Court-appointed special advocates help local children

CASA’s newly appointed full-time director Richard Heyl de Ortiz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

A knock at the door … and within moments three kids are whisked out of their home. They are lucky to bring a suitcase, pillow or teddy bear as they are ushered into the back seat of a stranger’s car. Sometimes the experience is a nightmare, other times a blessing in disguise.

The national Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA program, founded in 1977, allows judges to appoint special case workers to complex cases of abused or neglected kids. The purpose is to ensure that no one gets lost in the system of foster care, switching schools, changing homes, and swiftly transitioning dynamics. Nationally, more than 75,000 volunteers have given voice to 240,000 abused and neglected children in the family court system. Some states refer to the advocates as guardian ad litem (GAL), identifying the person assigned to represent the minor throughout legal proceedings.


According to Ulster County CASA, almost 6000 Ulster County children live in poverty. Over 800 were abused or neglected in the last year. Some 150 are in foster care. Currently, 18 Ulster County CASA volunteers can be assigned to cases in which the judge foresees that the necessary direction is not apparent, or in which the cases are more complex.

CASA’s newly appointed full-time director Richard Heyl de Ortiz explained, “Experience is telling us that this reality, which causes great stress for families and children, is on the rise.” Heyl de Ortiz was an advocate volunteer from 2002 to 2004 and served as CASA’s co-director from 2005 to early 2008. Heyl de Ortiz and his partner are also parents to John Paul, a child formerly assigned to CASA, whom the couple adopted in 2003.

Ulster County CASA began as a grassroots effort led by members of Ulster’s Junior League and the local judiciary, and was incorporated as Court Appointed Special Advocates of Ulster County, Inc. in 1989.

Doris Soldner of Kingston, an original member who brought her professional Texas-based CASA training to Ulster County, explained its necessity in Ulster. “[Department of Social Services] was floating along and letting the parents do as they wanted,” said Soldner. “[DSS] might complain about it, but do nothing about it. They dragged it on saying that they wanted the parent to do A-B-C, and the parent would not cooperate, and then return the next month only to be told the same thing. This was much due to the in-action of the caseworker.”


A time to cast away stones

What constitutes removal from a home? Robert Rodriguez, commissioner for the Department of Social Services, explained that a variety of circumstances require mitigation. “When a child is determined to be at risk — and risk can mean many things, from their environment to their parents’ behavior to neglect.” Rodriguez said that one of the most unfortunate issues CASA workers face is the restriction of information without a family court order thanks to a 2005 New York court ruling. “The problem is that the ruling was so ambiguously worded that it’s been interpreted differently in nearly every county,” explained Heyl de Ortiz. “As was confirmed for me at the statewide CASA meeting I attended this week in Syracuse, every county has interpreted this decision and responded to it in a different way.”

CASA continues to have the faith and support of the state unified court system. “Here in Ulster County, with the change in the leadership of CASA and with a confluence of other events, officials at the Department of Social Services have reached out to us to begin a conversation about more meaningful ways to collaborate for the benefit of the children we both serve,” said Heyl de Ortiz. “It is the right thing to do,… and I am hopeful that we find a way to make this happen.”

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which mandates that a guardian ad litem (GAL) must be appointed in any case alleging child abuse or neglect, was reauthorized. The bill specifies that CASA volunteers are qualified and trained to serve as GALs. The legislation also notes the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse, calling for the adoption of procedures aimed at “enhancing the safety both of children and the victims of domestic violence.” Other provisions call for collaboration between child protective services and domestic violence services — a well-supported point that sometimes falls short of success.

Ulster CASA has an average case load between 30 to 60 kids. Ulster County CASA currently advocates for the rights of 16 families, amounting to 30 kids (many of the kids are siblings). CASA advocates typically handle only one family for whom they advocate throughout the entire removal process, until they’re ultimately placed in a permanent home.

Some kids require CASA’s monitoring services for years. One of CASA’s most critical tasks is to write detailed reports based on all gathered data, interviews and observations. In which recommendations, concerns and considerations are documented. In addition to interviewing those with impact in the child’s life, ranging from teachers to foster siblings to the dentist, a CASA volunteer is trained to function as an observer without rendering judgment. The job is to note interactions, behaviors, attitudes and relationships to create a clear picture of the child’s life for the courts to use in their final determinations.


A time to gather stones together

Advocates Peggy Ploss of Kingston and Donna Marie Ragonese of Kerhonksen are CASA volunteers advocating for kids removed from perilous situations. Ploss, a former elementary school teacher, said that she was assigned to advocate for six-, seven- and nine-year-old siblings removed from their single mother and placed at early ages in foster care in 2008. She stayed with their case for years. Ploss would go to the foster home and observe. The foster mother allowed her to do so. Her ability to do so is not yet a right. “I just went to the house to play,” Ploss said. “That’s all they knew me as.”

Ploss would bring toys and props with her for the kids, who were only too happy to have new toys in hand. The difficult case was resolved at an emotional permanency hearing in which the mother shocked everyone, including her own children, by surrendering her children to the state and terminating her parental rights. The father, who is incarcerated, was videoed into the proceedings but was powerless to participate.

There is no special background required to be a CASA volunteer, and the training is thorough. Ragonese described part of her job as, “looking at the lay of the land to understand the child’s environment and determine the most pressing issues for the children.”

Among other emotional issues, Heyl de Ortiz pointed out, kids in foster care often become hyper-vigilant and guarded around adults. But the volunteers are well-trained for the challenges of the task. Monthly support meetings discuss cases and the often accompanying emotions.

“CASA volunteers bring a human perspective, which is that there’s a child in the center of all this,” Heyl de Ortiz explained. The kids often experience a rolling landscape of ever-shifting homesteads, schools, caseworker names and faces, family mates and friends.

Many CASA workers will often advocate to keep the children in the same school district, contribute at school special-education service meetings (individualized education plans), regularly visit the child’s group home, and more. For CASA workers with older kids, preparing the child for independence becomes a central focal point. In New York State, a child may opt out of the foster care system at age 18, or may choose to remain in the system until the age of 21. The availability to return to the foster care system for a child between the age of 18 to 21 is only available on two occasions, after which the child is denied.

Haiti native Bernadette Dorsainzille has three foster children and five adopted children between ages three and 20 years old. Dorsainzille, a nurse who managed to buy a twelve-room home in Kingston by working three jobs while putting herself through nursing school, has been working for more than 18 years with the developmentally disabled. ‘I’ve always taken care of people — that’s what I love to do,” said Dorsainzille. She cites patience, understanding and unwavering commitment as key elements to her family’s success. “God doesn’t give up on us,” she said. “I have my children that put me through a lot, and I didn’t give up on them, just like God never gave up on me. Almost all of my children have a disability or delay .… I always look for the best in everyone. I don’t go to the negative.”


An environment of comfort, stability and consistency is essential for kids who’ve endured the traumas of the foster-care system and abusive or neglectful homes. Dorsainzille prioritizes family dinners, family vacations, family game nights, gardening, family meetings, cooking, Sunday church and family bowling outings. “I am on a mission from God, it’s my calling,” she added. “This is how I give back to this country. These kids didn’t ask to be here. It’s not fair.”

Both Ploss and Ragonese dealt with Dorsainzille as a foster mother for their CASA cases, and were so impressed with her that they submitted recommendations for the national award she won for foster parenting through the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

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