Volunteers help foster children in family court
Traverse City — Brenda Knaack has been retired for years, but the time she spends volunteering for Grand Traverse County Probate and Family Court rivals that of a full-time job.
Knaack is one of roughly 50 local court appointed special advocates charged with voicing the foster child’s best interest in family court. It’s her job to be the judge’s eyes and ears for one case at a time, a time commitment of several hours per week that typically lasts upward of a year.
Her docket for the week ahead offers a glimpse at how thorough — and demanding — the volunteer work can be. Knaack listed off meetings she’s had already had with the foster children, their biological parents and caseworkers.
Later that day, she would talk with the children’s therapist, followed by an appointment with their school to meet the children’s teachers and social worker. She’d wrap up the week Thursday with another family meeting.
“It’s such a huge added perspective to get the bigger picture with what’s going on in these cases,” said Lindsey Jordan, who directs Grand Traverse County’s division of the national volunteer program. “Judges read their reports page for page when they make these very difficult decisions of where to place a child.”
Court appointed special advocates are expected to devote at least 12 hours per month to their case, along with weekly visits to the children, Jordan said. Knaack’s work on her case goes well beyond that, but she doesn’t mind.
“I don’t think I’ve had a month yet where I’ve only done 12 hours,” said Knaack of the two years she’s volunteered with CASA. “Even when I’m on vacation, I do more than 12 hours just in emails and phone calls.”
She joined the program in search of a full-time commitment to feel useful, and the long hours spent advocating for foster children have done just that. Though Knaack wouldn’t call her duties “fun,” it’s rewarding.
“I feel like I have a purpose,” she said. “I feel useful to the well-being of these children.”
Jordan hopes to recruit more volunteers like Knaack to CASA in Grand Traverse County this year. Court-appointed advocates must pass background checks, interviews and five weeks of training. This year’s training started April 11.
After training, volunteers are matched based on location and availability with one case at a time that typically lasts between 12-18 months, Jordan said. During that time they meet with the children and observe interactions with parents, attorneys, caseworkers, therapists, teachers or others involved in the case.
“They attend court hearings, reporting their observations to the judge, and there’s a possibility of testifying during hearings or trials,” Jordan said.
The program requires no specific career or education to join, only an open mind and schedule.
“We’re really looking for volunteers who have the desire to give their time to children and can be dedicated to the commitment,” Jordan said. “The best person is willing to soak up the information and open their hearts to what could be a very trying year of their life.”
Knaack, whose first case finished recently after 20 months, admitted the work could be difficult. She, like many volunteers, struggled to leave her own emotions out of an unbiased voice for the child’s best interest.
“What’s best for these kids is all that matters,” Knaack said. “The most stressful part was just wondering if the situation would be viewed how I was hoping it would.”
It was also hard for Knaack to let go after the case ended, after growing attached to the children over the last 20 months.
“It’s hard to to just walk away,” she said. “You want these kids to be happy and thriving, so it makes you want to watch to make sure that’s happening.”
But Knaack said the difficult goodbyes are well worth being able to watch the children progress and develop with the court’s help. She is firmly invested in the program and has no plans to stop volunteering herself for cases.
“Maybe at some point I’ll get burned out, but I don’t see that being any time in the foreseeable future,” she said.