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Alumna leads group advocating for children in legal battles

Winter 2015-16

Suzanne Fegelein has traveled a long road following her passion – as an attorney advocating for children, as an alumna of Fort Lewis College and law school, and as a mother.

Now, as the Executive Director of Northwest Rocky Mountain CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Fegelein (Social Ecology, '99) puts all that experience to use overseeing a non-profit whose team of volunteers fight for the rights of children in court cases.

And that makes Fegelein feel she's doing what she's meant to be doing.

CASA's volunteers are "Friends of the Court" who are appointed by judges to advocate for children at court hearings. They review records, interview parents, talk to teachers and neighbors, and work with attorneys and social workers. They meet with the children for whom they are advocating several times a month. These volunteers also submit reports to the court with recommendations to support the children's well being.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that CASA volunteers become a much-needed support system for children who may be living in out-of-home placements and are overwhelmed by the complexities of the child welfare system.

“The benefit of having a CASA volunteer is that that’s a person who is working solely for the child or children of the family, one family at a time, whereas a guardian ad litem or social worker likely has quite a few cases going on at once,” Fegelein explains.

Suzanne Fegelein, FLC alumnaBefore she started advocating for kids in their environment, though, Fegelein worked to find her own best environment as she faced the task many recent high-school graduates face: finding the right college to continue her own education.

“After moving to Steamboat Springs when I was 20, I immediately knew this is where I belonged, in the mountains,” recalls Fegelein. “I completed my A.A. at Colorado Mountain College. I then did a semester at CU-Boulder, but it was just too big. It just wasn’t what I wanted."

“I decided Durango was a better fit for me,” she adds. “I wanted a smaller school.”

Fort Lewis College offered more than just mountains and a smaller community, though, Fegelein says. “I had amazing professors. They were extremely supportive. That made a big difference for me. I got to pursue things that I really cared about, and that made a big difference in terms of how much I got out of my experience at FLC.”

As a social ecology major at FLC, Fegelein got active putting what she was learning to work at the FLC Environmental Center and on projects such as  helping to document invasive species in the Grand Canyon. After graduating Summa Cum Laude, she continued to pursue her growing passion for helping others in law school at the University of Idaho College of Law.

It was at her first firm in Sandpoint, Idaho, that Fegelein became involved in family law cases. “I got into family law and criminal law. I knew that I wanted to be in court because I enjoy that environment,” she explains. “Unfortunately, you see a lot when people are going through divorce, and a lot of times people are too emotional to put their kids first. That really affected me.”

After four years, Fegelein joined another firm as a partner – which would lead her to the next path on her journey.

“By that point I was pretty much primarily practicing high-conflict family law,” she says. “There I would get appointed to Child Protection Act cases. Those are cases where kids are abused and neglected somehow. I worked with CASA volunteers in those cases, so I was introduced to the concept of CASA and what they do, and it was an organization that I really respected.”

After spending five years working primarily on those cases, Fegelein felt it was time for another change.

“I wanted a break from practicing high-conflict family law because it’s so stressful. And having two little kids of my own made it even more of an emotional practice,” she says. “It was hard for me not to imagine my kids going through what I was seeing other kids go through in the system.”

As fate would have it, in 2014 Northwest Rocky Mountain CASA had an opening for their Executive Director position — a job that would bring her full-circle back to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, while at the same time challenge her to apply her hard-earned skills and experiences in a new way toward her passion for helping others. 

“As Director, I help the kids in a different way by trying to run the organization,” explains Fegelein, who started at CASA in late September 2014. “I’m aware of the cases, but I'm not in the middle of the battle. The volunteers are the ones who are advocating in our cases, and they are just incredible. You know it’s really sad stuff, so it’s very impressive for people to choose to give so much time to volunteer helping these kids out by giving them a voice in court.”

“For myself, I really like that I have some freedom to find different ways to help these kids,” Fegelein adds. “I look for grants, utilize social media, find ways to educate the public on child abuse and neglect. I write articles and do community presentations, and I love public speaking. I also like getting out and about talking to people about what we do. It’s very rewarding.”

It's been a long journey for Fegelein since finding her passion at Fort Lewis College, but she's still putting her professors' inspiration into action, finding new ways to pursue the things she really cares about.

“I’m very happy in this field,” Fegelein reflects. “I think kids are the most vulnerable population in our society, and they really benefit in so many ways from having people keep their eyes on them and speak up for them. I really like that I have some freedom to find different ways to help these kids.”

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