Retired, but only from his day job

September 18, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The quote marks were almost audible every time Charles E. Harris Jr.'s friends and relatives spoke about his "retirement" Friday night, at a party to mark the end of a 40-year career as an information technology specialist at the Social Security Administration.

Everyone knew, after all, that retiring from his day job would merely free him up to devote even more time to what increasingly has become his life's work - as a foster parent, advocate and all-around go-to guy for children in need.

"He just loves you," said Ammar Harris, 14, one of two foster children whom Harris and his wife, Regina, ultimately adopted.

At 65, Harris has just taken a new job as a recruiter for CASA Baltimore, a nonprofit group whose volunteers represent and advocate for abused and neglected children as they wend their way through the judicial system. He and his wife have worked as CASAs, or court-appointed special advocates, for about six years, meeting with children who have been removed from their homes, as well as their teachers, social workers, relatives and caregivers, and making recommendations to juvenile court judges on whether the children should be returned to their parents or remain in foster care or a group home.

The national CASA organization has its origins in the frustrations of a judge in Seattle who felt that he was making what could be life-or-death decisions for children without the right kind of information - from someone who spoke only for the interests of the child, not the social services bureaucracy or lawyers who represented the parents.

"I started feeling like a cog in the machine," said Linda Koban, a former special master for Baltimore City Juvenile Court who now is CASA Baltimore's assistant director. "Sometimes there wouldn't be anyone in the courtroom who had even seen the kid. It really was a pleasure to have a CASA who could tell you what was going on."

Koban was one of several speakers at the retirement dinner for Harris, held at his church, New Psalmist Baptist, in West Baltimore. Many of his kids were there - his three adult biological children, as well as what his daughter Toni Lyles called their "siblings, blood or otherwise."

All the kids lauded Harris for being there - at their dance recitals and football games, at school events and military inductions.

"My children grew up to be really good kids, and since we were somewhat blessed with them, we thought we'd see what we could do for other kids," Harris said.

Harris estimated that he's had more than 50 foster children over the years, some of whom lived at his home in Woodstock just briefly, others who stayed for years. He and Regina have two boys at home, Ammar and a 5-year-old, and a 16-year-old girl, Brandy, whom they tried unsuccessfully to adopt.

"She's family anyhow," Harris said. "We're all one big, happy family."

Harris said his work as a CASA was a natural extension of his foster care. With their 15-plus years experience in foster care, he and his wife are often given the challenging CASA cases - the ones with multiple siblings, for example, or the ones that have been going through the court system for many months, or even years.

"Some cases, you don't have such good success with," Harris said, recalling the case of a boy whose sister was abused and ultimately killed by her caregiver, and who ended up in trouble with the law himself. "Sometimes, these kids have a lot of anger built up inside them, real deep emotional scars."

Still, Harris prefers to focus on the positive. He remembers a CASA case in which he went to visit the kids and found them living in a crack house; he helped get them out of there and into the home of a relative. He said he remembers a foster child, 14 and working as a stripper and prostitute, whom he helped turn around - to the point that she joined his church and sang in the choir.

Friday's dinner was similarly upbeat, with church friends and co-workers speaking about his faith, his work, his service with the Maryland National Guard and his marathon-running. Harris took the microphone only briefly, and thanked the crowd for sharing their kind words while he was still around, rather than saving it for his funeral.

His daughter, Caprice Harris, broke down in tears at one point, unable to say much beyond thanking her father for taking her in as a 3-year-old and later adopting her. A dance major at Shenandoah College in Virginia, she expressed her thoughts not so much in words but in three performances during the party, sometimes with her siblings and others and once in a solo to a recording of gospel singer Kirk Franklin's song "First Love."

The dance began solemnly, Caprice's face and movements anguished, but built in leaps and spins to something more hopeful, ending with Franklin singing, "Home, home, I'm home."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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