Monday, April 23, 2007

Community

Child advocates release book for youngsters in foster care

Book characters Rachel and Gilbert meet their advocate - illustration by Tony Sansevero

Imagine having to pack your things and leave home for an unfamiliar place, family and school without knowing if or when you will be able to return home.

This is the experience of many children who enter the foster care system every year.

“What happens is life changes in an instant,” said Kimberly Morris, author of the new children’s book “Just for Now: kids and the people of the court.”

“Someone comes in, packs up their stuff and they are taken on this bewildering journey, and they really don’t know whose job is what.”

Jackie Crowley saw the effects often experienced by children entering the foster care system first hand when she took on her first case as a volunteer court appointed special advocate or child advocate.

She was assigned to a case with three children, ages 3, 5 and 7, who were very upset and having difficulty grasping what was happening to them and the roles of all of the people handling their case.

Crowley wished there was a simple tool she could use to ease their fears and explain what was going on in terms they could understand.

She did research and found books about adoption and foster care, but nothing that explained all of the situations and legal terms kids would need to know.

“I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be great if we had some kind of communication tool?” she said.

So she set to making one.

Barbara Abell and Jackie Crowley

The retired Galleria-area resident teamed up with her friend, Barbara Abell, and the pair began drawing up plans for a children’s book about the foster care system. They met at Abell’s West University house over coffee every Tuesday, no matter what for about three years. Their research led them to children’s writer Kimberly Morris, who they saw speaking at a children’s conference, and the result is being published this month.

The book, “Just for Now: kids and the people of the court” is about a brother and sister, Rachel and Gilbert, who are sent to live with a foster family while their mother deals with substance abuse issues.

Along the way they meet foster brothers and sisters who are in their own unique situations. One is there until his parents get out of jail, another because her parents hit her and a pair of twins who don’t really know why they are there.

The foster siblings bond when Gilbert finds a stray dog and decides to keep him, unbeknownst to his foster parents.

The children take turns checking up on the dog, who they keep in a backyard shed until he runs away one day.

Gilbert tells Mrs. Hart, his court appointed special advocate, and she helps him tell their foster parents.

“The dog becomes a way of telling a parallel story about neglect,” Morris said. The kids realize that even though they love the dog, they can’t properly take care of him.

“They learn that taking care of anything is a full-time responsibility or commitment,” Morris said.

Lots of people had a hand in creating the book’s storyline. Kathleen Burke, a former teacher with knowledge of Children’s Protective Services, came up with the original concept and gathered feedback from advocates and other people involved in the foster care system to tweak it into something that would be applicable to the largest audience. And the results have been promising.

“When I gave the book to the last case I just finished, the children wanted to paste their pictures on the cover,” Crowley said. “A lot of times when children hear someone else’s story it helps them tell their own.”

The book also breaks down legal terms like “guardian,” “supervised visit” and “permanency placement team” into concepts children can understand, and can even be useful for adults. The pages have colorful break-out boxes that define the terms in simple language, complete with a comprehensive glossary in the back. Lifelike watercolor illustrations by Tony Sansevero adorn the pages of the book, which is geared toward children between the ages of 6 and 12.

“This project was probably the highlight of my career; it was the most worthwhile and most rewarding,” Morris said. “The project coordinators were just so un-endingly dedicated and supportive.”

To learn more court appointed special advocates or order a copy of the book in English or Spanish, visit www.childadvocates.org.