As CASA stories go, this is a simple one. It involves no custody battles, mistaken identities, or disagreements among stakeholders.
But it’s an important story—even an archetypal one—because it exemplifies the most crucial role of a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA): to make the system work in a timely manner for the children it serves.
“This was all new to me,” Ardelle Jarvis says, noting that this was her first case as a CASA, having been assigned just a few weeks after she completed her training through CASA of Los Angeles. “I don’t have a law degree or anything related to child welfare. But I’ve been in management positions over the years, and they trained me to use those skills to solve situations.”
Ardelle’s CASA youth, Spencer, was born with cerebral palsy. His mother had suffered a bout of extreme depression and succumbed to a drug habit shortly before he was born. The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services removed him from his parents’ custody at the hospital when those drugs were found in his system. Ardelle was assigned to him in May 2014, when he was three months old.
“The more time I spent with Spencer, the more I realized he had some major problems,” Ardelle remembers. “He didn’t make facial expressions or respond to voices. He couldn’t swallow. He didn’t even make any sounds. Developmentally, he was already really far behind.”
Early childhood is considered the most important phase in human development, with more brain growth and learning occurring during infancy than any other time in life. The physical, psychological, and social skills we acquire in the first three to five years of life—from gross and fine motor abilities to language and cognition—lay the foundation for who we will be as young children, teenagers, and adults.
So besides seeking to resolve Spencer’s family status and shorten the length of time he would spend in foster care, Ardelle was particularly concerned with getting him the evaluations and therapies he needed. She began attending all of his doctor’s appointments.
“I was aware of the fact that he wasn’t able to see much, other than light. He would always turn toward light,” she says. “The doctors and therapists agreed that he needed to get an assessment of his vision.”
Many of Spencer’s needs could be assessed by the Regional Center—an agency contracted by the state to provide community-based services to people with developmental disabilities—but he would need an ophthalmologist at Children’s Hospital to assess his vision.
By this time, Spencer’s mother was enrolled in a drug rehabilitation program and he had been transitioned back into his parents’ care. They contacted Children’s in October, but the earliest appointment they could get was in February of this year.
“I wasn’t happy with the dates they were given,” Ardelle says. “The first year of a child’s development is extremely important, and if there are problems, they should be addressed as soon as possible. So I took it upon myself to see if I could push up the date. I went online and found the name of the chief of ophthalmology.”
Ardelle made copies of her pictures of Spencer and sent them along with her credentials, relevant paperwork from the court, and a letter requesting Spencer be given an appointment in the next two to three weeks.
“I sent it to the director, waited a week, and then got in touch with his assistant, who said she hadn’t received it, so I faxed another copy,” she explains. “After that, I stopped by in person and asked to see the person in charge.”
That’s when she got some good news: Spencer’s appointment had been set for just two weeks out. Once the staff at Children’s understood Spencer’s situation, they were as accommodating as could be.
At the appointment, everyone found out there was nothing wrong with Spencer’s optic nerve. The doctor’s opinion was that, because of Spencer’s age, his neurons hadn’t yet successfully connected to the cerebral cortex but his brain eventually would rethread. His follow-up appointment was scheduled for one year hence.
Spencer is now 13 months old. He can lift his head up, support his body with his arms when on he’s his stomach, and roll over. He suckles and coos and if he’s uncomfortable or hungry, he lets his family know with a loud cry. And now he looks at faces.
Of course, his vision diagnosis could have been serious, and if it had been, getting it in two weeks as opposed to four months might have made a crucial difference. But the seriousness of that particular diagnosis isn’t really the point of this story.
“What’s important is that the system worked,” Ardelle says. “With the help of a CASA, everything happened in a timely fashion and according to an early childhood timeline.”