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Meet Amy, Andres and Daniel
Investigations began when 7-year-old Andres was asked at school about the bump on his forehead and he replied that his mother had hit him. The family was not new to the Department of Children & Families (DCF). The mother had been involved with DCF decades earlier as an abused child herself. Andres had three older siblings who earlier had been in DCF custody and had been permanently adopted into other families. Andres, his 5-year-old brother, Daniel, and their 13-year-old sister slept together on one mattress in an apartment that police had searched for drug use among adults. Andres had a serious mobility issue, but his mother was not taking him to his medical appointments. The mother was determined not to be capable of taking care of the children, so Andres and Daniel were placed into foster care together. Their older sister was placed into another.
The court appointed Amy to be the CASA for the brothers. A second CASA was appointed for the sister. The boys moved out of the city, and one of Amy’s first duties was to help with medical and school records.
“It was very difficult to get updated records so the boys could receive appropriate services in their new schools and the ability to see medical specialists. It was quite involved. I was glad to do it, especially because it freed the foster parents to spend time with the kids rather than chasing records. I also think schools and the hospital may have responded more quickly when I said I was calling as a CASA, a Court Appointed Special Advocate. The process might have been slower for a foster parent.”
Life is more stable for Andres and Daniel now. They are living outside the city with two dads who have two sons. Andres is in his first classroom for students with special needs and is finally receiving recommended speech therapy. Daniel is thriving at his new school with reading and math support. Amy sees the boys twice a month, usually Saturday mornings. They get to have fun.
One of her tasks as a CASA volunteer has been for Amy to help the foster parents deal with the court system. “I was at a Foster Care Plan meeting, the foster parents were there, a representative from the Home for Little Wanderers was there, an education advocate for the sister who is not living with Andres and Daniel was there, as were a clinical specialist from the boys’ school, DCF social workers and the CASA for the sister. The sister has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and has a more complicated case. At the meeting, I pushed to make sure that the boys got the attention they needed.”
Amy says that she’s the eyes and ears of the court. “I report to the judge what I see. That’s different from what DCF can do. Their lawyers might have 30-40 cases. I just have Andres and Daniel.”
Boston CASA would like to thank all volunteers like Amy who are helping children and families be their best, because, like Andres and Daniel, all children, deserve to thrive.
Meet Martha and Tomas
Tomas was born with heroin in his system because his mother used the drug during her pregnancy. She had a long history of substance abuse and had lost custody of her other children. In four months, she also lost custody of Tomas, who went to live with his father. He has not seen his birth mother since, and his father raised him. Sylvia, a neighbor and his father’s friend, watches Tomas when his father was at work. He calls Sylvia Mom.
Tomas is now twelve-years-old, in the sixth grade and small for his age. He started acting out. One afternoon he got in trouble and was supposed to stay after school, but he skipped out, so his father was notified. The next day, Tomas was brought to the school social worker. Tomas became upset and said he was afraid to go home that night. The school asked Tomas if there were someone he would like to call since he didn’t feel safe going home. He asked to call Sylvia. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) determined that Tomas was not safe at his father’s, and he went to live with Sylvia. She now officially functions as the boy’s foster mother. Tomas’s behavior continued to deteriorate at school. He spent most of his time wandering the halls and was failing all of his classes.
A judge from the Suffolk County Juvenile Court contacted Boston CASA to appoint a volunteer to monitor Tomas’s case. That was when Martha started working with Tomas.
“My time with Tomas began with my taking him to and from appointments,” says Martha. Tomas had many appointments – with DCF social workers, therapists, school teachers and counselors. “I was building a relationship with him, building trust. We spent a lot of time together, and he could tell I was on his side.”
Martha understood the importance of working with Sylvia. As a foster parent, Sylvia was not allowed in the court proceedings about Tomas. She had no voice to present her ideas about Tomas, nor was she present to hear the court recommendations intended to facilitate the child’s care and healing. Martha started coaching Sylvia about being the kind of caregiver Tomas needed. Sylvia had an adult daughter who was disabled with compromised motor skills and lived at home. Tomas showed great responsibility helping Sylvia feed and take care of her daughter. Martha helped Sylvia understand the importance of ensuring that Tomas attended school every day. She helped Sylvia become more engaged with the people at school who were working for the best interests of Tomas. Martha also helped Tomas enroll in Sylvia’s Food Stamps.
