A Lifetime of Difference, One Child at a Time : Courts: In an overburdened system, volunteer advocates keep the focus on one thing--the best interest of those who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like so many people, Gay Courter felt a nagging need to do somethingfor her community. She was a product of the '60s, an Antioch grad who clung to the quaint insistence that one person really could make a difference. But she was also a mom, wife, novelist and filmmaker. To her frequent dismay and occasional embarrassment, her idealism tended to get caught in the crunch.

Then Courter read about a 2-year-old whose stepfather had drowned him by shoving his head in a toilet. That did it. In October, 1989, Courter signed up to become a guardian ad litem--one of 37,000 people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia who volunteer as child advocates, shepherding kids through the maze of juvenile courts and the child welfare system.

Soon she was acting as bureaucratic quarterback for the girl she calls Lydia, a 16-year-old whose record said she had tried to kill her baby sister by cooking her in a microwave oven. (The sister was actually 10, and it was Lydia's boyfriend who, in a fit of teen-age bravado, had threatened to bake the girl alive.)

Courter took on the case of 15-year-old Sharhonda, who took to heart a social worker's careless comment that the best way to get Medicaid and food stamps was to get pregnant. She angrily did combat with Renata, a foster mother who evicted one of Courter's charges, but kept the boy's Christmas presents.

"My mission is pure: to make something that has gone terribly wrong a little better," Courter writes in "I Speak for This Child" (Crown, 1995), her chronicle of five picaresque years in the social welfare system. "Phone call by phone call, visit by visit, meeting by meeting, court appearance by court appearance," Courter recounts, she seeks to be a consistent presence in a child's life, a defender who represents nothing more than the best interests of the child.

Courter's home state, Florida, boasts one of the country's largest guardian ad litem networks. In California and elsewhere, these unpaid champions of children are known more often as CASAs, or court-appointed special advocates.

The idea of training volunteers to act on behalf of neglected, abused and abandoned children dates from 1976, when David Soukup, then a Superior Court judge in Seattle, worried that child welfare cases were railroaded through the system with little concern for a child's long-term interests. In Soukup's view, lawyers, judges and social workers--with caseloads of 60 or more children at one time--were too overburdened to attend to the complexities of each child's case.

"I was consumed by the fact that I didn't have enough information about each child, and I just didn't know if I had done the very best job I could," recalled Soukup, now a practicing attorney and CASA volunteer.

He agonized, for example, about "the 3-year-old girl who shows up in the hospital, and the physicians think she's been sexually abused. The mother says, 'No, she fell off the swing, and besides, my boyfriend, Bill, left last week.' So you go along with the mother's word, then six months later you pick up the paper and read that Bill's back and the girl's dead."

Soukup expected maybe four or five people to respond when he contacted local charitable groups about training volunteers to work with children in the courts. Instead, "50 or 60 people showed up. I knew I was onto something."

Today, court-appointed guardians watch over about one-quarter of the estimated half a million cases of children who are either awaiting adoption or living in foster homes, group homes or juvenile jails. Funding for their training and for the guardian program comes from state and federal sources.

But much like the stories of the children themselves, the program remains little known, said Michael Piraino, chief executive officer of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Assn. in Seattle.

"These courts tend to be kind of invisible to most people. Most people don't want to know about them," Piraino said.

"They are difficult situations, ugly cases" that challenge the conventional, idealized view of the family as a happy, stable institution, Piraino said. An abused or neglected child is often trapped in limbo, he observed, wedged between parents who are unable to care adequately for a child--but also unprepared to say goodby--and a system that frequently falters at finding a safe, permanent home for that child.

"The way to change this is one child at a time," said Piraino, who experienced these frustrations as a lawyer in the social welfare system. "It's not theoretical, it's not ideological. It's knowing a lot about each kid who comes through the system--and . . . having the strength to make recommendations to a judge."

