Written by Lise Strom, CASA Advocate
Gustavo is twelve now, and lives with his father, new stepmother and baby sister. His story is one of shocking child cruelty, devastating losses, resilience, and transformation. Family Connections made it possible for Gustavo to have a life beyond foster care and institutionalization, in a home where he is loved and where he knows he belongs. Now, Gustavo has a chance.
When I became his CASA in August 2010 and read the accounts of his removal from his mother and grandmother, I was horrified. He and four sisters had been the subject of at least 7 reports to Child Protective Services – beginning when he was an 8-month old infant. The last report resulted in the removal of all the children. At first, the case seemed hopeful. All the siblings, except an infant, were placed in the same foster home. The foster mother was a warm, nurturing, competent woman who created a safe and accepting environment in her lovely home. The children adored her, especially 7-year old Gustavo. I visited Gustavo once a week, with outings to our favorite park, the library, McDonalds, and occasionally the zoo or science center. He was learning to read, and enjoyed playing with Legos.
Gustavo always called his foster mother “mom”, and for almost three years, he had a loving home. He had fewer terrifying nightmares, and other symptoms resulting from torture were abating. Mandatory visits to his biological mother at the jail were very upsetting to Gustavo, and he was very jealous of another foster child in the home. His foster mother became overwhelmed by the children’s needs and challenging behaviors. One by one, she requested the removal of his sisters, and then Gustavo, too, was removed.
I remember visiting Gustavo the day he was placed in the Group Home. He cried inconsolably, in shock, unable to imagine his life without “mom”. His behavior in the Group Home reflected his feelings of abandonment, anger, and sadness. I hated visiting him there, because he was not safe – either physically or emotionally. He told me that he “didn’t want to be alive” if he couldn’t be with mom. He learned new mischief from the older boys. After an especially dangerous escapade, 10-year old Gustavo was placed at Orangewood Children’s Center.
Gustavo spent many months at Orangewood, where he was described as “rude”, “defiant”, and “disrespectful”. Our weekly visits continued, and Gustavo never stopped asking when he could go “home” to “mom”. His persistence paid off, and after careful planning with his foster mother, he returned to her care.
His stay there was brief. Despite his joy and relief, his challenging behaviors remained, and the stresses of so many children in the foster home led to his second removal, and another placement at Orangewood.
A year later, Gustavo was still at Orangewood. Family Connections became involved with case, and miraculously, Child Advocate Patricia Luna located Gustavo’s biological father a few weeks later. From the beginning, Patricia believed that Gustavo’s father was committed to caring for him and could provide a secure, loving home. At first, Gustavo was curious about his father, but an incident in court confused him, and he adamantly refused to see his father or participate in therapy. Gustavo continued to ask to return to “mom”, and would not consider any other option. Months went by, and Gustavo became more withdrawn, angry, and miserable. He would not talk about his feelings, but he showed me in other ways – through the songs he listened to and the movies he watched when I took him for outings each week. His loyalty and longing for his foster mother, his trauma history, painful losses and separations from his siblings, his fear of risking a new attachment – all these experiences and feelings made it impossible for him to accept Father. When Father tried to visit him, and Gustavo turned him away. He denied that he needed a family; he had learned to live without one. Fortunately, nearly two years after his second placement at Orangewood, the Juvenile Court judge ordered that Gustavo be placed with Father.
I visited the family soon after Gustavo moved in. I could hardly believe my eyes. Never had I seen a child so transformed. His “attitude” disappeared. His defensive, “tough” posturing was gone. His reluctance to talk about anything personal was replaced by an animated stream of ideas and thoughts. The boy who was predicted to be incapable of functioning in a regular school classroom was asking for help with his homework.
Gustavo has been with Father in his new home for five months now. He compliments his stepmother’s cooking and talks about wanting to please his father by doing well in school. Gustavo looks different, too. The stress and worry is gone from his face, he smiles and laughs easily. On our last outing, he asked if we could “go home” a little early. I think he wanted to make sure his family is really still there waiting for him.
Update February 2021: Gustavo is 18 years old and is a senior in high school. He still lives with his father and his former CASA is still in his life.
