There is a poster hanging on the wall of the juvenile courthouse that I often find myself staring at between hearings. It bears an image of a little girl with tangled curls and a toothless grin. Underneath her are scrawled the words “I am not a troublemaker.”
When I first began my work as a court appointed special advocate, I didn’t understand the importance of this simple message. It is now my creed. When time, stability, and mental health care are luxuries, it is difficult to peel back the layers of trauma or neglect that influence a child’s “troublemaking” or undesirable behaviors. Yet that is all most of these behaviors are: responses to trauma, the result of unmet needs. This is why CASA is so important. As a volunteer, it is your duty to discern a child’s true story and advocate fearlessly for all their needs not only in the courtroom but in the classroom, doctor’s office, and foster home. You have the special privilege of getting to know a child fully and helping the rest of those working in the child welfare system to do the same. You can give a child a voice when they otherwise might have none.
If I have learned anything over the last few years, it is that there is never a boring day in the world of child welfare. Abuse, neglect, drugs, runaways, good that looks evil, evil that looks good. I’ve seen enough to know I’ve still seen nothing. Children in foster care possess a resilience that most outsiders can’t begin to fathom. Unfortunately, for many of these children, their trauma doesn’t end when they are removed from an unhealthy home and brought into the custody of the Department of Child and Family Services (DFCS).
In America, the child welfare system is a chaotic cycle of burnout and scarcity in which foster children’s needs often go unmet.
1. Social workers are routinely overburdened and underpaid. The Georgia Welfare Council reports a persistent increase in the turnover rate of social workers due to burnout alone. Attracting quality legal representation to the field of child welfare is difficult for similar reasons.
2. It is nearly impossible to find mental health care professionals willing to accept foster children’s complex cases. More than 50% of counties in America “lack a single psychiatrist”. Existent practices often do not accept the subpar insurance allotted to children in the system.
3. And finally, there are never enough foster homes to meet demand. The State of Georgia recently came under fire for its practice of hoteling children for whom no foster family, group home, or psychiatric facility could be located in time.
Given the stress inherent to the child welfare system, it is easy to see how a child’s needs might slip through the cracks unintentionally. Their complex set of experiences and emotions must be distilled into line items on paperwork that can be disseminated quickly to the morass of professionals responsible for their wellbeing. Casefiles are often littered with labels like “manipulative”, “angry”, “defiant”, or “messy”. Children are branded by their worst moments and given little chance to provide context. These labels will often haunt them for the duration of their time in foster care. Stories written by former foster children reverberate with examples of this phenomena and the long term damage it wreaks.
In my own experience, these mis-labelings can be both heartbreaking and dangerous. A child with whom I worked had been branded as a thief or “kleptomaniac” after he repeatedly took items from the cafeteria of the group home. Something about the report did not sit right with me. There was no history of stealing in his casefile. Some research and phone calls revealed that there was, in fact, far more to his story. The child had been suspected of having diabetes but was not receiving any medication. He’d been transferred into DFCS custody before he was able to see an endocrinologist to confirm his diagnosis. He was stealing juice to stymie drops in blood sugar that were resulting in diabetic attacks during the hours in which the cafeteria was closed and no food was available. I still wonder what would have happened if I had not read between the lines of his case file and picked up the phone. How long can diabetes go untreated without serious consequences? How many foster homes would have rejected him out of fear that he would steal their food or possessions as well?
His story is one of many. No matter how hefty the case file, no matter how ominous the labels, if you look closely, no child is ever just a troublemaker.
CASAs are in a unique position to set the record straight.