Over the past two decades, I have had the extraordinary experience of working with youth involved in the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system. I am thrilled to bear witness as Los Angeles County finally moves toward using diversion programs to keep kids out of juvenile justice and in school and at home where they belong.
During the Texas girl’s checkup at the local clinic, the doctor was surprised by what he found. Brittany* had a sexually transmitted disease. She was three. Quickly after that, into Brittany’s life came a host of police officers, some child abuse investigators, a judge, and a public defender. Luckily someone else came along at the same time.
The state juvenile code rewrite and a bill proposing an end to the practice of overmedicating foster children topped the agenda Tuesday as advocates from JUSTGeorgia and the Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program gathered at the capitol for their annual lobby day. More than 300 supporters from across the state turned out to meet with legislators about what they say are two top critical policy issues affecting children this session. “We’re all here trying to do right for the children of Georgia,” says Georgia CASA Executive Director Duaine Hathaway. “We are here to inspire Georgia legislators and get them to act on behalf of Georgia’s children.”
JUSTGeorgia Project Manager Julia Neighbors says the event is as an opportunity for the network of volunteers and supporters to reconnect with seasoned lawmakers, while raising awareness among the 45 new legislators who have taken office this year. “This is also just a good opportunity for JUSTGeorgia to work with CASA,” she says.
As I drove up to Goshen Valley Boy’s Ranch in the pouring rain with Sue Badeau from Casey Family Programs in the seat beside me at 8pm, I had moments of doubt. I asked James’ case manager earlier in the day, “Is James OK with seeing us tonight?”
“About as excited as a 15 year old boy can be,” she answered, which did not comfort me. When we arrived at the lovely but lonely set of houses set in a wide expanse of woods and views, we were informed that James* had gone to bed, disappointed that we had failed to show way past the agreed upon hour. But he did come out and joined us for a two-hour conversation about his permanency goals. We had gotten permission for Sue to do permanency counseling with James.
I sat in the Fulton County Juvenile Court audience on Saturday, November 20th , with my son and my husband, watching the joyful and moving ceremony of 23 families who were celebrating their adoptions on National Adoption Day . Afterward, I thought about my earlier conversation this past week remembering Fulton’s Terrell Peterson who suffered and died at the age of 5 when he should have been protected by our child welfare system and adopted by a loving family. These two events might seem like they are far apart but they are linked in my mind because November is also the 10 year anniversary of Terrell’s picture on the cover of Time Magazine with the title of “The Shame of Foster Care.” Terrell’s tragic case deeply affected many people. For my family, Terrell was the catalyst of working with Emory University School of Law to create the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic , for others it was the call to become foster parents , CASAs or mentors.
CASA Northeast Georgia executive director Melissa Mitchell got a letter recently from a child she’d helped as a CASA volunteer a decade ago in Forsyth County. The girl, one of four siblings whose case she had worked, wrote to tell her that she’d just graduated from high school and was headed to North Georgia College. She wanted to thank Mitchell for her help all those years ago. “Often times, the rewards of being a CASA volunteer are not immediate, but there are many rewards in helping these children,” Mitchell said. A CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) is a trained community volunteer who is appointed by a judge to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child in juvenile court proceedings. The CASA volunteer’s job is to advocate for the child to be placed in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.