We continue with the fifth spotlight in our series on individuals whose personal and professional trajectory was influenced by their CASA involvement.
In this issue, we spotlight Kelli James Freeman, a Special Assistant Attorney General (SAAG) appointed to represent the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) for Floyd County, Georgia.
Kelli graduated from the University of Georgia in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and a minor in history. Immediately following, she was given the opportunity to lobby on the state level for the Georgia Family Counsel, a nonprofit research and education organization geared toward strengthening families and improving youth outcomes in the community. After this experience, she entered law school at Mercer University with an eye toward public policy and service and focused her studies on family and juvenile law.
In 2008, Kelli was chosen as Georgia CASA’s legal intern through the Emory Law Summer Child Advocacy Program. The summer internship turned into a year-long endeavor as she worked alongside Georgia CASA’s Advocacy Director, Angela Tyner, who gave her a backstage look into the inner workings of local, state, and national CASA programs and child advocacy in general. During her year with Georgia CASA, she had the opportunity to participate in statewide CASA program trainings, affiliate program development meetings, the Children’s Justice Act Advisory Committee (now the Children’s Justice Act Task Force), as well as conduct extensive research on the impacts of ever-changing national and state laws related to permanency and well-being for children who experienced abuse or neglect. Her time with Georgia CASA was a springboard for her legal career.
After graduating from law school in 2009, Kelli worked in the dual role of Child’s Attorney/Guardian ad Litem (GAL) with Floyd County Juvenile Court. Her internship with Georgia CASA had shifted her career focus from a desire to work behind the scenes in the nonprofit/policy arena to working more directly with children by advocating for their rights and well-being in the courtroom setting. As a new attorney, she was tasked with managing a high caseload of children involved in the local judicial system, including not only abused or neglected children but also certain delinquent children and other children in need of services. Understandably, she felt the weight of her new position immediately, yet was aware and able to call upon the local CASA program for support in the more complicated cases to ensure every single child on her caseload had their needs and wishes heard.
After more than seven years in the position, Kelli was appointed in 2017 as a Special Assistant Attorney General (SAAG) to represent Floyd County Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). She now represents the agency responsible for providing services and protection of children and families in need. As an attorney for DFCS, she is even more appreciative of the role of CASA volunteers within the child welfare system. While Kelli sometimes misses her one-on-one representation and interaction with the children that come through the court, she is confident their voices will be heard and represented by their lawyers and amplified by their CASA volunteers. The CASA program is an integral component of the multidisciplinary team that serves at-risk children and families, and she is thankful to continue as a member of the team through her representation of DFCS.
When asked about one of the most impactful things she learned as a Georgia CASA intern, Kelli responded that it opened her eyes to the importance of collaboration and cooperation between the various agencies and individuals involved in representing and serving children and families who need support and protection the most. She was able to see the broader picture that it truly does take everyone working together to provide for the overall well-being and best interest of children.
Kelli advises CASA volunteers to be involved in the planning, meetings, and trainings of all the different agencies that could and will have an impact on the children they serve. CASA volunteers provide a very important, impartial viewpoint for children’s best interests, so speak up in those various settings, but especially in court. This also garners a greater understanding of how all the players in the child advocacy arena serve and impact children and case outcomes. Without this, CASA volunteers would be working with blinders on as to the overarching needs of the children they represent.
With DFCS and other child welfare agencies throughout the state currently faced with an overload of cases and a shortage of workers that can create high turnover and instability for children and families served, Kelli recognizes how the CASA program stands to fill the advocacy void when someone on a child’s team is missing and/or ever-changing. A CASA volunteer could be the only constant person in a child’s life as the child navigates the system.
To end on a more personal note, Kelli was raised on a farm just south of Macon and feels like she is on a daily path to her roots. Now residing in the far northwestern suburbs of Atlanta with her husband and two young daughters, she is trying to convince her family to go against the HOA rules to build a huge garden and raise chickens. Who can blame her? A free veggie omelet every morning sounds delicious!