The Casa/Gal Volunteer Program
Jurisdiction: Philippines

By Honorable NIMFA CUESTA VILCHES - Presiding Judge
Firm: Philippine Judges Association - Manila, Philippines

Judge Nimfa Cuesta Vilches*

In 1925, the first comprehensive court for children and families was set up in the Philippines that became the forerunner of the juvenile and domestic relations courts (JDRCs). With the passing into a law of Republic Act 8369 or the Family Courts Act in 1997, the Supreme Court designated some 78 family courts in the country to principally hear cases involving children and families.

The establishment of family courts harmonizes with the principle that children are not, as they have been traditionally perceived, "properties" of the male head of a family. Children do not fall under the category of deaf-mutes, imbecile, insane and those incapacitated to perform certain acts. Neither should children be considered as mere "short adults". In fact, children do not start to speak adult language until they are between the ages of 6-11. And, children are susceptible to either good-- or bad treatment.

After 75 years from the establishment of the first court for children, it is interesting to know what we have now? Statistics show that as of the year 2001, there were 10,749 cases involving child victims and 10,117 cases involving children in conflict with the law (CICL). A good number of children, on the other hand, find themselves testifying in court. Others are subjects of proceedings for adoption, petitions for writ of habeas corpus for their custody, declaration of nullity of marriages, and in petitions for the declaration of children as dependent, abandoned, and neglected. Many, still, are victims of child labor, trafficking and prostitution or pornography in the internet, are recruited as child soldiers, or are indigenous children who are discriminated upon.

The family court judges more or less know what their role is. They make appropriate dispositions of cases that would underpin the mandate to dispense "individualized" justice, keeping in mind that the situation of one child differs from that of another. However, the judges must first receive the information they need--- about the case and about the child.

Prosecutors, for instance, can give the court a good account of the 10,749 child victims, but the Public Attorneys Office (PAO) or defense counsel discredits them during trial on behalf of an adult offender. The PAO or defense counsels, for their part, can provide the court with a profile of the 10,117 CICL, but the prosecutor makes sure that these children are found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Social workers are few and are overworked. And to add a sad note, a handful of lawyers do consistent court work for children, and if you see one today, it is likely that you will not see counsel come back to court for the child.

Thus, while the entire legal system is well represented, nobody actually speaks up for the child.

The judicial process is too complex for children to understand. They do not know what a courthouse is, what they should do in the court and how should they understand the "big words" that people speak in the court. Besides, when their cases reach the court, they have gone through a lot of difficulties. An abused child, for instance, has been interviewed a dozen times about the same terrifying experience that he or she feels victimized each time that a narration is made. Some forms of torture are employed on CICLs to make them admit to the commission of an offense.
Child victims appearing in court fear that the defendant might jump up or yell at them. Some have been attacked by angry family members who were accused of abusing them. Mothers themselves force sexually abused daughters to withdraw cases against stepfathers or advise them to abandon their complaints. Worse, minors charged with simple criminal infractions languish in cramped detention homes or adult jails for dire lack of case processing and monitoring.

Children have rights under the Constitution, the Family Code and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Domestic laws such as the RA 7610, as amended, Presidential Decree 603, and others give protection to children. But the promotion of children's rights do not impact at all if children are not properly assisted in getting familiar with the court system and are not heard personally or through a representative during the trial.

Presidential Decree 603 (1974) on youthful offenders, Republic Act 7610 (1992) on child victims, and Art. 222 of the Family Code (1998) early on provide for the appointment of a guardian ad litem (GAL) to promote the best interests of the child. However, these laws were practically not put into use in the sphere of juvenile and family court practice.

Similar to the experience of the United States in 1972, while a guardian ad litem (GAL) may represent a child in court, it was not clear how the services of a GAL will be paid. Besides, if lawyers were to be GALs, few of them practice in the non-lucrative area of child justice.

But there was a breakthrough in the early 1970s, when a judge in Seattle, Washington, USA, involved people from the community in family court proceedings on voluntary basis. After giving the volunteers proper training to assure quality child representation, they became what is known as court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) acting as such or as GALs. In 1999, a total of 52,000 volunteers in the United States served 206,000 children lending a remarkable 6 million volunteer hours of child advocacy.

