Jerry Lawler met Ricky*, then 13, shortly after he’d been removed from his latest foster home and placed in another residential institution.
“His foster care mother basically said, ‘I can’t deal with him anymore,’” Lawler says.
A volunteer with the nonprofit CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Baltimore, Lawler was assigned to Ricky by the Baltimore City Family and Juvenile Court. His job was to get to know the boy—who had been floundering for seven years after being taken from his mother due to neglect—and serve as another set of eyes and ears in his life. He would also represent Ricky’s interests in court hearings, the educational system, and the medical and social service communities.
A clinical psychologist by profession and father of two grown children, Lawler was nonetheless nervous before their first meeting.
“I think all the volunteers wonder, ‘What if I can’t relate to my kid? What if they don’t want to see me? What if they yell at me or get pissed off at me?’”
Ricky didn’t yell or get angry. He barely spoke.
“He was guarded. Withdrawn. No swagger. Just, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything,’” Lawler recalls. “I’d ask how he was doing and he’d say, ‘Okay.’ I’d ask if he wanted to go to McDonald’s, ‘Okay.’ ‘Want to go to the Inner Harbor?’ ‘Fine.’
“It was six months before we’d be driving somewhere that he’d tell me what he’d done the previous night. Another six months before he’d tell me anything he was feeling,” Lawler continues. “This was a kid who’d learned not to trust people because they’d let him down.”
Foster kids often move from placement to placement with few belongings, not even photos of their siblings and families of origin. However, one possession that Ricky allowed Lawler to view offered insight into his silence.
“He kept a compiled ‘book’ of himself, awards from completing different programs, and he had family pictures in there,” says Lawler, adding that Ricky has had 16 various placements since entering the foster system at age six, including stays with three different sets of foster parents.
Ricky had pictures of each foster family, two dogs he loved at one home, a professional picture of himself as a baby, pictures of his half-siblings and his grandmother, and a photograph of his mother, a heroin and crack addict and North Avenue prostitute.
“It was an effort to keep the conversation going in the beginning,” Lawler says. “But eventually he started talking, opening up. I’d hear him repeat something I’d said three months before and that would surprise me. I knew he was listening.”
David B. Mitchell, at the time administrative judge of the Juvenile Division of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, established CASA of Baltimore in 1988. (It is not related to the immigrant advocacy program CASA of Maryland.) The program, operated by the University of Maryland School of Social Work before becoming an independent agency in 1995, pairs volunteer advocates with foster children in crisis. Today, CASA volunteers impact the lives of more than 200 children each year.
According to the Maryland Department of Human Resources, 8,013 children were in foster care statewide in 2009. Each year, as children leave the system—reuniting with a parent or relative, receiving adoption, aging out—they are replaced by a cohort of 3,120 new children.
With the most challenging cases, like Ricky, reuniting with a family member is not possible. Many spend years bouncing around the state from foster homes to therapeutic institutions, from group homes to residential facilities and back to new foster homes. It’s those kids—typically middle and high school teenagers coping with psychological scars—who are appointed by Family and Juvenile Court judges and masters to CASA volunteers like Lawler.
“It may be a cliché, but we are really called ‘friends of the court,’” says Susan Burger, longtime executive director of CASA of Baltimore, one of 17 CASA offices serving Maryland. “The whole idea is to help judges and juvenile court masters who do not have all the information they need to make decisions about a child’s life. But we don’t work for the court—we’re there as an outsider, to provide an objective look at a child’s life.”
In contrast to the overburdened caseloads of social workers, CASA volunteers focus on a single child (occasionally siblings), spending 10-15 hours a month and pledging at least a one-year commitment. On average, Burger says, volunteers stay with a child closer to three years. CASA volunteers learn the child’s history and build a relationship.
Opening a thick, three-prong folder on his South Baltimore kitchen table, Lawler points to meetings with ever-changing Department of Social Services caseworkers, group home supervisors, school counselors, therapists, and family involved in Ricky’s life. He files status updates and makes recommendations at court hearings. He shows up for important events.
“Last year, I attended his junior high graduation,” Lawler says. “That was a big deal.” This year, he helped him through his freshman year of public high school. “He’s reading at grade-level. There’s no way I can back out now,” he says. For nearly three years, he’s become the constant in Ricky’s life.
“Volunteers don’t have any particular background,” says Burger, 55, a petite, organized woman with the energy of a marathoner. “Most of the volunteers are college-educated, work full time, and have an interest in children.”
