Volunteers help kids in foster care
by Jan Schlain
From the December, 2013 issue
"Have you ever heard of Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange, www.mare.org?" Joyce Tesoriero asks.
She swivels her chair around to her computer. "This is gonna break your heart," she warns.
The screen in her office in the county courthouse fills with listings. "This is all the children who are in foster care right now who are available to be adopted," she explains. "This is just in Michigan. There are fourteen pages of them."
"What breaks your heart are all the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, and they want to be adopted. Not many families want to take on a fifteen-year-old," says Tesoriero, in her Brooklyn accent. It's her job to coordinate the county's court-appointed special advocates, volunteers who work with children who have been removed from their families and placed in foster care.
Tesoriero navigates to another page titled "waiting males." "I know this is horrible," she says, "but if you ever look for a pet online, it's so similar it kind of makes you nauseous."
The ways kids end up being advertised here are even more disturbing. "It's not unusual to have drug addiction as an issue of the parents, so the children are being neglected because they're being left while the parents are out doing drugs, or abused. I mean, we've seen kids used as drug runners--it's not as unusual as it should be--they're in the home, they witness violence, they can witness shootings."
The first court-appointed special advocates--everyone calls them CASAs--were recruited in Seattle in the 1970s. "A judge realized there was a need for ... someone who really paid attention to what was going on with an individual child," Tesoriero says. "Workers are overloaded, lawyers are overloaded. Everybody has dozens of kids on their caseload. So he came up with this idea of citizen volunteers who just had one case, or one sibling group, who really got to know the child and know the needs of the child."
Though there were CASAs here earlier, the program really took off locally
in the 2000s. CASA supervisor Gini Harmon says that 70 percent of the time, parents who lose custody have themselves had traumatic childhoods. Part of the goal is to break that cycle by giving kids a nurturer, role model, and steady presence.
Tesoriero calls the program "volunteering on steroids." After a two-hour interview and screening, each volunteer completes a forty-hour pre-service training program before being sworn in as an officer of the court. The CASAs then have access to the child's records, are able to interview people involved with the child, and are required to present a written formal recommendation to the presiding magistrate--usually court referee Molly Schikora. "The most important sentences we write are recommendations for what that child needs," says Tesoriero.
To see the process at work, go a few doors down the hall to Schikora's courtroom. She appoints the CASAs and hears all of these kids' cases. For some, she's the closest thing they have to a mother.
The first time I was there, a teenager named Freedom marched right up to the podium when her name was called. (Now eighteen, Freedom agreed to be identified by her real name; all other children's names in this article are pseudonyms.)
Just a year old when her parents' rights were terminated, Schikora tells me later, Freedom had a number of foster placements but was never adopted. The most promising, with relatives in Kentucky, fell apart when she was a teenager.
A perfect student when she was younger, "she fell in with a crowd that was challenging" when she came back, Schikora says, "so she had some consequences."
Since then, the referee has seen her every three months or so. "There was a period of time when I was seeing her more, because I thought it was important to remind her that we were aware of what she was up to, and we're interested in making sure she didn't deviate too far."
Schikora also appointed a CASA for Freedom--Janice Gilyard. An older African American woman, Gilyard developed a close relationship with the teen--"more like a life coach" than a court officer, Freedom says. When she found she was pregnant, Gilyard was the first person she called.
After a lifetime in the juvenile court system, Schikora says, Freedom has "great self-advocacy skills." That day, though, she seemed to be advocating for all the wrong things. Though she had a loving foster mother--she was there in the courtroom, holding Freedom's newborn son--Freedom wanted to leave her home and live with her boyfriend. As Schikora summarized it later, she asked for "a check for this and a check for that"--an apartment, furniture, a tutor for the SAT test. She also wanted to go to the prom.
No one thought the move was a good idea--Gilyard's written report recommended against it--and Schikora downgraded the tutor to a test prep book. Frills like a prom dress weren't the court's problem.
CASA did have a small "Cinderella fund" that might help, but Gilyard had some advice about that, too. Though Freedom had picked out a $200 dress, Gilyard called Joyce Tesoriero to say she thought $100 was plenty. Cutting the request in half would help Freedom learn to budget--and to learn she can't get everything she wants.
The CASA "was the voice of reason," says Tesoriero, "for both of us."
Linda Miller used to be principal of St. Francis school. Now she voluneers as a CASA. So far, she has worked with seven children, all under eight years old.
"Children always need the love," she says. So she'll take them for walks and talk with them as they look at the trees and birds. "I know they are struggling with 'Why did my mom abandon me?'" Miller says.
Her first two cases closed because the children were adopted--the outcome the CASA and court always want. She was in court in November with the third. This case, too, should be headed for a happy ending--but both the child's Ann Arbor foster mother and an out-of-state relative want custody. Miller has recommended keeping the girl with her foster mother, and the attorney representing the child and her Department of Human Services caseworker agree. But because the law favors blood relatives over foster parents, she may yet end up moving.
Older children are rarely so wanted. Three years ago, CASA Dean DeGalan, sixty-one, was paired with two teenage siblings, Cathy and David.
Both were initially placed with a foster family in Romulus. But in David, DeGalan says, they "took on more than they could handle ... allegedly, he [was] involved in vandalism outside of [the] home. They called the police" and decided David should live elsewhere.
