NOEL JOHNSON: So I bring people here from out of town.
JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Noel Johnson takes me to his favorite art gallery in Washington, D.C.
JOHNSON: All of the art along the walls was donated, and there…
The paintings line a hallway. A portrait of a mother. An abstract of small circles. A vase with pink starflowers. We’re not at the National Gallery of Art. Nor at the Smithsonian art museum.
JOHNSON: The artists are all children … many of them who have been in foster care.
We’re at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
JOHNSON: This is the John Marshall level. And it’s where family court is generally housed.
Johnson is a judge.
He handles child dependency cases. Cases where children have been abused or neglected by their parents or caretakers. Down the hall from the art gallery, Judge Johnson unlocks the door to his courtroom.
JOHNSON: So this is my courtroom. It is small, as you can see. There are very few people who are allowed to come into the courtroom, other than the actual participants.
The cases are confidential. The bench where Johnson sits in his black robe is situated a bit lower than a bench in a typical courtroom.
JOHNSON: It’s set up intentionally this way, so that I’m not towering above everyone. It’s intended to be more familial in nature.
But the stakes are high in family law … when a case lands in court, it’s likely because earlier interventions didn’t work. And what’s in the best interests of the child needs to be carefully thought through and sorted out.
JOHNSON: If the court determines that the parents will not be able to provide a safe and stable home for the child, then the court can determine that their consent is not needed for adoption.
In other words, if the court determines the parents are unfit … their rights are terminated. Today, we’ll look at adoption and foster care through the eyes of the court. You’ll not only hear from judges, but from those who appear before them on behalf of the children: court appointed special advocates.
From WORLD Radio and the team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion. I’m Jenny Rough.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
Child neglect and abuse court cases typically begin with a formal complaint.
GAYL CARR: So what happens is if child protective services believes a child is being abused or neglected, they can file a pleading in this court
Judge Gayl Carr also handles child dependency cases.
GAYL CARR: And ask me to either remove the child from his or her home, or issue a protective order where the child may stay in the home, but there’s restraint on what they can do.
Carr works in a different courthouse. The Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in northern Virginia. When I met her there on a recent Friday afternoon, a little boy sat on the floor in a kids’ nook, flipping through a picture book. The nook is known as the Kids Bench.
CARR: It’s designed for children, just like the one sitting there, that when they come to court, they could get a book and take it home with them.
Carr first got the idea to bring books into her courtroom so the kids had something to do while their parents attended the hearing. Soon, the idea expanded to the entire courthouse.
CARR: It’s to encourage literacy and reading between children and families. There’s a connection between jail and literacy.
Civics groups, lawyers, and churches donate and replenish the books.
CARR: And I just love it! We’re hoping to have children and parents bond by reading. So we’ll say, “Make sure you read to him every night!”
Carr says dependency cases are brought to the court’s attention for all sorts of reasons.
CARR: A lot of it is substance abuse issues. A lot of it is mental health issues. There’s physical abuse. And some of it is neglect due to economic situation. And then we just have some parents, not good parents.
In order to decide whether to remove a child from a home … or return the child home, but with conditions and under supervision … Judge Carr makes a series of determinations and enters an order specifically tailored to address the problems.
CARR: So if mom’s using fentanyl, which is happening a lot, then I’m going to be ordering mom or dad to have an alcohol and drug services assessment. And we let those professionals tell us what level of treatment mom or dad needs. And then if they say, well, she needs to be in a residential treatment program for six months, she needs to do that, and that’s what I’m going to be monitoring.
The family court system in practice includes two components of effective compassion. Help that is challenging and personal. But in a secular system, it’s up to individual believers to bring the spiritual component. More on that in a moment.
Cases follow a structured timeline. A series of court hearings the parties must attend so the judge can track progress.
CARR: How are they doing in treatment? Are they cooperating with the social worker?
And encourage them to stay on the right track.
CARR: I like to help people solve problems. I think our children are very vulnerable, and people do bad things to children. And sometimes we just need to help them navigate. So I want to be that bridge that maybe helps someone see whatever you’re going through, you can get past it.
Judge Noel Johnson says he’s made it his mission to help the parties in his courtroom work together.
JOHNSON: There’s no winner or loser in my perspective. I consider it my job to try to get everyone to understand that we’re all on the same team and that we all care about the child.
