April 14, 2008 in City

Connect: Volunteer a legal advocate for kids

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

“It’s rewarding giving a voice to a child,” says CASA volunteer Gayle Kiser, “finding ways to represent how unique each child is.”
(Full-size photo)

For more than 20 years, Gayle Kiser has been a court-appointed special advocate representing children in Spokane courts. She’s listened to stories from the war zone of dysfunctional

families that would keep most people awake at night. She’s heard echoes of beatings in the voices of battered mothers, the shrill anger in the voices of drunken fathers, the slurred speech of strung-out women and the quiet resolve of men who want their children back. But mostly she’s heard the scared voices of children who face a family war alone.

“I once heard a tape recording of a 911 call from a 4- or 5-year-old who thought her father shot her mother,” said Kiser. “To this day it raises the hair on my arms. I mean, you can’t imagine what that’s like, to be so little and be so scared and hear that and feel like there’s nothing you can do.”

It was in 1986, as an empty-nester facing a quiet house, when Kiser signed up with CASA. She worked in court administration at the time and had seen and heard a lot.

“When you see your first case, it can be very sad and scary,” Kiser said. “But then, there’s no putting the genie back into the bottle. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, family problems – it’s always been there – we just haven’t always dealt with it.”

Each of the 200 CASA volunteers has one mission: to represent the best interest of a child who’s without legal representation. Perhaps parents are incarcerated or otherwise unfit to care for their children. Perhaps the child has been neglected or mistreated. Sometimes the child has simply been abandoned.

Straddling the gap between the social and judicial systems, the CASA volunteer is the child’s voice in court proceedings and negotiations. Kiser said she’s often the only stable, recognizable face in a child’s world that’s spinning out of control.

“It’s rewarding giving a voice to a child, finding ways to represent how unique each child is,” said Kiser. “Bringing a child to life from the dull pages of a boring report in a way that judges and participants see them as a ‘child’ not a ‘case’ is rewarding, too.”

Kiser tries to learn as much as she can about each child – what he or she likes to do, a favorite book or hobby, even how the child likes to be put to bed.

“I can be completely honest with the parents and say, ‘I don’t think it’s safe for Johnny to come home until you are in treatment,’ ” said Kiser, adding that her input often is received differently because she’s not a social worker or judge.

Kiser’s relationship with parents is not always adversarial.

“I’m really touched by the depth of kindness and sacrifice some parents show when they realize they can’t take care of their children,” Kiser said. Just recently, a mother unexpectedly gave permission for her daughter to settle permanently in one foster home.

“Sometimes it’s the ones with the least capacity who get it.”

In court, the CASA volunteer’s opinion has a lot of weight.

“In 80 to 85 percent of the cases, the judge follows their recommendation,” said Susan Cairy, volunteer programs director in Spokane County Juvenile Court.

When Cairy came to the program, she’d already heard of Kiser.

“Gayle, she’s the kind of person you want to clone,” Cairy said. “She’s a real balanced individual, that’s one of her greatest assets. Her attitude is always, ‘let’s mediate’ – it’s never ‘it’s my way or the highway.’

“Being the voice of a child, she has done an absolutely stellar job.”

Working with abused, abandoned and neglected children has an impact.

“I stop at every lemonade stand I see, it drives my husband crazy,” said Kiser, who is married to EWU professor Larry Kiser. “I mean, if you can shine on a child and make them feel like they’ve done a great job, that they are likeable, you should do it.”

When she gets a new case, Kiser spends 30 days gathering information.

“It can be a little nerve-racking when you knock on the family’s door not knowing what to expect,” Kiser said. “There have been a couple of times where I thought I perhaps wasn’t in the best situation I could be in.”

A CASA volunteer can bring a staff person along on a first visit or meet with the family at a courthouse.

“I form opinions during that initial time,” Kiser said.

Working with social workers and Child Protective Services, it typically takes 12 months to arrive at a permanent plan for the child, who is placed with relatives or in foster care, or perhaps adopted.

“This is about finding a stable situation for a child that doesn’t have any other adults who can do that,” Kiser said.

CASA volunteers can be assigned to children up to age 17, and in 2007 the program received more than 500 referrals from Child Protective Services – the most ever.

“I’ve watched that number grow from 200 to 300,” Cairy said. “I don’t think it’ll ever go down.

“We have 200 active volunteers right now, but we could easily use 500. At this moment, there are close to 600 kids who are not represented by a volunteer.”

New CASA advocates get to see one case through until the child is placed before they take on new cases.

“There are drawers and drawers full of files,” Kiser said. “When I first started, at one time I had five open cases and a 40-hour job – it was just a killer. Today, I tend to take cases that are more complex, but I only take one or two at a time.”

Kiser estimates she’s worked with hundreds of children over the years.

She belongs to a CASA support group that helps her deal with the impact of the violent situations she deals with.

She recently went through 20 years worth of case notes she kept in the attic.

“I was sitting there, purging and shredding, and I began to feel the sadness for some of the families again.”

She stays in touch with some children and families, but emphasizes that her job is to help the family move on. Kiser never goes looking for “her” children.

“Remember, I’m connected to a very bad memory and if I suddenly show up, I could be triggering more harm than good,” she said.

If past clients seek her out after growing to adulthood, “I’m more than happy to meet with them,” she said.

“Remember, my job is to help them move on and do better for themselves, after some really tragic circumstances. The most rewarding situation for me really is when they don’t need me anymore.”

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