With More Parents Struggling With Addiction, CASA Faces Volunteer Shortage

Jun 3, 2016

Credit Joe Gratz / Flickr Creative Commons

The drug crisis is taking a toll on New Hampshire’s families, as more and more parents accused of abuse or neglect are dealing with addiction issues.

Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire, or CASA, says nearly 70 percent of its cases last year involved families affected by substance abuse. Many of those cases involved parents addicted to heroin and opioids.

CASA volunteers advocate for abused or neglected children in the court system. Jennifer Westover of Concord is one of those volunteers; she’s worked on two cases that involved parents struggling with drug addiction.

She spoke to NHPR's Morning Edition about her role in those cases.

How did you get involved with CASA? 

I have worked in the court system before and worked for an administrative judge in the past, so I’m familiar working with the public when they’re not in the best times of their lives. About four or five years ago, I decided that I was not going to work and I was looking for something to do. I was looking for something that was rewarding and would give back to the community, but I also wanted a challenge.

What do you generally do with these children and these families? What’s your role on a daily basis?

My objective is to get in there and really see what’s going on so I can tell the judge. DCYF is also doing this, hand in hand. I give my perspective on how they’re interacting with their child.

They want you as another set of eyes.

Right. When I’m writing my report, I’m thinking if I was that child, what would I want to tell the judge about my parents. I want them to straighten up and fly right and take care of me, but I have to go into specifics, whether they’ve attended all their counseling meetings or if they’ve had negative drug screens. Or they didn’t, or they got arrested. I’m telling my story from what I’ve gleaned, going to the home and visiting them. We have meetings where we go to where everybody comes to the table and talks about their progress.

As an addict, she just wasn't making the right choices. Her child was not the most important thing in her life. That was kind of forgotten.

  And you’ve volunteered on two recent cases that involved parents struggling with addiction. What’s your role in those types of cases?

Initially when you get started on the case, it seems like they’re not really present. They’re more concerned about getting their next hit. They generally don’t know understand who I am for awhile. They just know that I’m always there and I tend to focus on cheerleading them, to encourage them to hopefully make the right choices.

In one case, I got to watch a parent change and fight her addiction and win and become a totally different person in the end, a wonderful person, not that she wasn’t as an addict, she just wasn’t making the right choices. Her child was not the most important thing in her life. That was kind of forgotten. I wasn’t sure it was going to have a nice outcome, it wasn’t clear from the beginning that they were going to succeed in addiction recovery. But then you see them change over a period of months. They start looking at you in the eye. It’s a gradual process. They may screw up, but in the end it was very rewarding.

At the very end, to have the parent come up to me after it was all said and done, after she was reunified with her child, to come up to me and the DCYF worker and talk normally, talk about the kid, talk about what’s going on, it was wonderful. Such a different person from when we began the case.

Map: Click on each county to see how many of CASA's cases involved substance abuse in 2015.

For a better experience on Mobile, turn your devices sideways. (Data courtesy CASA of NH)

Are there differences in the cases you’ve see when it comes to addiction?

I’ve been involved in a case where there was a family involved outside of the parents, and one where there was no family involved. And it was a radically different outcome. Having the family involved, being there every day. We’re not able to be there every day to prod the parent to make the right choices. The family being involved and giving them rides, getting them to the doctor, made a remarkable difference in my eyes. The one case where the family wasn’t involved in ended in termination of both parents’ rights. The kids were adopted, which turned out happily for them since I’m pleased with where they are, but it’s also very sad that they’re not with their parents and their parents didn’t succeed.

Through the cases you’ve seen, what do you take away? Is there anything you’ve learned about addiction?

Jennifer Westover

  Just that it’s really sad when someone becomes an addict. It’s just sad they ever introduced that into their lives for whatever reason. I’ve learned that some people become addicts because they’re self-medicating. Being involved with someone who’s an addict and then seeing them change into someone whose perspective isn’t for the drug definitely changed. In my private life, I’ve never been involved with someone who’s an addict, so it was very eye opening. I have to mention that CASA is wonderful about giving us education. It’s been a learning process for me. I’m exposed to people who are addicts, along with being required to get continuing education every year. I’ve focused in on drug abuse because that’s what my cases were about.

You’ve gone through two cases in a period of four years. There must be a huge need.

Yes, there are not enough CASAs at this point to cover all the cases in the state of New Hampshire. There’s a very big need for people to become CASA volunteers. I think people would really enjoy the experience. It’s a challenge, but very rewarding as well.