Wishing that mother could make it

How a child advocate tries to help children in need - and faces the fact that her clients may not succeed

dreamstime_m_3509114By Susanne Janssen

When Ann Mitchell retired six years ago from her job as an elementary school counselor, she was happy that she finally had time to volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). She had heard of this organization years ago, but could not reconcile it with her full-time job schedule. At 64, she decided that the daily stress of teaching was becoming too much for her health, but she still wanted to work with children. “I have the skills and the personality, and I want to contribute to society,” she says. As a CASA, a juvenile court judge appoints her to follow a child or a group of siblings who have been removed from their parents’ home because of abuse or neglect and have been designated “children in need of services.”

Mitchell meets with people connected with each case, attends all conferences and court hearings, and writes a report to the judge recommending decisions that would be in the best interest of the children until the case is dismissed. Sometimes she spends only a few hours a week calling a foster family if a baby is doing well, but at other times it requires intense work with the parties involved, long court hearings and emotional meetings with parents struggling or fighting to keep the custody of their children. A case is dismissed when the children are either returned to the parents’ custody or the parents’ rights have been terminated. “The Gospel-based Art of Loving has helped me handle many difficult and sad family situations,” she comments about her task.

Mitchell remembers one case that lasted almost two years and was particularly heart wrenching for her. Three little girls, ages 6 weeks, 2 years and 4 years, were removed from the home of their mother and father because the baby was born with illegal drugs in her system. The children were placed with their maternal grandmother, and the parents were ordered to attend parenting classes and drug abuse counseling, along with weekly meetings with service providers and supervised visitation with their daughters.

Ann Mitchell realized very quickly that the 22-year-old mother (whom we’ll call Sandy), had a lot to handle: “She worked 7 hours a day, and the father of the children, who had mental health issues, was unemployed and brought drugs into the home.” The apartment was a total disaster — dirty dishes, food, clothes, toys and junk were everywhere. However, when she met the family, Mitchell was impressed by how loving and patient Sandy was with her girls during visitation. She hoped that the case would have a good outcome and that the family could be reunited soon. However, the relationship between the mother and father, who were never married, soon deteriorated, and they separated.

Sandy felt hopeless, overwhelmed, anxious and alone. Mitchell remembers, “She had many other service providers teaching her skills, so I felt that the one thing I could do for her was make her feel loved and worthy of caring for her daughters.” How to do this concretely was a challenge. It meant showing that to her in ways she would feel and see — not just with words. “I spent many hours with her, talking to her about her strengths, helping her clean up and organize her apartment, buying her storage containers, taking her out to lunch, praising her when she was successful, and giving her encouragement and hope,” says Mitchell. After ten months the case was dismissed and the girls were reunited with their mother.

Soon Mitchell learned that the success was not enduring: five months later the little girls, now 1, 3 and 5 years old, were again removed from the home after Sandy had called the police because of a domestic dispute between her and the girls’ father, who had moved back. The police had again found drugs in the apartment, which was now so dirty that it was a health hazard for the children. The Judge asked Mitchell again to be the CASA on the case. This time things were very different: “The case worker at the Department of Child Services made it clear to me that she would expend only minimal effort and funds for services for this second case, because she felt that Sandy would not be able to regain custody.”

It was a crucial moment for Mitchell — why should she work on this case? And would her efforts matter? “I was disappointed and did not know how to handle the case this second time.” She remembered other cases, and it was always very hard when parents failed and broke all their promises. Finally, she found the solution: “To approach the case with the right attitude, I had to first forgive Sandy for again putting her daughters at risk.”

It still didn’t seem right to Mitchell that this young mother was going to lose permanent custody of her daughters because of her immaturity and poor choices. Her children loved her and had a wonderful relationship with her when they were all together. But Mitchell also realized that — more than their mother’s love for them — the girls needed stability, a clean environment that was free from drugs, balanced meals and healthcare to develop and thrive. They were again placed in the care of their grandmother.

When Mitchell went to see Sandy a few days later, she found her alone, sobbing in her dark, dirty and smelly apartment. She was depressed and suicidal. She had lost her job because she had not shown up for work for three days, her rent was due, she had little money and, of course, the girls’ father had left before the police had arrived. “I did not know if I would be able to help her this time, but I did know that I was being called to ‘put myself in her shoes’ and walk with her in her sorrow and forsakenness. I put aside my own disappointment at how much she had failed after all the time and effort I had spent with her in previous months, and began comforting her, listening to her, and making her feel that she was not alone.”

Instead of doing only the minimum with Sandy, Mitchell spent hours mentoring and encouraging her. Sandy had a lot of difficulty getting and then keeping a job, finding a place to live, and being honest with her case worker and service providers. The Division of Child Services was recommending termination of parental rights after six months. What to do? “The love she felt for her children would help her mature and develop a better relationship with her mother, who was willing to help her,” says Mitchell.

When Mitchell opposed termination of parental rights at the court hearings, the judge agreed with her against the Department of Child Services and gave Sandy more time to get her life stabilized, enough that she could regain custody. “Most of the times, the parents wish they were different too,” she says. And 95% of all children love their parents and want to go back to them.

The permanency hearing was extended twice and Mitchell continued to meet with Sandy trying to help her make the necessary changes in her life. Meanwhile she also spent time with the girls, who were developing well but were confused about who would care for them in the future. She also spent time with Sandy’s mother, who was caring for her three granddaughters, while she was grieving over the estrangement with her own daughter.

It became clearer and clearer that Sandy at this point of her life was not able to raise her three daughters. “In a tearful meeting, I told Sandy that even though I knew that she loved her daughters, she was not doing what she needed to do to care for them and raise them adequately,” said Mitchell. “I told her that it would be a huge act of love for her daughters to not prolong the case and voluntarily give the girls to her mother for adoption. She would then continue to be a part of their lives without the responsibilities that were so difficult for her, and they would have the stability that they need.” The reaction was devastating — Sandy told her she would never do that.

Two weeks later, at the next court hearing, when Mitchell recommended that parental rights be terminated, Sandy told the judge that she thought it was in the best interest of her daughters to have her mother adopt them. She would not appeal the decision. For her CASA, this was a huge step — and a proof that love had won, after all.

Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – Jan 2014.