But there is a time limit. Under both federal and state law, parents have 12 months to get their act together. Here’s Judge Carr again:
CARR: We explain to mom and dad, you have one year to show us that you can safely parent your child.
A year can pass quickly. Let’s say a mom is trying to treat an addiction. She enrolls in a program.
CARR: But it’s tough. She gets frustrated and she leaves. Well, then she would not be in compliance with my order.
But the mom might want to try again. Or she might drag her feet at the beginning of the case, and get motivated later. Except now it’s too late to complete the requirements by the 12-month deadline. Judge Carr says that happens all the time. Judge Noel Johnson agrees. He sees it a lot.
NOEL JOHNSON: So for a parent who’s struggling with addiction, one year is nothing.
It can take a long time for a parent to even admit he or she has a problem.
JOHNSON: The addiction didn’t happen in a year. The addiction probably dates 10 years. Getting out of that we all know is a very, very difficult uphill battle.
On the other hand:
JOHNSON: A year for a 3-year-old is an eternity. It’s an eternity of lack of bonding and attachment with a parent. It’s an eternity of not necessarily getting your needs met. It’s traumatic in and of itself. So what do we do?
Johnson says there’s no right answer for a time limit.
JOHNSON: We try to implement an individualized response to each situation. It’s not a one size fits all.
The law does recognize and allow for some flexibility. Here’s Judge Carr again.
CARR: If they’re making, and I believe the language says, “marked progress.” So if we have a family that’s right there, even though we’re up against the 12 months, we’re probably going to grant that continuance to give them a little more time. But what we can’t do is keep extending it because that’s not in the best interests of the child.
The best interests of the child … a good guiding principle … but it’s one that can be hard to implement. People often disagree about what that looks like. And the parties to the court case might be focused on different interests.
CARR: Mom may be only focused on her needs and wants. Same with dad. Social services agency may be worried about their policies and procedures.
In child abuse and neglect cases, just like other cases, all the parties in the courtroom lawyer up. A lawyer represents the parents. Or the parents might each have one, depending on the circumstances. A government attorney represents social services.
CARR: So somebody in the room has to be only focused on: What is best for this child?
The somebody is often a guardian ad litem: a lawyer appointed to investigate what’s in the child’s best interests. However, guardian ad litems often juggle a heavy caseload and are buried in paperwork. They may not have the time to get an inside peek at a child’s day-to-day life. That’s why in almost every state another child advocate steps in to help.
SARAH BARBER: My name’s Sarah Barber. I’m a volunteer with CASA.
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. A CASA spends quality time with the children who are caught up in abuse and neglect cases. Time outside the courtroom.
BARBER: The main thing is you meet with the child at least twice a month that can be a foster home, that can be a relative, that can be at a group home, depending on the situation. And just get to know them and you’ll build a relationship with them. Be a consistent person in their life and you know show up when you say you’re going to show up.
The CASA program isn’t a ministry. It’s a secular community volunteer program. But it is one way Christians can live out their calling to care for those in need. That’s what motivates Barber.
BARBER: I think, as part of my personal faith I want to use my time and skills to help other people and to serve the community.
She was assigned her first case last year.
BARBER: She’s elementary school-aged, and she’s with a relative.
Barber says the initial meeting can be a little uncomfortable.
BARBER: That’s definitely probably one of the toughest things to overcome. Because you’re going into it like, I have to introduce myself to this person and ask them to visit in their home, and it’s a lot to ask. And they don’t know you. You don’t know them. And a lot of times there can even be a language barrier that can be a little difficult. It can be awkward.
But for Barber, it didn’t take long to move past that.
BARBER: And so I just come over and we play Uno, we color, we play games. She showed me how to make these bracelets.
Barber happens to be a lawyer. But that’s not necessary to be a CASA.
EMILY REA: We have some lawyers. We have some former social workers. We have a former postal worker…
Emily Rea is a case supervisor and the training manager for Fairfax CASA. She says CASAs come from all different backgrounds.
EMILY REA: We have teachers. We have stay-at-home moms. It’s anybody and everybody as long as you’re ready and willing and trainable.
Volunteers go through formal training. In Virginia, it’s intense. Thirty-five hours in-house. Observe a hearing. Submit to background checks. Volunteers need a lot of patience, among other qualities.