Last year, 180 CASA volunteers—there are only three full-time and four part-time paid staff—served 210 kids. Each time an advocate goes to court, Burger says, 86 percent of their recommendations become part of a court order that someone is required to follow up. These recommendations can include getting a tutor, taking care of a medical issue, recommending a new placement, or receiving therapy.
John Lessner, a health care attorney and CASA board member, became an advocate 18 months ago. He met Teddy*, a Baltimore teenager, at an Eastern Shore facility. Teddy’s mother died when he was young; his father faces long-term incarceration.
“Great smile and very open with new people,” Lessner says. “He’s chatting up the wait staff when we eat out, really easy from that standpoint.”
However, Teddy has had 30 placements in 13 years. He’s had problems dealing with rules and confrontation, Lessner says. After Teddy had successfully completed a behavioral treatment program at the Eastern Shore facility, Lessner pushed the Department of Social Services to get him back in a Baltimore group home setting.
Now, Teddy’s entering 12th grade and has a part-time fast food job, Lessner says, happy to be working and have a few dollars of his own. Almost 80 percent of CASA’s assigned children are in permanent placements by the time they close the cases.
“We’re proud of the service we provide, but recognize it’s a drop in the bucket to the number of children in the system,” Burger says.
With a steady need for volunteers and only a quarter of its budget coming from the state, CASA’s recruitment and fundraising remains a year-round effort. But judges and even DSS (an agency CASA volunteers occasionally prod) believe in CASA’s effectiveness.
“Because of caseloads, they’re able to spend more time with kids than social workers or attorneys,” says Edward R.K. Hargadon, Family and Juvenile Court administrative judge. “I think what they do is invaluable to the court.”
“Volunteers provide an advocacy voice for some children in the system who do not have anyone else,” says Carnitra White, Maryland Social Services Administration executive director. “They keep in mind the best interests, pushing for the best outcomes for children.”
On a recent summer morning, a dozen fresh CASA volunteers—having completed extensive interviews, background checks, and 30 hours of training—walked with Burger from CASA’s offices near “The Block” on Baltimore Street to the Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street for their swearing-in ceremony before Hargadon.
Montez Parker, 35, an East Baltimore machine operator in the midst of a career change after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, saw CASA’s effectiveness during a juvenile institution internship.
“There are a lot of inconsistencies in these children’s lives,” says Parker, a father of two boys. “At CASA, we’re a consistent voice.”
Inside a second-floor courtroom, Hargadon informs the advocates that Juvenile Court holds 70,000 hearings annually between criminal and foster cases.
“Things need to be kept moving in this court, but you will sometimes need to say, ‘Stop. Hold on,’” Hargadon tells the group, sitting together on the courtroom’s benches. “You’ll understand the bureaucracy and what pressure can be brought to bear. Other times, you’ll just need to hold their hand, and you don’t need a master’s in administration to know how to do that.”
It’s part pep talk, part reality check from the judge.
“You are going to witness terrible suffering,” Hargadon continues. “You are also going to experience frustration, joy, and great satisfaction.”
CASA recruitment and training coordinator Phyllis Kolman started as a volunteer eight years ago. Initially, she was assigned two of five siblings. The siblings, ranging in age from 8 to 15, with two different mothers and fathers, had formed a family unit at some point. She was eventually assigned all five kids.
Severe abuse had occurred “at different places, including some from family members,” Kolman says.
The first step was to identify “who’s who” in the overall picture. “Then, meeting the kids and getting to know who they are, just listening and observing,” she says. “Make no judgment and pay attention.” As she got to know them, she learned their needs. “The thing I worked hardest at was making sure they weren’t moved around a whole lot.”
All these years later, Kolman maintains a bond with four of the siblings. The two youngest, a boy and girl, are in a “fabulous,” to use Kolman’s words, long-term, caring foster home and flourishing.
“I just kept going to treatment meetings, to residential centers, to school meetings, court hearings and kept pushing to find a good, safe place for them,” she says.
The two oldest have children of their own and still call Kolman regularly—not because everything has turned out picket-fence perfect or she approves of every decision they make, but because she has been there for the long haul, remaining an honest friend and resource.
One of the girls, before she was ready to deliver, called Kolman from the hospital and asked if she could be at the hospital for the birth.
“I drove out of state,” Kolman says with a smile, recalling the moment. “She said to me, ‘Miss Phyllis, you’re the person who has known me longest of anybody.’”