A few weeks ago, Monica Hicks-Jenkins got an unexpected phone call at the CASA of Los Angeles office in Monterey Park.
It was from Eleanor, the foster mother of three-and-a-half-year-old Darren, for whom Monica is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
“Darren wants to talk to you,” she said.
This produced a double dose of excitement for Monica. For starters, just a couple months before, Darren had wanted nothing to do with her.
“When we first met, he kept gesturing for me to leave and trying to push me out the door,” she remembers. “His response to everything I said was ‘No.'”
Darren and his two-year-old sister had been detained by the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in December, when they were found wandering unaccompanied outside a motel in South Los Angeles. They were placed in separate foster homes, and Darren had a terrible time adjusting, throwing tantrums and urinating on himself and others. Eleanor’s was his third foster home in just a few months.
It turns out “no” was, in fact, the only word Darren knew at the time. He would babble and gesture, but proper language was utterly foreign to him. He had been so ignored by his biological mother that he wasn’t even used to hearing people speak.
So his asking to talk to Monica that day was emblematic of the huge change that was coming over him.
“Hello, Darren?” Monica said.
“Are you okay?”
“You know you’re my favorite boy?”
“I’m going to see you soon.”
“Okay. Bubbles?” (A few days before, Monica gave him a bubble machine, one of his first toys.)
“Yes. Is that okay?”
It was fitting that these two were having their conversation over the phone, seeing as the telephone had been the key to Monica’s advocacy efforts for Darren.
After first meeting Darren, in March, Monica had made dozens of calls to local partner agencies trying to get him assessed by a Multidisciplinary Assessment Team (MAT). A MAT assessment is designed to ensure that children entering out-of-home placement get services to address their special needs. Darren had had one when he was detained about a year prior, but the results of it had been lost, and since he had already had a MAT assessment, he wasn’t automatically given one when he reentered the dependency court system.
“Getting him assessed was crucial because he had already missed many of his developmental goals and he would be starting school soon,” Monica says. “So I made calls every day for two months, but the system was so overburdened that I couldn’t get any calls back. Eventually I just went looking for a school in his neighborhood and asked if they had a special education program.”
This got her through to the L.A. Unified School District Special Education Center, and they in turn contacted the Children’s Institute, a nonprofit specializing in the treatment and prevention of child abuse and neglect, which conducted an assessment of its own to determine Darren’s developmental and behavioral issues so he could be matched with a special education program in his area.
Meanwhile, Monica was visiting Darren about once a week “the required minimum is once a month” and beginning to break through his defenses.
“He really needed some consistency, and once he got that from me, he started to open up,” she says. “I would talk to him a lot, read him books, and ask him to repeat things I said to him, like, ‘Monica is my CASA.'”
Then, about a month ago, Darren began getting speech and behavioral therapy in his home. And that, combined with the attention he has been getting from his new family and from Monica, has already produced a very different little boy.
Before her last visit, Monica told Darren she wanted to take him to the California Science Center. When she arrived to pick him up, he was waiting at the door with his backpack.
“Bye, mommy!” he shouted as he ran out the door.
“Wait, I want to talk to Monica,” Eleanor said.
But he was in a hurry.
“Monica is my CASA. She brings me bubbles!” he called back, as if that was all she needed to know.
That was Darren’s first visit to the Science Center. He was predictably awed, and not just by the exhibits. His favorite part, according to Monica, was the elevator. He was fascinated by how it seemed to make people disappear.
“He wanted to touch everything and talk to people, and he was so polite,” she says. “He used to bulldoze everyone around him.”
On their way out, she took him to the gift shop and asked if he wanted anything.
“Earth,” he said.
“The world? Do you want the world?” she asked, cementing another word in his vocabulary.
He nodded. She showed him an image of the Earth on a postcard. He nodded again. And with that she was able to give a kid the world for just 99 cents.
Darren’s case is far from resolved in the dependency court. His mother still has parental rights. Plus he has an aunt who has expressed interest in taking him in. Eleanor is interested in adopting him, but she also wants him to be with his family if that could work for him.
But far from being in limbo, he’s progressing literally every day. With coordination and transportation provided by DCFS, he started preschool last week, and, after a few difficult days, he has come to love the structure of meal time, play time, and nap time. Plus he’s learning boundaries “like listening before speaking” as well as fun stuff, like colors.
“What color does your tongue turn when you drink juice?” Eleanor asked him recently.