Melanie Williams pulls up to a group home, walks through the door, begins to say “hi” and is greeted with hugs and giggles. All of the children vie for her attention, but only one lucky 12-year-old girl gets to go for a picnic that day. This little girl, one of more than 25,000 children in the foster care system of Los Angeles, is fortunate enough to have a Court Appointed Special Advocate, the role Williams assumes outside her duties at California State University, Northridge.
After a lifetime of work as an attorney and a business law professor, Williams chose to expand her work to children who have been thrust into the legal sway of family turmoil and foster homes. Her endeavor as a CASA over the last four years has provided Williams insight into the legal system that none of her academic training had addressed. It has enhanced her love of and devotion to volunteerism and helping others
Williams is chair of the Department of Business Law at CSUN and a professor of undergraduate and graduate level courses. Her research highlights antitrust law, intellectual property, small business programs and pedagogy. She is a practicing attorney in civil litigation, business matters and intellectual property.
However, she spends her free time as a volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles, a public-private nonprofit organization that mobilizes community volunteers to advocate on behalf of abused and neglected children in the foster care system. According to CASA, more than 800 children are entered into the Dependency Court system monthly, making Los Angeles home to one of the largest foster care populations in the country. CASA Los Angeles works with the city’s foster care and court system to assist children in foster care.
“The idea [behind CASA] is to provide volunteers who could help mentor children in foster care and be an advocate in the same way a parent would be if they were around,” Williams said.
Volunteers are trained by the organization in various Dependency Court concerns. Though Williams has legal training, she noted that what she learned through CASA was vital to understanding her role and duties as a volunteer with the program. As a court-appointed volunteer, Williams commits at least five hours a week to an individual child’s case, including spending time with the child in her care.
Because there are so few CASAs, they are normally assigned to those children in situations involving the family and considered at “highest risk.”
“Children can really have their lives turned around,” Williams said. “They have the least power, and they need the most help.”
Having grown up with a mother dedicated to social work, Williams was no stranger to the needs of children in the system. It was the idea of working directly with these kids that sparked Williams’ interest in becoming a CASA. She first learned about CASA as the “point-person” for the All Saints Church Foster Care Project. The project recruits and sustains volunteers who serve in public and private agencies or work on special projects designed to enhance the lives of foster, homeless, transitional, and incarcerated children and youth.
Williams has completed the two-year commitment required by the organization and is working on her fourth case. Each of her cases has taken about a year, all ending in the successful reunion of the children with their families. She hopes her current client will continue this track record and end up in the care of her grandparents.
“Being a mother helped more than being an attorney,” said Williams, the mother of three adult children.
Williams hopes to continue to volunteer with CASA. She has expanded her work to serve as a “peer mentor” to other volunteers in CASA Los Angeles. She enjoys her time with each case, always doing more than asked, even sending weekly post cards to the child she works with to remind them that they are important.
“The difference [to these kids] is that I’m a volunteer,” she said. “I’m not in it for the business; there’s no money, no obligation. I just care.”