Saturday, May 12, 2012

For My Three Kids on Mother's Day

I cringed when the babysitter told me you played social worker instead of doctor and wondered if, despite my diligence, you picked up bits and pieces of overheard work phone conversations at the tender age of five.

I cringed when midway through a trial I remembered that I forgot to send you to school with money for the flower sale. My heart sunk, imagining your six-year-old self sitting off to the side while your classmates carefully chose and picked out their favorites.

I cringed when you called me because you forgot your lunch and I couldn’t bring it to you. It was fish stick day. What horrible timing.

I cringed every time the stress of my job created stress at home and you soaked it up much like your skin soaked up the sun the day your babysitter forgot to re-dose you with a hefty amount of sunscreen.

Most days I balanced your needs with needs of motherless children. I often worried all of you were short-changed. I did the best I could and tried to convince myself it was good enough.

It was.

I swelled with pride the day you boldly proclaimed I did not need to come with you as you took your little foster cousin outside to play. From the living room window I watched you spread out a quilt and sprinkle it with toys and books. You set her down and automatically bent her legs at the knee just like the physical therapist suggested. Her little hand reached out to you and you instinctively leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. Such tenderness coming from my boy astounded me. Maybe somewhere, somehow, seeds of compassion were sown into your heart when I wasn’t looking.

Relief washed over me when you bounced out of school with delicate hands full of tiny plants ready to grow. You were all smiles when you relayed how your teacher slipped you a five dollar bill. Somehow, your carefully chosen plants were made more special by the fact that someone other than your mom took care of a problem for you.

I laughed out loud when you told me your aunt brought you McDonald’s on fish stick day. What started out as a mini-crisis morphed into a treat. I laughed harder when you suggested perhaps you should forget your lunch more often.

Growing the three of you in this world reminds me that when I fail or forget or mess up, it will be OK. I’ve learned there are others who will right my wrongs, remember when I forget, be there when I can’t. Because of this, I know that despite the horrors, the suffering of so many, the anger and hatred spewed over politics and other contentious issues, the world will be OK. Really, it will be, as long as we help each other and the helpless.

As you have grown, your gifts to the world have grown as well. I remember this when another mom randomly stops me at the grocery store and thanks me for raising such a great kid. You’ve been extraordinarily kind to her daughter at school who’s been having a hard time. I want to save the facebook message I receive from a woman who echoes the same sentiments about your sister. I hang onto all the words I’ve heard in dozens of parent-teacher conferences for the three of you over the years. Compassionate. Kind. Driven. Problem-solver. Joy. Bright. Helper. Funny. Determined. Gift.

Gift indeed. What a gift each of you is and what gifts you bring to our hurting world.

Happy Mother’s Day to the stay-at-home moms who helped me in a pinch. Happy Mother’s Day to the working moms who covered for me when my own kids needed me more. Happy Mother’s Day to the teachers who cherished my children and went the extra mile for them. Happy Mother’s Day to their aunts and grandmas who do things like bring them McDonald’s, take them shopping, take them on vacation, and love them wholeheartedly.

Finally, Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers of the motherless who stand in the gap and lovingly care for their foster children with a fierce and loyal love that will stay with those kids forever.

Gift indeed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Would You Still Have a Job?

When I was a teenager my first job was as a ‘bagger’ at the neighborhood grocery store. When I wasn’t asking ‘paper or plastic’, I was busy gathering carts from the parking lot. This was a very important job. A wayward cart could cause untold damage back in the day before cart corrals. I was vigilant about keeping the lot free. One of my work buddies did not share the same enthusiasm. On his watch, a runaway cart slammed into a parked car. There were serious dents involved and management was not happy. The second time it happened management was furious. Although I wasn’t sure it was really my buddy’s fault, he was the one in charge of the parking lot when the transgressions occurred. I don’t think they fired him. They just kind of reduced his hours to nothing and let him drift away. I think of that from time to time when I see or hear of magistrates or judges making horrendous decisions about the lives of children despite the evidence of risk before them. Good decisions about foster children are made every day across the country. Unfortunately, bad ones are too.