Written by Joe, CASA Advocate
James grew up in conditions no child should ever endure. His mother moved him and his siblings from unsanitary motel rooms, to shelters, and ultimately to homelessness. James’ father was never in the picture, so James was left with his mother who was very neglectful, and could not provide an adequate life for her children. James also had some very damaging behavior including incidents with self-harm, and not committing to his schoolwork. Eventually James was taken into the custody of the state and spent time at the Orangewood Children’s Home. Due to issues of sibling abuse, James and his siblings were separated, so he embarked on this scary journey alone. After recently being abandoned by his mother at age 15, James was very emotionally unstable and was failing most of his classes in school.
When his CASA Advocate, Joe, came into the picture, James was very reluctant to open up to him, and had a strict mindset of not wanting to be helped. Also at 15, James had already developed his own way of thinking with his own opinions and ideas about the world, making it very hard for Joe to work with him. Joe explained how although James was having trouble in school, and could barely read and write, he was extremely street smart and he knew how to get what he needed even if he did not feel deserving. This is very common among foster children because they grow up without having their needs met, so they must go into survival mode and do whatever it takes to get what they need. Fortunately, Joe was able to obtain educational rights for James and got him into an Individualized Education Program so he could learn the basic skills needed to pass his high school classes. From the beginning, Joe saw strong potential in James and knew he just had to wait and continue to be consistent with James until they could build a trusting relationship, and he could really help him.
Over time Joe showed that he was a consistent and reliable adult in James’ life. He showed up to every meeting on time, and did not push James beyond his limits. Joe explained that his first major step in developing a relationship with James was trying to find out his interests. Joe took James to do activities that he never would have been able to otherwise because of his financial and family situation. Joe took him to sports games, movies, trips to San Diego, and James’ favorite hobby K1 Indoor Kart Racing. Because of Joe, James had the opportunity to experience activities that are apparently normal for a 15 year old boy, but were not possible for James before. Even when James moved to San Diego to live with relatives, Joe made the long drive to visit him every weekend. To this day James says that is one of the most amazing things anyone has ever done for him. Joe showed James that not all adults in his life will abandon him, that he can trust people, and have a better life.
Joe clarified that there were never any particular breakthroughs with James, but it was more of a gradual positive change over time. With each meeting James kept improving. James was eventually able to set goals for himself, graduate high school, and is currently attending a technical school to become a mechanic. Joe stressed how “staying by him, being consistent, and making sure James knows he’s there, while still letting him develop his own opinions and make his own decisions” was the most important thing he could do. Joe knew he couldn’t push James too hard or force him to do anything unless he wants it. He merely supported James in his decisions, as well as acted like a guide to get him on the right path. James now has bank accounts, a car, a part-time job, and has truly become a self-sufficient adult. Without Joe there is a high chance that James would have ended up on the streets, and hooked up with the wrong people. Because of Joe, James gets to live a life seemingly unimaginable for his 15 year old self. Joe watched James go from foster homes, to living with relatives, to going back to his mother, and to eventually thriving in a group home. Joe was the person there for James every step of his long journey to independence and hope.
Joe’s decision to become a CASA stemmed from his desire to give back to the community, and to help a child thrive – and he absolutely succeeded in this. Joe worked alongside a team of other professionals (lawyers, social workers, case supervisor etc.) and found that he was the best voice for James in court. Joe had the most personal relationship with James so he could stand up for James when another professional set a goal for James that Joe knew was not right. Joe was also able to speak on behalf of James in front of a judge regarding many of the services that Orange County has to offer, and the judge always listened to Joe and took care of Joe’s suggestions. Each person involved in the case was extremely caring, and deeply devoted to helping James. And Joe thinks that having all these adults “watching” him made James have more motivation to succeed. Although every person involved in the case was passionate and wanted what was best for James, Joe was the only person who truly knew James well enough to know what he needed. Without a CASA, James could have slipped through the cracks of the foster system, and not had his particular needs met because no one else knew him as personally.
Joe and James’ story is very representative of many CASA cases. For children in the foster system, a consistent and stable adult who knows them well enough to speak on their behalf in court is the most important thing they need in their lives. CASA advocates just have to be willing to make a commitment and stick to it in order to promote amazing results for a foster child.
