The recent case of two siblings, ages 18 months and 3 years, who were removed from their mother’s care demonstrates the difficult but important role of court-appointed special advocates (or CASAs). In this particular case, Seattle associate Modessa Jacobs worked with a CASA to obtain a life-changing ruling for the children.

Each year more than 700,000 children nationwide are placed in foster care, usually after being taken from abusive or neglectful parents. Judges appoint CASAs, who are volunteers, to guide some of these children through juvenile court and the foster care process. The website of the National CASA Association notes that "For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives."

In our recent case, the two siblings had been removed from the home nearly two years prior because of their mother’s drug addiction and neglect. At that time, a King County (Wash.) juvenile court judge ordered the mother to complete state-provided programs, including mandatory urinalysis and parenting classes, in order to regain custody of her children. In such cases, if the parent does not complete the services within six months, the state can file a petition with the court to sever the parental relationship permanently.

The judge also assigned a CASA to represent the children.

The state chose to file for termination of the mother’s parental rights because she did not complete the required programs. The court set a date for the trial at which her permanent parental rights would be determined. Through our ongoing relationship with the King County CASA Program, Seattle associate Modessa Jacobs volunteered to help the CASA prepare for the trial.

As a labor and employment lawyer, Modessa drew on her experience preparing witnesses to coach the CASA. "He was very knowledgeable about the children and their lives," says Modessa, "but he had some anxiety around testifying. You never know what the lawyer for the state or for the parents will be like, or what they will ask." She met with the CASA several times so he could practice answering questions as a witness.

At the three-day trial, the first of her legal career, Modessa made opening and closing statements, and crossexamined three of the 10 witnesses who testified.

"Anyone would feel for the mother in that situation," says Modessa. "But it came down to whether the state had given her adequate opportunity to improve her life and her parenting
skills." Modessa made it abundantly clear that the mother had not taken that opportunity. In fact, she extracted an admission from the mother that she had disobeyed a court order allowing only supervised visits with her children.

Susan Llorens, an assistant attorney general for the State of Washington, represented the state at the trial. "Despite the fact that this is not an area of law in which Modessa regularly practices, she was extremely familiar with the relevant statutes and case law," says Llorens.

"She did an excellent job laying a foundation for [the CASA] to be able to testify about the parent’s substance abuse."

For his part, the CASA made the case for the children so well that the state’s counsel asked him only three questions on cross-examination. "He performed brilliantly," says Gillian Murphy, a senior labor and employment associate at DWT who supervised Modessa’s work on the case. "He had the most personal knowledge of the children, and the best handle on the important dates…His testimony was particularly crucial because the [state's] social worker was somewhat unengaged."

The mother’s parental rights were terminated, and the girls are now living with a family that wants to adopt them both. The mother also has an older child, whose future will be determined in a parental rights termination trial later this year. Modessa and the same CASA are assigned to that hearing as well.

Full Spring 2012 Pro Bono Report