Tucked away in the back of the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court, in Monterey Park, out of sight of most visitors, is a large area, called “Shelter Care,” for unaccompanied children awaiting their hearings in dependency court. It’s a safe place, a positive place, with an outdoor playground, a movie room, games spread out on tables, and occasional speakers and entertainment.
But there’s no ignoring the complex of emotions children can feel after being removed from their homes due to a parent’s abuse or neglect. Loneliness, fear, confusion, sadness, and anger often go hand in hand. Some kids even blame themselves.
“They’ve all seen courtrooms on television, where people are found guilty and people go to jail,” says Trudy Armer, a CASA of Los Angeles volunteer known as a Children’s Court Assistant. “So I always explain to them that this is a different kind of a courtroom, that the purpose of it is to make sure they’re safe.”
Ms. Armer is one of more than two dozen Children’s Court Assistants, whose role is to help alleviate children’s anxieties by explaining to them the court process and accompanying them to and from their hearings. Each morning, they give priority to children making their first trip to court and offer each an individual orientation. With the help of a photo storyboard, they describe the courtroom and what the children should expect when their cases are called.
“It’s a big, three-part frame with pictures of the courtroom, the judge, and the other court personnel,” Ms. Armer explains. “We
describe how the court works, explain that the judge will consider the child’s desires in his or her decision, and answer whatever
questions they may have about their stay in Shelter Care.”
Unlike Court Appointed Special Advocates — CASA volunteers who follow every detail of a child’s case over months or even years and report regularly to the judge — Children’s Court Assistants know nothing of how or why a child was removed from his or her home; they are not entitled to know.
“We really encourage them to tell their attorneys everything, because the attorney is their voice in the courtroom,” says Ms. Armer, who, besides serving in this capacity for the last five years, has served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for the last 15. “And, of course, we try to assure them that whatever is going on is not their fault.”
After the orientation, Children’s Court Assistants escort children to their hearings and often remain with them throughout the proceedings as a source of support. Following the hearings, they address questions or concerns the children may have, convey those to attorneys or supervisory staff if necessary, and escort the kids back to the Shelter Care area. In the case of siblings who have been separated, Children’s Court Assistants will also offer to take photos of them together to take back to their foster homes.
The Shelter Care program is run by the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. CASA of Los Angeles provides an average of three volunteer Children’s Court Assistants per day, serving more than 6,000 children ages 4 and older per year.
“The younger kids are sometimes a little more oblivious to what’s going on,” Ms. Armer explains. “If they have toys and other stuff to play with, they might not be that emotionally involved. Mostly, no matter what has transpired, their wish is to go back home.”
Older kids may appear detached, too, but often for the opposite reason–they tend to be more aware of what’s at stake for them and their parents. And while their cases may take months or even years to be resolved, at least they know they aren’t alone in the experience.
“Kids are smart, they want to feel understood,” Ms. Armer says. “Even if they use bravado as a cover-up, they can see that you’re a caring person who just wants to make things easier for them.”