At two long tables in a light, bright conference room of Children's Court in Monterey Park, 27 adults are learning how to move one grain of sand at a time.
They are well dressed, professional looking and represent a spectrum of experience: Here is a gemologist, here is an attorney, here is a housewife, here is a business executive. Some are retired, some are working full-bore.
For much of this session, they will shake their heads in amazement, grimace in disgust, look incredulous and undoubtedly wonder if they are really up to this.
At the front of the room is a court-appointed psychologist named Barry Hirsch, who is lecturing on attachment theory--the theory that explains what governs the bonds between parent and child and what keeps those bonds strong in spite of heinous abuse. He talks about why, for instance, a mother who says she loves and wants to retain custody of her year-old child might immobilize the child by tying her to the faucets of the kitchen sink and allow her to sit in her own feces until she is covered with bugs. And why the court, for instance, might allow the mother to keep the child.
"Our system is based on multiple chances for people," Hirsch is saying. "You've got to get used to it. It's amazing what goes on."
The 27 adults are steeling themselves for what promises to be a tumultuous two-year ride. When this training session ends, they will be sworn in as Court Appointed Special Advocates--CASAs for short. They are volunteers and they have promised to spend a minimum of five hours a week working with the abused, neglected and abandoned children who are wards of Dependency Court.
There are 46,000 foster children in Los Angeles County, with 1,200 children entering the system every month. Not every foster child needs a CASA, nor is there any hope that every child could have one. There are but 250 of these volunteers.
A CASA works with one child at a time. The goal is to find a home for each child, to give permanence to lives that are no more stable than dry leaves in a windstorm.
Doing this work, Hirsch says, "is moving a grain of sand from here to there. And there's more sand coming down all the time."
Upstairs, Dependency Court Commissioner Marilyn Kading Martinez is all black robes and business as she takes the bench for the afternoon session in her courtroom. She has to be; she is expected to process 35 to 40 cases each day. This is why, as the afternoon session gets under way, she sometimes sounds more like an air traffic controller than a judge.
Stuffed animals keep the judge company on a nearby rail, and, toward the back of the room, a uniformed bailiff busies herself unwrapping teddy bears that will be given to the children passing through.
At the long, curved table below the judge's bench sit all kinds of lawyers--two lawyers for the Department of Social Services, lawyers for parents, lawyers for children. This, too, is where the CASAs sit. They have equal standing with the others; they, too, are officers of the court.
Not all Dependency Court judges are enthusiastic about CASAs. But Martinez is a big booster. She recognizes the limits of a system in which social workers are grievously overburdened and simply cannot devote themselves to finding homes for children no one seems to want.
"The kids who get CASAs have needs that are greater than the general dependency population," Martinez says. "They may be seeing psychiatrists, psychologists, special education teachers, foster parents, relatives. . . . Any number of adults have some part to play, and all these roles need to be coordinated in a way that best serves the child. CASAs gather together a comprehensive picture of what the child needs. They will give me information that I may not otherwise have, and my decisions can be well-informed and soundly made."
As one experienced CASA put it: "The court listens to you. They don't B.S. because they know you're in the trenches with the kids."
Entering the molasses-paced world of social workers and court-appointed attorneys a year ago as a CASA came as a shock to Steve Forstadt. Until he retired, Forstadt, 54, owned a women's apparel business and was used to giving orders and getting results.
Forstadt's first case as a CASA involved a 13-year-old boy with severe psychological problems who was living in MacLaren Children's Center, which is supposed to be a temporary shelter for children. Social workers had been unable to find a home for the boy. He had been living at MacLaren for a year, and, until Forstadt took the case, it looked as if his final placement would be a state mental hospital.
It took eight months--and countless trips to prospective group homes with the boy--but Forstadt finally found the child a place.
"I ruffled a lot of feathers," Forstadt says. "But the end result was there. I treat these kids as if they are my own kids, and I try to do for them what I would do for my own child. Our job is to give that extra little push for the kids that we are representing."
One little push, one little life made that much better.
Amazing what can happen when you learn to think small.
* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.