Denise Givens squeezed the large rocks in around the pebbles, trying to keep the glass jar from overflowing with stones.
For the soon-to-be sworn-in Court Appointed Special Advocate, the pebbles represented the things in Givens’ day that take up time but don’t have much overall significance, the larger rocks representing the more important aspects, such as family, friends and, soon, the children Givens will be advocating for.
As the jar grew fuller, Paula Malmfeldt, executive director of CASA of Forsyth County, looked on, smiling.
“Your task is to put the rocks in the jar [of pebbles], but you cannot exceed the top of the container,” she said. “You’ll have to shift around the pebbles to fit those things in, and they’ll still get done, but we recognize that you’re adding another large rock to your life and the significance of the role you’re about to play.”
That role means advocating for the neglected or abused children of Forsyth County, who now have 11 new CASAs to represent them in juvenile court proceedings. The locals — one man and 10 women — were honored at the Forsyth County juvenile courthouse Monday evening, where they were officially made a part of the county’s juvenile justice system.
CASA volunteers, who are sworn in in several groups throughout the year, act as guardians to foster children, often investing more time in individual cases than Division of Family and Children Services case workers, who frequently see numerous children and families.
Their relationship with the child is meant to provide stabilization in the otherwise chaotic life of a young person in foster care. The court relies on advocates when making key decisions about a child’s family situation, said Chief Juvenile Court Judge J. Russell Jackson.
“CASAs are very critical to reaching the conclusion, whatever that may be,” Jackson said. “The type of information CASAs can bring back, no one else may be privy to, and sometimes that’s the game changer in a case. Playing that role of a CASA brings something to the table, because a judge can’t decide a case unless he has information and he won’t make good decisions unless he has good information.
Added Jackson: “The more good information the judge has, the better the decision, and a [CASAs] role in bringing that information to the forefront is very valuable and very helpful.”
Ultimately, Malmfeldt said, the goal is to reunite the foster children with their parents and in 52 percent of cases that were closed in 2017, children were reunited with their families.
Associate Juvenile Court Judge Randall Meincke said it’s largely thanks to CASAs — and the community working as a team — that makes that happen.
“We’re here to protect the children, but also to reunify the families,” he said. “We’re not here to divide and conquer; we’re not here to provide babies for DFCS to place so that they can be adopted out by some wealthy family. We’re here to put the pieces together back again instead of split them up. There are all kinds of forces out in the world that cause things to split up rather than come back together again; the CASA is the glue that helps put those pieces back together again.”
Including Givens, the newly sworn-in CASAs are: Isadora Carvalho, Kimberly Hawkins, Patricia Hillen, Courtney Hogwood, Jennifer Howell, Ed Jones, Susan Martin, Judy Owens, Ann Sestrich and Robin Spiegel.