On a morning last August, two cars pulled up in front of Thomas Green’s home, in Watts. They were there to pick up Thomas and his three grandchildren for a meeting at the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
The meeting was ostensibly to discuss funding for Thomas as the kids’ foster parent. Christopher, Natalie, and Edward, then 10, 8, and 6, respectively, had come into his care two years before, while their mother was struggling with addiction.
But as the meeting went on, Thomas and the children’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Francine Fitzgerald-Levy, began to realize they were there for another reason.
“They were trying to be non-confrontational, but eventually they made it clear they were going to keep the kids there and not allow them to go home with Mr. Green,” Francine says. “We never saw this coming.”
Since getting custody of the kids, Thomas had had to fend off repeated allegations of abuse called in anonymously to the child-abuse hotline. DCFS, responding quickly to each, was concerned enough that it began working to have them removed from Thomas’ home. The conflicting accounts of what was going on there were part of the reason the judge on the case asked for a CASA to be assigned to the kids, about a year before the August meeting.
This was Francine’s first case as a CASA volunteer, and she started her work for the kids with a thorough investigation of their situation.
On repeated visits to their home over several months, she found no signs of abuse or evidence that unauthorized family members had been looking after the kids—or in the home at all—as had been alleged. In fact, she found three happy children who were bonded to a loving grandfather who made all their meals, walked them to and from school every day, and kept watch over them whenever they played in the yard.
She documented her findings in a report to the court and submitted it before the next hearing. Soon after that hearing, another call went in to the hotline.
“The kids’ mother was fighting loss of custody, and the social worker figured out that she was the one making the allegations of abuse,” Francine says. “She was very angry that Mr. Green had the kids, and she would often call the hotline right after the hearings.”
Wanting to leave nothing to chance, Francine asked the court to issue a “do not remove” order, or DNR, for the kids, which would prevent them from being removed from Thomas’ home without a judge’s approval. The judge granted the request, and Thomas and Francine took some solace in knowing that one unnecessary problem was out of the way.
So there was nothing to prepare them for the shock they got that morning at DCFS.
“Mr. Green was very upset,” Francine remembers. “He kept saying to me, ‘They’re trying to take my kids! They can’t take my kids!’ I explained to the social worker that the kids had a DNR, but she had no knowledge of it. It just never made it into their file. So I got on the phone with the kids’ lawyer.”
The lawyer faxed a copy of the DNR on the spot, and the kids went home with Thomas that day. But the upset of the experience stuck with him for weeks.
“If I had known when those two cars pulled up what I was in for that day…” Thomas says, letting the thought hang. “I wouldn’t have known what to do without Miss CASA.”
But his ordeal wasn’t over yet. DCFS workers had compiled a litany of minor infractions when they were investigating Thomas’ home, from a missing window screen to sheets not being on a bed. (The latter was noted during an inspection on the family’s laundry day; the sheets were in the dryer.) Those were enough to cause DCFS to refuse Thomas the funding he would receive as the kids’ foster parent, and without that funding, he wouldn’t be able to keep the kids.
Fortunately, Francine knew he was entitled to an appeal hearing and helped him request it. He was assigned an appeal lawyer and a date was set for March.
Thomas, however, was living all this time on no income and very little savings. He retired two years early to care for his grandkids, and he had since eliminated every expense he could, even phone service.
But he stood little chance of winning his appeal if he couldn’t be in touch with his attorney, so Francine secured a small grant from Dillon’s Fund, an emergency fund at CASA of Los Angeles established by a generous CASA volunteer, so that Thomas could buy a prepaid cell phone.
As the hearing neared, Francine learned she would not be able to attend it, so she submitted a declaration.
“I explained that I had been working on the case for a year and a half, and I knew the kids were in a very loving, stable home, that it would be devastating for the kids if they were taken from Thomas,” she remembers. “The infractions cited were not life-threatening for the children and I felt there would be no reason to remove them because of such small issues.”
Using the phone she helped him get, Thomas called Francine right after hearing.
“Oh, Miss CASA, I get to keep the kids!” he said. “If you weren’t in my corner, I wouldn’t even have them at all. I didn’t know what rights I had. Thank you, Miss CASA.”
Another hearing is set for October, where it is expected that Thomas will become the children’s legal guardian and their cases will be closed.
Still, life for the family isn’t easy, and Thomas worries constantly about what will happen to the kids, all of whom have special needs, in the long run.
“When I really have a problem, I know I can call Miss CASA and talk to her, and she’ll help me figure out the best way to handle things,” he says. “But I’m 66 now and living on borrowed time. If something happens to me, somebody else better step up for them.”