BTWEEN THE LINES - Warm and caring voices

Tuesday, February 5, 2002

I'd like to step aside today to share a story that recently appeared in the "GoodLetter," the online magazine of GoodThings, Inc. It was excerpted with permission from the new book "Lighting the Way: Volunteer Child Advocates Speak Out," by the National CASA Association and the Child Welfare League of America. With the threat to the Court-Appointed Special Advocate program in Iowa, it hits home. Enjoy.

Susan and Stephen Forstadt

We wanted to get involved with something where we could work directly with children, more hands-on than fundraising. Our daughter said she was tired

of listening to us complain about how sad the TV news always was, how nobody helped make a difference. It was our time to either put up or shut up. Of course, it was exactly the push we needed to get started. So she helped us to do some research, and we learned how the non-profit

organization, CASA, helps change seemingly forgotten children's lives by connecting them with volunteer CASAs (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) who help them navigate the impersonal child welfare and legal systems.

Too often, judges must make decisions either without knowing much about the children or with inaccurate information. A CASA role is to provide information to the court so that it can make an intelligent decision. A CASA becomes an advocate for the child both in court and in everyday life.

All that's required is a willingness to help out and some common sense.

Usually, the children we work with don't have anyone to stand up for them or fight for them, not only in court, but also in matters of education, health and family. We just go ahead and do whatever a loving parent would do to get the services the child needs.

One case we had concerned two brothers, Steven and Thomas. Steven was known for his bad behavior. At the same time, he would hardly speak. It

wasn't until he got placed in a loving foster home that we learned he had a hearing problem. Soon, hearing aids in both ears corrected a lot of Steven's frustration and behavior problems. Actually, it was an amazing case all around. This foster family wanted to adopt both boys. As we dug further into the case, we learned a younger brother nobody in the system seemed to be aware of -Brian - was in a different foster home. Once we found Brian, the couple who wanted to adopt Steven and Thomas said, "We'll

take him, too."

Some time later, we arranged to meet the boys at a bowling alley to see how they were doing. All three of them came running up to us, and Steven kept talking and talking and talking. He wanted to tell us everything that had happened since we'd last seen him. The hearing aids drew him out of his shell so much that his adoptive parents joked and said we'd created a monster. It's a good feeling when you see a child go from one extreme to another. Not only the affection you have for them, but also the affection they show you makes you feel as if you're part of the family. We're really proud of that case.

Then, there was Michael, a mentally disturbed boy who was very withdrawn and for whom Children and Family Services couldn't find foster placement.

We had been to court with him maybe a dozen times before, and whenever we went, we would take him to lunch to make it a little easier for him.

One time when we went to court and asked the judge for permission to take him to lunch, an attorney objected, saying he had information that Michael was going to run away and that it wasn't safe for us to take him out. The judge asked for our response. All of a sudden, Michael jumped up, and he yelled out, "Run away? Where am I going to run? No one wants me!" The judge looked at us and said, "Mr. and Mrs. Forstadt, would you like to take him to lunch? Would you like to take him to dinner? Wherever you would like to take him, be my guest."

So that's what we do. We go into court. The caseloads of both attorneys

and social workers are so immense that they really don't have the time to spend with the child or know much about the children's lives. But a CASA knows more about these children than anyone in the courtroom. The

information we provide weighs heavily in a judge's decision because he or she knows we have done our homework. Judges also understand that CASAs always report reliable, firsthand information, since their only

responsibility is to the child.

The children we deal with have been dumped. They've been dumped by parents and relatives. They've been abused and abandoned. It gets to a point where they don't trust anyone so we try to renew that trust and succeed in many cases. But when Court Appointed Special Advocates make a promise, they keep a promise, something these kids are not used to. Knowing that we are keeping promises is a hell of a good feeling. We give children something they've never had before -- reliability and consistency. And one case at a time, we make a difference.