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Uprooted Children Find a Friend in Court

February 26, 1987|IDELLE DAVIDSON | Davidson is a West Los Angeles free-lance writer.

In 15 crowded courtrooms in downtown Los Angeles, the futures of numerous young children are decided. Many have been removed from their homes because of abuse, abandonment or neglect. The children ask: "Who will take care of me?" "Where will I go?" "Will I see my family again?"

Marcia Herrman helps to find the answers.

Herrman, who lives in Studio City, is one of 250 volunteers who work for the Child Advocates Office. Last April the Board of Supervisors, choosing from among 79,000 county volunteers, honored her as Volunteer of the Year for her work in helping children make their way through the bureaucracy of the court system.

A semi-retired child development specialist in her 50s, Herrman has a gentle and unimposing manner. Her gentle appearance is matched by soft, cautious words. She is careful not to refer to any of her client children by even their first names. When she does speak in specifics, she uses pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.

The Child Advocates Office, a program that is conducted under the auspices of the Superior Court, draws a special type of volunteer, said director Barbara Sanchez Smart.

"They're carefully screened. We select only the most dedicated, committed, caring people," Smart said. But Herrman was given the award, she believes, for more than those qualities.

'Go to Lengths Necessary'

"When she is working on behalf of a child, she will go to whatever lengths necessary to insure that the child's needs are met," said Smart. "She can be very assertive on one hand, but on the other hand she can be diplomatic and caring. It's almost like a passion that she has for ensuring that children and their families are treated fairly."

One of the initial experiences children have with the Child Advocates Office is with the Children's Court Assistant program, which Herrman helped pioneer. She saw a need, she said, to help children understand what was happening to them.

"You have to put yourself into the shoes of the child," she said. "Something happens during the day or at night and all of a sudden there are police who come and take the child away. Parents are crying or the rest of the family is screaming.

"And what does that child experience? The child is taken to either a foster home, shelter care home or MacLaren's Children Center. They must be in court within 72 hours. There can be 50 children in court that day. That means five minutes each hearing to decide whether to keep them apart from their parents."

As a court assistant, Herrman or another volunteer stays with the child. A film is shown to the children explaining the process and who the court personnel are.

They Come in So Frightened

"We try to personalize it a little bit," she said. "We ask, do you want to go home, do you not want to go home? Then, when they leave court, we tell them what has been decided."

They come in so frightened, said Herrman. After a while they begin to relax.

"They'll say, 'Thank you,' and 'Can I have something to eat?" and 'Gee, it's boring.' They become children."

Herrman is also credited for her work as a guardian ad litem, or child's advocate throughout the entire court procedure. In her 3 1/2 years as a volunteer, she has represented only a few children as a guardian, but hundreds in shelter care and at MacLaren Children's Center.

One such child she represented was 4 1/2-year-old Janine, who was sexually abused by friends of her mother and taken away from her mother.

'This Was a Crisis'

"I took her for mental health services immediately because I believed this was a crisis," said Herrman. "There had been a lot of sexual contact and knowledge, but she just wouldn't talk about it."

Bit by bit, Herrman got Janine to trust her. A warm relationship developed.

"She relaxed and began to understand to a remarkable degree what was happening. I became the treat lady. She called me mostly Marcia, but when people asked her who I was, she told them I was her grandmother."

Herrman thought it important to keep up the contact between Janine and her mother.

"I always brought messages to Janine. I brought pictures. I would always say, 'I spoke to your mother.' This mother was frequently angry with me because I was recommending that Janine not be returned to her.

"Slowly, she began to see that although I did not agree with her, I did care about her relationship with her child. I try not to blame people. You never know what life deals. This mother had her own trials and tribulations and I believe had been abused herself."

Herrman's schedule changes from week to week. Sometimes she'll work 20 hours a week, sometimes 40. She works at MacLaren's Children's Center every other week and believes her efforts there are among the most important of her volunteer job.

Seeks Proper Match

Some of the children there have been in 15 placements--foster homes--Herrman said. She interviews them to find out, in their opinion, what went wrong at the foster home and how the court can help to make a better match.

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