Most Court Appointed Special Advocates become volunteers with CASA because they care about kids. While that's often the motivation, sometimes talking to kids about tough stuff is the hardest part! So, you're in the car on your way to your FIRST meeting with a child to whom you've been assigned, what do you do? Here are 5 quick, practical tips!
1. Calm down - Remember from training, an interview is just a conversation with a purpose. You are at the beginning of building a strong, a trusting relationship with the child. Children in foster care have A LOT going on in their lives. It's chaotic and unpredictable. Be a dependable, calm presence that they can rely on. Dial in to them and be ready to listen more than you talk.
2. Prepare (a little) - I say to only prepare a little here, not because I don't think you should properly research the file before a first meeting, but as a reminder that you don't know what you don't know, so don't sit down and draft out 25 questions to ask the child. What if they have a really important bit of info that you just didn't know to ask about?
Instead, think about 2 or 3 broad objectives for that meeting. For a first meeting, the broad objectives might be 1) to begin establishing rapport 2) to help the child understand your role as a CASA 3) to learn a bit more about the child's knowledge and understanding of their family situation
If you focus on general objectives, you can maintain the integrity of a meaningful meeting, without overwhelming or leading the child with a prescribed line of questioning.
3. Don't start "with the case"- This child's court case is one of a million things about their life. Make a point to get to know that child as an individual outside of the harsh lines of a case file. What are their favorite things? What foods do they like or not like? What makes them feel safe? Or loved? What video games or tv shows are they into right now? (please, no lecture about video games)
Make it a priority to take the child and their perspective seriously. It will make you a better advocate.
4. Make an action plan with the child - If the child asks questions and you don't have the answers or need to check, let them know when you'll be following up. If the child is struggling with a school or family issue, make an informal plan about how they might deal with that issues. If the child can't immediately answer questions about their wishes or other case-related issues, encourage them to take time to think about it and get back to you during your next visit.
5. Follow through quickly and with feedback - If you told the child you would check on something, do it and get back to them quickly. Be dependable and trustworthy. You might need to call to check in between visits to complete the feedback loop with the child. Living in foster care comes with a great deal of uncertainty and a complete loss of autonomy for the child. Information is power, so follow up honestly and quickly with children when you promise to look up something, have a conversation with a provider or take court action.
About the Author: Jenny Stotts currently serves as the Executive Director of the Athens CASA/GAL Program. Stotts also serves as the Regional Director of Southeast Ohio CASA as part of a strategic partnership between Athens CASA, the Ohio CASA Association and the Ohio Attorney General's Office.