Eugenia Waters, retired after 30 years as a D.C. social worker, said she wanted to stay active and continue doing what she had always enjoyed.
"I enjoy helping people," said Waters, 59, of Silver Spring, who retired in 1980. "Especially young people."
In late 1986, she said, she learned about CASA, the Court Appointed Special Advocate program in Montgomery County. Waters soon became one of 50 volunteers working in behalf of children, many of them abused and neglected at home, whose immediate futures lay in the hands of the two District Court judges who preside over juvenile matters in Montgomery.
Under the nonprofit CASA program -- unique in the Washington area, but one of about 250 nationwide -- judges assign volunteers to follow the cases of neglected, abused, emotionally disturbed, delinquent or otherwise troubled youngsters who have been placed in court custody, and to recommend what steps should be taken regarding their future care.
In many such cases, judges noted, parents hire lawyers to argue their points of view, while social service agencies often base their recommendations on what would be best for everyone involved, not just for the children. Judges said they rely on CASA volunteers to present the children's points of view, to advocate only what would be best for them.
"I felt I had a great deal to give," said Waters, who was assigned by Judge John C. Tracey to the case of an abused 12-year-old girl whose father had been sentenced to prison and whose mother had been committed to a psychiatric institution. "I'm like a big sister to her. She sees me as her friend. It's a supportive kind of relationship."
Waters said one of her recommendations was that the girl be allowed to live with an adult cousin. Tracey approved.
"In some cases, the volunteers play the role of distant fact-finder, and that's all," said Paula Leibowitz, director of the Montgomery program, established in 1986 by the county section of the National Council of Jewish Women after receiving assurances from the juvenile judges that the program would be welcome. "In other cases, they'll become much more closely involved with the child, because that's what the child needs."
The program, financed by private and public grants, uses office space in Rockville provided by the county.
The effort also has attracted attention in other areas of the state. A task force in Baltimore is attempting to organize a CASA program for that city's juvenile courts, and a similar effort has started on Maryland's Eastern Shore. To encourage programs in other jurisdictions, Del. Michael R. Gordon (D-Montgomery) said he would offer a bill this year to make state grant money available.
Judge Douglas H. Moore Jr., who presides over juvenile matters in Montgomery along with Tracey, called CASA "a tremendous help." Besides serving as a child's advocate, the judges said, a volunteer assigned to one case at a time can supply detailed information that might not be available from a social worker handling several cases at once.
Because the number of juveniles under the court's jurisdiction far exceeds the number of CASA volunteers, Tracey and Moore said, they assign volunteers only to cases in which they believe such help would do the most good.
About 40 of the group's 50 volunteers were assigned to cases as of last week, devoting various amounts of time to the work, Leibowitz said. She said all attended 20-hour training sessions that included instruction by lawyers, court officials, social workers, police officers and others.
The volunteers range from a group of Georgetown University law students in their twenties to 87-year-old Dick Roberts of Rockville, a retired lawyer.
"Oh, I get so much out of it," said Dianne Ford, 31, a Wheaton homemaker assigned to the case of a 17-year-old Cambodian youth, abused and shunned by his immigrant parents for adopting an American life style. Ford said the youth, a high school student enrolled in the county Department of Social Services' Independent Living Preparation Program, lives by himself in a rented room and often turns to her for parental advice.
"I'm here to tell him everything's okay, that he's a great kid," said Ford, who reports to Judge Tracey on the youth's progress.
According to CASA's national headquarters in Seattle, the program's concept began taking shape 10 years ago. In overseeing custody matters involving neglected or abused children, David W. Soukup, then a Seattle juvenile court judge, often wanted more information about the children than he could get from busy social workers. In a recent interview, Soukup said he also saw a need for adults who would speak for the children alone.
The program he helped establish has since spread to court systems in 43 states.
As the CASA concept has caught on, its scope has broadened, according to Linda Selsor, the national organization's director.
It began with volunteers acting as independent fact-finders in cases of child abuse or neglect, Selsor said. Yet in some jurisdictions, including Montgomery, judges now call on volunteers not only to supply information to the court, but also to provide emotional support to the youngsters.
"I was assigned to the case because the kid needed someone to talk to," Ford said of the Cambodian youth. "Judge Tracey told me to help him while he finished high school, to be there, to be his friend. And I am."