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Bar News - July 18, 2008

Legal Connections Helpful, Not Necessary, for CASA Volunteering


Certified court stenographer Sam Gray has spent some time during the past few years practicing ballet with a five-year-old. Attorney Michael Bourgault, vice president of compliance for the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation, has tossed a football around while getting to know a family of five children. Attorney Wright Danenbarger, a former senior partner currently associated with Wiggin & Nourie, has been delighted to participate in spirited political discussions with two teenage girls.

All three men have taken great satisfaction in getting to know children involved in abuse and neglect cases as part of their work as volunteers for CASA of NH.

CASA of NH is a private, nonprofit organization that trains volunteers to be CASA Guardians ad litem (CASA/GALs) to advocate in New Hampshireís courts for the best interests of abused and neglected children. The CASA/GALís role in abuse and neglect proceedings is to present the court with a unique "child-centered" perspective regarding what is in the best interests of the child.

To prepare their recommendations, a CASA volunteer talks with the child, as well as with parents, family members, teachers, social workers and others involved in the childís life. Most importantly, a CASA volunteer visits with the child at least once a month in order to gain an understanding of his or her situation.

"Volunteering with CASA has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had," comments Sam Gray. "Iím very accustomed to being in court, but Iíve never before left the courtroom with such a tremendous feeling that I have really helped somebody."

According to Marjorie Waters, training and recruitment coordinator for CASA of NH, CASA/GALs currently serve 70 percent of the children in abuse and neglect cases throughout the state. The organization would like to serve 100 percent of the children who need assistance by increasing the number of its volunteers, particularly male volunteers.

"Male advocates can be particularly important for children who lack positive male role models in their lives," explains Waters. She also sees value in having a volunteer force that reflects the fact that 50 percent of the children that CASA serves are male. "Abuse and neglect is a human problem that merits attention from men as well as women," she says.

In January 2008, a group of men currently involved with CASA of NH came together to spearhead a volunteer recruitment campaign called "100 Men for 100 Children," with the goal of increasing the percentage of male CASA volunteers from its current level of 25 percent to 50 percent of active volunteers.

Gray, Bourgault and Danenbarger are active on the Legal Connections Committee of the campaign. They feel that attorneys and other legal professionals are ideal candidates to serve as CASA volunteers. "You donít need to have a background in legal matters or experience in a courtroom, but it is probably less intimidating if you do," says Danenbarger.

Bourgault has found that his work with CASA enables him to stay connected with attorneys and gain courtroom experience, despite a career far away from the courtroom at the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation. "The most important thing is that you help a child in abuse and neglect cases, but there are also lots of personal benefits," he says. Bourgault has relished learning about abuse and neglect law, meeting attorneys practicing in this area, finding out about social service agencies and working with judges and other attorneys in the courtroom. "You are doing a good thing while really benefiting from the experience," he comments.

Although both Gray and Danenbarger work part-time, Bourgault combines his volunteer work with a full-time work schedule. Approximately 70 percent of CASA of NH volunteers work full-time, often juggling a job, family and multiple volunteer commitments.

"Everyone assumes that being a CASA volunteer is really time-consuming, but itís not," comments Sam Gray.

Volunteers must complete 40 hours of pre-service training and commit to stay involved in a case from start to finish, which could take 18 to 24 months. A typical volunteer spends 10-15 hours per month meeting with the child or children involved in a case, filing reports or presenting information in the courtroom.

"Iíve served on a lot of boards and done volunteer work, but I wanted something more hands-on," said Danenbarger. "With CASA, youíre doing real work thatís really making a difference in someoneís life."

For more information about CASA of NH and the "100 Men for 100 Children" initiative, please call CASA at 800-626-0622 or 603-626-4600, or visit

Wendy Ducharme is a free-lance writer from Candia. Her writing services were contributed pro bono.

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