Thursday, May 11, 2017
My work with Child Advocates of Silicon Valley began in May 1990 after my husband encouraged me to attend an orientation and there I became aware that many children in our community are victims of abuse or neglect. I decided to become a CASA volunteer, never realizing how involved I could become in a child’s life.
I completed the intensive training and was sworn in by Judge Leonard Edwards. In June 1991, CASA matched me as an advocate in an important and sensitive assignment. Colette was an 8-year-old with dark hair and beautiful dark eyes; she had been living with and caring for her emotionally and physically disabled mother. My heart went out to this special child, facing adult responsibilities so early in her life.
One morning the previous October, Colette had confided to her school principal that she was unable to awaken her mother. The concerned principal rushed to Colette’s home and found the mother deceased. With no known relatives, Colette was classified as a “Dependent Child of the Court”. Rather than being transferred to the Children's Shelter, her teacher offered her home as a temporary foster home.
I found Colette a bright and winsome child. I spent many hours with her hiking, swimming and just talking. We explored many new activities that she had not previously been able to enjoy. Colette had a great sense of humor, was energetic and fun to be around.
Due to having to fend for herself at a very young age, Colette was “street-wise”; she could be assertive, even opinionated. Because she had been neglected she had a strong need to feel wanted; she craved adult attention.
Two months after becoming Colette’s advocate, I attended a CASA workshop entitled Creating a Life Book. Life Books are journals that help children in dependency fill in blanks about their lives, build memories, and document their personal history. Creating Colette’s Life Book was a turning point for us. Colette and I visited and took photos of her school, church, and the hospital where she was born.
One afternoon while visiting her in her foster home, I asked if she had any photos of her mother. She quietly took me to her room, closed the door, carefully reached under her bed and drew out a box containing photos, one of which showed a woman holding her.
“Not my mother,” Colette revealed, “but my aunt that I haven’t seen in years.” Elated by this new information about Colette’s mother’s family, I immediately called Colette’s social worker. With this discovery and more researching, the social worker eventually located members of her family: two half-sisters, a half-brother, grandfather, and the aunt in the photo.
Finding this extended family opened new possibilities. For many years, Colette’s mother had cut off ties to her family, all of whom were dismayed to learn of her death. They immediately came forward to initiate contact with Colette. Visits were planned and relatives began to establish a relationship with her. Eventually, Colette was adopted by the aunt in the photo and the dependency case was closed.
Colette was 10 years old, and although I kept in touch via phone and letters, I heard very little from Colette and her aunt. The placement and adoption appeared successful. Five years later, I received a long and surprising letter from Colette.
She apologized for not keeping in touch. She thanked me for writing her, “I don’t want you to think that I forgot you or all you have done for me.” Then she added that her placement with her aunt and uncle had not worked out and she was back in foster care. It turns out that her uncle was abusive and social services had removed her from her aunt and uncle’s care.
She was now in her third foster home and said she liked this placement. She ended the letter saying “Take care and please write back or call soon. Love, Colette.” Receiving this letter upset and concerned me.
Had we moved too fast when we placed her with her aunt and uncle? We all thought that after the approval of the Social Service home study, this would be a permanent and safe home. I answered her letter and asked how I could help. Later, I was able to talk with her and her new foster family and felt this placement was good. Over the next few years, communication with Colette was sporadic.
We had a long phone conversation in July 1998 when she was sixteen. She had a summer job and her grades had improved. She was a high school cheerleader and was looking forward to her junior year. She graduated from high school and celebrated her eighteenth birthday in June 2000. To my surprise a postcard arrived from Berkeley the following July.
“Have I not yet told you the good news?” she wrote. “Guess who got accepted to UC Berkeley? Give up? Well, here I am in the summer program, writing friends and family to tell them I still care. Please write back and let me know how you’ve been. Love, Colette.”
I was thrilled to see her happy and excited with her new adventure. We met for lunch and later emailed and talked occasionally during her busy university years. Colette graduated from UC Berkeley May 2005 with a degree in Political Science. After celebrating her graduation and twenty-third birthday with her, we wished Colette good fortune as she left Berkeley for a special assignment in the political arena.
Months and years went by and I often thought about Colette and wondered how and what she was doing. At Christmas 2008, we received special surprise—a card came from Colette from Hawaii with her address.
She wrote “I found your address just in time to send you a last minute Christmas card! I hope all is well! Love, Colette”.
I wrote her hoping it would reach her and she would write me. Somehow we again lost contact. 3 A few years ago I reluctantly joined the social media world; I was pleased to find and connect with Colette. I wrote her a message and her reply ended with “Now that we’re friends on Facebook it will be easier to stay connected and you can see all the pics of what’s new in my life (and vice-versa). Thanks again for getting in touch, glad to hear from you!”
While our communication is infrequent, I am touched to know she is safe and happy. I continue to be proud of her ability to prevail over the trauma she experienced in her life. I enjoy being part of her special life story: past, present and future.