A Place in One Child's Life

Julee Newberger
October 15, 2001

I watched J* walk into the courtroom by herself, a typical teen in jeans and a sweater, trying to act calm, unfazed. She wore extensions in her hair, long thin twists that fell past her shoulders, a new hairdo for her first day of high school just two days before. She looked at the attorneys, social workers and therapists sitting on the wooden benches, then toward the stand where the judge would appear.

She knew that today's hearing had been called to review her permanency plan; a set of instructions that guide where she will live, what school she will attend, and who will take care of her. For the last two-and-a-half years, I have served as J's court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, acting as a liaison between the court, her family and her social worker, and advocating for her best interests.

Of course, determining J's best interest has never been easy, and today's hearing would prove no different. It's hard enough for the professionals in her life to make recommendations as to where she should live and who should take care of her. It's even harder for me, still figuring out exactly where I fit in, trying to maintain her trust while I make decisions that influence her future.

More Than a Big Sister
When I first met J, she was 12 and living with her father. She had been in "the system," as it's called, for most of her life because of her parents' on-and-off struggles with addiction. My job was to make sure that she was safe in her home, her grades were good, and that she was getting health care and any other help that she needed.

"Are you going to be like a big sister?" her father asked on our first meeting.

"Kind of," I said, "but I report to the court."

J's father nodded, confused about my role. Who was this young woman who came to his home, asking questions, wanting to spend time with his daughter?

I began by helping the only way I knew how—picking her up once a week and taking her to a museum, a women's professional basketball game, or out for frozen yogurt so we could talk about school and her friends. I called her guidance counselor when her grades slipped. I encouraged her to set goals, to plan for college and to pursue her dreams (becoming a record producer, currently).

I quickly realized that I was in a tough position. I was supposed to be gathering information about J's life and her family. That required trust. But how do you earn someone's trust when all along they know that their secrets are not safe with you?

I remember once when J admitted that she had snuck out of the house without permission. "I'm glad you feel comfortable telling me that," I said. "But remember, I have to tell the court if I think you're in danger."

"Okay," she said, disappointed. The moment she had finally confided in me, I'd had to let her down.

From Home to Home
That first year, J's father's troubles with drugs and the law got in the way of his caring for his kids. J's mother couldn't take her in because of a history of child neglect and the fact that she didn't have a home of her own. J moved out of her father's house and went through a series of placements, including a residential treatment center, a shelter for kids and a group home for girls, the last stop.

As J moved and changed schools—three times in one year—I saw a callus begin to form around her. She was no longer the soft-spoken girl who carefully kicked snow off her boots before stepping into my car, and who said "please" and "thank you" at every opportunity. Now she was tough. She had to be, to protect herself.

Soon she began rebelling, sneaking out, drinking and smoking, running away from home. The group home has been her most stable placement in the last year.

"I'm not staying here until I graduate, no way," she told me on the phone, a few days before the hearing. "I'm going to live with my mom."

J wanted a real family, something every kid deserves. I didn't know how to tell her that I had recommended to the court that she remain in the group home, and not go back to live with her mother.

Family Bonds
J and two of her older siblings had tried living with her mother a year before, and it hadn't worked out. Her mother tried to set rules and limits, but she couldn't keep the kids from sneaking out and getting caught with drugs and alcohol. Within a few months, J's mother was evicted because of complaints from neighbors about her children and their friends.

Now J wanted to live with her mother again, just as soon as she found a new apartment. At the hearing, J's mother said that she wanted J to move back in with her, too. "I give my kids guidance and advice," she said. "They know when they come live with me, they're not staying out all night. I'll give them a curfew."

I waited, heart pounding in my chest, to be called to testify. I had disagreed with the wishes of J and her mother before, but I had never spoken in front of strangers about their family, let alone announced to a courtroom full of people that I worried about the consequences if J were allowed to return to her mother's home.

I felt myself wavering. What if I had made the wrong recommendation? After all, if J's mother wanted her children back this much, and the children wanted to be with her, maybe it was time that we all stepped back and allowed them to be together.

Then again, I still feared for J's safety if she returned again to her mother's home. There was no reason to believe that anything would be different if J and her siblings went back.

After an hour of cross-examinations, I relaxed. The lawyers had no further questions, and none of them had called on me to testify.

The judge pinched his forehead. This was no easy call. Finally he announced his verdict: the plan would be reunification with J's mother. A concurrent plan would prepare J to stay in the group home until graduation.

J and her mother smiled and embraced. I walked out of the courtroom alone.

The Right Role
Not only had I feared making the wrong recommendation in J's case, but I had feared losing J's trust, and the cooperation of her family. So far, I had been the good guy, the big sister, someone on whom she could rely. If I spoke up against her mother, would J still respect and confide in me?

The answer is, time will tell. A CASA doesn't disappear after a hearing, or get transferred to another client or case. We are assigned to help a child navigate the system, providing what is sometimes the only stability in the child's life. A CASA doesn't have the power of an attorney, therapist or social worker. We are everyday folks—real estate agents, teachers, writers. We are volunteers, with more or less training, more or less aptitude, and a belief that investing our time and commitment in another person's life will enrich our own.

After the hearing, I told J and her mother that I was happy for them. It was true, but I was also afraid for them. Perhaps someday before J finishes high school, her mother will be able to have her own home and J will move in with her. Then the professionals involved will have to do everything they can to help. As a CASA, I can make no guarantees. The only thing I can promise is that the next time J walks into the courtroom alone and looks for a friendly face, I'll be there.


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