I knew when I joined CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Los Angeles two years ago as CEO that it would prove rewarding and challenging.
I did not know how much I would learn about the hurt that exists in the child welfare system, about people’s capacity to cause and heal from trauma, about the need for a thorough and nongovernmental solution to one of our world’s most significant problems – the maltreatment of children — and about myself.
I have witnessed indescribable challenges faced by families. I have seen profound human suffering as mothers, fathers, children, and teens walk out of court crying, angry, or so depressed that they attempt to harm themselves or others.
I watched a mom in court shaking from a combination of fear and drug withdrawal. I watched a father crying as he consoled his children from across the room as they were forced to leave court without him or their mom.
Daily, I enter court with dozens of unaccompanied children, dropped off in white vans and clutching their siblings’ hands or a blanket with bewilderment about what is about to happen to them. But it is better to know about their suffering and the issues they face than to live in a bubble and pretend it does not exist.
Here at Children’s Court, there is no way not to see it.
The biggest “academic” lesson I have learned about child abuse, neglect, and the child welfare system is about trauma. Here’s what is clear: Trauma, especially in children, has lifelong physical and mental health implications. And our kids in LA County foster care experience trauma over and over again.
Most experienced trauma at home and at the hands of their parents, the place they should be most safe. Then, they are torn from their homes, traumatized again, and far too many continue to experience trauma in the foster system, including abuse, neglect, and broken relationships.
A CASA volunteer told me she worked with a boy who had 32 placements, 32! Another CASA volunteer told me that her child, a 14-year-old who has been in the system since age 1, has had 5 (read that again, 5!) therapists in the past 12 months.
I find it unacceptable to say that a system meant to protect our most vulnerable children is “broken.” We are all responsible for these children. Breaking them further, causing them more trauma once they are in our hands, is unacceptable.
What gives me hope is these children’s resilience and strength in the face of adversity. I walked into the CASA office a few months ago and saw a young man of 13 or so sitting at a table. His CASA was talking to her supervisor, preparing for his hearing.
The young man flashed me a beautiful smile and said good morning. I responded, of course, but all I could think about was what this young man must be living through every day. Yet he had the energy, patience, and kindness to wish me, a person he had never met, a warm greeting.
His resilience evident, he proved to me that day that he is stronger than I could ever be — a force to be reckoned with.
There are so many terrible stories and unhappy “endings.” It would be easy to lose hope. To give up. To say the problem is too big to conquer. But that is impossible when you meet kids in foster care and their CASA volunteers.
Perhaps the quote by Cornel West sums it up best: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That is what CASA volunteers do. They manifest love in a system that often feels devoid of justice.
In layman’s terms, a CASA has the child’s back. They advocate for their child or teen in formal ways and they do genuinely human things on their behalf. They love them. They stick with them. They fight for them.
What I have learned over the past two years is fairly simple: Kids need families, safety, and love. And we need to own and solve this problem as a community. We need to support families, make sure people have access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and housing. We need to love kids when their parents can’t and help their parents until they can.
We need to make absolutely certain that when kids go into foster care it is temporary and safe. We need to treat kids who are victims of abuse and neglect with the care and love that we would treat our own children.
What I learned about myself is that I am so lucky to have grown up in my family. That to those whom much is given, much is (or should be) expected. And most importantly, that it doesn’t require advanced degrees or superhuman strength to change the life of a child.
It requires grit, consistency, and love. And that “it’s too sad” is not a good reason not to become a CASA or a foster parent. We need be strong for them and do what we can to help.
I feel blessed every day to work at CASA/LA with the dedicated staff and the extraordinary volunteers. But mostly I am blessed to know these children and their families. They are a part of me. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems, a Mayan precept set to poetry by the playwright Luis Valdez:
Tú eres mi otro yo. You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti, If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo. I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto, If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo. I love and respect myself.
Wende Nichols-Julien is an attorney with more than 20 years of experience in social justice work currently serving as the CEO of CASA of Los Angeles. Wende is a biological, foster and adoptive parent and serves as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). She is a graduate of the University of Arizona and holds a law degree from USC.
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