One CASA NH volunteer’s journey: ‘You’re doing such a positive thing for a child’

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MANCHESTER, NH – When Sue Spinney saw an ad for CASA of New Hampshire more than 15 years ago, she told herself, “I’m going to do that as soon as I am able.”

More than a decade later, as she prepared to send her youngest child off to college, she remembered that ad and decided to apply to become a CASA volunteer advocate.

Spinney, a Manchester resident, completed her CASA training in the fall of 2014 and she took her first case just a few short months later taking the case of a teenage girl facing physical challenges that required more support than her parents were willing or able to give.

“It was the perfect transition,” Spinney said of stepping into the role of an advocate. “As a high school teacher, I was comfortable working with the age that is typically seen as more challenging.”

Spinney, a case manager in the special education department at Londonderry High School, works mainly with high school sophomores and juniors, which allowed her to feel at ease when communicating with her CASA teen.

Her role as an educator, especially in the high school setting, also provided her some additional insight while working with this young woman.

“You get to see an age group as a whole, how they interact, what they enjoy,” Spinney said. “This gives you a better understanding of the typical teen.”

Since that first case, she’s been appointed to four others, working only one to two cases at a time.

As a CASA volunteer advocate, Spinney serves a vital role in the proceedings that follow when a child has been abused or neglected by his or her parents. She is the one who makes sure that among the attorneys representing the different parties, the child’s best interests are kept at the forefront. She is a citizen advocate, and though she does have experience working with youth, it’s not a requirement. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old, but they come from all walks of life.

CASA volunteer advocates serve as the eyes and ears in the court room for child abuse and neglect cases. In New Hampshire, volunteers complete a 40-hour training that prepares them for all of the steps involved in a case, so they may provide that voice for the child. CASAs bring a unique perspective to the court proceedings, and they serve to provide unbiased recommendations to the judge, independent of any other party to the case.

In 2016, CASA volunteers advocated for 1,290 abused and neglected children in the Granite State.

For Spinney, becoming an advocate was a way to use her background in education to help children in a way she never had before. Outside of the court room, Spinney visits with the children she is working with on a monthly basis and interacts with biological parents, foster parents, social workers, doctors, teachers, therapists and any other important adult in the child’s life. She gathers information from different sources and writes a detailed court report presented to the judge, providing a detailed look at the life of the child.

In her active cases, Spinney is working with an infant and elementary age youth. It’s a departure from her work with teenagers, but it’s been a good learning experience.

“You have to get down onto their level,” Spinney said, describing how she is able to connect with her CASA children through avenues like playing dolls – her least favorite activity – but she does it anyway. “You do what works.”

In return, Spinney earns the opportunity to get to know the children more and so she can best represent their voices to the judge.

As a teacher, Spinney knows the importance of working with parents as well.

“Some are a mess, some are hurting and you must have the ability to communicate with them.”

While every case is different, with different outcomes, Spinney has seen two of three closed cases end in the successful reunification of parent and child.

“It is a powerful feeling, an overwhelming joy, when the child can be reunited because the parents have completed the necessary steps for reunification,” she said of the satisfaction she gets from being an advocate. “The parent that does that is amazing and to see parents change everything out of love for their child, it’s truly a miracle.”

While many parts of the case can be challenging and sad, Spinney said witnessing the happy ending of a family reunifying, or a new family coming together, and knowing you had an impact on this is a feeling like no other.

“You’re doing such a positive thing for a child,” Spinney said. “You’re one force, one person the child can trust, and it truly changes their lives.”

Though working full-time would make it seem like finding the time to be a CASA volunteer would be difficult, Spinney said it is easier than one might think. Court hearings are set in advance and the judges do their best to schedule around all parties’ commitments. For Spinney, this means getting a hearing in on her lunch break, or right after she leaves school.

“The drug crisis has really increased the number of cases, causing more and more children to need representation by a CASA,” Spinney said. “The children witness their parents using or are neglected as their parent’s priorities change from parenting to their drug of choice. It is heartbreaking. Even working only one case at a time can make a huge difference for an abused or neglected child.”

With the ongoing opioid epidemic in New Hampshire, the need for CASA volunteer advocates urgent. Trainings are held around the state on a rolling basis throughout the year with two coming up in May in Manchester and Dover. Visit www.casanh.org/advocate for more information or call 800-626-0622.

 

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!