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 muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com, 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.

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