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Advocating for Children

May 7, 2008

I have a volunteer job that is some job. I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate sometimes called Guardian ad litem or just CASA in the King County Superior Court Juvenile Division. It is my role to investigate, report, monitor, and advocate in cases where kids are removed from the home for neglect and abuse and then report to the court on what is happening and what should be done. The kids have social workers, but the workers’ job is to comply with state and federal law and departmental policies and procedures while still trying to restore families. And note that I say social workers. Any case going longer than two years (I have two cases five years old) the kids can get two or three workers. More on The System another time.

I had to go through an application process, provide references, be interviewed, undergo a background check, take twenty-four hours of training (plus twelve more hours every year). All that does is teach you what you don’t know.

Then you make a choice from among dozens and dozens of gut-wrenching cases involving drugs, alcohol, insanity, and just plain criminal behavior. I have a leg up on most of the other volunteers. I have a background in investigations so reading reports and case files and interviewing witnesses was a snap. And I have a pretty good ability to keep emotions out of the situation.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the mystifying array of social services that come into play when children become dependent. There are psychological evaluations, educational evaluations, drug and alcohol evaluations, domestic violence evaluations, and others I don’t remember. And these evaluations trigger services with acronyms like PCIT and TF-CBT. The people who come up with these concepts must be really smart.

The CASA’s job is to look over the shoulder of the social workers and their department and see that the kids are getting everything they need. The squeaky wheel does get the grease and CASAs help keep kids from slipping through cracks and help kids stuck in cracks. For it’s a big dumb system. I could tell you stories and you probably read about some of them when, tragically, a child dies. In those cases the kids either don’t have CASAs or the CASA program is so small as to be ineffective. The latter is the case in most small jurisdictions. Better no advocate than one not doing a good job.

Most dependent children are not in foster homes. Dependent just means they are under state supervision and their parents are ordered by a court to undergo certain services like drug and alcohol treatment. If kids are actually taken out of a home the first stop is usually a relative. Most of my cases have involved a relative placement. Or they are dependent in-home. Only when there are no relatives do kids go to licensed care.

And some kids have problems so profound that an institutional setting is needed. The stories of kids being bounced among foster homes are horrific, but they don’t speak of how the child assaulted other children or tried to burn the house down.


What still amazes me after six years as a CASA is the extent to which I can actually influence the outcome in court. Chalk it all up to persistence. Let me set the stage.

Child dependency cases are heard by commissioners, lawyers appointed by the elected judges to handle these kind of routine matters. In many cases the commissioners come out of the ranks of family law practitioners so they have a leg up on the business. Not only do they know the language of social workers and child protection law, but they know the types of people that routinely end up in dependency court. So imagine a judge’s bench and the concurrent clerks and courtroom specialists who keep the paper moving only there is one bench for spectators. It’s really for the overflow of parties to the case.

Instead of one table for one side and one table for the other there are three tables; one for the State people, one for the parents and their lawyers, and, in the middle, one for the CASA and his lawyer. (Actually most CASAs are women, but this CASA is a man and this is his blog.) So right off the bat this volunteer is given equal status with the other “parties.” These cases used to be closed so the courtrooms have little in the way of spectator seating; just chairs or benches along the back wall.

As the cases drag on it is usually only the CASA who can provide any sense of continuity. New social workers and Assistant Attorneys General get assigned, and the public defenders juggle so many cases they have substitutes as often as not. After about a year – most cases go years – the CASA is the only one with any institutional knowledge. It may come as a surprise that this civilian volunteer has all the information that the people who are paid to be there need. I have slipped notes of correction to the AAG who has no clue who these kids are and who is sitting next to a substitute social worker.

6/4/08 The Last Visit The other evening I visited R and M who I have represented for over five years. M was about six months old then and was “delayed,” a child development term meaning she wasn’t growing well. She couldn’t even hold up her head. Through the inspired help of the staff at Childhaven she got back on track. They are now seven and five.

But through a number of missteps by The System, some unavoidable, the kids did not find permanency until just a few months ago. They moved in with a lovely couple who just wanted to be caring parents. The case is approaching the point where R and M will be adopted which will conclude my involvement with them. A hearing is coming up so I needed to file a report and for that I needed to see how they were doing.

Monday afternoon was lovely and the kids were playing on the front porch. They greeted me with “Hi, Dave” and rushed to show me their bicycles (R just got the training wheels off) and the storage shed their new dad was building for them. The shed is not just for storage. It will include a playhouse in the upper story. M wanted to show me the lovely flowers, but only if I was unafraid of bees. I assured her I was fine.

The judges like to have photos of the kids to go with the reports so I brought along my digital camera. I posed with each of them while the other took some pictures.

Naturally, I visited with the prospective adoptive parents and got a good picture of how they are doing. Both R and M wanted to show me all the family snapshots of the great adventures they had had such as a Pacific beach, motocross races, and just a trip to the park.

The next step for them is adoption and then I will be out of the picture.

6/9/08 Indian Cases

Probably the most complex kinds of cases we see in dependencies are those involving Indian children. Before about thirty years ago, Indian children were commonly adopted off the reservation to non-Indian families. Naturally the tribes took issue with this latest depredation by the United States of their identity and culture.

Congress passed a law which gave the tribes the last word in handling any Indian child who goes into dependency — foster care. A tribe can get involved in the case in almost any way they want, from taking the case entirely away from the state court, to helping, to doing nothing. And if an Indian child is to be adopted, the tribe has final say on where the child goes. Some children have found homes in non-Indian families only to have the tribe come along later and say, no, we want the child with us. The child has no say in the matter other than through an advocate — me.

So the trick in these cases is to find out if a kid is an Indian. Easy to say. There are more than five hundred tribes recognized by the U.S. Government and many more not recognized. There are Canadian first nations which have cultural and political relationships with U.S. tribes and can lay a claim to a child and Native Alaskan community. If someone says the kid has Indian heritage, we have to write letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to all the possible tribes and ask if he or she is one of theirs. Some tribes write back and some don’t.

Even if we don’t hear back from tribes, they can still come into the case and undo everything that has been done. So it is critical to engage these tribes early, if we can.

Some tribes are large with sophisticated governments and large, profitable casinos generating cash to benefit the members. Other tribes are very informal with the barest of structure, very poor, and might only have a post office box for contact. The hardest situations is where a tribe is made up of idividual bands and each band has rights under the law.

I am fortunate with the one Indian case I’ve had. The kid was clearly a member and the tribe had a large casino (getting bigger) along an interstate. They have a lawyer who attends all proceedings and they have money they shower on services for the kid. Or just shower him with money. But with the growth of Indian gaming some of the tribes are now more reluctant to extend membership to someone with tenuous ties to the reservation.

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