Ronnie Polaneczky: For foster kids, CASA may be only "home" where the heart is

Posted: May 18, 2010

AS GRADUATION ceremonies go, the tiny one that quietly unfolded last week in Family Court deserved more fanfare, given its poignancy.

Just 10 grads were being honored on a beautiful spring evening, inside a worn courtroom that's home, during the day, to broken families ground down by abuse, neglect, terrible luck and worse decisions.

Only a handful were there to witness the oath that the grads took to do the hardest thing that anyone with a heart can do: Allow themselves to fall in love with an abused or neglected child, and then to fight on the child's behalf as if he or she were their own.

"Before you're sworn in, I want to say two words you won't hear much after today: Thank you," said Leonard Bonarek, their trainer, foreshadowing the rough courtroom dramas that the grads may soon find themselves in, where a courteous "thank you" is rarely extended.

And where they'll learn how desperately they're needed, by kids who've been so betrayed by adults in their lives, it will be a miracle if they ever trust a grown-up again.

The graduates are all volunteers for the Philly chapter of a national nonprofit called Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. The organization trains volunteers to advocate for the health, safety, stability and well-being of children in foster care.

Each volunteer is then paired with one child, or sibling group, and speaks on their behalf during court proceedings regarding the children's status.

How does the child feel about his foster family? Would he feel happier if he were back at home? Does he need glasses, or a coat that fits him better? Who is this child, anyway? And what would he want the court to know about him, if only he had the words, freedom or ability to tell the fuller story of his life?

CASA volunteers - the Philly chapter currently has 80 - try to articulate those answers during the two-year commitment they make to the organization.

"When a child comes before a judge, and they have a CASA with them, you will see the judge's face light up," said Family Court Judge Ann Butchart. "We know that an interested, caring adult is looking after a child's basic, emotional needs and will be able to tell us in detail how the child is faring."

Because the volunteers are unpaid, they needn't worry that their livelihood might be threatened if their words to the judge conflict with recommendations from, say, an attorney.

The significance of that is huge. Even the most well-meaning, paid participants in these children's lives must sometimes fret that recommendations they make in a child's best interest may earn them grief later from a co-worker or supervisor.

"You've got all these adults in the courtroom, talking over a child's head, making decisions about him," said Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty. "Can you imagine how scared and powerless that child feels? The CASA becomes the child's voice."

Sometimes, said CASA executive director Wendy Aguirre, the volunteer is the most reliable presence in a child's life.

"One of our volunteers has been with the same child since 2006," she said. "He knows the child better than everyone else who has come and gone."

According to independent research, children with CASA volunteers receive court-ordered services 70 percent more often than do children without a CASA volunteer to push for them. They're also less likely to stay in foster care long-term, and are more likely to be adopted, when it looks like reunification with the biological family will never be in the child's best interest.

While the number of Philly kids in foster care has dropped in recent years by 21 percent, there are still thousands who could benefit from the CASA's depth of advocacy. Volunteers are schooled in the classroom and courtroom on the legal system, child development and cultural and community issues.

"Our volunteers must have 30 hours of training," says Aguirre. "By comparison, foster parents need only six."

In the courtroom, before Judge Dougherty asked the 10 graduates to rise for their oath, he shared with them an oft-told parable about the life-or-death impact one person can have on another.

"An old and a young man are walking on the beach, where thousands of starfish have washed up and are dying. The younger man says, 'We have to do something!' " Dougherty says. "The older man says, 'Forget it. There are thousands. You'll never save them all.'

"So the young man picks up a starfish and tosses it back into the sea. 'Well,' he says to the old man, 'I saved that one.' "

Tonight's graduates will never save the life of every child who needs rescuing. But, by being brave enough to open their hearts, they just might save one.

E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly. com/ronnieblog.

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