The first thing I noticed is that “court” is nothing like you see on TV. The courthouse building in Denver happens to be very new. It feels clean but not clinical. It’s busy but it’s not overbearing. And its calm, almost eerily peaceful. The courtroom we are in today is #2 and I will see four cases in about 2 hours.
(If you are not familiar with the work of CASA, please read: “Why I Became An Ambassador For CASA”. Also, note that CASA is a national organization; this is based on a court visit with the CASA group in Denver.)
Late start, IT system problems. We rise for the Judge, but when she sits, the courtroom goes back to a surprisingly high volume of background chatter. No CSI-style dramatic silence happens. It’s busy, with side conferences happening in the gallery where people wait their turn, and even in the business part of the court where prosecutors and attorneys are holding working discussions related to the case in hand, or the next few coming up during the morning.
And we’re off. Mum comes in for case 1 with her attorney. Attorney for Dad enters, but Dad declined to attend. No kiddo is present, which is typical (although there is a court-wide initiative to encourage children 10 and older to attend court when they want to). On the other side is the Assistant City Attorney (ACA) representing the Department of Human Services, the ACA for the next case that will follow, and a GAL (Guardian Ad Litem, an attorney appointed by the court to represent the legal best interests of the child).
Formalities are dealt with, and immediately the Judge agrees with the ACA that Mum can be asked for a hair follicle sample as they suspect she has relapsed and is using substances again. Mum doesn’t speak but her attorney argues that she was changing programs and only missed one session in the confusion and should not have to do this. The Judge determines that the sample is not a requirement but that if Mum refuses, she may look back at this as evidence of non-compliance in the future. Case 1 is over, Mum leaves with her attorney. She won’t get her kids back from today’s meeting, but she looks content. Dad’s attorney stays for the next case as she is also the attorney for the next client, and apart from a little rearranging, the players remain largely the same.
Case 2 is underway before I even realized. The GAL steps up and explains that the two children want to live with their aunt and uncle, who are present. I’m distracted by a sidebar conference happening next to me, attorneys negotiating to reschedule for an upcoming case. Nancy (CASA’s Denver Executive Director who is with me) explains this is typical, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with the proceedings it keeps the wheels turning. There are just too many cases.
The kiddos aren’t present, Dad is expected but absent. Mum is exceptionally well-dressed (which I raise to highlight that many of these people going through this process do not look like social bias dictates), and is battling an addiction to a number of substances. Mum looks like she really wants this to be over and to be with her children again, and CASA shares that goal. The statistics clearly show that the impact of separation is significant, and whenever possible, reuniting the kiddo with the parents is always preferable. Even when reuniting a child involves a scenario some might consider different from their own normal, the goal is a return to the family of origin, if the home is safe and permanent. Simply stated, youth do better with their biological parents.
Despite the business-like atmosphere, the room is filled with kindness. The Uncle is asked to speak about their willingness to adopt, and also any tribal connections they or the kiddos might have, (which happens in every case to ensure we are not repeating mistakes of the past by taking Native American children from their homes), and as he does so the Judge really takes the time to (literally) lean in and listen. Her guidance helps him finish, and as he did so, I wondered if that was their daughter or daughter-in-law they were speaking out against. The judge thanks them sincerely and the conversation returns to the attorneys. Motions are filed, objections handled, future dates booked.
There are some moments that just catch you off guard. We hear in case 3 that a young child was found in a vehicle around knives and propane tanks. Their hair follicle tested high for meth. Mum and Dad suffer from substance abuse. Her entry into ‘the system’ came from a report about where the vehicle was parked. Dad isn’t there in this case either, but his attorney makes it clear that he is not going to fight for parental rights. He is incarcerated and so if he had appeared, it would have been through a different door that connects to the secure receiving area on the level below. Mum died tragically a few months back in a fire.
Nancy tells me that fighting substance abuse requires real support and there just aren’t enough intensive inpatient substance abuse treatment centers, and those we do have, have very long waiting lists. CASA has seen a Mum wait 7 months to get help, and because the kiddo was under 6, (which is considered an ‘expedited permanency case’) proceedings for alternative permanency had already begun.
In an environment like this you might expect normalcy to creep in from hearing about such cases regularly, but as I watched the court reporter’s face, it was clear it doesn’t. There were moments where the entire courtroom took a collective second to process the situation before moving on.
With the child not present, I kept imagining them sitting and waiting elsewhere. There wasn’t a story of their life told today, there wasn’t a photograph on the wall. When the court day came they must have had awful anxiety and upset not knowing what will happen, and not even knowing if their wishes are being represented as they feel them. The GAL might argue that Dad’s cleaned up his act and is ready to have the kiddos home, but it’s the CASA who can articulate that the child knows Dad’s new girlfriend takes drugs and she’s scared Dad will again too. That Dad’s new house is in a new school district and she won’t get to see her friends anymore. That they can’t afford a bus pass and so she doesn’t know who will pick her up afterward.
This is the embodiment of CASA. Twice a month the CASA volunteer goes and visits their kiddos, sometimes at their home, sometimes on an outing, and usually are the person involved who spends the most time with them. They listen and they understand so that they can BE the manifestation of the child in court. It is CASA who says what they want to have said on their behalf, “even if it’s that they want to live on the Moon!” Nancy whispers to me.
Society simply isn’t set up for good mental health treatment anymore. What this kid, and many like them, have been through will live with them forever, and unfortunately, they are likely to cycle through similar behaviors. As one of the Denver Judge’s has stated many times, “the parents we see in Court today are the kids we missed 20 years ago”.
Without support, people fall through the cracks, and substance abuse and self-medication are simply easier and cheaper, and sometimes the only reachable resource for the desperate. Despite some people’s appearances, or society’s preconceived thoughts about addicts, many of these parents really want to be better, but just can’t get past it and into a better situation. Most parents do not want to abuse or neglect their children, they truly love their kids and the kids love them, but circumstances such as poverty, addiction, mental illness, and other factors prevent them from being the parents they want to be.
Case 3 continues, it’s heading for termination, meaning the parents will have no parental rights anymore and are actually scrubbed from the birth certificate. With a final check from the Judge that every possible angle has been pursued, termination is granted.
In the brief break, I get to meet a CASA-in-training. She completed one weekend and is finishing the course on Thursday evenings. It will cost about $2,400 to find and train her and she will be asked for a 2-year commitment. Each case could be shorter or longer, but 2 years covers most scenarios. She is an important part of CASAs future as they try and get to 100% coverage on cases.
The fourth case of the morning. Mum and Dad are here, reports are given that both have been clean for a period of time now, both have secured full-time work, and both have suitable places to live. The CASA report is positive from the children, who will go back to them today. Where the termination case felt like a collective failure, you can’t help but be lifted by the collective joy that washes through the room.
Nancy tells me each year, that the Court’s favorite day is Adoption Day where families (and CASA volunteers) can participate in a joint celebration. There is cake and a real party atmosphere. These are people who know they are doing good, even if sometimes the decisions are hard.
It’s a brief pause, but as one set of documents is put away there is a slapping-closed of binders that almost sounds like applause.