If you talk to Pat Neal long enough -- say, five or 10 minutes -- you'll likely find yourself being recruited by her to become a CASA.
"People see me coming and say, `Oh no, here she is again,'" Neal says. She's been a CASA -- or Court Appointed Special Advocate -- for about a year and is an outspoken proponent of the program.
"Nothing touches your heart more than helping a child, and helping a child who's been abused or neglected will affect you in ways you'd never expect," she says.
Neal is one of 13 CASAs with the Columbia Gorge CASA program, which is administered by The Next Door, Inc. It encompasses Hood River and Wasco counties and is the local component of a national association operating in nearly 800 communities across the country.
CASA trains community volunteers to advocate in court on behalf of children who are victims of abuse and neglect. The program was launched 25 years ago by a Seattle judge who felt that he needed more -- and different -- input in cases where a child's long-term welfare was being decided. He came up with the idea of training volunteers to become involved in the case on behalf of the child -- to become the child's voice in court.
"The CASA is there to advocate only for the child," says Carol Rodrick, program manager for Columbia Gorge CASA. "They're a layperson, an `everyperson' voice on what's in the best interest of the child."
A judge can choose to assign a CASA to a child abuse/neglect case if he or she feels the case would benefit from it, according to Rodrick. The CASA becomes a legal party to the case, and is given access to all relevant court documents and agency reports pertaining to it.
In most cases, the child involved has been placed in foster care while the case proceeds through the months-long judicial process. It's the CASA's role during this time to, as Rodrick says, "find out what's really going on."
"They go on a fact finding mission," she says. "They talk to anyone who will talk to them. It's often like a ball of string unraveling." The CASA meets with the child, family members, neighbors, teachers -- anyone who might offer information about the child's everyday life that may not otherwise come to light. The CASA then writes a report to present to the judge which contains information the CASA believes might be relevant to the case, and any concerns and recommendations he or she has.
After the initial report the CASA acts as a sort of watch-dog on the case in between hearings, staying in touch with the child and family and bringing any changes or concerns to the attention of the judge.
Families who are involved in abuse and neglect cases are often "mad at everyone," says Rodrick. But because CASAs are independent -- not a legal entity or party to any of the myriad agencies involved -- families are often more willing to open up to them.
"They're not threatening," Rodrick says.
When Neal is assigned to a case, she initiates a meeting with the child and the family and explains her role.
"I say, `I'm here as your voice in court. What do you want to tell the judge?'"
Neal says families often give her a list of people to talk to. If they don't, she has her own protocol for investigating.
"I think it's really important to talk to teachers," Neal says. "And, often, neighbors will share things that you might not get from others."
Neal can put anything she feels is relevant into her report. Unlike lawyers, she's not restricted by legalities like hearsay and inadmissible evidence.
"I can say, `The teacher told me this or the neighbor said that'," Neal says. CASAs have no decision-making authority, but the reports are entered as part of the record.
Judge Paul Crowley takes the CASA reports very seriously.
"(The CASA) brings a fresh pair of eyes into the courtroom and into the juvenile justice system," says Crowley, who is in charge of authorizing the Columbia Gorge CASA program.
"They're able to gather information that other professionals involved can't, so they present an additional perspective." Crowley is presiding judge for the judicial district that includes Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam and Wheeler counties.
Neal knows the judges take her role seriously; one time when her report didn't get into the judge's hands before a court hearing, he halted the proceedings while a clerk brought him a copy and he read it before continuing.
Neal says one of the hardest parts of being a CASA is that, after completing her investigation, she can't always make the recommendation that the child wants.
"That's hard, especially for the older kids," she says. But she gets satisfaction in knowing she's made a difference in the lives of some children -- that she's helped to ensure they're in a safe environment.
So Neal remains on a mission to recruit more CASAs, but she's up front about the commitment involved.
"It's a great program and CASA can sure use you," she tells potential volunteers. "But you don't want to be another person who comes into a child's life and is gone again."