The following is a version of a speech I was asked to deliver at the annual volunteer luncheon for Los Angeles County Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) for foster children. Some details have been changed to preserve confidentiality.
My first experience with Charles was when he stood me up at the counselor’s office. When they finally tracked him down, he came in with a smile and we shook hands. He had me by a foot and at least 100 pounds. This was a big kid. I introduced myself and gently corrected him when he called me Miss Nancy. “Just Nancy,” I said.
I asked him how he was doing. He told me he had been moved so many times he felt like giving up. I told him lots of people cared about him. I hoped it was true. I barely knew him so I didn’t really qualify as one of them. At his first independent educational planning session a couple of weeks later I was impressed by the effort his teachers and counselor made. Charles himself sat with his head down nervously twirling his hair. How was he dealing with his outbursts of anger? “Pushing them down,” he said. “It’s like perfume and musk. You can hide it but it’s always there.” I wrote that down. He was seventeen years old.
Charles was on track to graduate, though barely. I had what felt like a direct line to the counselor’s office. Was he going to make it? Right before graduation Charles got kicked out of his group-home placement. He asked me to help him move and I drove over and packed his stuff in my SUV. Charles himself stood me up.
The group home manager didn’t know where he was. He didn’t have his cap and gown because the money hadn’t arrived, they said. I checked back at school. He had passed. I was given all the information needed for him to pick up his cap and gown. But I couldn’t reach him to pass it on. I thought he had missed it but later I found out he’d been there. He’d posted a picture of himself on Facebook accepting his diploma with a big, wide grin. It was his profile photo. I felt bad I hadn’t been there to see it.
The summer passed with sporadic visits. Everyone considered him AWOL but I knew that Charles was staying with a friend. I was working on transitional housing for him. We finally got an interview at a place in Compton. Of course he couldn’t get there: it would have meant hours on the bus. I picked him up and drove him down. He was smiling and charming and we bonded on that trip. When we got there, he asked me to sit in on his interview. But first we had a snack at Subway. I felt uncomfortable there. I was a little old white lady in a line of young African Americans. I bought him a foot long sub, and he finished it in a few minutes. “I feel weird,” I said. He knew instantly what I meant.
“Don’t worry. I got you,” he said.
He aced the interview and they offered him a place on the spot. I was bursting with parental pride. It didn’t last, though. At court he changed his mind. He didn’t know anyone in Compton. He didn’t want to go. Shortly afterwards, his friend kicked him out of the house after an outburst on Charles’s part. It was his old pattern. He disappeared for a while then called me from Chino. He was staying with the family of another old friend from a former high school. They wanted to become an approved placement.
We worked on that for a while. I drove out and met his proposed family. We lunched at Panero’s and afterwards I took him shopping for a Christmas present at Forever 21. Charles was looking for a little Christmas money. He had some friends to take care of. I asked the salesman if they were hiring around there, and he said they were. Charles was to get an interview. He wrapped me in a hug. He didn’t get the job, though. A few weeks later I got another call from him. Could I pick him up? He had been kicked out again.
I drove out to Chino. Once again I had all his belongings in the back of my car. There were no friends he could stay with this time. I tried to find a shelter for the night. We drove around, making calls. Finally we found a shelter at a church. I drove him there. They showed us around back. They gave us a card with other shelters listed for the next night. He could only stay one night. I looked at the line of shuffling old men. I know I teared up. He saw it.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’ll call a friend tomorrow. I can handle it.” And he did. Next thing I knew he was calling me for help getting some documents. He was enrolling at community college. He was looking into transitional housing. I found myself on the line with that same counselor from last year. Yes, she could email me his transcript.
The last time I saw Charles was the day before his court date in Lancaster. I had bad vibes. He’d gone to court four days before, because his social worker had sent a van for him on the wrong day. He’d wasted the entire day waiting for a case to be called that was not on calendar. I tried to call him to make sure he was going to court. I couldn’t reach him.
Charles stood me up at court that day. Okay maybe I was a little bit mad. But then I thought to myself: Charles doesn’t need me anymore. He’s on track to obtain transitional housing in a place he knows, with friends. The fact that he doesn’t need me: wasn’t that the whole idea behind CASA? Just what I was trying to accomplish? So maybe he’s left me behind. But out there somewhere, I know he’s got me.