STEPPING UP: Foster care kids shouldn’t go it alone; that’s where you come in

Guest opinion published in The Oregonian, June 28, 2009, by Kay Balmer, a free-lance writer who lives in Southeast Portland – not online

It all sounds so familiar: A new law is passed after a child dies in foster care. Oregon child welfare workers will tighten their procedures, ensuring that her “death won’t be in vain.”

In my 30-some years as a journalist, I was involved in covering too many stories that follow the same scenario. The recent heartbreaking story of Adrianna Romero Cram, 4, who died at the hands of her foster parents in Mexico, reminded me of the equally heartbreaking story of Bobby Jackson. Bobby, 7, died from a lethal –but prescribed –dose of behavior modification drugs in 1993 while in foster care in Eugene.

Bobby’s death, too, was followed by a clamor for a change and resulted in passage of the so-called “Bobby’s law” that required child welfare workers to more closely monitor the medications of children in foster care. Problem fixed.

But that was 16 years ago. Today, one in five children in foster care in Oregon take drugs –often multiple drugs –to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. And the much-touted monitoring has fallen by the wayside, reporting by The Oregonian found and a recent state audit confirmed, forcing the Legislature again to take up the issue.

Bobby was forgotten. Will the latest efforts to protect children from excessive medication be forgotten too? Will Adrianna and new rules concerning out-of-country placements be forgotten as well?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming any one person or even the system, per se. Adrianna’s caseworker followed procedures. Bobby’s caseworker wasn’t suspicious of a doctor’s prescription. The system can’t anticipate every permutation of human failure. And sometimes being part of a well-meaning, but overwhelmed, system almost encourages lapses. With few options for treatment and foster placement, for example, it becomes accepted practice not to question prescribed medication for a child who is acting out or to accept placements with family members that aren’t ideal.

So how can we stop these recurring tragedies? We can support or even join a group of volunteers who help watch over these most vulnerable of children.

Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, are trained volunteers appointed by judges to advocate for children who have been removed from their parents because of abuse or neglect. The volunteers see the children at least once a month, review police and child services reports and interview parents, foster parents, teachers, physicians, therapists and others before making periodic recommendations to the judge about what the children need.

A Northwest-born idea, CASA’s Multnomah County program was only the third in the country when it was started by Judge Stephen Herrell in 1986. CASA programs are now at work in every county in Oregon and across the country.

As a journalist, I admired what these volunteers accomplished. So, when I left The Oregonian in January, I joined their ranks and became a CASA.

I’m daunted by the responsibility, but I believe it’s the best way for me to help. Now I can provide relevant history to a therapist treating a scarred little girl. I can offer encouragement to a foster mother who tenderly cares for children who aren’t her own. I can promise three children that I will be a constant in their lives until they are permanently settled and that I will do everything in my power to make that placement a good one for them.

And I’m no superhero. My fellow CASAs and I are just regular people who have a little flexibility in our schedules. We are corporate executives, students, stay-at-home mothers, retirees, self-employed workers and more. We are mostly female, but more male volunteers are needed. We take on a case only after intensive screening and training, and then we are closely supervised by CASA staff members.

Our ranks are growing, but CASAs are available to only one in five foster children in Multnomah and Washington counties. As a result, judges appoint the sworn volunteers to only the most complicated and volatile cases.

How can you help? Become a CASA. Donate to any of the 32 CASA programs in the state or help with fundraising. Or, do both.

It costs about $1,500 to recruit, train, supervise and support each CASA volunteer –a pittance when you think of what it would cost to pay someone to do this work or hold a child in juvenile detention. And even though the program is mandated by Oregon law, just 17 percent of the budget comes from the Legislature.

Still, not even CASAs can guarantee there will never be another Bobby or Adrianna. We can only promise each of our assigned children that we will be with them as they move through the system, successive caseworkers and foster homes and treatment programs. We will be the caring adult unencumbered by the system who will ask probing questions, push for needed services and make recommendations to the judge about what is in the children’s best interest.

You, too, can make that promise to these precious children as a CASA volunteer or through your financial support. Visit the Web site for CASA in Multnomah and Washington counties at or call 503-988-5115. If you live elsewhere, they’ll connect you with the program in your county.