When Dave Stein first met Rory, at one of Rory’s mandatory six-month hearings in the Los Angeles County dependency court two years ago, he had a simple request for him.
“I told him I was his Court Appointed Special Advocate [CASA] and explained what a CASA does,” Dave says. “Then I asked him to tell me what he wanted and how he thought I could help him.”
For all the trouble Rory had endured over the previous six years—beginning with a drug arrest when he was just 10—he didn’t have any trouble coming up with four wishes: He wanted to be with his mom. He wanted braces to align his crooked teeth. He wanted surgery to correct his droopy-eye condition. And he wanted to graduate from high school.
But when he and Dave got inside the courtroom, Rory went silent.
“There were a lot of people—lawyers, legal assistants, the judge, and all the help the judge has in the courtroomâ€”and they were all talking incredibly fast and talking at the same time,” Dave remembers. “There was a lot of language that even I didn’t understand. They move quickly.”
So Dave later asked Rory if he understood everything that was discussed in the courtroom. Not exactly, Rory replied. In fact, he thought he wasn’t even allowed to speak.
As the two talked, this emerged as a theme. Rory’s mother had had a series of abusive relationships with men, and their abuse often extended to Rory. As a result, he was not used to having a voice, much less being heard.
It also meant that he was unaccustomed to being offered help and he didn’t know how to accept it when it was offered to him. Dave realized that if Rory were to ever get any of the things on his wish list, this would have to change.
“So I promised him that the next time we went to court, we would stop whatever was going on and make sure he got to say what he wanted to say to the judge,” Dave explains. “I said, â€˜I don’t care if it’s to tell the judge you don’t like him, or to tell him you don’t like me, or to talk about the weather. I don’t care what the content is, but I want to make sure you get a chance to speak.'”
Rory had been assigned to Dave when an attorney recommended that someone other than Rory’s mother should hold his education rights. But as Dave got deeper into Rory’s case file, he noticed that every report—whether by a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer—mentioned that Rory had two immediate needs: braces and eye surgery.
“His referral for braces just seemed to have been lost in the system,” Dave says, “and the eye surgery had been deemed cosmetic and wasn’t covered by insurance.”
So with the help of another CASA—this was Dave’s first case—Dave was able to identify someone at the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) who oversaw orthodontic referrals. He contacted that person and together they worked to get approval to pay for Rory’s braces.
Getting insurance to cover Rory’s eye surgery looked like it would be a bigger challenge, but Dave soon had a stroke of luck. Although Rory kept changing schools, the latest change brought a new assessment by a school psychologist, who wrote a report saying Rory’s eye condition might be impacting his ability to see and to do well in class. Dave was able to get this report in front of the right people at DCFS, and they in turn got the surgery approved by MediCal.
Meanwhile, however, Rory was doing little to help himself. He was bouncing around day schools and public schools and schools for kids with special needs, often refusing to do homework or to socialize or to even show up for class.
Then came a break.
Rory had an angry outburst at school and the police were called. He was taken out of school and placed in a psychiatric hold.
“We were sitting in the courtyard of the hospital, behind locked gates, and he was refusing help, saying that he knew how to control his anger and stay out of the hospital. So I asked him to take a minute to look around and think about what he was saying,” Dave says. “Eventually he accepted that he needed help and treatment, and that was when everything started to change.”
Soon after he was released, Rory was placed in a new foster home and the foster agency assigned him a wraparound support team, which included a therapist and a counselor.
“I think he started to realize there were adults out there who he could trust,” Dave says. “He became much more willing to accept help, and his behavior immediately improved. He also became much more willing to speak his mind, and to do it nicely, which was new for him. He started to believe in himself.”
He also found a school in Hawthorne that did a better job of meeting his needs, and now he’s in class every day. He’s making an A, a couple B’s, some C’s, and some D’s.
“One of those B’s was in his physics class. He was so excited to tell me about that,” Dave says. “But his grades are only part of it. He has agreed to do extra work, to get a tutor, and to take summer school so he can graduate in August.”
Alas, one of the things Rory wished for wasn’t meant to be. About a year ago, after watching his mother fail to provide the comfort and support he needed, he decided he could no longer be reunited with her.
When he turned 18, earlier this year, she called him to wish him a happy birthday. He proudly told her that he had just had his eye surgery, that he got approval for braces and he would be getting them shortly, and that he was going to graduate high school after all. He also told her how helpful Dave had been and how he really trusted him.
After they hung up, Rory’s mother called Dave, crying.
“She said how grateful she was that someone had looked after her son,” he recalls. “I have to admit that, some time before, I had discounted her love for him. So it felt great to know that she got some comfort from hearing that her child was doing well and had a chance to have a good life.”
But even greater was seeing Rory’s transformation—from a child to a man.
“There were some things I could do for him, but learning to accept help was something he had to do for himself,” Dave says. “He’s changed. He listens now. He communicates. He stays in the game.”