Citizens help courts rule in a child's best interest

It had the aura of television drama, but it was real. The atmosphere in the courtroom was tense. Today a judge would decide on the fate of three children, aged three, four, and five. Would they be returned to their natural parents, who were allegedly neglectful? Or would they remain in the care of the foster parents with whom they had lived for three years?

The foster parents looked on anxiously. The natural parents weren't in the courtroom. The lawyer arguing on behalf of the children was addressing the judge. On a recent visit to the home of the natural parents, he said, two observers - a social worker and a lay volunteer appointed by the court - had reported that the living conditions were ''abhorent.'' Several incidents also had raised questions about the father's character and his ability to provide for the family. In view of these findings, the judge should reconsider his previous order to terminate foster care and return the children to their parents, the lawyer argued.

''I'm speaking on behalf of the children,'' he concluded. ''I'm asking this for their good only.''

It was an emotional moment.

''You've just seen the most dramatic type of case we have,'' Zoe Ostrow whispered as we left the courtroom. ''This is the first time we've appealed a judge's decision, but we had to do it, because we felt very strongly that the children were at risk.''

When the judge's decision came down later that afternoon, upholding his previous order to return the children to their natural parents, Mrs. Ostrow was greatly disappointed but not defeated. ''These are agonizing decisions for a judge to make,'' she explained, ''and that's why we do all that we can in each case to provide the kind of information the court asks us for. Often we would argue on behalf of the natural parents, but in this case we felt there could be harm to the children, and we had to tell the judge.''

Since she was sworn in as an officer of the Worcester County Probate and Family Court in February 1981 Mrs. Ostrow has assisted in more than 50 cases of child abuse, neglect, and dependency. As coordinator of this city's Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) project, she is one of an estimated 200 volunteers at work in more than 40 CASA projects throughout the United States. Most of these volunteers are trained and organized by local branches of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which has been advocating on behalf of children involved in the juvenile court system for more than 15 years.

The CASA project began in July 1979 with three pilot programs, funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which has a longstanding interest in the foster-care system. ''Court-appointed special advocate'' was the term coined to describe lay volunteers who function as [guardians] ad litem of the courts.

Support from local courts has been a key to the success of CASA, and nationally the project has earned high praise. ''We feel that CASA is a program that has successfully demonstrated the practicality of using concerned citizens to provide the courts with very valuable information,'' says Robert Praksti of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. ''It's a way to use citizen volunteers in a very creative way.''

When a judge at the Worcester Probate Court decides to appoint a CASA volunteer to a case, he or one of his clerks calls Zoe Ostrow for help. While the CASA often works closely with the lawyers and social workers assigned to the case by the state Department of Social Services, he or she is regarded as an independent investigator by the court.

''Judges find it very helpful that we have absolutely no axe to grind and no allegiance to any agency or group,'' Mrs. Ostrow says. ''We are simply interested in what's best for the child.''

Unlike many attorneys assigned to child-neglect and abuse cases who have little training in juvenile court law or relevant social sciences, CASA volunteers often have extensive backgrounds and experience in early childhood education, social work, psychology, and developmental disabilities. In addition, most, like Mrs. Ostrow, who has eight children, are parents. And although attorneys may be able to spend only five or 10 minutes with a child before a court hearing, the CASA volunteers are committed to getting to know a child and his needs intimately before a case goes to court.

In a similar way, social workers assigned to abuse and neglect cases generally carry a heavy case load and often are mistrusted by both parents and children. Turnover rates in the profession are exceptionally high, contributing to a lack of continuity on cases which can extend over a period of several years. This means that children sometimes are lost in the cracks of the child-welfare system.

Here again, the CASA volunteers can fill a needed role by making at least a year's commitment to each case, and often by gaining the confidence of all parties.

''People are more willing to talk to our volunteers because they're not threatened by someone who has no self-interest in the case,'' Mrs. Ostrow explains.

CASA volunteers have full access to court records, and they spend many hours making home visits and talking with teachers and foster parents who have had close contact with children they're assigned to. In their final report to the court, the volunteers may recommend that a child in foster care be returned to his natural parents, that he be placed for adoption, or that he be placed with a member of the extended family.

''But our recommendations are just that - recommendations,'' Mrs. Ostrow notes.''They are one more facet of the overall investigation that helps a judge make an informed decision.''

In response to requests for information, the National Council of Jewish Women has published a CASA manual designed to show interested groups and individuals how to go about starting a program. Inquiries can be addressed to the National Council of Jewish Women, 15 East 26 Street, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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