“Tomas needed a CASA because so many people were involved in his case. As a CASA I could help coordinate the multiple parties, especially around education and health resources,” says Martha.
She made sure that Tomas received an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which increased the specialized services offered at school. She also ensured that his Mass Health insurance was reinstated in order to allow Tomas to receive neuropsychological and trauma evaluations. The court had ordered that Tomas receive regular therapy, but the therapist didn’t seem to be addressing trauma issues, so Martha started working with his pediatrician to get him assigned to a more appropriate therapist.
“If we don’t get children the support they need,” says Charles Lerner, Boston CASA Executive Director, “they hold many intense feelings that naturally come up later. These life-altering experiences don’t just go away. They don’t bounce off of you. They have to be dealt with.”
Meet Alex and Shera
Shera entered foster care at age 15 due to a pattern of physical abuse at home. Her young parents were separated and both having difficulty coping appropriately with Shera’s risky behavior, which included disciplinary difficulties in school, an older boyfriend, drug use, and running away. One day she arrived at school with a black eye, saying her mother had hit her. She was subsequently sent to live with her father by the Department of Families and Children (DCF). When he caught her with her boyfriend, he physically assaulted her, and Shera went back to her mother. But soon she appeared at a police station with bruises, saying she was afraid to go home. Shera was then taken into DCF custody and sent to the first of ultimately four group homes during the next year.
A lawyer asked that a CASA volunteer be assigned to the case to help act as an advocate for Shera and to aid in the gridlock that had developed among the parties involved. A referral was sent to Boston CASA and Alex was assigned to the case.
Shera was surprisingly open to having an advocate work with her. She was angry with most of the people involved in her life – DCF, the group home staff, therapists, and lawyers. The emotionally volatile relationship with her mother continued when they were in contact. But they had a very strong bond and both expressed a desire to work on their relationship and reunify as a family. When Alex first met her, Shera was not attending school due to changing group homes, and no one seemed to be able to locate the paperwork necessary to enroll her in a new school. She was not on birth control. Her mother was angry with all parties involved in the case – particularly DCF – and eventually became so abusive toward a DCF worker that she was barred from speaking to him. Shera continued to go on the run from her group home. Progress on the case was difficult until she could be convinced to stay put and work towards getting her life back on track. “A lot of what I did at the beginning was connecting the dots,” says Alex. “I made calls, did research about educational options, saw Shera every Saturday when she was not on the run, and worked hard at building good relationships with everyone involved on the case. I was often the only visitor Shera had during the first several months I knew her. I would take her to lunch or we would go for a walk and talk about what was going on with her. Once we began to establish a relationship and she began to see that I really cared about her well-being, I was better able to advocate for her. One part of the equation as well was creating a trusting relationship with her mother because deep down they truly loved each other and wanted to learn how to have a healthy relationship." As CASA volunteers often see, many mothers who have lost children in the foster care system are survivors of domestic abuse themselves. They may need help developing better parenting tools and dealing with their own trauma in order to be more effective parents.
Alex worked to get psychological evaluations done for Shera in order to help better understand her pattern of behavior. Through conversations with therapists and Alex, Shera finally admitted that the bruises she had blamed on her mother were actually from her boyfriend – an abusive relationship that was modelling what she had seen as a child between her mother and father. Shera was finally diagnosed with PTSD – a diagnosis that helped better explain her impulsive and angry behavior. Working alongside DCF, Alex helped Shera with her goals of repairing the relationship with her mother and going home. She stopped her pattern of running and began following the rules of her group home. She began attending school more regularly and agreed to participate in therapy.
Through conversations with workers at the group home, Alex learned about a small charter school and fought hard to get Shera enrolled. The new school would be able to meet Shera where she was academically (in a year and a half, she had attended very little high school) and support her with her emotional challenges. She was getting lost in the large public high schools, acting out in class, and repeatedly getting suspended. "Teachers and principals did not understand the constant state of emotional flux Shera was living in while being involved with DCF. They disciplined ways that ultimately made her act out even more,” says Alex. “The charter school understood that students from difficult backgrounds needed increased support from staff surrounding emotional and behavioral challenges, in order to ultimately help them have success with their academic learning.” Alex accompanied DCF and Shera to tour the school and ultimately helped enroll her there.