REA: So reliable, flexible schedule, organized, and stable. And I think that’s another really important one, in a stable place in your life, where you are going to be here for several years. You’re not going to leave this kid in the middle of a case.
Whether a CASA will be appointed to an abuse and neglect case will depend on the state. Judge Noel Johnson says he tends to appoint one when he sees a hole in the child’s life.
JOHNSON: I mean, there are a lot of kids who just need an adult role model and could really use just another person in their corner.
A single case can last up to two years, so showing up is of utmost importance.
REA: These children have had so many adults cycling in and out of their lives. Having one person that whole time that never gives up, never judges, because their behavior, I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not great a lot of the time.
CASA offices operate as nonprofits, unconnected to state agencies. But the two do work closely together. So the CASA can communicate with the social worker about what’s going on.
REA: They’re able to have eyes on a kid and provide information because they’re seeing the kid a lot more, getting to know the kid a lot better, noticing things that other people might not notice.
Not serving as a mentor exactly. More of a champion for the vulnerable.
REA: You are tracking that child in your mind. If you see, hey, they look like they might need therapy, your job as a CASA is to say, “Hey, department who has custody, I really think that we need to get this child therapy. Can you do that?” We look for the gaps. We look for the needs. We just know everything about the child and make sure they’re not lost in the shuffle.
It’s not easy. So many hurdles persist.
REA: Life, poverty, the system, hardships. A lot of parents were former kids in the system. So they don’t have good examples. No one is in the system because they want to be.
CASAs don’t just visit with the child. They’re also responsible for compiling relevant information.
REA: A bigger part of the role is collecting any and all information related to the child and the family.
To do that, volunteer Sarah Barber says she’s careful not to hound the child.
BARBER: You don’t interrogate the child. You don’t want to nail them with questions, and you’re not there to do an investigation. But we are responsible for writing a report to the court and we do have to get information.
That means she gathers a lot of records. Medical records. Therapy records. School records.
BARBER: See how they’re doing in school, see if their attendance has been good. See what their teacher has to say.
She also gathers information on the parents’ progress. To make sure they’re following the court’s orders. Here’s CASA supervisor Rea again:
REA: Hey, I checked up on the parents’ parenting classes. They’ve attended 9 out of 10 classes. The facilitator said they’re doing really well. Or I’ve been getting all the results of the parents’ drug screens, and they’re all positive. And the parenting class says that they don’t show up.
The CASA pulls all that information together and then submits it to the judge. Here’s Judge Carr, reflecting on the role of CASAs in her courtroom:
CARR: In my court, every child dependency case, we appoint a CASA. They're trained. They understand their role. Before each hearing, they prepare a written report. Chelsea Sobolik works in Washington, D.C. for Lifeline Children's Services.
SOBOLIK: I’ve worked on child welfare policy my whole career.
But policy takes place at a distance. Sobolik wanted to serve on a personal level. So she became a CASA. When it comes to reporting to the judge in a case, she specifically keeps her eyes and ears open to whether a parent is present in the child’s life while the case is pending.
SOBOLIK: Something I look for as a CASA is not only ticking the box of completing a program, but a parent's interactions with their children along the way. So have they been attending the regularly scheduled visits? I think that to me shows initiative in wanting to parent.
Sobolik’s first assignment was a sibling group of three. She comes from a big family herself, so she liked that. And she says if you have a heart for a particular subset of kids, you can make that known.
SOBOLIK: You can say I want to be matched with 12-year-old girls. I have a heart for girls as they're entering middle school. Or you can say, I want to work with unaccompanied minors. Or a kid in the juvenile justice system.
The final role of a CASA: Attend the court hearings … every one of them … along with the lawyers and other parties. The kids don’t usually testify in court. Older kids might … teenagers. But not young ones. Judge Carr says some parents push for their 5-year-old to
testify … which makes her wonder if they’re coaching the child.
CARR: I don't think it's appropriate for me to empower a child to feel that I can come in and tell Judge Carr what I want. Because I'm afraid you'll think because you told me what you want that I'm going to do it. But if I'm looking at what's in the best interest of the child, that may not be what you want. And the example I always give is if your child said they wanted to eat pizza and Skittles every night, would you do it? The answer should be no. But a kid could tell you that. That's not in their best interest, but that's what they want.
Here’s where a CASA can step in and help. The CASA can talk to the child about his or her preferences. And share that with the judge. CASA volunteer Sobolik says the judges she’s interacted with have been phenomenal.
