by Ken Gorrell,
By virtually every measure, New Hampshire is a great place to be a kid and to raise a family. In the current Casey Foundation “Kids Count” data book, we rank 4th nationally for overall child well-being, based on four key indicators: economic well-being, education, health, and family & community. In that last category – family – we were first in the nation.
The Casey report is clear about the importance of family in a child’s life, stating that “When children are nurtured and well cared for, they have better social-emotional and learning outcomes…When communities have strong institutions and the resources to provide safety, good schools and quality support services, families and their children are more likely to thrive.”
NH was also first in a state ranking of child well-being from a panel of experts recently assembled by the consumer information site WalletHub. We scored in the top 5 across a range of categories, such as fewest children in foster care or living in single parent families, fewest living below the poverty line, fewest suffering maltreatment or being food-insecure.
Of course, these statistical measures – positive as they are – are relative. Yes, New Hampshire is a better environment overall for children than #50 Mississippi, but for a NH child living at the wrong end of the statistical curve, life is hard and full of uncertainties. Sadly, some of these children end up in our family court system, which handles cases of child abuse and neglect. In 2013, more than 800 Granite State children were victims of child abuse and neglect, and three died as a result of abuse.
Court can be a scary, confusing place even for adults. For children, the experience can be overwhelming. To help support children in court and give them a voice in the proceedings, the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association and its state and local members provide volunteer advocacy “so that every abused and neglected child in the United States can be safe, has a permanent home and the opportunity to thrive.”
NH’s CASA organization trains and supports volunteers across the state who are appointed as the Guardian ad Litem (“guardian of the case”) by the District or Family Court judge to represent a child victimized by abuse or neglect. This isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law. Per RSA 169-C:10, in cases “involving a neglected or abused child, the court shall appoint a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or other approved program guardian ad litem for the child.”
Six months ago I read about CASA in a local paper. They were conducting a drive to recruit 100 men to “step up to the plate.” (As with many organizations helping children, there is always a tremendous need for men.) The pitch was simple: Make a positive difference, leave a lasting impact on the lives of the state’s most vulnerable children. I was sold immediately, but am embarrassed to admit it took me five months to submit my application.
By the time this essay goes to print, I should be a certified CASA guardian ad litem (GAL), and may have already received my first case. The training has been thorough and eye-opening. Having been raised in a loving, “normal,” middle-class New Hampshire family that prepared me for the adult world, I have a hard time imagining childhood any other way. But for too many children living all around us, childhood isn’t just hard, it’s dangerous. And life beyond childhood is a place where the odds are stacked against health and happiness.
As a CASA/GAL volunteer, I’ll join hundreds of men and women acting as liaisons between a family court judge and a child. Our job is to help guide children through a complex process, providing the emotional support and stability they so badly need during this dark period in their lives. As with all CASA volunteers, I’ve pledged to uphold the best interests of the child.
CASA’s website (www.casanh.org) is filled with information for potential volunteers, including this mission statement:
CASA of New Hampshire strives to protect every abused child’s right to live, learn and grow in the embrace of a loving family. Our trained volunteer advocates speak for abused children’s best interests in New Hampshire’s family court system.
I can only hope to be able to live up to that goal. New Hampshire is a great place to be a kid, but not for every kid. As a society we’ll be judged by what we have done for the least among us.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org