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  • Jan Flynn

Help Rewrite the Ending of This Story

It could have been different

A story in the New York Times broke my heart

As tragic as the story is, it points to an opportunity to prevent more like it from happening. For someone with life experience and time available — maybe someone like you — it may even be a call to not only serve those in desperate need but to reconnect with your own sense of purpose.

Back to the New York Times article: it demonstrates what can happen when the family court system fails the children it’s meant to protect. You’ve seen stories like this before. They’re gut-wrenching. They make you want to judge the judge, lock up the parents, and burn the whole system down.

Times Reporters Claire Fahy and Andy Newman wrote:

A judge in Brooklyn overruled city concerns that a baby was being abused and allowed her to return to her parents’ care the day before she was fatally injured, according to court papers obtained by The New York Times.

There were reports of abuse of the one-year-old girl dating back to when she was a newborn. The injuries she sustained in her parents’ home are stomach-turning: two broken ankles, a fractured skull, and a brain bleed when she was three weeks old. The following month, she was hospitalized with a wound to her tongue that made it impossible for her to eat for six days.

She and her two-year-old brother were declared “at substantial risk of death” by the Administration for Children’s Services and placed in foster care with family members.

On September 14, there was a court hearing in which the parents’ rights could have been terminated. A.C.S. requested that the children remain in foster care and that the parents receive mental health evaluations.

The judge denied both requests and ordered the children returned to their parents. It’s hard to fathom his decision, and he didn’t offer any comment.

But nothing in family law is as simple as it might seem. A.C.S. gets a double whammy of criticism for negligence when kids in its care have died and, on the other hand, for overzealousness in removing children from their families.

Sometimes kids are taken away from their parents for reasons that have more to do with poverty or race than abuse or neglect. Who knows: maybe the judge had lost confidence in A.C.S.

Whatever the judge’s reasoning, the outcome of his decision was catastrophic. On Sept. 15, the baby girl ended up in the hospital in cardiac arrest. Her injuries included blunt-force trauma to her head, a broken jaw, and “what appeared to be bite marks.” With another brain bleed, she was placed on life support.

She died five days later.

This tragedy is an extreme case, but vulnerable kids are too often at the mercy of a bureaucracy that, even when well-intentioned, is overwhelmed, under-resourced, institutionally biased, and inadequately responsive to their needs.

We can do better, even with the admittedly inadequate system we’ve got. I don’t know if there was a dedicated advocate specifically for the child in this case. I suspect not. If there had been, things might have been different.

Which is why my husband and I are part of the CASA program.

What is CASA?

I mean, other than the word for “house” in Spanish?

CASA is an acronym for Court-Appointed Special Advocate. CASAs are volunteers who are trained to act as liaisons between the courts and children who have experienced abuse or neglect.

When a child is removed from the home, either because of police intervention in a domestic violence situation or because of reported abuse or neglect, layers of bureaucratic machinery are set in motion: law enforcement, social workers, district attorneys, defense attorneys, and often doctors, psychiatrists or psychologists, tribal representatives if the child in question falls under the Indian Child Welfare Act, the foster care system, and so on.

These are all professionals, and virtually all have enormous caseloads and competing interests. Social workers are responsible for the overall family case. The district attorney represents the state’s interest in the case. The defense attorney represents, generally, the parent or parents. Law enforcement is responsible for, well, enforcing the law.

It’s easy to see how, even though unintentionally, a kid can become a hapless cog in this machine — unless they have somebody specifically advocating for them and their interests.

That’s where CASA comes in.

It’s not the same as Big Brothers/Big Sisters: a CASA volunteer may spend a great deal of time with the children in their assigned case, but they are focused more on advocacy than on being a buddy or a mentor. While it may not sound as warm or personal, the work of a CASA can be lifesaving.

The judge’s eyes and ears

To become a CASA, you don’t have to be an attorney or a social worker. You don’t have to have teaching experience. You don’t have to be a parent. You do need to pass a criminal background check and be admitted to the program, and then you undergo training.

A lot of training. You’re introduced to the labyrinth of government and social agencies that come into play when a child is removed from the home. You develop at least a passing familiarity with the intricacies of the family court system. You learn from past cases, test cases, and hypothetical cases. You learn to uncover some of your own prejudices when it comes to assessing family situations. You learn the crucial importance of confidentiality.

