A MESSAGE FROM OUR CEO
A Reflection on Two Years of Service as CEO of CASA of Los Angeles
I knew when I joined CASA of Los Angeles (CASA/LA) two years ago as CEO that the job would prove both rewarding and challenging. What I did not know was the extent to which I would learn about how much hurt exists in the child welfare system, about human beings’ capacity to both cause and heal from trauma, about the need for a thorough and non-governmental solution to one of our world’s most significant problems – the maltreatment of children, and about myself.
I had been to Children’s Court many times before coming to work for CASA/LA. One of my life’s happiest moments occurred in the courtyard just outside the CASA/LA offices in 2009 when we took pictures after my daughter’s adoption and I saw the look of joy and relief on her little 6-year-old face as she was surrounded by friends and a finally permanent family. But I was not naïve to think that most people think of Children’s Court as a happy place.
What I could not have imagined is the extent of the challenges faced by the families with whom I walk through security every morning. In my two years at CASA/LA, I have witnessed human suffering at its most profound level as mothers and fathers, children and teens walk out of the building crying, screaming, downtrodden, and sometimes so depressed that they attempt to harm themselves or others. I watched a mom in court one day shaking from a combination of fear and drug withdrawal. I watched a father crying and trying to console his children from across the room as they were forced to leave court without him and their mom. And daily, I walk into court with dozens of children who come unaccompanied to court, dropped off in white DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) vans and clutching their siblings’ hands or a blanket with a look of bewilderment of what is about to happen to them during a day of court. But as my wise colleague and CASA/LA CFO Bob Berman says, it is better to know about their suffering and the issues they face than to live in a bubble and pretend it does not exist. Trust me, here at Children’s Court, the pain is palpable. There is no way not to see it.
The biggest “academic” lesson I have learned about child abuse and neglect and the child welfare/foster care system is about trauma. Everybody is talking about trauma these days and I have attended literally hundreds of hours of training about trauma. Here’s what is clear: trauma, especially in small children, has life-long physical and mental health implications. And our kids in LA County’s foster care system experience trauma over and over again. Most of them experienced trauma in their own homes and at the hands of their parents, the place they should be most safe. Then, they are torn from their homes, traumatized again, and far, far too many continue to experience trauma in the foster system. They continue to experience abuse and neglect, they experience broken relationship after broken relationship. A CASA volunteer told me that she worked with a boy who had 32 placements. 32! Another CASA volunteer told me recently that her CASA kid, a 14 year old who has been in the system since age 1, has had 5 (read that again, 5!) therapists in the past 12 months. Lots of people talk about how our child welfare system is “broken.” How do we sit aside and say that —- that our system that is meant to protect the county’s most vulnerable children is “broken”? We are all responsible for these children. Breaking them further, causing them more trauma once they are in our hands, is unacceptable.
What is unbelievable and hopeful about these children is their capacity for resilience and strength in the face of adversity. I heard hip-hop artist Karega Bailey say once that there is always hope. Just look at the word “hopelessness.” Even that word could not exist without hope. And there is hope streaming out of these kids and their CASAs. I walked into the CASA office a few months ago and there was a young man of 13 or so sitting at the common table in our office. His CASA was talking to her supervisor – preparing for the hearing that was coming up that day. The young man flashed me a beautiful smile and said good morning. I responded, of course, but all I could think about was what this young man must be living through every day. Yet he had the energy, the patience, the kindness, to wish me, a person he had never met, a warm greeting. His resilience evident, he proved to me that day that he is stronger than I could ever be. A force to be reckoned with.
There are so many terrible stories. So many unhappy “endings.” It would be easy to lose hope. To give up. To say that the problem is too big to conquer. To cry. But that is an impossible thing to do when you meet kids in foster care and their CASA volunteers. One of my favorite quotes is by Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That is what these people do. They manifest love in a system that so often feels devoid of justice. If I could explain in laymen’s terms what a CASA does for the child for whom they advocate — they “have their back.” They are there for their kid. They advocate for them in the formal way that we train them to do and then they also do genuinely human things on their behalf. They love them. They stick with them. They fight for them.
What I have learned over the past two years is fairly simple: kids need families, they need safety and they need love. And the government can only do so much. We need to own this problem as a community. We need to solve this problem as a community. We need to support families, make sure people have access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and housing. We need to love kids when their parents can’t and help their parents until they can. We need to make absolutely certain that when kids go into foster care it is temporary and safe. It’s not actually that complicated. We need to treat kids who are victims of abuse and neglect with the care and love that we would treat our own children.
So what have I learned about myself? That I am so lucky to have grown up in my family. That to those whom much is given, much is (or should be) expected. And most importantly, that it doesn’t require advanced degrees, special skills or super-human strength to change the life of a child. It requires grit, consistency and love. And that “it’s too sad” is not a good reason not to become a CASA or a foster parent. Sometimes it is sad. It’s sad for the kids. But sometimes it’s very happy and rewarding. We need to be strong, but sad with them, not for them, and do what we can to help. I ask you to please join us.
I feel blessed every day to come to work at CASA/LA. Blessed to work with the dedicated and brilliant staff of the organization. Blessed to be among the extraordinary volunteers. But mostly blessed to know these children and their families. Because they are a part of me. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems, a Mayan precept set to poetry by the play-write Luis Valdez:
Tú eres mi otro yo. You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti, If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo. I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto, If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo. I love and respect myself.
In love and justice,