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A Lifetime of Difference, One Child at a Time : Advocacy: Orange County has about 230 volunteers who focus on one thing--the best interests of those who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.


WASHINGTON — Like so many people, Gay Courter felt a nagging need to do something for 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, these unpaid champions of children are known as CASAs, or court-appointed special advocates, and are active in 25 of the state's 58 counties. Every Southern California county has a program.

Some have grown rapidly. The Orange County program, initiated by the county's Junior League in 1985 with a handful of volunteers, now has 230 who together work about 50,000 hours a year on about 400 cases.

"There is some turnover of volunteers," said Susan Leibel, the organization's executive director, "but we now have three training classes for probably a hundred new volunteers each year."

Volunteers--four out of five are women--are expected to make a yearlong commitment to their cases. They must spend three hours each week with each child and keep in contact with every authority in the child's life--social workers, attorneys, care providers, teachers, doctors, counselors. When each child's case is reviewed by the court--which happens by law every six months--the volunteer must draft a report with recommendations.

"It's amazing," Leibel said. "Almost every (volunteer) has a full-time job. There are not that many retired people. Most people take one case, but I've had people carry as many as five at one time. I'm sure the court would assign more to us if we could take them. We have a waiting list of more than 100 cases."

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.

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