SOBOLIK: Absolutely phenomenal and genuinely wants to hear what a CASA says or has to say. And there have been times where my recommendations might be different than an attorney's. And then we get to present why we've made that particular recommendation.
Sometimes that recommendation is placement—whether the child should return home or stay with foster parents. Other times it can be a recommendation for summer camp, special education services, or trauma therapy. Anything to help the judge.
CARR: Am I bound by that? No. But it’s another source of information to help me make a decision.
Judge Carr says the CASAs are invaluable.
CARR: Before each hearing, they prepare a written report, and they meet with the child. They meet with the social worker. They meet with the foster parents. And sometimes I learn things from the CASA that no one else shared with me.
CARR: Sometimes I’ve learned that if someone else wasn’t supposed to be in the home. When the CASA went for a visit, that person was there. So they’re another voice for the child.
CASA supervisor Emily Rea says she’s currently managing 299 cases … 40 are waiting for a CASA. So there’s a need for more. And CASA volunteers are overwhelmingly women, so there’s a special need for men.
Amid all the bouncing around between placements that can happen with a child in foster care, CASA advocates can be a steady presence in a child’s life. Here’s volunteer Sobolik again:
SOBOLIK: I think as Christians we're called to love our neighbor, and we have neighbors in our community who need us. Not everyone is called to adopt or foster, but I think we are called to care for the vulnerable child.
Volunteering as a CASA is one entry point to do that. CASA worker Sarah Barber sums it up this way:
BARBER: It’s so rewarding just to get to spend time with this kid and see how great they and try to support them, and try to make them realize what potential they have. And try to boost them up, you know, when other factors might be bringing them down.
CASA supervisor Rea says CASA workers sometimes get a bad rap. Pushback for meddling in these families’ lives.
REA: It can seem like a group of privileged, well-do-do people that just want to come save these kids from their families, but it’s not. We work really hard to not be that. We want to be here for the kid to get back to their family. We want to be here to be a support and not tear families apart.
And Judge Carr says many times, that’s exactly what happens.
CARR: There’s a lot of good that happens here. We have a lot of success stories where parents step up. They get the help. They get the intervention. And they safely parent their children.
As the final deadline approaches, the judge holds a permanency planning hearing. If the judge decides yes, it’s safe to return the child to mom or dad, the child can go home.
CARR: I've had cases where, when it first came to me, I thought, this mom is never going to get these kids back and dad's gone.
But then they come back in for review … and have completely turned around. How?
CARR: Because people are resilient and if you're going to do it, you're going to do it for your child. If you have that desire and you have hope and maybe faith, you can overcome that. But they do it with the help of others, with the help of the community. That's why I love the CASA. They come and they work with families.
Carr’s courthouse has even started to host reunification day celebrations.
CARR: We had our first one last June. We celebrate families who have overcome and worked to have their children return from foster care to them. It’s a wonderful celebration.
On the other hand, many cases go the other way.
CARR: But when we get to that one year mark, if I don’t feel that I can return this child to you safely, then I have to make a permanent plan.
Terminate their parental rights.
CARR: Because we don’t want children lingering, waiting in foster care. We want permanency. We want them to have a home. A family.
Judge Noel Johnson recently had one of these cases. A two-year-old girl. And he made the determination that the girl’s biological parents were unfit. But that little girl did find a loving family who adopted her. Johnson says such foster-to-adopt cases come with a mix of emotions.
JOHNSON: Adoptions in the foster care context are bittersweet because they first mean usually disappoint a natural parent.
But adoption day is a joyous occasion. Johnson held the ceremony in his courtroom.
JOHNSON: Good afternoon. Welcome to family court. Thank you all for coming.
He signed the official decree. And then he left the bench … to join the new family for a party.
JOHNSON: There were so many family members who were here. Cousins and friends. We had cupcakes and just kind of chatted in fellowship. It’s a wonderful time. It’s just wonderful to see children find their forever home.
Finding children forever homes often means they go to a new home. But just about everyone agrees staying with their biological families is the best option, if those homes are safe and nurturing … and stable. Next week, we’ll hear from ministries working to make that possible more often by supporting families in crisis before the state intervenes.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Jenny Rough. Leigh Jones is our producer. Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance from Rich Roszel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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