The seven-day notice. It’s something almost every foster child dreads. It means a foster family wants the child out of their home.
By the time Rosalie Benitez was assigned as the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for nine-year-old Diego, in September 2013, he had already received ten of these notices in only a year and a half because of his defiance, and his most recent foster parents had just filed another.
“He had this history of moving around a lot, so I went to visit him right away,” Rosalie says. “I wanted him to know I would be with him wherever he went.”
As she came through the door, Diego flashed her a smile that belied his history of behavioral problems.
“Hey, I know you,” he said. “I saw you in court.”
The two met for the first time a few weeks before, when Diego was at the L.A. County Dependency Court for one of his mandatory six-month hearings. Rosalie was there as a Shelter Care volunteer for CASA of Los Angeles, providing comfort to unaccompanied foster children at their court visits.
“I saw this really cute little kid,” she remembers. “He was so easygoing and charming, and I couldn’t help wondering what brought him here, what he might be going through.”
She heard all about it in the courtroom. Diego’s mother had physically abused him, which compelled authorities to remove him and his five siblings from their home back in 2009. When their mother regained custody of them, she resumed her abuse of Diego and the kids were all removed again in early 2012. Diego’s three older sisters were placed together in one foster home, his two younger brothers in another, and Diego by himself in a third.
On their way downstairs after the hearing, Rosalie noticed that Diego looked confused, so she tracked down his attorney’s phone number and gave it to him. “You can call her. She’ll explain everything,” she told him. He gave her a hug in return.
Rosalie also noted that the attorney had asked the judge to assign a CASA to Diego.
“I had been trained as a CASA earlier in the year, but I put off accepting my first case until I had a little more experience with foster children and being in court,” she says. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about this kid. I felt like I just had to help him.”
She would have an opportunity to help him right away. Diego’s social worker had been having trouble finding him a new foster placement, so Rosalie was able to jump in and make calls to a list of preapproved families—90 of them, in fact. But there wasn’t a single taker. She did manage, however, to find him a foster family through a referral from her supervisor at CASA of Los Angeles, Elizabeth Hook, just ahead of day seven.
But the tenuousness of Diego’s situation stuck with her.
“His new foster home was okay but not the most nourishing environment,” she says, “and I was constantly worried that another seven-day notice was coming down the line.”
Diego’s plight took on a new urgency in November, when his mother’s family reunification rights were terminated and the adoption recruitment process was started for all the kids.
“He desperately wanted to live with his siblings,” Rosalie explains. “I learned there was a remote possibility that a sibling group could find an adoptive home, but it would most likely be out of state. I realized then that Diego could be separated from his brothers and sisters forever.”
As the adoption process moved forward, Rosalie decided to share the details of Diego’s case with another CASA, Carol Marlowe, a 22-year veteran, who seconded a suggestion from Diego’s attorney: to go back as far as she could in his case file—to volume 1 of 5, from when the kids were first detained—and see if there was anyone mentioned who might be willing to take them in.
Sure enough, Rosalie spotted two names: Elvira and Luis. They were the mother’s aunt and uncle, and each had even passed a background check back in 2009.
But the phone number Rosalie had for them was disconnected. She began calling other relatives, leaving messages with a desperate request to pass the word along to Elvira and Luis that she needed to talk to them.
Then one day in March, Rosalie’s phone rang. It was Elvira.
“I wanted to help those kids when they were first in the system, five years ago,” Elvira hurriedly explained. “I wanted to get custody of them but their mom got them back. And when I found out the kids were taken away a second time, I tried to reach out to their mother, but she wouldn’t return my phone calls or my texts or my messages on Facebook. I didn’t know how to get hold of her. I was so worried about those kids.”
And because she wasn’t a blood relative, Elvira hadn’t been legally entitled to any information about their whereabouts or welfare.
They talked for about an hour. Rosalie explained that she was worried about Diego, that his foster placement wasn’t very stable and she was scared he would have to move again.
“Is there any way you can help?” she asked.
“Yes,” Elvira quickly replied. “I want to help him and I want to help his brothers and sisters too. But let’s start with Diego.”.
The system moved quickly in their behalf, and Diego moved in with Elvira and Luis in May. Rosalie gave him a couple weeks to get settled and then arranged to pick him up from his new school one afternoon..
“When I got there, he looked like a different person,” she says. “He was really well dressed, in new clothes, and his hair was fixed nicely with gel. But he had grown too. It was like he had grown on the inside and it was visible on the outside. I think it was because he was living in a place that he knew was safe and lasting and loving. It almost took my breath away, so I just said, ‘Diego, it’s so good to see you. You look so handsome and happy and I love that.'”
The two walked awhile quietly before Diego turned to Rosalie..
“Rosalie, I want to thank you,” he said.
“Oh, sweetie,” she answered, “I’m just doing my job, and your aunt and your social worker and your lawyer have all worked really hard to get you where you are.”
“No,” he said. “Elvira told me it was you, and I want to thank you for what you did.”.
A short while later, Diego’s three sisters joined him at Elvira and Luis’s. Finances are tight for the family—they make do on Luis’s landscaping wages—but Rosalie has summoned extra resources to help them make it work. For example, when the girls arrived, Elvira and Luis had no furniture for them, so Rosalie went looking for donations. Carol Marlowe stepped in to help again, this time donating two antique dressers.
Rosalie was recently appointed CASA for the sisters too, and Elvira now has her sights set on reuniting the two younger brothers with their siblings.
“The thing that blows my mind is how quickly this has all come together,” Rosalie says. “Diego was in the system for almost five years before I was appointed in September. We went to court together for the first time in October. Carol encouraged me to go through his file in February. In March, I talked to his great aunt. In May, he moved in with her. And in July, the sisters moved in.”
Which leaves her with one inescapable thought.
“Oh my gosh. We need more CASAs.”