Alex was determined to develop positive relationships with the lawyers and DCF social workers on Shera's case. “Over time, they began to see that I could help them do some of the legwork they did not have time to do because of their busy caseloads,” says Alex. “I was in the closest contact with Shera and her mother as well, talking to them several times a week. As Shera began really to make progress with her goals, I helped to organize a meeting with all the parties to set a concrete plan in place for reunification between mother and daughter. We had a wonderful DCF supervisor who was able to lead the meeting in a very productive way despite the tension and emotions that are inevitable. The role of a CASA in aiding with communication turned out to be a key factor in the road towards healing with this family. Over the year that Alex worked with Shera and her family, she encountered many situations where she was the only consistent adult who knew Shera's full background on her case. "When she moved schools or group homes or met with a new therapist, I would immediately reach out to introduce myself and help fill in some of the details that were not in her case file. A child is so much more than what's written in a short report in a file." CASA workers are able to get to know a child and their family at a deeper level, because that child is their sole focus.
Shera is now back home living with her mother and attending the charter school. Their relationship is much better and they continue to work with an excellent family therapist. “I saw both Shera and her mother grow and mature during an extremely challenging time in their lives.” It was a moving scene in the courtroom the day that Shera’s mother regained custody and mother and daughter were moved to tears. The judge thanked Alex for her detailed reports which had aided him in better understanding this family.
I would visit him monthly. After 4 or 5 months, he would be running and then head straight into me and hug me. I believed he recognized my smell or cologne. When I discuss these issues with the CASA consultant, I learned that there was a program at Children’s Hospital to deal with developmentally delayed children – to toilet train them and teach them to eat solid foods. This appeared in my CASA reports to the Court. This would appear on subsequent reports, reminding the parties in bold how many times this recommendation has been made and yet, no follow up. Finally, a Motion was filed with the Court to compel DSS to bring this child to the hospital. On the day of the Motion, all parties were greeted by the DSS attorney and informed that JJ was at the hospital being enrolled into the Program.
While investigating JJ’s case, interviewing family and friends, I learned there was a paternal aunt who had already adopted her autistic nephew. She had a two-year degree in child psychology and had lost her child. She loved this nephew and very much wanted to take care of JJ. She became JJ’s foster mother and, when the case concluded, adopted JJ. She always sends me a picture of JJ every Christmas with a note on how well he is doing and that he is a joy.
Meet Alfonso and Gregory
When I first met these brothers, they were 13 and 11. The older brother was very protective of his younger sibling. They were always clean, well spoken; very serious about school and sports. The older brother did almost all the talking as the younger one always looked on and occasionally nodded his head. They did get moved from time to time, but the DSS Supervisor always made sure the social worker kept them together.
What was striking about these two were their teachers. All reported how gifted they were. Some reported that they would be better off in a more affluent school district. I was eventually able to convince one of their foster mothers to drive the boys to Boston College campus. I had arranged to meet them there for a tour with the admissions office. We toured the beautiful campus and the boys kept saying the same thing over and over again: "This place is bigger than Chelsea.”
Multiple attempts were made to convince the older brother to apply to Boston College High School so that he could apply eventually to Boston College. He decided to go to a vocational trade school.
A little over a year later, I was sitting in my office and the phone rang. It was the younger brother. He had a question: "how do I get into BC High?” We quickly got busy with filling out the admission forms and setting up the school interview. He was accepted by BC High and Friends of CASA, Inc., paid his tuition. It was a long commute from Chelsea, but he was never late and never missed a day of school in his four years. Tellingly, his GPA increased by one or two points every semester. All his teachers reported what a hard worker he was and what a pleasure he was to have in their class.
He graduated from BC High and was accepted into Boston College with a full scholarship. He graduated from Boston College and now works for the Department of Children and Families. We see each other at least once a month. I will always remember his remark that Boston College was bigger than Chelsea. I was glad he was able to see that the world is a lot bigger and he was able to take advantage of the many opportunities it has to offer.