Why tap into people from the community? According to the famous African proverb, "it takes an entire village to raise a child". Hence, when the community participates in the workings of a family court, society becomes aware of its defects and somehow takes an active part in correcting them.

Child advocacy in court was much of a problem then in the United States, as it is now in the Philippines. But with the immeasurable success of the volunteer CASA/GAL program in the United States that can be replicated in the country, a determined group of judges, lawyers, and child advocates from government and non-government organization started the advocacy in the country through an awareness seminar in November 2000.

A piloting of the CASA/GAL project was done in the Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 48, with Ms. Maribel Ongpin and Regina Dy-Seng as pioneering volunteers. Their efforts consisted of visits to the Manila Youth Reception Center (MYRC) to interview detained minors, coordinate with the social workers, and find ways to put the children under literacy program when the cases against them would have been terminated.

A few days from the CASA/GAL awareness seminar in November 2000, the Supreme Court issued the landmark Rule On The Examination Of A Child Witness (RECW), effective on 15 December 2000. The RECW provides for the appointment of and clearly defines the role of a very powerful guardian ad litem (GAL). The GAL is tasked to promote the best interests of children in court --- they be victims of abuse and neglect or of a crime; alleged to have violated the law; witnesses in court; or mere subjects of family court cases.

What is "best interests of the child" that a CASA/GAL must promote? It is defined as the totality of the circumstances and conditions as are most congenial to the survival, protection and feeling of security of the child and most encouraging to his/her physical, psychological and emotional development (RECW).

The duties of a CAS/GAL are enumerated in Section 5 of the Rule on Examination of a Child Witness that may be summarized as follows: 1) to conduct independent investigation as regards the child, 2) facilitate or find services that the child can avail of, 3) advocate for the child during the hearing such as helping the child learn about the court, petitioning the court to allow a child victim to testify through live-link television to minimize trauma or allow child testimony by means of videotaped deposition when unable to be in court during trial, or let a juvenile in conflict with the law be released on recognizance pending trial, and 4) monitor the status of the child and the case subsequent to the court decision. The duty to monitor is significant when giving emphasis to child aftercare service and to promote restorative justice that balances the interests of the offended, the community and the minor so that the latter is integrated back to society as a normal individual.
To date, a total of 120 volunteers from a cross section of society have received training in the country as CASAs/GALs through the assistance of the Philippine Judicial Academy, Supreme Court; UNICEF; Ateneo AKAP-Human Rights Center; Assisi Development Foundation; USAID/The Asia Foundation; and the National CASA Association, Seattle, Washington, USA, through Attorney Michael Piraino.

It is easy to become a CASA/GAL volunteer. If you are 18 and above; working or retired; and ready to help children in court, on a part-time or full time basis, you can be one. There are no qualifications required but once selected as a volunteer, training is given on how the court operates; on child development; and in ascertaining what social services are available to the child. If appointed by the court, objectivity on the part of the CASA/GAL is expected because as an "officer of the court" whose functions complement those of the other pillars, the volunteer promotes the best interests of the child.

With regards to volunteer liability, the Rule on Examination of a Child Witness assures volunteer protection in that a CASA/GAL is presumed to have acted in the performance of duties.

Helping a child one at a time will not make a difference to the thousands of Filipino children waiting for a CASA/GAL at this very moment. But surely, it will make a BIG difference to that ONE particular child you are helping now!

Get involved. Be a CASA/GAL and become not only a friend of the court but a powerful voice of the child as well!

The Author

*Judge Vilches is a graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University and the Ateneo Law School. She presides over Branch 48 of the Regional Trial Court of Manila, a family court. She received training on Children's Rights at Oxford University, England; Evidence in Juvenile and Family Court and Role of the Judge at the University of Nevada in Reno (UNR), USA; Crimes Against Children by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation; Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian Ad Litem (CASA/GAL) program by the National CASA Association, Seattle, WA, USA; and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provided by the United Nations Development Program.

She is a professor of family law at the Ateneo Law School and member of the training corps for juvenile and family justice of the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), Supreme Court, and UNICEF. In August 2001, Judge Vilches was selected a member of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children at New York, USA.