By Maritza Black
Making a commitment to pro bono can be difficult, especially for young attorneys facing a host of new responsibilities and uncertainties. To learn more about fitting pro bono into practice, I sat down with attorney Scott Learned to find out more about the CASA program and how he gives back to his community.
Scott, a law graduate from Georgetown University, is a sole practitioner who specializes in wills and probate. He started volunteering with CASA in 2001 and now has almost 20 years of experience as a volunteer attorney.
Maritza: What made you interested in volunteering with the CASA program?
Scott: When I first started practicing law, I wanted to do pro bono service to honor our 50-hour commitment to pro bono, but I wasn’t sure where to start.
I asked around at the firm where I was working and someone recommended that I try the CASA program because it was an easy way to provide service: they will tell you where to show up and what to do. At first, I had no idea what to do, but I quickly figured it out and learned how important the program is to the community.
Maritza: Can you walk me through what handling a case as a CASA attorney looks like?
Scott: We get the case after children are taken into custody for some reason, like extremely unsanitary conditions, drug use, or a public event where the kids were in danger.
By the time a CASA lawyer gets involved the children are typically with a foster family and a Guardian Ad Litem has been appointed. The Guardians Ad Litem are volunteers and they come from all different walks of life. Some of them are sophisticated as far as the legal process goes, while others are not and can be completely overwhelmed. We are assigned to represent the Guardian Ad Litem.
The CASA program takes care of all of the case processes. They give us all of the materials for the file, such as the police report and Health and Welfare report. We get a set of hearing dates and we typically touch base with the Guardian Ad Litem before the first hearing date to find out what’s going on.
There’s really not a lot of out-of-court preparation, besides reading through the file and meeting with the Guardian Ad Litem to learn about his or her concerns.
The first hearing is the case plan hearing, which is basically about the hurdles that the parents have to meet to get their children back. This plan is usually written by Health and Welfare and the hearing is an opportunity for the parents to voice their thoughts on the plan through their lawyers.
We do a lot of listening as a CASA program attorney, and translating for our client. There is a lot of “legalese” that goes on that our client may not follow. Our client could be anyone: a retired person, a stay-at-home mom, or a business person.
The trick for the lawyer is to understand what the Guardians Ad Litem are following and what they’re not, and to help them understand what the process is, or if they have any concerns that are not being addressed, to raise those concerns.
This is a really different world from most litigation. The prosecutor is there to argue on behalf of the government; the public defender or the parents’ lawyer is there to argue on behalf of the parents. We’re there to advise the judge.
There’s not a lot of argument from our side. Instead the role is to help the Guardians Ad Litem voice any concerns they may have, like if they’ve been to visit the house and they’re concerned about sanitization, or if they’ve visited the foster family and they’re concerned because the foster mom seems overwhelmed. They may even just want to comment that Health and Welfare is doing a great job.
Maritza: How long does a CASA case typically last?
Scott: In Ada County there’s always a case plan hearing and at least a six-month review hearing, but after that it really depends on what is happening with the case. There can be anywhere from just three hearings to ten or even twelve. I keep several cases going at any given time, and when one resolves I pick up a new one.
Maritza: How do you balance a demanding career as a sole practitioner with your commitment to pro bono work?
Scott: That can really be a challenge. I think if you had a really intense litigation calendar it could be hard. Certainly for transactional attorneys it should be fine, or for civil litigators with a little bit of flexibility in their schedule.
My schedule tends to be flexible because of the type of practice I have. As a sole practitioner there are so many things pulling me in different directions, but the nice thing about doing the CASA program is that you can build in a system in your office that becomes part of the office routine.
The CASA program is very accommodating. If necessary, you can send a substitute attorney in your place or appear telephonically. I rarely have to do that, but if I were a solo practitioner thinking about starting to take these cases and worried about the time commitment, it would be reassuring to know that I could have another lawyer on standby in case I were unable to make it.
