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.