On an otherwise ordinary afternoon in 2011, a woman in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles heard some extraordinary noises coming from outside her home. As she reached her bedroom window and peered over the neighbor’s fence, she glimpsed a horrifying scene.
“What are you doing to that child?!” she cried out.
Next door, a man was trying to drown a young boy in the backyard pool.
The man, it turns out, was the boy’s father. Distraught over the suicide of his wife a month before, he said he just wanted the boy to be with his mother.
The woman’s cries stopped him, but the man fled with the boy and, a week later, he tried again, this time in the bathtub of his apartment. Only the live-in babysitter’s quick response saved the boy.
The father was arrested and the boy, Jason, then just 4 years old, was brought under the jurisdiction of the dependency court.
He was soon placed with his maternal grandmother. But she too was devastated, having just lost her only daughter. Grief dominated their household. Jason was nervous, frightened, and hypervigilant. He had trouble sleeping, threw tantrums at school, and would hardly eat.
The judge on the case assigned a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Linda Klein, to Jason.
“Jason was like a little old man back then,” Klein says. “He was very whiny and seemed confused much of the time. If I took him to the movies, he would get so scared by ordinary, G-rated stuff that he would end up in my lap.”
And even though he was in therapy, he would never talk about what happened with his father.
“He would only say he was afraid of his dad,” Klein says, “and afraid of the water.”
Klein recognized that Jason was going to need much more than the “minimum sufficient level of care”–the dependency court’s term for what every parent should provide for a child, including food, shelter, clothing, emotional attachment, and education.
“I realized if he didn’t take swimming lessons, he would always be fearful of the water,” she says. “I knew it would give him some strength if he could swim, like this couldn’t happen to him again. He would master his fear.”
It turns out Klein, a former social worker with 20 years’ experience, had had her own near-drowning experience as a child. One afternoon when she was 11, she was swimming in a lake in upstate New York and got caught in an area over her head. A lifeguard had to pull her to shore.
The experience made such an impression on her that, years later, she insisted that all of her four children become proficient swimmers, and she later took lessons herself.
But she never revealed any of this to her CASA of Los Angeles colleagues, so it was pure coincidence when she was assigned to Jason.
“I got him swim lessons at the Y, but he wouldn’t really go in the water,” she says. “He would just sit on the edge kicking his feet.”
So, armed with signed statements from swim instructors, Klein made her case to the judge assigned to Jason’s case, and he ordered a special allocation of $2,000 for private swim lessons.
For the next nine months, Jason enjoyed weekly individualized instruction at a private swim school, and he eventually became comfortable enough in the water, and with his instructor, that he started looking forward to it.
“Jason became a good swimmer,” Klein says. “He told me, ‘Now I’m not afraid of my father because, if he tries to drown me, I know how to swim.'”
The lessons also became a bonding ritual for Jason and his grandmother. While they had had no relationship before their tragic losses, each eventually gained a new loved one in the other.
Jason’s case closed in December. Soon after, Klein took Jason to lunch. She had a few Christmas presents for him.
He had a card for her.