I know a while back I posted a blog about public defenders and how it inspired me to be more proactive in my community and vowed to do some volunteer work that I had been putting off until the “right moment” in my life and just do it. So in case you didn’t know I successfully completed the training and wanted to talk a little bit about my experience so far. I guess there will be two separate parts here, one in regards to the system itself and one specifically about my case (which I can’t get too specific about).
What exactly am I doing? Well I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate (or CASA). This is a program that exists in many counties across the nation, and in certain cases of child neglect or abuse the judge assigns a CASA to the case. My role is to interview the child, parents, foster care, child development specialists, doctors, teachers, etc and then try to compile a report for court hearings that happen every 3 months so that I can make specific recommendations for the child (or children I represent) in court. I try to make recommendations in the best interest of the child. This sometimes can be towards reunification with the parents (or parent) or sometimes away from the parents. The key is to make those recommendations based on as much evidence as follows.
After my first training session one of the volunteers who I had sat next to, when we walked out of the session looked at each other and were thinking the same thing and he said to me before I could say to him “I can’t believe they have volunteers doing this.” So if it seems unbelievable to you, this is one of the first things I learned: We really don’t love children as much as we say we do. The full-time workers of the program say that it’s even hard to get donations for abused and neglected children. I came in with some pre-conceived notions about Child Protection Services or Child Youth Services taking away children from good parents and getting involved in the private lives of families unceremoniously most of those notions have melted away. Children services have to act when a report is made, but for the most part I see them dealing with such reports that are unsubstantiated fairly. That’s not to say that there isn’t mistakes made. I also learned that it’s a civil service job, and there are no specialized qualifications to do it. It doesn’t pay particularly well, workers are often overloaded with cases, and many just use it as a stepping stone to a better job, so there is high turnover, meaning that few of the workers are very experienced. So mistakes are made, and there is some incompetence, but is this their fault or the fault of a system that isn’t treated as important as it should be? Just like with public defenders, attorneys that are supposed to represent the children in court are also overloaded. In our county there are 3 lawyers trying to represent 400 children. It is not possible to do your job well under such circumstances. I’ve learned that despite bad things you hear sometimes about foster families most people who do foster care are phenomenal people and make a big emotional investment into children they may care for, for up to a year and half and will not get to keep them. I can’t imagine going through that myself. Many foster families do end up adopting the children for that very reason. I’ve learned that federal child protection laws didn’t happen until the 70’s and that the very first child abuse case was tried under animal protection laws. The obsession over the rights of the unborn continue in this country while those that are born are overlooked. I am convinced that if we put our compassion into making sure that every citizen was treated humanely, abortions would drop at an alarming rate.
The case I was assigned is a sad one, although perhaps by far not the worst. And I guess it goes without saying that any case of child abuse or neglect will be a sad one. I can’t describe the case in a high enough detail so that it could be recognized so I will simply give vague details which I am sure are not uncommon. We have one child just over a year old, we have a father with a criminal past addicted to heroin. We have a mother addicted to heroin who went into early labor while on heroin and had a newborn baby going through withdrawal symptoms for opiates. A baby who would later die at the age of 8 months due to an accidental death. We have parents who are not married. We have parents who do not have their own home, their own phone number. We have a mother who does not even have a job, and a father who is just trying to make ends meet. Neither of them have enough money to support themselves let alone children. There are many who may already be judging these parents, and I do not disagree that there is a reason that their children were taken away from them. This is not a mistake. This is not government overreach. This is making sure a child has a safe environment to grow up in. Addiction has taken them, and they cannot seem to get out of it. They have made less and less visits over time with their remaining child, and at the last court hearing didn’t even show up.
But one of your jobs as a CASA is to gather information about the parents and part of that is a little bit of snooping on their Facebook profile. When I saw pictures of the mother it was clear she was just a child. Barely out of high school. She had pictures of her with her children. There were smiles, and genuine happiness. Pictures like any family might have and they were beautiful. In notes taken by Child Youth Services workers there were noted about how the mother sincerely said how much she loved her son. As a child of an addict myself it reminded me of my situation in a lot of ways, although heroin is a much harsher drug than alcohol, that there are two separate truths to the life of the addict. As I look at the pictures I see the same love that I have in my pictures with my child. I know they are filled with it at least at certain moments as much as I am. But a portion of their life, thoughts, and physical actions are also governed by heroin. Perhaps a bigger portion now. And as I look at a picture of someone who is a child herself, and who has a mother who is also a heroin addict I have to admit that I cried and wondered what chance did she have but to follow down the same dark path. Where does it end? How do we break the chain? Even as I have compassion for the innocent child to protect them from a life of having heroin addicted parents, who will have compassion for these parents? Is there any hope for them? Will they have their lives turned around? Just 10 years ago the mother herself might have been a case for the courts if anybody had bothered to report the destructive actions of her mother. There is an ocean of pain out there, and it feels like trying to tear down a mountain with a small rock hammer. The only answer it seems is more hammers. I have no idea how to convince people to pick one up.
There are 6 months left before the case comes to a close, likely too little time for the parents to get their act together enough to keep their remaining child. There are already other family members willing to adopt and give the child a stable and happy home. The child is just a few months older than my son. Sweet with a beautiful laugh and I am glad that his odds for a better life have gone up, but I am certain his struggles are not over. At some point he will wonder who his parents are. He will have to wrestle with the idea of why he was abandoned by his parents and whether or not there was just something inherently wrong with him. I hope that he is young enough now to not let thoughts override who he will grow up to be under his new adoptive parents. I hope he will forgive and know that he is his own man someday and is not destined to continue the cycle. I hope he will know good love.