San Jose, Calif. — MOE WHITAKER is a semiretired grandfather who keeps a child safety seat for his 1984 Buick. But Mr. Whitaker doesn't have it for his two granddaughters - who are too old for baby seats now. He keeps it to take four-year-old Maria (not her real name) to visit her natural mother, buy ice cream, or attend some special event.
Whitaker is a court-appointed child advocate, and the children he may take for ice cream are embroiled in some of the toughest cases in Santa Clara county's juvenile court.
Like other volunteer advocates, Whitaker assumes a dual role in such cases. He represents the child's perspective in court, and he becomes a special friend to a child who may not have any other support.
There are more than 271 child advocate programs in 44 states (the first was begun by a Seattle judge in 1977), operated by different organizations under a variety of names. In a court system where social workers and probation officers juggle oppressive caseloads, child advocates provide a much-needed service, according to Nora Manchester, who supervises Santa Clara's advocate program.
Without advocates, ``you never get the child's story,'' Ms. Manchester says, in an office full of furry stuffed animals. ``You get [the story] from an adult perspective on an adult timeline.''
The advocate makes recommendations in court about the best interests of a child and, Manchester explains, can have a significant effect on the judge's ruling. And - with only one or two cases to focus on - an advocate can spend extra time on the interviews and investigative work needed to make those recommendations - something social workers don't always have time for.
That extra effort is important, Manchester explains, because advocates in her program are assigned by the juvenile court to its tougher cases: cases in which the child is not living with his or her natural parents or where the child is being fought over by parents or relatives. Almost half of the cases involve sexual abuse, and about half of the children these advocates work with are under nine years old. The majority live in foster homes while their cases inch through the court process.
``If the child has any support, we wouldn't get the case,'' Manchester says.
The program she heads is called Court Designated Child Advocates. It was begun less than two years ago by Santa Clara County Juvenile Court Judge Leonard P. Edwards and is run by the local branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ).
The conference's program is unusual, Manchester says, because of the special support its advocates give their court-assigned children. ``Some programs are much more court oriented, more legalistic,'' she explains. ``They're not so much a support system for the child.''
But advocates in this program, like Jennifer Berger, place special emphasis on befriending the child. Mrs. Berger, an advocate for an eight-year-old girl, has ``really just spent time with [her child],'' - including teaching the girl how to paint. She also had the girl memorize Berger's home telephone number. That way the child - who will be returning to her natural mother from a foster home - can call the advocate ``in case she ever feels uncomfortable.'' Berger adds that there is evidence that the child has been molested by a family member.
Advocates can also make certain that a child receives the services that he or she needs.
``Most of these kids need comprehensive testing,'' says Lynne Bush, another advocate. ``They don't do well in school or they need [counseling]. The advocate may have more time to ensure that the child gets that. Foster parents are usually just too busy with their family.''
A number of the advocates in the NCCJ program actually drive their children to such counseling - or to supervised visits with their natural parents. Many children staying in foster homes or institutions have no other method of transportation. No one else may have time to drive them.
But perhaps most important, an advocate can provide continuity for a child in an ever-changing legal system. During the years it may take for a child's case to be resolved, Whitaker explains, ``everyone in the system will change. Social workers will move on, attorneys will come and go, the child will have different foster parents.
``Most of the time there's no one person who stays in the case through to the end,'' he says.
And, Whitaker says, there's another advantage to child advocates. Unlike social workers and foster parents, who are required to work for reunification of the child with his or her natural parents, advocates have no hidden mandates.
``I just tell it like I see it,'' Whitaker states. ``I don't report to any agency.''
Under the NCCJ's program, volunteers receive at least 20 hours of training to become advocates, and, once assigned to a case, are required to spend at least eight hours a month with the child until the case is resolved - which can take years.
Manchester says her program has attracted all sorts of volunteers: ``nurses, Realtors, teachers, lawyers, insurance brokers.'' Most hear of the program by word of mouth - and in less than two years, more than 200 advocates have enlisted.
The program - which maintains a paid support staff for the advocates - is funded through grants and community donations. A similar program in nearby San Francisco, Manchester says, recently folded because of lack of funds.
Given proper funding, Manchester has great hopes for the NCCJ's advocate program.
``Right now the process [of juvenile justice] isn't child centered,'' she says. ``It's all legal. Half of the people involved have never seen the children.'' But she says the child advocate program can help to change that.
For further information on advocate programs nationwide, contact Miriam Longino, communications administrator, National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, 909 N.E. 43rd St., Suite 202, Seattle, WA 98105; (206) 547-1059.