A lot was riding on Leslie Podolsky in her first case as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
She was assigned to two sisters, Paris and Melanie, thought to be 5 and 4, respectively, who had been placed in foster care after their father was killed and their mother proved unable to care for them. Little was known about the girls beyond that they were developmentally disabled and didn’t speak at all.
Leslie drew the assignment because she had earned a master’s degree in early childhood education and had just completed CASA of Los Angeles’ early childhood training. She started her work on the case by doing what every CASA does first—she visited the kids in their home.
“When I first met the foster mother, she looked overwhelmed,” Leslie remembers. “Paris was clearly very autistic, and she would spin all the time, something known as self-stimulating behavior, to the point where she was going through a pair of shoes every two weeks. Plus the kids were frustrated because they had no way of communicating with anyone about their needs or their wants.”
Leslie’s investigation took her to the girls’ schools, where, in seeing the grades they were assigned to, she learned the girls were not 5 and 4 as previously thought, but 6 and 5. But more importantly, she saw how profound their educational needs were.
“These girls were mysteries,” Leslie explains. “They weren’t wild children. They had some basic skills, like dressing themselves and using the bathroom But nobody knew what they were capable of.”
Almost immediately, she was assigned the girls’ educational rights, and she began working with Harbor Regional Center—an agency contracted by the state to provide community-based services to people with developmental disabilities—to get the girls assessed.
While Paris was severely autistic, Melanie was found to be on the autism spectrum but not autistic.
“Melanie was fascinated with flash cards of the alphabet and literally taught herself how to read,” Leslie says. “I brought her a stack of flash cards and she was able to immediately sort them, yet she had no language.”
Meanwhile, Leslie was also working with the Long Beach Unified School District to develop individualized education programs, or IEPs, for the girls—essential to addressing their special needs. In Paris’ case, the school district was on top of her situation and had moved her to a special school for children with autism. But Leslie felt that Melanie needed extra help, and she successfully advocated for a dedicated classroom aide as well as an additional weekly speech therapy session.
“With the IEPs in place, the girls were progressing at school, but things were lagging at home,” Leslie says. “They were having frequent tantrums and I could see that, without some help, their foster placement might not succeed.”
So she arranged for Paris’ teacher to visit the home and give the foster parents, Irma and Ernesto, tips on integrating what worked in school into the girls’ home lives. The teacher taught them exercises involving tokens and flash cards to motivate Paris to assimilate new routines. Leslie and Irma decorated Melanie’s room with alphabet flash cards to mimic her classroom environment. And Leslie showed Irma and Ernesto how to set up calendars for the girls to help them handle changes in their schedules and new experiences.
“That’s definitely an early childhood technique,” she says. “Plus I’m a big believer in books, and I encouraged Irma to read with each of the girls, which has given them lots of one-on-one time.”
She also helped get the girls numerous support services, including weekly swim lessons, occupational therapy, and, most recently, visits from a behaviorist.
It’s been a little more than two years since Paris and Melanie, now 8 and 7, went to live with Irma and Ernesto, and they’re not just older; they’re different.
“In the beginning, they didn’t talk at all. Now they are talking, greeting people,” Ernesto says. “They are very confident and feel at home.”
Irma, a teacher herself from a family of 18 teachers, also sees the change.
“Paris loves swimming and jumping on the trampoline in the backyard,” she notes. “She has skills on the computer and she reads more now. She has more focus. Melanie reads a lot by herself. She’s more independent.”
Irma and Ernesto are different too. In fact, they became so confident in their ability to handle the girls that they asked to adopt them. They had raised five children of their own, and Paris and Melanie would be their first adoptees.
But this too would require a CASA’s help.
The girls’ biological mother had intermittently sought reunification with the girls, but she consistently failed to meet the terms set by the court or even show up for meetings with the girls.
Leslie had been documenting the biological mother’s failings all along and, as the voice for the girls in court, eventually recommended termination of her parental rights. The court agreed. Then she cited the girls’ recent progress and recommended Irma and Ernesto be allowed to adopt the girls. The court agreed again.
In the run up to the adoption hearing—which took place in late February—Leslie’s calendaring technique helped get the girls ready for the new surroundings and new faces of the courtroom.
When asked if the girls were anxious about the adoption day, Irma answered indirectly.
“I’m the one who’s excited!”