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A Lifetime of Difference, One Child at a Time : Courts: In an overburdened system, volunteer advocates keep the focus on one thing--the best interest of those who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.

March 03, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Like so many people, Gay Courter felt a nagging need to do somethingfor her community. She was a product of the '60s, an Antioch grad who clung to the quaint insistence that one person really could make a difference. But she was also a mom, wife, novelist and filmmaker. To her frequent dismay and occasional embarrassment, her idealism tended to get caught in the crunch.

Then Courter read about a 2-year-old whose stepfather had drowned him by shoving his head in a toilet. That did it. In October, 1989, Courter signed up to become a guardian ad litem--one of 37,000 people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia who volunteer as child advocates, shepherding kids through the maze of juvenile courts and the child welfare system.

Soon she was acting as bureaucratic quarterback for the girl she calls Lydia, a 16-year-old whose record said she had tried to kill her baby sister by cooking her in a microwave oven. (The sister was actually 10, and it was Lydia's boyfriend who, in a fit of teen-age bravado, had threatened to bake the girl alive.)

Courter took on the case of 15-year-old Sharhonda, who took to heart a social worker's careless comment that the best way to get Medicaid and food stamps was to get pregnant. She angrily did combat with Renata, a foster mother who evicted one of Courter's charges, but kept the boy's Christmas presents.

"My mission is pure: to make something that has gone terribly wrong a little better," Courter writes in "I Speak for This Child" (Crown, 1995), her chronicle of five picaresque years in the social welfare system. "Phone call by phone call, visit by visit, meeting by meeting, court appearance by court appearance," Courter recounts, she seeks to be a consistent presence in a child's life, a defender who represents nothing more than the best interests of the child.

Courter's home state, Florida, boasts one of the country's largest guardian ad litem networks. In California and elsewhere, these unpaid champions of children are known more often as CASAs, or court-appointed special advocates.

The idea of training volunteers to act on behalf of neglected, abused and abandoned children dates from 1976, when David Soukup, then a Superior Court judge in Seattle, worried that child welfare cases were railroaded through the system with little concern for a child's long-term interests. In Soukup's view, lawyers, judges and social workers--with caseloads of 60 or more children at one time--were too overburdened to attend to the complexities of each child's case.

"I was consumed by the fact that I didn't have enough information about each child, and I just didn't know if I had done the very best job I could," recalled Soukup, now a practicing attorney and CASA volunteer.

He agonized, for example, about "the 3-year-old girl who shows up in the hospital, and the physicians think she's been sexually abused. The mother says, 'No, she fell off the swing, and besides, my boyfriend, Bill, left last week.' So you go along with the mother's word, then six months later you pick up the paper and read that Bill's back and the girl's dead."

Soukup expected maybe four or five people to respond when he contacted local charitable groups about training volunteers to work with children in the courts. Instead, "50 or 60 people showed up. I knew I was onto something."

Today, court-appointed guardians watch over about one-quarter of the estimated half a million cases of children who are either awaiting adoption or living in foster homes, group homes or juvenile jails. Funding for their training and for the guardian program comes from state and federal sources.

But much like the stories of the children themselves, the program remains little known, said Michael Piraino, chief executive officer of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Assn. in Seattle.

"These courts tend to be kind of invisible to most people. Most people don't want to know about them," Piraino said.

"They are difficult situations, ugly cases" that challenge the conventional, idealized view of the family as a happy, stable institution, Piraino said. An abused or neglected child is often trapped in limbo, he observed, wedged between parents who are unable to care adequately for a child--but also unprepared to say goodby--and a system that frequently falters at finding a safe, permanent home for that child.

"The way to change this is one child at a time," said Piraino, who experienced these frustrations as a lawyer in the social welfare system. "It's not theoretical, it's not ideological. It's knowing a lot about each kid who comes through the system--and . . . having the strength to make recommendations to a judge."

*

In Los Angeles, CASA volunteer Renne Bilson said much of the strength of her work comes from the amount of time she spends with each client. She has been working with one 14-year-old girl for 3 1/2 years, a luxury afforded to few who make their living in the trenches of social welfare.

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