CASA acts as safety net when `system' fails children

June 11, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

YOU STAND on the sidewalk and remember another time. The school bells ring, and you watch the kids spill out of the building with teachers in the doorway calling after them to slow down. It's too late. They're already racing madly past you, across the broad streets beyond, and they scatter and disappear.

You remember summers past, when the grown-ups handed children the world. The summer vacations lasted a thousand years and still ended too soon. You remember those days, carefree beyond imagining, and now the memory becomes a cloud over the summer that arrives.

The schools will close their doors in a couple of weeks, but what happens to the kids with nowhere in particular to plant themselves? You arrive on a muggy morning on East Baltimore Street, directly across from police headquarters, at the offices of Court Appointed Special Advocate of Baltimore Inc. -- CASA -- the little organization that deals with a fraction of the estimated 13,000 children in Maryland -- about 8,000 of them in Baltimore -- who are officially abused or neglected and are tossed into the system of foster and group homes.

Did somebody say "system?"

"If there's a bed, that's where the kid goes," says Susan Burger. "That's the system."

You sit with Burger, and with Linda Koban. Burger, a former social worker, is executive director of CASA. Koban, a former Juvenile Court master, is assistant director. Their offices are tiny, and the problem they face transforms neighborhoods. You hear them talk about a cycle, one generation after another, passing on dysfunction like a family curse, so that the schools are the only constants in these kids' lives. If, in fact, the kids make it to school.

And this is accompanied by the most underwhelming efforts by government. A report, filed last year in U.S. District Court here, says the city's Department of Social Services is "sitting on a time bomb" because of a "lax approach and overburdened caseworkers." It echoed an audit, filed by the state's Department of Legislative Services, with these depressing numbers: 10 percent of children subject to abuse or neglect while in foster care; 28 percent not receiving recommended therapy; 35 percent with no evidence that they were attending school.

Understand: These are the numbers after they've been removed from harmful home situations and then placed into alleged havens of safety and security.

"We're talking about homes where there are multiple children coming from multiple fathers," says Koban. "There's poverty, there's drug abuse, and the mother holds it together, or she doesn't. In a lot of cases, these are teenage parents who never had anybody love them. They have one child, and then another, and the babies are taken away, and they keep having them."

"It's pretty clear the system's not working," Burger adds. She means the network of juvenile services designed to offer sanctuary to children and stability to communities.

"There aren't enough juvenile caseworkers," says Burger, "and they're not well-enough trained, and they don't have enough skill or knowledge for what amounts to life and death situations. They check in once a month, because that's all the time they have, and they're trying to put out fires. A lot of these foster homes, they're not much better than the kids' original homes."

Wonderful. Everybody wants to protect children. We hear this proclaimed all the time. But the juvenile bureaucracies have to beg for state money, and the caseworkers' heads are spinning from too many cases, and then we wonder why the juvenile crime numbers are so awful.

Into this comes an organization like CASA, trying to patch some of the most troubling gaps. In Baltimore, they have about a hundred volunteers. They're ordinary citizens who want to help. They receive at least 35 hours of training -- about twice the number as foster care workers. They go to court and attempt to put kids in safe situations -- sometimes, because judges ask them to step into complex situations; sometimes, because CASA has screened cases and spotted a particularly troubling one.

"We're another set of eyes and ears for the system," says Burger.

But it's a large landscape. This year, she says, the Baltimore CASA office has handled about 200 cases. In a city with close to 8,000 a year, it leaves a lot of kids hoping for the best. Across the state, there are 14 CASA programs, but they share a budget of barely $800,000 -- a figure that's essentially unchanged over the last couple of years.

And the Baltimore office, facing about 60 percent of the state's juvenile cases, gets only about one-third of the state's funding.

So there are thousands of kids who are vulnerable. You see some of them spilling out of the schools now, at the end of the day. The schools, for all of their problems, offer some semblance of stability. But summer vacation arrives soon. And who knows where these kids land as they race across the streets and disappear.

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