Vyctorya (Tori) Sandoval was eighteen months old when she was returned from foster care to the home of her biological parents. Their family history included domestic violence and physical abuse. A restraining order was issued preventing her mom and dad from being together. They had lost custody of eight other children and disappeared after Tori was placed in foster care. They resurfaced months later and wanted her back.

The court (Commissioner Marilyn Mackel) gave her back. Even though they lived together despite the history of violence and restraining order. Even though they never engaged in or completed services to address the domestic violence between them. Even though they hadn’t retained custody of their eight older children. Even though Tori (at age 15 months) tried to run and hide from them at visits. Even though she sobbed uncontrollably after visits, cried in her sleep, and wanted to be held by her foster parents all the time. Even though she returned from overnight visits emotionless with only a fixed stare. Even though she came home from visits and stuffed food into her little mouth with the frenzy of a starving child. Even though her loving foster parents wanted to adopt her. Commissioner Mackel returned Tori to her biological parents and did not order any post-reunification supervision of the case.

Linda Kontis, director of the foster care agency who had overseen Tori’s foster placement, wrote this letter of grave concern and requested a full review of Tori’s case. The court
(Judge Michael Nash) reviewed it. Nothing changed.

Tori died seven months later.

Full cardiopulmonary arrest. Severe anemia. Acute renal failure. Severe hypothermia. Severe hypocalcaemia. Displaced fracture to the right ninth rib. Multiple bruises to face and body. Large bruise and laceration to the forehead, right eye, chest, abdomen and legs.

Commissioner Mackel took a medical leave of absence after the LA Times exposed the letter and Tori’s case yet returned to the bench months later. Judge Nash continues presiding today.

Tori’s biological parents’ arraignment is scheduled for later this week. They are ultimately allegedly responsible for her death. However, when we fail to hold courts accountable for their decisions or at least question how the courts arrived at such decisions then we further rob vulnerable children of a chance to be heard. We are also more likely to fail children in the future.

If a local grocery store manager holds a sixteen-year-old accountable for not keeping a watchful eye on the cart situation in a parking lot, surely we can hold accountable the people who fail to keep a watchful eye on defenseless babies who truly have no voice.

Especially when these kids pay for it with their lives.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Five Ways to Speak for Babies in Court

One in four children coming into foster care is a baby under age one. Here are five ways you can be sure their voice is heard in court.

The best opportunity we have to build strong children is during their first three years of life when their brains are developing at rapid rates and they are soaking up their surroundings. Our early life experiences shape the way we learn and grow throughout our lives. CASAs who serve babies have a tremendous opportunity to help get these extremely vulnerable infants on the right track-- saving their childhoods as well as shaping future generations to come. Knowing what to look for and how to be a voice for these truly voiceless young children is critical now more than ever. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Get the lay of their land. Frequent home visitation is the only way to get a good picture of what Baby’s daily life looks like. To understand Baby’s life situation, it’s important to visit any setting where Baby spends a lot of time, including childcare centers or in-home providers. Some things to look for: Is Baby on a schedule? Routine and structure are critical to helping very young children feel safe and overcome early adverse life experiences. Who lives in the home and have you met them? Who are the important people in Baby’s life? How is Baby relating to his or her adult caregivers? Does Baby sleep too much? Too little? Does Baby experience significant regulation problems such as reflux, constipation, or difficulty gaining weight? You can’t get the full picture if you don’t know what all the pieces look like. Any issues you uncover during this step may point to the fact that Baby is having a hard time and needs some help. Science tells us babies as young as six months experience grief, loss, anxiety, and depression. These problems are best mitigated by routine and consistent, nurturing care from a stable and loving adult.

Case Study: Sebastian* was seven-months-old when his parents were arrested for drug-trafficking and child endangering charges. He was immediately placed in foster care and a CASA was assigned to advocate for him. His CASA made four foster home visits over the next two months. Each time she visited, Sebastian was in his crib no matter what time of day his CASA arrived. His foster mother only vaguely answered her questions about his daily life, indicating she was not consistently engaged with him and did not have a schedule for him. In addition, the CASA did not observe the foster mother physically interacting with Sebastian at all. Without these twice-monthly home visits, his CASA would likely not have noticed these red flags. Evidence shows that babies need a routine that will help them begin to feel competent by knowing what to expect each day. Likewise, they need the freedom to explore their surroundings and build both big and little muscles by crawling, etc.

