A folder in her lap is the only obvious sign of her official business in a Toledo living room as 67-year-old Evelyn Fralick sits and talks at eye level with a grandmother who wants to adopt her own granddaughter.
They discuss the bright-eyed girl's day care, school plans, penchant for jewelry and dresses, and upcoming court hearings. The girl was removed from her mother's home because of neglect: she was malnourished, left alone for hours at a time with her young siblings, and had little personal hygiene.
Close enough to participate in that conversation if she wants to, Mrs. Fralick's daughter, Sharon Bower, 43, sits a little lower on another couch. There, she's closer to the 5-year-old girl. They play with the girl's firefly collection and talk about a recent trip to the zoo.
From each chair, from each perspective, from each of their hearts, Mrs. Fralick and Mrs. Bower are in this living room and many others as part of their volunteer efforts as court-appointed special advocates for children in Lucas County Family Court.
Nicknamed “CASAs,” they represent children in the protective service, foster care, and justice systems while their cases are resolved by family reunification, permanent foster care, or adoption.
CASAs come from all walks of life: they represent many different careers, age groups, and races as they work with children's interests. CASAs make a two-year commitment and spend hundreds of hours per case, as they help the courts make decisions about children's custody, placement, and needed services.
To do this, they talk with the parents, custodians, relatives, social workers, counselors, school officials, medical providers, employers, neighbors, and others who know about the child and parents.
They meet with the child and review piles of documents and records.
They monitor developments in the case, investigate potential guardians and family members, and prepare reports for the judges who make final decisions for the children's lives.
“In the beginning it was awful,” said the grandmother of the 5-year-old girl, who met Mrs. Fralick and Mrs. Bower after she began seeking custody of her grand
daughter. “My whole life was just opened up. At first I was scared for her to fall down because of what they'd think.”
But now she credits the duo with immeasurable assistance - helping to get clothing and toys, finding day care, and navigating the court system - as she becomes a parent again, and her granddaughter's behavior, health, and emotional well-being improve. “Any time I've asked for anything, they're right there to do it,” she said.
Mrs. Fralick and Mrs. Bower usually have about three cases at a time. Most CASAs are limited to one or two children because of the intensity of the work.
“It's getting to know that child so well that you really know what's best for that child,” said Carol Kunkle, the CASA director in Lucas County. “The end result is usually better for a child.”
Volunteers must be 21 or older years old, and must complete three weeks of training that includes lunch-hour sessions and day-long programs on Saturdays. Topics covered include advocacy techniques, cultural awareness and sensitivity, early childhood development, sexual abuse of children, and courtroom procedure.
Mrs. Fralick and Mrs. Bower are two of 131 unpaid volunteers - and the only mother-daughter team - currently working with the CASA program in Lucas County.
“Because they have a passion for kids and they really care, they go to bat for these kids,” said Judy Udell, the CASA training and recruitment coordinator in Lucas County. “They're both very soft-spoken, but because they believe in what they are advocating for, they're very powerful.”
More than 900 CASA programs exist in the United States, with about 90,000 volunteers who work with about 220,000 children annually, said Jim Clune, spokesman for the National CASA Association, based in Seattle.
Retired Judge Andy Devine started the Lucas County program in 1980.
“It gives the court another perspective, another view. Naturally we are exposed to the [Children Services], naturally we are exposed to the lawyers for the parents. Obviously those lawyers have a special interest in mind. They want to please the mother, the father, the board,” said Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Flores.
“The CASA, they are not there to please the parents or the board. They are there to argue what they believe to be in the best interest of the child.”
Attorneys represent the children in the most troubling custody and abuse cases, but CASAs also work on about 40 percent of Lucas County cases, Ms. Kunkle said.
Children Services caseworkers are involved, but they represent the entire family in most cases, she said, while CASAs solely represent the child.
This can lead to occasional head-butting with others in the courtroom. “They're watch-dogging us to make sure we're doing what we ought to be doing,” said Dean Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children Services. “Sometimes they agree with us, and sometimes they don't. The more input we can get about what's best for a particular child, the better the outcome is going to be.”
Judge Flores said he accepts the CASA's recommendation in “a majority” of the cases, but has other perspectives to respect.
“It isn't that we don't put faith in what they say. It's just that we weigh what they say and it's what the law requires us to do,” he said.
Mrs. Fralick and Mrs. Bower haven't had a disagreement with a judge. The judicial resolutions for their 15 cases since they began volunteering in 1996 have followed their recommendations.
Mrs. Fralick's greatest frustrations come from disagreements between the different parties and parents who don't show up for hearings.
“A lot of times in the beginning, we're not in agreement with the caseworker, but most of the time that all works out and in the end, we sit down and we all are in agreement,” she said.
She and her daughter are known for their dedication to their volunteer jobs and their thoroughness in investigating and preparing reports. Both continue their work despite health challenges of their own: Mrs. Fralick has undergone hip replacement, and Mrs. Bower had a kidney transplant.
But working as a team keeps one in the loop of the case when the other is busy with other family commitments.
Ms. Kunkle said their mother-daughter, partner-partner dynamic helps when they debate recommendations for a child before appearing at a formal hearing.
“When they come into the courtroom, they have to have one voice. They can't come in differently. They have to have one recommendation,” she said.
Mrs. Bower and Mrs. Fralick grin when they talk about how their perspectives sometime differ: Should a child be returned to biological parents? Should the child stay longer with a grandparent? How closely should visits be supervised?
They finish each other's sentences when they discuss how their relationship works in their CASA roles.
“A lot of times we play off that,” Mrs. Fralick said as Mrs. Bower cut in with, “It helps us look at it differently.”
They credit their dedication to a belief in the program and a desire to help.
“You want to make everything perfect for these kids, and over time you realize that's not going to happen,” Mrs. Fralick said. “So you do the best you can.”
People interested in becoming CASA volunteers may call 213-6753. A meeting on the program will be held at 5 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Reynolds Corners branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.