IF I WERE a kid in the foster care system, I’d want someone like Charles Lerner on my side.
For one thing, he gets it: Growing up in Florida, he lived in seven foster homes by the time he was four. Now he has degrees in psychology and family therapy, and a job devoted to giving kids a voice. He heads the Boston office of CASA — a volunteer group that represents kids’ interest in those wrenching child-custody cases.
In all the recent talk about our troubled child welfare system, we’ve heard ideas about bureaucratic reshuffling and incremental funding increases.
In the meantime, we could be overlooking solutions that are right under our noses. Lerner argues that CASA is one of them. The name stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, and the program was launched in 1977 by a juvenile court judge in Seattle, who lamented the fact that he often had only six minutes to determine the fate of a child’s life. He proposed what seemed a radical idea at the time: appointing community volunteers as guardians ad litem, representing minors in the court.
CASA has since spread to 49 states, with five offices in Massachusetts. The courts have discretion in whether to use it. On average, CASA volunteers are pulled into 37 percent of care and protection cases nationwide — but only 8 percent of cases in Massachusetts, said Michael Piraino, who heads the national office.
That’s not an entirely fair comparison, said Martha Grace, retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. She points out that here, lawyers can be appointed for all parties involved in a case; in some other states, a single CASA volunteer is the family’s only representative.
Still, Grace agrees that CASA’s involvement is useful.
It could be a set of eyes on difficult cases, a check on potential crises, an aid to overwhelmed social workers and overburdened court-appointed lawyers. Lerner’s office also tries to facilitate cases, providing the kind of logistical help that might reunite a kid with his family. One of Lerner’s volunteers is currently helping a Spanish-speaking mother to navigate the health care system. Another has driven a birth parent to visitations in a distant suburb.
“We’re not looking for community volunteers who want to ‘save children,’ ’’ Lerner told me. They’re looking for ways to help families work.
Sometimes, the system is welcoming to CASA volunteers. Sometimes, it feels hostile. Lerner gets that his work can sometimes feel like a rebuke, a reminder of the system’s inadequacies. He understands the hesitation about the use of volunteers without social work degrees: Are they prepared for tough situations? Are they guaranteed to stay? (His own volunteers have a 90 percent retention rate.)
But Lerner and Piraino argue that volunteers bring a perspective that a young social worker might not. As Piraino said, many CASA volunteers are in their 40s and 50s, parents themselves, or with experience working with children or families. Volunteers go through a 30-hour training, and are supervised and guided by a CASA official. There’s a process for removing them if they’re not doing the job well.
And they bring a perspective that no one else quite does: an outsider’s sensibility, sometimes with an insider’s compassion. Lerner understands the indignities kids face when they’re caught in the workings of the court system: the frustration of waiting for hours in a courthouse, only to learn that your case has been continued; the sense that, through this immensely personal process, you have little chance to speak for yourself.
“Looking at it through the kids’ eyes,” he said, a volunteer will “bring a sensitivity to a system that’s completely unreasonable.”
In our rush to avert the next crisis, is that an everyday need we’re overlooking? Do kids need more advocates, even when they aren’t in imminent danger?
And if so, how do we make it happen? Recently, Lerner attended a State House hearing for H1511, a bill — proposed by a citizen — that would require the courts to appoint a special-interest advocate in every child care and protection case. Whether that’s feasible, financially and logistically, is surely an open question. But the conversation itself was telling. Lerner said he sat through two hours of testimony before he heard a single person who had been a foster child.