In mid-August, Katie Presson, ’15, spent part of her 21st birthday in front of a Goochland County, Va., judge. However, she was there very willingly, raising her right hand to be sworn in as a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, to represent the interests of children who find themselves in courtrooms at all too young an age. She had come a long way to be there.
Children enter the courtroom for any number of reasons — custody battles, abuse and neglect cases, and delinquency charges, for example — but they’re less capable than adults of representing their own best interests. That’s where a CASA volunteer like Presson will step in, making home visits, talking with parents, teachers, social workers, doctors, and anyone else who might have insight into a child’s situation. They document what they find for the court and are the advocate for the child’s best interests.
The work of inserting themselves into lives and families that are falling apart can be, at best, filled with tension and, at worst, even dangerous. A colleague of Presson’s once pulled over to the side of the road when she got a tip that a home she was about to visit might contain a methamphetamine lab.
Presson’s own experience bears out how personal and difficult this work can be. The first time she observed a CASA worker firsthand, she had a chance to talk with that worker afterward. The case was a trio of teenaged sisters who had fled abusive parents and were living with friends. The oldest sister wanted to gain custody of her younger sisters, but a court-appointed attorney recommended reuniting the family. The sisters’ reception for the CASA worker was chilly.
During the visit, the sisters were asking themselves, “What is this lady doing in our house?” Presson says. “The CASA volunteer sees five people staring at her, not saying anything. She says she was terrified, but I would’ve never known she was scared.”
The sisters finally opened up, the CASA volunteer eventually disagreed with the attorney, the courts followed suit, and the girls began new lives. Presson, who can see the interview as clearly as if it had happened yesterday, was one of those younger sisters. At just 16, she changed families, changed schools, and found her way to the University of Richmond with the help of scholarships and aid.
This summer, a UR Summer Fellowship reunited her with her CASA caseworker, Ann Casey, who is executive director of Goochland CASA. Under Casey’s guidance, Presson worked toward CASA certification, observed court cases, and did basic office work to learn the workflows that keep children from slipping through more cracks. She will also be networking in November at CASA’s national conference. The organization has asked her to speak about CASA from her dual perspectives as both a client and a volunteer.
These experiences serve her larger professional goal of becoming a social worker specializing in the needs of children. It was a path she decided on only last year when the birth of a niece gave her an epiphany: “Seeing her being born, it hit me. I know she’s going to be loved and taken care of. Every child should have that.”
On the advice of Jan French, associate professor of anthropology, Presson is now researching graduate programs in social work.
“I want to help kids who don’t have a voice because I know what that feels like,” she says. “I don’t want any kid to have to feel like that.”