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Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southern Maryland are the voice of the nearly 100 abused and neglected children in Calvert County involved in foster care and the juvenile court system. It was no surprise that their main concern expressed during a Wednesday night discussion was how to make the entire process as easy, smooth and painless as possible for the children and foster families involved.

CASA volunteers are tasked with providing the court with an objective opinion about what is in the best interest of the child. According to the program website, the volunteer develops a one-on-one relationship with the child; facilitates communication between the court and individuals with the child to ensure all parties fulfill their obligations to the child; and monitors court orders to ensure compliance.

Hala Bizzarro, with Center for Children and supervisor of CASA of Southern Maryland for Calvert County, said CASA of Southern Maryland began with a request from St. Mary’s County Circuit Court Master F. Michael Harris in 1997. The program expanded to include Charles County in 2004, when the name was changed to CASA of Southern Maryland, and Calvert County in 2007.

Recently, Judge E. Gregory Wells was appointed to the Calvert County Circuit Court, where he took over the Children in Need of Assistance docket, Bizzarro said. Because of this, she said CASA volunteers felt the need to meet with him to discuss any concerns they may have with the court process.

“I’ve done a lot of different dockets. This one … is the most challenging,” Wells said to the volunteers. “I was interested in what the court can do to help you guys do a more effective job.”

Krista DiGeorge said, as a CASA volunteer, she has noticed many of the cases involve small children, and some of their cases scheduled for 8:30 a.m. have not been heard until 4 p.m. that same day. DiGeorge asked Wells if there was a way to arrange the docket schedule so the children are not sitting and waiting in the courtroom all day.

“It’s hard for me because I work, and I was there [one day] the whole day … but I’m able to get up and leave and go get a soda,” DiGeorge said. “But these small children, that’s what I was really concerned about.”

“I’ve talked to the new [Department of Social Services] attorney about that very thing,” Wells said. “Rather than come in at 8:30 and stay, maybe we can schedule case No. 1 … at 9 o’clock and then stagger the arrival times of these folks. I agree with you; we just don’t have the space to keep small kids entertained, quiet, so the rest of the courthouse can do its business.”

Wells said sometimes cases are delayed because there are so many “players” involved, such as the DSS attorney, the parents’ attorney and the child’s attorney, who all have different interests at heart.

“I can tell you that the case load has grown. … I’ve just taken over this docket, but I can remember CINA [having] maybe two or three cases. Now we’ve got a lot more than that,” he said. “My focus is on saying we’ve got to have a schedule that everybody knows and we’ve got to adhere to that.”

Calvert County Circuit Court Family Services coordinator Rose Naughton said she has heard positive feedback from people about the implementation of settlement conferences the Friday before a Monday court date, which was started “in hopes it would help streamline the docket Monday.”

Wells said he has heard much of the same, but sometimes it is hard for working parents and foster parents who have to show up both Friday and Monday.

CASA volunteer Stephanie Sprayberry said her main struggle is “setting the expectations” with the foster parents. She said if a case is headed toward the foster parents adopting the child, they have a certain expectation that it will be a quick process.

Amy Wynkoop, also a CASA volunteer, said reunification with the biological parents is “always the objective,” so if a parent does “well for a while,” it can hold up the adoption process with the foster parents.

“I think it’s a concern or a need or desire to give the parents every possible chance or avenue to demonstrate that they are capable of taking care of their children,” Wells said, which can sometimes stretch out the process.

Wells suggested being straightforward with the parents and letting them know “it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon, and they should be prepared for the longer haul than just a quick resolution.”

Naughton said a way to help foster parents understand the benefit of this is to let them know that the more time spent “on the front end,” the less of a risk there is of an appeal after the case is resolved.

Wells commended the CASA volunteers for the “great job” they do on a volunteer basis.

“You take time out of work, you have to go through training, you don’t get paid, but the rewards are that you do, you really do, make a difference in so many lives,” he said. “Thank you for all of the hard work that you do. … It’s tough, but we need you.”

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com