Written by Matthew Wadlinger, Director of Family Connections
18-year-old Holly has been in Orange County foster care since 1998. She was removed from her home after allegations against her mother for failure to protect, serious emotional damage, sexual abuse, and living in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. Reunifying with her mom was ruled out many years ago due to Mom’s drug use and reckless parenting. Holly had sporadic monitored phone calls and visits with her mom and has come to the realization that it will never be a healthy and nurturing relationship. Holly’s CASA, Joann, recognized that although Holly is 18 and had agreed to stay in the system until she finished high school, she was lacking the strong and positive family bonds she needed to help her succeed post-emancipation. Joann spoke to Holly to see if she had interest in a search being conducted for her biological father, whom she had never met before. Holly agreed to CASA Family Connections doing a search, but was a little doubtful there would be any success. Holly knew very little about her father and was only able to contribute his first name, Michael, and the past descriptions from her mother of her father being a “bad” and “mean” man.
CASA Family Connections immediately got to work on searching for Holly’s paternal family. After reviewing her file it seemed like it may be a lost cause. Social Services had tried numerous times in the past to get in touch with Michael. According to records, contact was made once before and it looked as though he had no interest in establishing a relationship with his daughter.
After finding a date-of-birth for Michael things began to snowball and an updated address and telephone number were found within a couple days. Upon phone contact, Michael stated he had been waiting and praying for this moment for a very long time. He had become a Reverend and was now married with two young children living a healthy and positive life in Iowa. Immediately Michael was very anxious to be given the opportunity to speak with his long lost daughter. When asked about previous efforts by Social Services to contact him – he stated he was only told there was a possibility of Holly returning home to her mother, a woman whom Michael had briefly dated and who suffered from psychotic episodes that Michael could not be a part of. Michael admitted that he had made a mistake and should have fought harder to protect the well being of his daughter.
Holly entered the CASA office again, less than two weeks since her initial meeting with Family Connections and exclaimed to her CASA Case Supervisor, “Did you hear? They found my Dad!”. Holly was clearly very nervous, but with the support of her CASA she was able to muster up the courage to begin a new chapter in her life. That day Holly was able to speak to her father for the first time in her life!
Holly was given the opportunity to ask her father anything she wished – which she took full advantage of. Questions ranged from the blunt and serious, “Why did you leave me?” “Why didn’t you ever look for me?” to the seemingly trivial “What kind of music do you listen to?” “Do you have any animals?”. In a beautiful moment, Holly discovered that like her, her father likes to write songs and sing – so they sang to one another songs they had each written lyrics to.
CASA Family Connections was able to fly out Dad and her Step-Mom a few weeks later and you would have never imagined that they had never been a part of one another’s lives for Holly’s whole existence. Holly’s Father and Step-Mom enjoyed a great weekend together where they were able to connect and learn about one another, as well as do some fun activities like bowling, going to the beach and the aquarium, as well as meeting some of her teacher’s at school and kids and staff members at Holly’s group home.
It wasn’t too long after the visit that Holly decided she wanted to go to Iowa herself and see what it would possibly be like to live with her newly found Dad. CASA Family Connections planned a trip for Holly to fly out during her spring break in March of 2012 and spend a week there. Again, it was a beautiful weekend, where Holly was able to meet her Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, her two younger half-siblings, as well as numerous members of their congregation who were extremely excited to meet her. Holly later told us that she felt very much at home – for the first time in her life.
Holly and her Social Worker decided a week after she had come back from the trip that she would like to move to Iowa and live with her family once she finished high school and emancipated. Her father, Michael, was absolutely thrilled that she had made this decision. Holly graduated in June of 2012 and again CASA Family Connections was able to fly her father and stepmother out to be part of the celebrations in Orange County. Best of all – Holly was able to fly home with them, back to Iowa, two days later!
Five years later, we are happy to report that Holly is still in Iowa, recently engaged and now living with her fiance, and has a full network of paternal family that she sees often and leans on heavily.
CASA-OC Family Connections is extremely proud of the work that we were able to do on this case. It is a true testament to our volunteers that her CASA was able to recognize a need for someone to search for Holly’s paternal family and just explore what is out there. We never could have predicted just how beautiful of an outcome could have come to this child’s life!