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In Los Angeles, CASA volunteer Renne Bilson said much of the strength of her work comes from the amount of time she spends with each client. She has been working with one 14-year-old girl for 3 1/2 years, a luxury afforded to few who make their living in the trenches of social welfare.

But Bilson's shortest case, four months, was also one of her tidiest. A 3-year-old boy was abandoned by his mother at a hospital. The child had only limited verbal skills, and no record in state or county welfare rolls. By "playing detective," Bilson tracked down a grandmother in Philadelphia within four months. The boy and his grandmother were reunited in court on Christmas Eve.

But most of her cases "are up and down," Bilson said. "And the resolutions are not miraculous, because we are not miracle workers."

Besides, she continued, the numbers are daunting. In Los Angeles County, "there are 50,000 children under the jurisdiction of the courts" at any one time, Bilson said. "There are 1,200 new cases per month." The Los Angeles CASA program has a corps of about 250 volunteers, "so we touch 1% to 2% of the kids.

"But for the kids that we do touch," she said, "it makes a difference."

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Courter in town for meetings generated by her book--echoed that sentiment. "This is one situation where the cliche of making a difference really is true."

As rewarding as her efforts may be for any particular child--Lydia got her microwave rap expunged; Sharhonda and her baby got a home; Renata's ex-foster child got his Christmas cowboy boots back--"I do this for me," Courter said. "It's so satisfying."

At 50, Courter describes herself as someone who missed the demographic cutoff of baby boomerdom, but still bought into the philosophy. Most of her attempts at altruism were "tremendously unfulfilling and useless," she said. "I would sit around and calculate how 10 high-powered women were wasting 30 hours and the whole weekend to raise $300 at a bake sale when the profit was $100."

Working as a guardian drew on her organizational skills, as well as her ability to use resources, Courter said. While honoring confidentiality at all times, "Guardians are expected to work outside the system, to cross certain boundaries. Independent thinking is encouraged."

Often, she said, a court-appointed advocate is the single consistent--and friendly--adult presence in a child's life. Social workers come and go and are constrained, moreover, by the unpleasant truth of bureaucratic quotas. Parents may be in jail, on drugs or otherwise unsuited for the job of caring for their children. Many such children bounce from one transitional living facility to another, racking up what Courter calls "file drawers filled with tears and pain."

"There is only one ideal here," she said, "and that is a safe, permanent home for every child, as quickly as possible."

Courter would like a cap on the time a child can spend in foster care. In some cases, she believes birth parents should consign primary rights to their child's custodial family, while retaining visitation and communication rights.

"As a society, we have to say that the manifest best interest of a child is a basic entitlement," she said. "When these interests are in conflict with the interests of the parent, or the interests of the state, the child's interests should prevail."

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But while no doubt noble, such goals are not so easily attained, said Eve Brooks of the Washington, D.C.-National Assn. of Child Advocates. "We need to have the structures in place that deal with the policies that help kids." High on the list of structures, she said, is representation.

In that capacity, court-appointed advocates "are fine--if they are assisting lawyers," Brooks said. "They are not fine if their primary function is to fill a gap."

And guardians face a constant threat of burnout on the one hand and emotional overattachment on the other. Noting that he had served as a judge, a criminal attorney and at times, a witness, Soukup called his own five years as a volunteer "the most difficult thing I have ever done in a courtroom--and the most rewarding."

As he first molded the CASA program, Soukup said, some skeptics wondered if volunteers would not become too emotionally involved in their cases.

"If they don't get emotionally involved," Soukup replied, "we've got the wrong volunteers."

Bilson, in Los Angeles, agreed that "sometimes letting go is the hardest part."

And Courter said that "I'm a total failure" at emotional detachment. This level of absorption, she said, was a happy surprise.

"I don't know just what it is that happens," she said. "It's unexpected and unplanned, but it's a connection."

Since most of her young charges have led lives whose sadness far exceeds their years, "I'm surprised that I'm still doing this with the same level of enthusiasm," Courter said. "But every time I make a phone call, I make a difference."

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