To DeGalan, it was obvious that David needed a strong male figure in his life. But his next placement, with a foster care father in Redford, didn't work out, either. The foster father, DeGalan says, "was well-meaning, but a softhearted guy."
David was skipping school and "having encounters with the law. He had an altercation one weekend with one of his [foster] siblings ... the police were called, and David was hauled away. Then he stole a car, once or twice--once it was [his foster father's] car.
Next, the court sent David to "a residential community in Adrian," but it wasn't a secure facility, and he kept going AWOL. "The sheriff would go out and bring him back," says DeGalan, but "they got to the point where they said, 'He can't stay here.'
"That fall he was moved to a detention center in Saginaw, a locked-down center. There he sat for about six months. That's when I gave him some tough love.
"I told him how it was and what he needed to do to get his life in order. Of course it is everyone else's fault. 'If you guys would leave me alone, I'd be fine,' he would say. 'That's not the way it works,' I would tell him. 'You have to toe the line if you want out of here.' He didn't want to hear that. He broke down in tears. I was there to tell him how it is. I talked him through."
Then, as if David's life didn't have enough trauma, his foster dad in Redford--the one person he said he wanted to return to--was murdered.
No wonder DeGalan says that sometime, being a CASA can feel like "two steps forward, one step back--or, on worse days, it's one step forward and two steps back. But by and large I feel like I am making a difference as a CASA and helping the court to make better decisions on the welfare of these kids."
And lately, David's life has been going better. His biological father is in prison, but he has an adoptive mother, and she agreed to take him back. David is currently living with her in Ann Arbor and playing basketball on his high school team. "He still sees his sister," DeGalan says. "He admires her."
So does DeGalan. He says he and Cathy quickly formed a "warm, trusting relationship ... I think she saw me as a resource, someone to rely on and trust, for assistance."
But unlike David, Cathy didn't need much. She left the foster home in Romulus soon after her brother but had the good fortune to be taken in by a family in Belleville, where "both parents were mentors with a capital M," DeGalan says. "They shepherded her through the process, and they deserve the lion's share of the credit for putting her on the path of personal growth. They were really, really good people."
Now twenty, she's living independently and studying at Washtenaw Community College. "She has a part-time job," DeGalan says, "and she's also caring for her nephew."
While he gives the foster parents the credit for her progress, Joyce Tesoriero thinks DeGalan deserves some, too. "It is hard because you need two pieces," she says. "You need a child who's willing to accept what is being offered and people who are there to give it. Dean was instrumental in helping Cathy to achieve her potential."
Things are going better for Freedom this year, too. Though family obligations recently forced Janice Gilyard to step back from being a CASA, she still helps out with the program. And Gilyard told Freedom she could call her anytime--not as a CASA, but as a friend.
It's early November, and Freedom is back in Schikora's courtroom. Her baby was staying with the father's parents for the weekend. She tells Schikora she's seeing a new therapist she really likes, has gotten her grades up, and hopes to enroll at EMU after she graduates from Huron High next June.
Freedom "has been doing a wonderful job," her DHS caseworker confirms. "She is a good mother. She's writing poems ... making good progress in therapy. She's really had a breakthrough." Joyce Tesoriero, sitting next to me, is almost teary-eyed with joy.
Schikora asks how the baby is, and Freedom smiles. "He's nine months," she tells the court. "He can walk now."
This time, Freedom has a much shorter wish list: She will need the $60 fee for her Huron High yearbook, and, come June, rental for her graduation cap and gown.
"Anything else I should know about?" asks Schikora.
"I may make honor roll," Freedom tells her. "I have all As and Bs, except for algebra."
The case of the child-trafficking janitorMost child welfare cases pass unnoticed by the media, but local CASA volunteers were recently involved in one that became national news: the "parent" who lost custody was trafficking kids.
CASA coordinator Joyce Tesoriero pulls out a clipping from the Detroit Free Press. "It took five years for them to figure it out," she says. "This guy brought them over from Togo [in west Africa], and went out of his way to find kids who were short, so that they looked younger. He used them to bring in welfare money. He was a janitor at U of M. They had bruises, bad clothing ..."
In March, the Free Press reported the sentencing of Jean-Claude Toviave: "Showing no emotion and offering no apology, an Ypsilanti man was sentenced to 11 1/4 years in federal prison today for enslaving and abusing four west Africans in his home for years, pretending they were his own children after sneaking them into the country with fake documents." A jury convicted Toviave after hearing testimony that he beat the children with "broomsticks, a toilet plunger, sticks, ice scrapers and phone chargers if they failed to do their house chores."
Tesoriero can't talk much about the case, but says she remembers the kids well. One was already an adult, but the three younger children became wards of the court, and all were assigned CASAs. One has since aged out and another has been adopted, but Gini Harmon is still working with eighteen-year-old Sara.
Despite the trauma they went through, Tesoriero says, "they were all smart kids. The CASA was very, very involved, and got to know the kids very well."
Of the three who came into care, she says, the oldest is in college and doing very well. Sara is a high school senior and college bound; she now has a child of her own. The youngest is living with his new family, attending high school, and playing football.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the December 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. Sara's name has been changed.
[Originally published in December, 2013.]