SFCASA is reintroducing our "Volunteer Voice" series. This month's piece comes from Shelley Gottlieb, an outstanding volunteer and winner of one of this year's Jefferson Awards.
My supervisor showed GN’s case to me after receiving a referral from a social worker who had told him about a child with special needs in need of a CASA and a strong educational advocate. I had successfully advocated for a change in academic placement of another child and my supervisor thought this would be a good fit. He was right!
GN was chosen for adoption a few weeks prior to my assignment. My first involvement in the case prior to meeting him was at his adoption disclosure meeting. GN had been in the system since he was 2½, had been in nine placements (six in the past two years) and had had six social workers. The only constant in his life, besides change, was his attorney. His case history took up several file cabinets.
When I met GN, he was living in a residential treatment placement that provided a full range of mental health services, and he attended a special day class to address his emotional needs. GN had a history of acting out physically, which had been his pattern after being removed from a six year long placement.
GN is a tall, slim, handsome young man. He can be charming and likes to think of himself as smart, funny and “swag” (having style). When we met he knew all about CASAs and was excited to have one. We started by meeting at his group home and gradually built enough trust to go out on outings. He loves going to the library to pick out DVDs, books and play on the computer. A trip to McDonald’s, Burger King or for a burrito brought him joy. While he was still having trouble controlling his emotions, resulting in the loss of some privileges at his placement and in occasional disciplinary action at school, he was also starting to have visits with his prospective adoptive mother and sister. The visits were going really well.
The social worker on the case pushed for an early transfer to the adoptive home, but other members of the team were concerned about moving too quickly, given GN’s history. One member of the team even went so far as to suggest that there might be something wrong with the potential fost-adopt mother for wanting to take on a child with such extensive needs. This disagreement highlighted the need to involve an impartial member from the community— in our case, a CASA volunteer.
The care team for GN, in addition to the social worker, lawyer and me, included a social worker from the adoption agency, mental health providers, and staff from the residential facility. The number of involved individuals provided quite a roomful at our monthly care team meetings.
While the social worker strongly encouraged an early transition to his adoptive home, GN got into a physical altercation with his teacher. Unfortunately, this incident added a wrinkle to the picture, and I was tasked with finding a new suitable school placement for GN. But luckily for me and for GN, I had plenty of experience as a special education teacher in the same school district. I knew the ins and outs of the system, and I had already successfully advocated for reassigning another child the previous year. I was confident I could work with the district to find a solution that best met GN’s unique needs.
All the while GN and I were getting to know each other better. The process continued, a new school was found, GN was getting to know his new fost-adopt family better and our visits going well. But as CASAs often learn, the youth we work with often test our boundaries. GN and I struggled at times to work through some of the challenges he faced, but knowing that I cared for him and only wanted the best for him brought us closer. GN was beginning to learn that people would still be there for him even when times were tough. As his CASA, he could trust me to stand by him no matter what happened.
Our team continued to meet, set a target of the school year end to transition to the foster home and the attorney filed to terminate parental rights, opening the door for the adoption. GN’s move to his fost-adopt home went well, with the mother’s family throwing her a “shower” to help get her home ready: such a welcoming family and such a lucky boy! I worked with the mother to find the right school closer to her home and with the school to align the appropriated services. Wraparound services were put into place and we were ready to go!
The transition had its honeymoon and many ups and down since – including an altercation with his fost-adopt mom who, in response, hugged GN and just kept repeating that she loved him and was going to keep hugging him until he calmed down.
Eventually the adoption process was finally green-lighted. In July of the following year the adoption was finalized. That was 2 years ago and the relationship I built with the adoptive mom and GN is still strong. Watching him transition to a supported public school environment and address the emotional issues of adjusting to a new family has been incredibly heartwarming. There are happy endings, though they don’t often look as we had imagined they would.