Some children's advocates hope a federal court case that has publicized the predicament of about 2,200 abused and neglected young people in the District's child welfare system also will focus attention on the little-known network of volunteers who try to help.
"People don't realize our role," said Nancy Smith, a representative of the Consortium for Child Welfare, an informal network of five nonprofit agencies that recruits foster and adoptive parents under contract to the District's Child and Family Services Division.
That could change, Smith said, with the attention focused on the child welfare system by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit now entering its third week of trial before U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan.
The trial, which began Feb. 6, has been in recess since the ACLU finished presenting its case Wednesday. Lawyers for the District asked for the delay, saying they needed more time to prepare.
The lawsuit alleges that the District has violated the rights of the children in its care, and inflicted incalculable emotional harm, by moving them from one foster home or institution to another for years at a time instead of reuniting families or making the children available for adoption.
Department of Human Services officials have said that the agency's problems are the result of chronic budget shortages. Agency social workers who have testified for the ACLU have told of juggling caseloads of as many as 200 children, without secretarial help, typewriter ribbons or even a car to help them make home visits.
Testimony in the case has centered on how well the agency runs the child welfare system. But roughly 400 of the 2,200 children in that system are in homes provided by private, nonprofit agencies: Associated Catholic Charities, Family and Child Services, For Love of Children, the Methodist Board of Child Care and Lutheran Social Services. Those agencies, as well as some churches, make up the Consortium for Child Welfare.
Until now, each agency has recruited foster parents on its own by word of mouth, depending on how much money it had to train volunteers, Smith said. But the attention generated by the trial has prompted a reappraisal.
"We really are very eager to take a larger role in assisting the District," she said. In talking yesterday with Fred Taylor, executive director of For Love of Children, she said, "he and I feel committed to finding the money somehow" to train additional volunteers if the trial succeeds in heightening interest in the problem.
The next training session for people interested in becoming foster parents or adoptive parents through one of those agencies will begin next month at For Love of Children headquarters, 1711 14th St. NW.
Those interested should call For Love of Children at 202-462-8686, or contact one of the other agencies, Smith said. Individual agencies also can provide volunteer opportunities for people who cannot take a foster child, but who could spend time working with children as tutors or mentors, Taylor added.
At the same time, the city's newest volunteer program is gearing up to start training sessions next month in D.C. Superior Court. The Court Appointed Special Advocate program will recruit people who want to be advocates for abused and neglected children in court, supplementing the work of the child's lawyer and human services social workers by visiting the child at home and writing a detailed report on his living situation.
Begun in the mid-1970s in family courts in Seattle, special advocate programs are now in at least 47 states, including Virginia and Maryland, said Mary Pat Toups, a lawyer who helped get the approval of Superior Court judges to start one here.
Toups said that since she began organizing in August 1989, she also has worked as a special advocate volunteer in Virginia. It was, she said, "one of the most rewarding experiences of my life . . . . It's the feeling that you can touch the life of one little child and make a difference."
Those interested in becoming special advocate volunteers should call Toups at 202-328-2193.