Going to court is a frightening experience for children, especially for those who have been taken away from abusive parents and must be taken from their homes.
That is why 296 people are volunteering one to two years of their lives to work in the Child Advocates Office, which pairs a child with an adult who can help explain the court process and represent the child’s views.
The county’s Child Advocates Office was one of the first of four such programs in the United States when it began 10 years ago, director Barbara Sanchez Smart said.
Volunteers can become guardians ad litem --appointed by the court to accompany a child to all court hearings to let the court know what the child needs and wants and help decide if a child can be reunited with his family or should be placed in a foster home.
Other volunteers work for a year as children’s court assistants, accompanying a child to his first court hearing, explaining how the court process works, explaining what happened in a court hearing and relieving anxiety.
Ninety of the volunteers in the Child Advocates Office are attorneys who work with guardians on cases under the jurisdiction of the 15 Dependency courts, Smart said.
Volunteers go through a mandatory 30 hours of training, covering child abuse, sexual abuse, the court process, the child welfare system, the effects of separation and bonding and a variety of other related topics, Smart said.
At most, they get reimbursed for mileage and parking. The Child Advocates Office relies on the county and fund-raising efforts of Friends of the Child Advocates.
“The incidence of child abuse has increased by 300% over the last several years,” Smart said.
Currently, Smart’s office is handling 165 cases out of a total of 30,000 children under the jurisdiction of various courts in the county.
Children who do not have these guardians or court assistants must go through the system alone, represented only by an overworked social worker and a county lawyer who does not have time to get to know the child or his individual needs, Smart said.
Most of the cases the office takes on involve children in foster care who were physically or sexually abused by parents or other relatives or whose parents are homeless, mentally ill or in prison, Smart said.
“Children will come into court on a bus with rails alongside, similar to the buses used to transport prisoners,” Smart said. “Often they are taken from their homes or schools and placed in an unfamiliar situation. They don’t know why they are there, but they feel they did something wrong or they wouldn’t be in the situation. They feel like criminals.
“One child once asked if he was a criminal, because the sign in front of the building said Criminal Courts Building.”
Judges typically handle 40 to 60 cases a day and have less than five minutes to spend on each case, Smart said.
“Nobody takes time to talk to them (children) in the language they understand or to get their input,” she said. “One child who was asked what he thought had happened to him in court said he thought he was adopted. He wasn’t. He was in foster care.”
Iris Shaw, 62, a retired lawyer, is a guardian. She is an advocate for a baby addicted to drugs from birth and a child who was born to a transient woman who cannot care for him.
As a guardian, she visits the children where they live, talks to their parents, relatives and neighbors and makes recommendations on the county’s plan for placing the child in foster care, with relatives or back with the parents.