By Tim Eberly
They fed the volunteers before putting them on the hot seat.
After enjoying a potluck dinner, eight women all volunteers for Hill County's newly formed Court Appointed Special Advocate program took to the witness stand Thursday evening in the District Court courtroom of the Hill County Courthouse and allowed themselves to be grilled by lawyers.
It was a mock hearing. The volunteers seven from Havre and one from Big Sandy were trying to prep themselves for lawyers representing hostile parents during youth-in-need-of-care hearings.
CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to represent the best interests of children during incidents of reported abuse and neglect. The local CASA group was formed in late October. About 58,000 volunteers serve with more than 900 CASA programs nationwide.
Prior to the court session, the volunteers were all given background information on the same case, that of a 12-year-old girl named Sally who had been whipped with electrical cords and hit with hairbrushes by her impoverished parents. They all had to provide individual recommendations for the child's well-being and give their reports to Havre lawyer Bob Peterson, the program director of the local CASA chapter.
Then they had to defend their decisions in front of a disagreeable defense counsel, who was played by Havre attorney Dan Boucher. Peterson and Melissa Jamieson, CASA's vice president, had purposefully withheld pertinent information about Sally's case from the volunteers, opening the door for Boucher to expose weaknesses in their testimony.
"I've never been involved in anything like that before," said Rebecca Hargis, one of the CASA volunteers. "Even though it was a mock hearing, it was kind of nerve-wracking."
Peterson told the women after the session that he wanted the CASA volunteers to "have the feel of the courtroom" and "be pestered by prosecutors and defense attorneys and see what that was like."
With District Judge John Warner presiding, Boucher and Deputy Hill County Attorney Cyndee Faus, who acted as the prosecuting attorney, kept the volunteers' chair time brief. Periodically throughout the two-hour hearing, Warner and Peterson stopped the proceedings to interject with pieces of advice and instruction. Afterward, all the women were sworn in and presented with a certificate from CASA.
"We really appreciate your efforts here," Warner told the volunteers. "I'm looking forward to working with you."
By interviewing family members, teachers and doctors of the children, CASA volunteers make critical recommendations about their future.
Also known as guardian ad litems, the CASA volunteers can recommend an investigation Warner said he would have ordered that in Sally's case or even placing a child in foster care.
Within the next week, Peterson will put his volunteers to work, as there are 12 juvenile cases in Hill County in need of a CASA volunteer. There are three social workers in the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, and they are overloaded, Peterson said.
In the beginning, two volunteers will share one case. "They can bounce things off each other," Jamieson, a Big Sandy resident, said. "They're less likely to get burnt out."
Later, they will graduate to handling cases on their own. A CASA volunteer will handle an average of one or two cases at a time.
In 2000, a middle school teacher from Big Sandy told Jamieson about the CASA program in Cascade County. Jamieson later saw a television commercial about the group and became a member. She worked one nine-month case in Great Falls before approaching Warner and County Attorney David Rice about the prospect of bringing CASA to Hill County.
Two years later, the CASA group in Hill County is incorporated and on the verge of attaining nonprofit status.
"You can't imagine how much of a relief it is to have these people," Warner said after the hearing.