2.Dig Deeper. Now that you have a sense of Baby’s life, it’s time to dig deeper. Where are Baby’s medical records and has Baby been to the doctor? Babies in foster care may move from home to home and their records and medical history often do not move with them. Are Baby’s immunizations up to date? Babies get multiple doses of six routine childhood vaccines that protect against eight diseases such as polio. They receive nearly twenty doses of these six vaccines in the first year of life. Are there any outstanding medical issues or previous concerns noted by a pediatrician?

Does Baby need a referral for a full developmental assessment? Per CAPTA and federal law, all children under age three who are victims of substantiated physical abuse allegations are automatically eligible for full developmental assessments. Take advantage of this assessment and don’t assume you know from your own experience whether Baby is delayed or not. Leave it to the experts.

Case Study: Sebastian’s CASA requested a full developmental assessment that found him to be functioning at the chronological age of five months. When his foster mother was unable to ensure his attendance at physical, occupational, and speech therapy sessions, his CASA advocated that Sebastian be moved to a foster home better able to meet his needs. Even recognizing the trauma incurred when a baby moves, the CASA believed it was worse to leave Sebastian in a home where he was clearly not thriving. Sebastian was subsequently moved to a loving home with devoted foster parents. He made huge strides in catching up thanks to this therapies combined with the loving, consistent, routine care he received.

3.Take pictures. CASAs are in a unique position to be the historian of a baby’s early years. The simple act of snapping occasional photos has the potential to make significant impacts in a variety of ways. With the agreement of all attorneys, photos of Baby can be attached to court reports and shared with the judge, encouraging all parties to focus on the reality that the decisions they make will shape Baby’s life forever. Sharing photos with biological parents shows you respect their role in their child’s life. That acknowledgement may strengthen your relationship with parents and lead to better communication between you. When the case closes, these photos should be given to the person who has custody of Baby. This is a treasured gift for parents who may have missed the smiles from various stages of development. The photos can also be given to a young child’s mental health therapist and used as a tool to help the child make sense of his/her history and help the child prepare for a transition to a permanent home.

Case Study: Sebastian’s CASA took photos of him regularly and was astonished at the healthy change in Sebastian from the time she first met him. At nine months, Sebastian’s empty eyes were haunting while he lay in his crib. By fourteen months, a photo revealed a chubby young toddler with bright eyes, a wide smile, and arms waving in the air. Sebastian’s CASA attached his picture to her court report and the judge put it right inside the flap of his legal file. It became the first thing he saw when he pulled the case file. The CASA also mailed copies of the photos to Sebastian’s biological parents, including a letter introducing herself as Sebastian’s court advocate.

4.Keep time. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) was enacted to prevent foster kids from languishing in the system and moving them toward adoption. ASFA requires efforts to be made toward permanency for children within two years of initial foster care placement. Despite ASFA, babies under three months take, on average, 39 months before permanency is achieved when they are placed with the initial goal of adoption. In Hamilton County, Ohio, juvenile court dependency review hearings begin with the following statement read aloud: "This is case number 00-0000 regarding Jane Smith who is 18 months old. Jane has been in agency care for 162 days. The court and parties have 203 days to reunify the family or secure another permanent placement for the child. The attorneys and parties have a duty to assist Jane in achieving that permanent home." Staying focused on the legal clock can help prevent babies from languishing in the system unnecessarily.

Case Study:
Sebastian remained in his loving foster home from the time he was nine months old until he was two. Because of his parents’ criminal trials and subsequent prison terms, no reunification efforts were made. His CASA’s diligence in ensuring potential extended family members were investigated in a timely manner helped keep the case moving. Ultimately, no family members were found to be able, willing, and appropriate to care for Sebastian.

