December 25, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The young mom a drug addict had been in and out of treatment and was not able to take good care of her child.

The youngster was placed in a relatives home while the mother went through another round of treatment, but every time the mom appeared to have conquered her problem, something happened and she relapsed.

When a child welfare decision was made to place the child in the relatives home maybe permanently a court appointed special advocate (CASA) was called in to review the case. The CASA volunteer read through the six-inch volume of testimony and background material, and read it again.

As he read, the volunteer noticed an odd pattern. The mothers failure in rehabilitation usually came after a phone call from the relative who was caring for the child. The family member appeared to be undermining the mothers attempt to recover.

The volunteer called the in-patient program and said, I expect youll get a call from the relative. Be ready.

He was right. The relative called with a dramatic story, but therapists and the mother were ready, and for the first time, the woman completed the program. The child and mother were reunited.

Such stories fill the memories of CASA volunteers, who are appointed by the court to investigate everything related to children who are being removed from their family home.

Not all stories have a happy ending.

Its heartbreaking when parents think there isnt anything wrong, said Arlene Young, who has been a CASA volunteer for four years. Sometimes when you place a child in a foster home, the child cant understand.

Youngs saddest case is a failed adoption, when the adoptive parents realized they did not have the skills to care for the damaged children.

The new family was so sure they wanted to adopt these siblings, she said. The children had an in-home visit for two or three days, and the family found them too difficult to consider for permanent adoption.

The future of the children is uncertain, as they have returned to foster care.

They (the children) were devastated, Young said.

While CASA volunteers experience the joys and sorrows of child placement, their impartial examination of a childs case has proven invaluable to the judges who rule on child placement, said Union County Circuit Court Judge Eric Valentine.

CASA lets me see the case through the eyes of the child, Valentine said.

Before CASA, judges were limited to what the mother is doing to improve her ability to protect the child, he said. We would not have heard from the community how the child was doing within his


About 19 CASA volunteers provide information to the court system regarding children in situations when the youngsters may be removed from their home. By Oregon law, volunteers have access to all of the childs records, including medical records and school records. They have been called the eyes and ears of the court, but Valentine calls the volunteers the conscience of the community.

Doris Eakin, executive director of CASA, has said she hopes to build the volunteer base to 23 or 24, but said it is essential to have at least 20. After several years, burnout may set in and a few long-time volunteers have said they will retire.

A training session for volunteers will take place later this winter, Eakin said.

Although they experience times of sadness, the work is rewarding, the volunteers say.

Its the best thing I do with my time, Young said.

The rewards come when children are successfully and happily placed with either their birth families or adoptive parents.

Eakin recalls a mother who seemed hopeless but stopped using drugs and was able to take care of her children.

I saw the kids the other day, Eakin said. I could see they were doing well. This was a mother who was given very little hope by social workers, but she did very well.

To be successful, CASA volunteers must work well with the community, the court system and the states Services to Children with Families.

Marjie Pidcock, who has been both an employee and volunteer, said she believes the community cooperation is good. CASA volunteers have become vital to the welfare of the children, especially since child protective workers often carry several cases at one time. CASA volunteers are assigned one case at a time and may take a break between cases.

Sometimes a case is transferred through more than one caseworker, and they dont have the time to read each case, Pidcock said. A volunteer will read a six-inch file.

Volunteer Ruth Ann Hodge recalled an especially poignant case.

When I first met the children, one had a burn scar and one had severe emotional problems. The oldest was 6. I read to him, played ball with him, took all of them to the park.

For over 1 1/2 years, I visited, and we had so many struggles with the parents they were not able to have the kids full time. This family would progress and relapse. I spent hours with the family.

Finally, we were able to place the children with grandparents, and I feel good about that.

Such a placement brings even greater rewards for the child, Valentine said.

Children have a shelf life. If you dont bring stability when the child is very young, you lose the formative years of a childs life, he said.