The CASA program and the Court have gotten better at helping the CASA attorneys do what we do, whether that’s offering CLEs or just being aware that we’re volunteers and have other commitments.
Maritza: What skills have you developed from participating in the CASA program?
Scott: I’ve developed an awareness that these sorts of cases exist, and that although Idaho is an awesome place, we still have neglect and abuse of kids in our community. I like feeling that I’m helping in some way to solve that problem.
I’ve also gained an understanding of an aspect of the law (the Child Protection Act) that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.
Maritza: Why would you recommend that other young attorneys become involved in the CASA program?
Scott: When I was first starting out as a new attorney with very little experience in the courtroom it was very helpful to be able to gain court room experience without being under a lot of pressure. As a CASA attorney you’re there to assist the Guardian Ad Litem in communicating with the judge. You’re not arguing the motion or being involved in the conflict; you’re somewhere in the middle, telling the judge: “Here’s what I think is happening.”
To be able to go into the courtroom and speak to the judge and counsel is a great way to get your feet wet if you’re at all interested in litigation or court work. I am almost certain that the first time I appeared in court was as a CASA attorney, because if you’re in a big firm you don’t really get many courtroom opportunities. Appearing as a CASA attorney was very helpful in becoming more comfortable with the judicial process and just being in the courtroom.
Maritza: What about attorneys who don’t have family law experience? Would you recommend that they become involved in the CASA program?
Scott: Absolutely. Some lawyers considering going into this area are hesitant because they don’t know anything about the substantive law in this area. I didn’t know anything about substantive law when I started. All I knew was that the role of the Guardian Ad Litem is to advise the Court of any problems.
As I’ve volunteered in the program over the years I’ve learned the substantive law, but that’s not something that the attorney needs to worry about. Mostly that’s what the prosecutor, the judge, and the parents’ attorneys are worrying about.
What the CASA attorney needs to understand fundamentally is that they are the communication go-between between the Guardian Ad Litem and the Court. The rest is just falling back on your general knowledge of due process and how the court system works to help your client understand what’s going on.
I will also say that the other attorneys – the public defenders and the prosecutors – are extremely knowledgeable and have been able to help me with any questions that I’ve had.
Maritza: Is there a particularly rewarding memory that stands out to you from your years of participating in the CASA program?
Scott: I’ve seen cases that were really tough, in terms of level of abuse or neglect. I’ve seen cases where parents never got on board with getting their kids back and we’ve terminated parental rights or the parents just gave up on themselves and having a relationship with their children.
As a parent I always feel bad when we have to terminate parental rights, but if we do it is usually because the parent has checked out and is not interested. In that case, I’m glad we’re there for these kids and able to get them into a better situation.
I have also seen a number of cases where this was the wakeup call that mom or dad needed. There are cases where you think that it’s never going to go well, but the parents just get it.
Often the parents are facing a companion criminal issue that relates to the abuse or neglect, or they have a pending drug charge, so watching the parents work through drug court, family court, and child protection court all at the same time and really changing their lives for the better, and the lives of their kids, is really amazing.
In those cases our role is really as a cheerleader for the parents, saying “You can do this! Don’t give up!” We’ve watched some great cases where kids have gone back with their parents and it has been successful by all accounts.
It’s not all roses and sunshine, but sometimes it is, and those times are rewarding. When it’s not, I’m really glad that we can be there to step in for these kids and advocate for them, and say it is time to terminate mom or dad’s parental rights. When this happens the kids are almost always placed with family, like an aunt or uncle.
It’s rewarding to know that if you’re taking a kid out of an abusive situation you’re putting them in a family that can help raise them and help them deal with the traumatic situation they’ve been through.
Maritza Black is a 3L law student at Concordia University School of Law who is currently interning at Learned Lawyer. She is interested in practicing immigration and estate planning. In her free time Maritza enjoys being physically active and hiking in the foothills.