When Linda Mokler was assigned as the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for two girls in foster care about six months ago, she had one urgent mandate: to find out why they weren’t getting the speech therapy they needed.
The court had ordered it for them months before, but as far as anyone on the case could tell, nothing had happened yet. The girls, Evelyn, 3, and Amelia, 5, along with their brother, David, 9, had been removed from their mother’s custody a couple years before when a neighbor reported violence in their home. The girls’ foster parents had repeatedly expressed interest in adopting them, so probably, Linda thought, this was just a case of crossed-up communication.
But when Linda tried contacting the foster parents, she got no response. A week passed, then another, then another, with Linda leaving increasingly urgent messages on their voicemail. One of the key roles of a CASA is to speed up delivery of services for children in foster care, especially developmental services for children 0 to 5 years of age, and Linda knew that every week was important to Evelyn and Amelia.
Meanwhile, the court was working towards reunifying all the siblings with their biological mother, Amber—reunification usually being the court’s preferred outcome. But Amber too was having trouble reaching the foster parents. On several occasions, she had boarded the bus and taken the 15-mile journey to their home for a scheduled visit, only to find no one home.
“Finally I got the foster mother on the phone, and when I asked her why the kids weren’t in speech therapy, she became very hesitant,” Linda says. “Then she tried blaming it on Amber, saying it was Amber’s job to sign the papers.”
This was true. But if Amber couldn’t gain access to the family, how could she provide a signature?
When Linda huddled with the social worker and they shared notes on the case, it became clear to them that the foster parents, in their zeal to adopt, were trying to obstruct the girls’ reunification with Amber. At the same time, the social worker learned that David’s foster mother had room in her home for the girls and was eager to reunify the siblings. The social worker quickly moved the girls to that home, and for the first time in eight weeks, Linda was able to visit them.
“That’s when things really started to happen,” she remembers. “I got Amber to sign the papers, and the girls were in speech therapy a few days later.”
Seeing the family together again also made it clear to Linda that the kids really wanted to be with their mother and that Amber was doing everything the court had asked her to do to regain custody of her kids, from moving out of her boyfriend’s apartment and into one of her own to getting a full-time job to enrolling in anger management and parenting classes to attending psychotherapy.
Indeed, it soon looked like everything was in place for the family to be reunified. The kids’ foster mother had even helped Amber get furniture for the new apartment, much sooner than Amber would have been able to on her own.
But Amber also needed to rebuild her relationship with the kids.
“The youngest one, Evelyn, was having some issues,” Linda says. “She was very young when she was placed in foster care and had bonded with her first foster parents. She was having some issues with being taken away from them. She was acting out. I didn’t want Amber to get frustrated and end up losing her temper again.”
So while it’s normally a CASA’s goal to shorten the length of time a child spends in the dependency court system, Linda felt that Amber could use more time to prepare for the kids’ return.
“I told her I thought she needed a little more time with the kids, that I didn’t want her to be set up for failure and end up losing them again,” Linda says. “She was very thankful and said she understood I was there to help her, not hinder her.”
At the next hearing, Linda asked the judge on the case to delay reunification to allow Amber more time to work through her program. The judge agreed and asked Amber and Linda to come back in 30 days to see how they were doing.
Over the next month, Amber stuck to the plan, visiting the kids weekly, enrolling them in daycare to cover the hours when she would be at work, and continuing with her own therapy sessions.
When they came before the judge again, last week, the judge looked at Linda and asked for her recommendation. Linda turned to Amber.
“I’m recommending the children be returned to you now,” she said. “But you have to follow up with all the services that are being offered to you. And don’t forget, if there’s a problem, you have people to call, so don’t let it get bad.”
The judge agreed with Linda’s recommendation and added, “You’ve done so well and you have all these people behind you. If you need help, just ask for it.”
“I will,” Amber said, and with that the judge ordered immediate reunification. Well, almost immediate.
As they walked out of the courtroom, Amber, lost for a moment in her excitement, turned to Linda and said, “Can I go get them now?! Can I take them home now?!”
“Well,” Linda said with a laugh, “you have to wait for them to get out of school.”
Some details were changed to protect the children’s privacy.