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It was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon when Judith Sandalow’s phone rang. There was a 7-year-old boy who needed a place to stay. Could she take him in? By nine, Phillip was standing at her doorstep. He was one of seven brothers and sisters who had been removed that day from a home where they were badly neglected. The children were being dispersed to six different foster and group homes. “The social worker walked him to my door and left,” remembers Sandalow. The worker couldn’t come in because the other children were waiting in the car. “So this poor little boy — ” and her voice trails off. “Looking back, he must have been terrified,” says Sandalow. He clearly hadn’t had a bath in a month, and when she tried to wash his clothes, they disintegrated. That day about 10 years ago marked the beginning of a transformation for Sandalow, then a solo practitioner specializing in court-appointed criminal defense for juveniles. In the process of caring for Phillip — and, eventually, his older brother Antonio, too — she became a fierce advocate for neglected and abused children. Navigating the social services agencies that were supposed to help these boys would have been far easier, she says, with an adviser who understood the system. But they were alone. Today, Sandalow’s job is to make sure that other children have the advocates they need. As director of the Children’s Law Center, she leads one of several groups that supply guardians ad litem to the D.C. Family Court. Sandalow joined the center in 2000 — the same year she adopted Phillip and Antonio. “I like to say that they led me here,” notes Sandalow. “They led me to want this job.” SO MANY CHILDREN Right now the District has more than 3,000 children under its watch because they were abused or neglected by their parents. Last year D.C. Family Court heard 933 new cases of child abuse and neglect. Under the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, every abused or neglected child whose case results in a judicial proceeding must be provided with a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem plays a critical — and often unappreciated — role as the court-appointed attorney whose sole job is to represent the child in the court and to make recommendations to the judge in the best interest of the child. The guardian, says Sandalow, is mainly trying to determine two things: Was there abuse or neglect in the child’s life, and where should the child live now? Despite the 32-year-old federal law, many cities and states still lack a well-organized, well-staffed system for matching guardians with children in need. Some states load up their guardians with hundreds of cases each, and some don’t provide guardians at all. “There are places around the country where children have nobody” or where a single guardian is in charge of more than 200 youths, says Sandalow. In the District, the foster care system received a jolt five years ago when Congress passed the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001. The law was, in part, inspired by 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, who died after she was returned to her mother’s care. In the wake of the child’s death, The Washington Post published a series of articles slamming the abuse and neglect system in Washington. The new law resulted in several distinct changes, including rules about establishing a system in which one judge handles a family’s case all the way through the system, from a filing of abuse or neglect to some form of permanency for the child. It also directed D.C. Superior Court to establish practice standards for attorneys appointed to represent children. But whether the system has markedly improved for foster children is still a matter of some debate. Children still languish for too long in foster care, says Priscilla Skillman, assistant director for the Council for Court Excellence, a nonprofit organization that works to improve local and federal courts in Washington. “We’re disappointed that compliance [with the regulations introduced by the act] has not yet resulted in children getting into permanent families,” she says. And even with recent improvements, most observers say that it’s still a flawed and messy system. One eyebrow-raising statistic is the number of children who “age out” of the neglect system — that is, turn 18 before their case is resolved or a permanent home is found. In 2005, for instance, roughly 180 children aged out of the system, according to court records. Judge Anita Josey-Herring, who presides over the Family Court, says when that happens, the foster care system has failed. “Our goal is not to have a child age out of the system,” she says. A NEW SYSTEM Unlike in other jurisdictions, Family Court judges in the District have several places they can look for guardians ad litem. In addition to using attorneys from the nonprofit Children’s Law Center, judges can tap lawyers through the Council on Child Abuse and Neglect bar and pro bono counsel through the nonprofit Lawyers for Children America. The majority of cases by far are handled by the CCAN, although Sandalow says that the Children’s Law Center is looking to expand and share more of the load. Because cases vary in their complexity and most court-appointed guardians in the District are limited in the number of hours for which they can be reimbursed for their work, the caseload varies widely from attorney to attorney. The Children’s Law Center aims to have each of its staff lawyers handle no more than 30 cases at a time. Skillman points out that Family Court does not disclose numbers related to the basic workload of court-appointed attorneys. One of the biggest issues now is the amount of training that guardians should have before they are allowed to represent children. A few years ago, just about any lawyer who raised his hand could be appointed to a child in an abuse or neglect case. According to an October 2005 report on Family Court from the Council for Court Excellence, “the result was a system where judges often felt that attorneys appointed to handle serious cases were not qualified to do so,” while attorneys felt that the judges played favorites in making assignments. The D.C. Family Court Act was meant to fix these kinds of problems. The idea behind the increased oversight was that guardians ad litem need to understand all sorts of things that rarely show up on law school curricula. They must know their way around the family court system, learn adoption procedures, recognize the effects of child abuse and neglect, and understand the reverberations of mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and poverty on families. They also have to know how to talk to children, especially those who have been through traumatic experiences. Another change brought about by the Family Court Act involves a different system for choosing guardians. Judges now must appoint attorneys who have been screened and