This story begins five years ago, on the day Diane Baker met a 13-year-old girl who seemed not to have a friend in the world. Her family life in shambles, the girl had just entered foster care in Montgomery County. Diane isn’t sure how the story will end.
“There are times I’m with her and I have enormous hope,” Diane said. “There are other times when I’m enormously frustrated and I think ‘You’re going off a cliff, kid, and I can’t stop the train.’
“I go up and down all the time with this. I want to see that it’s going to be worth it. The truth is, not one of us can chart her outcome. Only she can.”
But Diane is doing all she can to make sure the girl — now 19 and two years shy of when she’ll age out of the foster-care system — has all the tools she’ll need to make it.
Diane is a court-appointed special advocate — or CASA — who volunteers with the nonprofit CASA Program of Montgomery County. These CASAs — known as guardians ad litem in some communities — act as the eyes and ears of the juvenile court judges who make decisions involving kids in foster care. The CASAs parse through many competing voices — lawyers, social workers, birth parents, foster parents, mental health professionals — and report to the court.
“One of the things about any litigated process is that parties have positions,” said Cynthia Callahan, associate judge for the Montgomery circuit and head of the juvenile court. “And that’s appropriate. That’s what they’re supposed to do. One of the great things about the CASAs is they’re charged with knowing about the child and the child’s world and can give you sort of a 360-degree view.”
Francha Davis, executive director of CASA of Montgomery, said there are about 200 CASA volunteers in the county. She wishes there were more, which is why she’s always on the hunt for volunteers and for monetary donations to train and supervise them.
After a background check, would-be CASAs go through 40 hours of training. Some of it is technical — how the court works; how to fill out paperwork — but much of it gets to the challenges of working with kids in extreme situations.
For some, the education is this: Even in affluent Montgomery County, families implode. Substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness: These things can snowball until it’s best for children to be removed from their parents.
The CASA plays an interesting role. He or she isn’t meant to be the child’s friend. Nor is she there to buy a winter coat or a new pair of shoes. Besides reporting to the court, CASAs help in other, more lasting ways. As the children get older, Francha said, the focus is on “making sure these kids have all of the basic things that any of us would make sure our own children have: having a driver’s license, having a bank account, knowing how to fill out a job application.
“Kids who are in foster care — moving from place to place — that stuff just falls through the cracks.”
CASAs can also be a welcome example of continuity. From the day Diane was assigned to her foster child, she has kept track of every adult with whom the girl has interacted while part of the system.
“I have now almost four single-lined pages of social workers, mentors, teachers, school social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and lawyers who she’s flipped through,” Diane said. “She’s had some great relationships, but then they end.”
A CASA’s relationship doesn’t end until the child is returned to the family (now provided with proper support), is adopted or turns 21.
There are similar CASA programs in Northern Virginia, the District and Maryland’s other counties. They’re all descendants of a program started in 1977 by a juvenile court judge in Seattle.
Diane worked as a genetics counselor at a hospital in Michigan before her husband’s job meant relocating to Chevy Chase 10 years ago. She missed being able to help people one on one. She is under no illusions that her efforts will magically transform her young person’s life.
Then why does she do it, I asked.
Diane thought for a moment, then said, “These people are in our world, and if we don’t first of all understand that and embrace that, and second say, ‘What can I give back . . .’ ”
She didn’t finish her sentence, but her point was clear.
Because of the fundraising I’ve done over the years for children’s groups, CASA of Montgomery is honoring me Saturday with its annual Barbara Harrison Child Advocacy Award, named in honor of the anchor who hosts the “Wednesday’s Child” adoption segments on NBC4. I’ll be in a room full of people who really deserve awards.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.