Once you’ve completed your training and met all the requirements of your state’s program, you become a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) — the legalese that denotes a court-appointed advocate.

As a GAL/CASA, once you’re assigned to a case you have the authority to investigate all the circumstances that led to the child’s (or children’s) removal from the home.

You can talk to the kid’s teachers, their counselor, their school psychologist. You can access their medical records. You can (and should) confer with the social worker who manages the case. You can order the police report.

You interview the foster parents and the actual parents. If a parent is in custody, you have access to those records too.

You conduct visits with the child, with their foster family, and when appropriate, their family of origin.

You take notes. Lots of notes.

And then, you write reports.

Reports are required at every stage as a child’s case progresses through the court system: an adjudicatory report when the case opens, a case plan report, periodic review reports, and so on, all the way up until the case goes to permanency — that is, the child is reunited with their family, adopted by a family member or another qualified person, or remains a ward of the state in foster care.

Writing reports may not sound very sexy, and in truth, it isn’t. But the reports a GAL/CASA submits are what can keep a kid’s case from going off the rails. What you put into them carries a lot of weight with the judge.

This is because you are the only one in the case who has no dog in the fight except to advocate for the best interests of the child.

Here’s how one judge explained it

When my husband and I were sworn in, the judge — who spent years as a district attorney in family law cases before joining the bench —gave us a clear picture of just what the reports we would be providing could mean.

“When I was a prosecutor,” he said, “I could go out and talk to anybody. Police, witnesses, family members, doctors, the children, the families. I had a three-dimensional picture of what I was dealing with and what the best outcome would probably be.

“But as a judge,” he continued, “I sit in my chambers all day and read reports. I read the police report and the case manager/social worker’s report, and if there’s no Guardian Ad Litem assigned, those are all I have to go on. And then I have to make life-changing decisions.

“So when I get a report from a GAL/CASA, I take those recommendations very seriously. When you’re out there investigating, or following up on a case, visiting with those kids, you are acting as my eyes and ears. The decisions in these cases rest with me as the judge, but I lean heavily on what I learn from you.”

I made a mental note to stop whingeing about all the report writing right then and there.

Expanding my perspective

Kids don’t come into foster care for happy reasons. It might sound like the work of a CASA is a dive into the darkest depths of American family drama. And there’s no question that these kids are subject to trauma, sometimes repeated and complex.

But rather than depressing, my husband and I have found our CASA work to be inspiring and empowering. Are there people who should never have had kids? There are, and yet those children are here and as deserving of every chance to reach their full potential as any other kids.

Sometimes, the family can be restored and reunited. That’s the hopeful outcome in every case. But it’s not, as so horribly illustrated in the Times story, always the right outcome. Some people, whether because of mental illness or chronic addiction or whatever it is that renders them incapable or dangerous, have kids they can’t safely care for.

Yet in our experience so far, for every dysfunctional parent in our cases, we have encountered a foster parent — sometimes a relative, sometimes not — who steps in with generosity and grace far beyond what we ourselves are prepared to extend. These are people who rearrange their lives, without reservation, to provide refuge and nurturing to kids who desperately need it.

When that happens, we have been privileged to see how, given a decent chance, resilience can take root and bloom, even through the brambles of trauma.

My husband and I volunteer as a team because one of the primary duties of a CASA is to maintain strict confidentiality. This way we can talk to each other about our cases. Most of the other CASAs we’ve met work solo, and hats off to them.

The need for help just keeps growing

Some CASAs handle multiple cases at a time. Some have been doing this work for many years. Other CASAs take one or at most two cases at a time and come in and out of the work as their lives and obligations allow.

After all, it’s demanding stuff, and we are volunteers.

I’ve done a fair amount of volunteer work over the decades, in different capacities. Some have been more social and light-hearted than being a CASA. But of all of those volunteer roles, in this one, I have zero doubt that what we’re doing is making a difference.

Maybe, one day, even a life-saving one.

The program is nationwide, with regional chapters all over the country. If you’re looking for an opportunity to make a difference — and a way to shore up your own sense of purpose — consider becoming a CASA

You’re needed.

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