation in sports and extracurricular activities.

"It’s not uncommon for these children to be in three schools in a year. Some are in as many as nine," Haugen said.

"Right now, seven out of 10 foster kids statewide don’t graduate from high school," Haugen said. "We’re just throwing these kids away."

Haugen mentioned her frustration when she sees newspaper stories about neglected dogs "and the next day all these people come forward to help."

"They don’t seem to get too excited about damaged kids," she said.

Contact Julie Muhlstein via e-mail at, write to her at The Herald, P.O. Box 930, Everett, WA 98206, or call 425-339-3460.

The Snohomish County Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program needs volunteers. To learn more, call 425-388-7854.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Eve Barrows (left) and the students duck and cover under desks during an Earthquake Drill at Port Susan Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Stanwood, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
‘Drop, cover, hold on!’ Stanwood kids hear new alarms in quake drill

The Great ShakeOut offered a dress rehearsal Thursday for a new system that aims to warn before the tremors start.

This crash in Monroe happened early Friday morning after police discontinued a high-speed chase. Both occupants were taken to a hospital. (Monroe Police Department) 20211022
2 seriously injured in Monroe crash; DUI suspected

The driver hit a center lane divider and rolled his car. Police are investigating him for vehicular assault.

Everett Farmer’s Market canceled Sunday due to weather

Organizers cited a high-wind advisory. It is to reopen Oct. 31 for the final market of the season.

Police: ‘Prolific’ Marysville thief stole from dozens of gym lockers

The suspect, 23, was arrested this week for investigation of more than 55 felonies.

Alejandro Meza watches a video of the altercation he had with Gene Peterson on Community Transit bus during opening statements of his trial on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Murder trial opens for man who shot stranger on Everett bus

Alejandro Meza got into a fight with a passenger over drug use, he claimed. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense.

Police are searching for a female suspect following a burglary at the Masjid Umar Al-Farooq Mosque in Mountlake Terrace. (City of Mountlake Terrace)
Police arrest suspect in Mountlake Terrace mosque burglary

Another person remained at large, after burglars took prayer rugs and Qurans then threw them in a dumpster.

Arlington schools briefly on lockout; students, staff safe

A Mukilteo resident reportedly intended to die by suicide in a school parking lot. They were found and referred to care.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, center, greets a new trooper during a graduation ceremony, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on in the Rotunda at the Capitol Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. The class of 31 troopers completed more than 1,000 hours of training and will now work for the WSP across the state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Rather than get vaccine, nearly 2,000 state workers lose jobs

Ten troopers north of Seattle, 54 Monroe prison workers and hundreds more across the state refused the governor’s mandate.

Most Read