Advocate group Piedmont CASA bridges the gap between kids and courts

Kiara Miller spent most of her childhood in
and out of foster care, and said the only con-
sistent adult in her life was a volunteer from Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates. Photo: Elli Williams Kiara Miller spent most of her childhood in and out of foster care, and said the only con- sistent adult in her life was a volunteer from Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates. Photo: Elli Williams

Kiara Miller was taken from her mom’s home when she was 3 years old, and spent the next 15 years in and out of foster care, group homes, and courtrooms. She had a revolving door of adults coming and going from her life as a child, and said she struggles with authority to this day as a result. At age 18, after a lifetime in the system, it hit her that she’d have to start fending for herself. Now living on her own at age 23, Miller juggles two jobs with a full class load at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“You can easily lose yourself, because you’re so used to everyone else telling you how to do things,” Miller said, reflecting on her years in the system.

Miller said she rarely got along with parents, teachers, or social workers, and felt consistently let down by adults. The one person who stuck it out from start to finish was Francesca Gothie Diggs, her Piedmont CASA worker.

Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is the local branch of a national nonprofit that provides trained volunteers to advocate in court on behalf of abused and neglected children. CASA workers often spend about 15 hours per month* with a child, and are tasked with providing objective information and insight that can help inform a judge’s decision-making process.

“A child in the system can have a small army of well-intentioned adults as part of her life,” said Piedmont CASA President Alicia Lenahan. “But the CASA volunteer is the one person who can focus exclusively on that child.”

Miller met her CASA worker shortly before her ninth birthday, at which point she said she’d “already been kicked out of every elementary school in Charlottesville.” Diagnosed early on with ADHD, Miller said she simply couldn’t sit still, and often bolted out of the classroom to run laps around the school.

“They should’ve stopped feeding me Cocoa Puffs in the morning,” Miller said with a chuckle. “I just had to release all that energy.”

Her inability to focus was heightened by intense anger management issues, and Miller is the first to admit that she didn’t exactly welcome Diggs with open arms. The second youngest of five, Miller has been fiercely independent and skeptical of authority since early childhood, and said it took a couple years to really warm up to Diggs. The two didn’t always see eye to eye, but Miller said she appreciated the fact that Diggs stood by her, and was unfailingly constant, honest, and fair.

“I responded better to people who were consistent,” Miller said. “I didn’t respect people who would just try to make me feel better in the moment.”

Piedmont CASA, which opened in 1995 and is funded almost entirely by private donors and federal grants, served more than 200 children with 123 volunteers in 2012, and staff say demand for volunteers is constantly outgrowing the case load.

Charlottesville Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Edward DeJ. Berry, who handles cases like Miller’s in the city and surrounding counties, described CASA workers and their contributions in the courtroom as “invaluable.”

“They are essentially the eyes and ears of the court,” Berry said.

Because social workers already have their plates piled high and the pool of local guardian ad litems (GALs) to pull from is small, Berry said it can be difficult to stay on top of things like medical records, school meetings, and doctor’s appointments. That’s where CASA workers come in, and Berry said they’re often the ones with the most recent and accurate information.

“While we in the courts—social workers and attorneys—may get caught up in the system and procedures, the CASA worker is there to center us for the benefit of the specific child,” Berry said.

Lenahan said consistency is the key to the program’s success, and volunteers are expected to see a child through the entire court process, the duration of which is usually around 18 months. Most kids who enter the court system under abuse and neglect allegations are constantly given up on by adults, she said, and they have little to no stability in their lives. From start to finish, Lenahan said Miller alone went through seven social workers.

Francesca Diggs, who has three kids of her own and recently moved to New Hampshire but keeps in close contact with Miller, said she appeared in court with Miller at least twice a year for nearly 10 years.

“There were days when I didn’t know if we were going to get her through,” Diggs said. “But my job was to give her a voice, and now she is truly an inspirational woman.”

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that CASA volunteers spend upwards of 30 hours per week with a child. Formal training takes 30 hours.