Sebastian’s foster parents were not interested in adopting him and he was ultimately transitioned to an adoptive home with careful planning. His secure attachment to his foster parents enabled him to better cope with the gradual move to his new family. It is better for babies like Sebastian to make and break an attachment than to not be given the opportunity to experience a healthy attachment at all. When Sebastian’s adoption finalized, his CASA gave his new parents a photo album containing the photos she had taken throughout the case.

5.Know your facts. While it is important to know all of the facts about Baby’s case, it is equally important to know what the trajectory of life looks like for foster babies. More than half of the young children placed in foster care have developmental delays. Young children are more likely to be abused and neglected in foster care than older children and to stay in foster care longer. Up to 80% have chronic health conditions. Once you know these facts, you can easily share them with others and be a voice not just for one child but for all young children in foster care. Start having the conversations about how to address these issues case by case and systemically. Build your own team of passionate people who want to help babies beat these odds. Visit for more information about initiatives like Court Teams for Maltreated Infants that are helping very vulnerable young children.

When you intervene successfully on behalf of a baby, you give him or her a second chance at a happy childhood as well as help change the course of his or her entire future, which has ripple effects for generations to come. It is an exciting time to be helping babies in foster care because we know so much about what babies need to thrive.

The above information was taken from Invisible Kids: Marcus Fiesel’s Legacy. Additional case studies and more in-depth information on advocating for very young children in foster care can be found in this book by child advocate and author Holly Schlaack. Invisible Kids is available in print or ebook editions. Discounts available for bulk orders. For more information, please visit

*Sebastian's name has been changed to protect his identity.

“It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Out of the Shadows and Into the Light

Back in the day when I worked as a Guardian Ad Litem representing the best interests of abused and neglected infants and toddlers in juvenile court proceedings, I would leave a court hearing and walk down Broadway Street,sometimes shaking my head in disbelief. People would pass by and I would want to stop them and take an imaginary poll. These were the kinds of questions I would want to ask them:

‘A twenty-two-year-old mother of four was charged with child endangering after leaving her four kids home alone. The oldest is five. This is the second time she has done this even though the children’s services caseworker set up free childcare after the first time. The court ordered reunification services. Should the mother get her children back?’

‘A three-year-old has been with the same foster family since birth. She is growing and thriving and her foster family desperately wants to adopt her. She is moving today to Susie in Texas who has never laid eyes on her. Susie is her mother’s second cousin. According to the law, Susie is the toddler’s family. Do you think the little girl understands that Susie is her family?’

‘A forty-seven-year-old father of two toddler girls has relapsed for the second time. His history of alcoholism and cocaine addiction spans three decades. He suffers from chronic illness as well. We are re-initiating reunification services for the third time. Is this a good idea?’

‘The permanent custody trial for an infant had been delayed four times for various reasons. Once because an attorney failed to show. Once because another attorney failed to have a parent transported from jail. Once because a parent wasn’t properly notified. Once because paperwork wasn’t filed in a timely manner. Meanwhile, the baby languishes in a family that does not plan to adopt him. Are you OK with this?’

I have often wondered what people in the general population would think if they knew what went on behind the closed doors of dependency proceedings. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to point fingers at the professionals involved in such complicated cases. No one goes into the field for the money or the perks. Somehow though, something has gotten dreadfully off track. I think we could all agree on that, especially when we look at the statistics and facts as they relate to children in foster care.

I think part of what has gone wrong is that too much has gone unchecked behind closed doors. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Judge Michael Nash’s decision to open dependency proceedings to the press in Los Angeles County. My initial reaction was one of opposition. Children should not have their privacy violated, the details of their tragic lives made public for all to see.

However, the greater crime is that too many are further violated by the very brokenness of the current child welfare and judicial systems and there is little hope of fixing it if we don’t cast light on what is wrong. We can’t expect the systems to hold themselves accountable. It doesn’t work that way. We don’t expect dysfunctional families to fix themselves. They need outside intervention. How can we expect dysfunctional systems to fix themselves? And if they aren’t dysfunctional, why are so many children suffering under their care and supervision?

I think Judge Nash is giving us an opportunity to learn more about the lives of children who are caught in situations where parents fail them so that we can keep a watchful eye and ensure systems don’t fail them also.

Get educated. Get involved.