approved by a standing court committee. But even that needs work, says Skillman of the Council for Court Excellence. The court has yet to respond to its October 2005 report calling for a more systematic and open appointment system for attorneys. In a written response to Legal Times, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III said the court has reviewed and discussed the 2005 report with the Council for Court Excellence. King added that the court has “substantially improved the process for appointing guardians ad litem” and is “ continually evaluating the quality of services” provided by guardians. Lawyers picked for the CCAN bar must complete a two-day training session, as well as 16 hours of continuing legal education a year. During 2005, for instance, CCAN sponsored nearly 20 brown-bag lunches on topics such as child support and scholarships, and it held a two-day “neglect practice institute” for lawyers. At the Children’s Law Center, staff attorneys undergo six weeks of training before they even begin serving as a guardian. And when they start, they operate under the guidance of a supervising attorney for three months. “We believe that a high-risk child deserves high-quality representation,” says Sandalow. The Children’s Law Center training covers legal aspects of neglect, adoption, special education, domestic violence, public benefits, custody, and housing. It also covers trial skills and basics of child development. Children’s Law Center lawyers are required to visit the children whose cases they are handling at least once a month. Even with this stepped-up level of training and supervision, guardians can still find that the work requires a daunting range of abilities. In many ways, a guardian is more social worker and counselor than legal adviser. For example, Sandalow cites the case of one Children’s Law Center guardian assigned three brothers who had been removed from their birth mother. Everyone agreed that the best thing for the boys would be to live with their grandmother. But the grandmother didn’t have space for beds for the boys. “Our lawyer said, �I can build bunk beds,’ ” explains Sandalow. It was a quick-thinking measure to keep the court from sending the boys off to a strange foster home. “Was that lawyering?” Sandalow answers her own rhetorical question: “Sure. But you have to understand that lawyering isn’t just filing legal motions.” ADDITIONAL SUPPORT To further complicate the problem, there’s some debate in the District over whether guardians ad litem — even the best of them — are able to fill all the gaps. “We have very dedicated and committed [guardians ad litem], but there are not enough to support the needs that families and kids have,” says Judge Josey-Herring. And that’s where court-appointed special advocates, also known as CASAs, come in. CASAs are nonattorney volunteers who bring yet another form of representation to children in the system. Like guardians ad litem, they are appointed by Family Court judges to gather facts about the child they’re assigned, with the goal of acting as the judges’ eyes and the ears. They often make recommendations about what they think would be best for a child, such as whether to terminate parental rights and make a child available for adoption, or whether to try to reunite a child with his parents. The CASA workers tend to be assigned to some of the more complicated situations: children with sexual-identity issues, for instance. The idea behind CASAs was first conceived in Seattle in 1977 by a judge who felt he wasn’t getting enough information from guardians ad litem to make life-altering decisions about children’s futures. Today the nonprofit National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association has some 950 certified state and local offices and more than 50,000 volunteers in 49 states and the District. “Eight out of 10 times, the judge acts on their recommendations,” says Shane Salter, head of CASA for Children of D.C. “It blows people’s minds. The judge knows that the CASA knows how many cavities that kid has.” Salter knows firsthand about foster care. Born to a 15-year-old girl and forced to grow up in a succession of foster homes, Salter says he understands how hard it is to shake the hurt that comes from not having a permanent family. “I’m not sure the pain ever goes away,” he says. When Salter married a woman who was adopted, and then had two biological children and adopted five others, his goal was to create the family he had always longed for. When he was in the process of adopting his children in D.C., the system didn’t really step up to make it easier, Salter recalls. Like Sandalow, he says he felt as if he and his wife were the only ones really fighting for their children’s rights. His adopted children didn’t have a CASA worker, and the guardians ad litem only contacted the children the day before a court hearing. CONTINUAL CHALLENGES Even with the prospects of a loving home, guardians and CASA workers often encounter much larger problems. After she brought Phillip, now 17, and Antonio, now 19, into her home, Sandalow realized she was facing almost more than she could handle. She had to call 911 for help when one of them pulled a knife on her. That boy also stole her car and had to be hospitalized for homicidal and suicidal tendencies. Today, the boys don’t live with Sandalow and attend boarding school. But Sandalow never forgets how much the boys have been through. “You can’t possibly underestimate the power, the trauma of being removed from your siblings and your parents,” she says. One D.C. judge who understands that more than most people is S. Pamela Gray, a magistrate judge on Family Court. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s and looking to become a Superior Court judge that Gray finally revealed something that even her closest friends didn’t know: She had been a foster child herself. “I am a product of the New Jersey foster care system,” Gray says. She spent 10 years with a foster family until she aged out of the system. For much of her life, she felt ashamed to admit it. “What that meant to me was that I wasn’t good enough, and if people knew that your mom and dad did not want you . . . [and] there was something wrong with me,” she says. Today, though, she counsels young people in foster care, “You have nothing to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of being loved.” Unfortunately, too many children don’t get to hear that message. The hard fact is that guardians and CASAs are often no more than well-meaning adults who can offer only a temporary solution to a bigger problem. And children need permanency. Says Salter, “In my most vulnerable times, I’m aware of the hole that can’t quite close.” “You never stop longing to be returned home,” says Gray. “You’re always waiting for that day that your mother and father pick you up and life returns to normal.”
Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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