Harriet Curry shuffled through the automatic glass doors at Bell Trace Senior Living Community to the fourth parking space from the door. Holding the keys with both hands, she shook slightly as she pressed hard on the unlock button for her Ford Fiesta.
She's 89. It takes longer now to get into her car than it did a few years ago, but she still knows how to drive — with her left hand resting at the 10 o’clock position and her right hand gripping the emergency brake.
Bloomington has changed so much since she moved here more than 60 years ago, Curry said as she drove without directions. The population has almost tripled. The university has outgrown its original borders.
Maybe she had changed, too.
Curry has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate for 25 years. She has seen a rise in drug abuse, periods when the courts were double-booked for months at a time and the ranks of CASA volunteers held steady while the number of kids on the CASA waitlist grew.
She has seen most of her children go to caring families. But not all.
Now, she's retiring. This is her last visit for her last case.
The little girl is a 25-month-old with blue marker on her face and boogers in her nose.
She's her last little one.
As a CASA, Curry is assigned children as they go through the foster care system. She visits them at least once a month to observe and talk to them. She also talks to parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers, therapists, doctors and others in an attempt to figure out what is best for the kids. She writes it all in a report to the judge.
A foster child can go through more than one family, more than one DCS caseworker, more than one therapist. He or she will most likely have only one CASA.
That person is the constant.
Curry joined CASA as a volunteer in 1995 after attending an alumni event organized at her sorority. Curry had only been retired for about a week from IU Press when she signed up. She was already a grandma, and she loved kids.
After 25 years, Curry has become not only a constant to the children she serves, but also to the CASA program itself.
Her first case was one of her hardest.
When Curry first peered at the little baby in the NICU, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
The baby was missing a part of its brain. What seemed like hundreds of tubes and wires stuck out of its small body. The baby was too delicate to hold.
Curry looked down at the child and cried. She cried for the fight the baby had been in since the moment it was born. For the quality of life it would have. For the parents who had chosen cocaine over their child. She cried the whole way home.
A judge would have to decide whether the baby should remain on life support and who could take it home and care for it.
Curry was the eager, innocent new recruit. Now, she would have to toughen up and decide if the child’s life was worth living.
For months, she spent hours driving to Indianapolis, meeting the child’s maternal grandparents, studying, talking, struggling.
When Judge Viola Taliaferro asked her what she would do if it was her grandchild, Curry said that she would pull the plug.
The baby died before it was taken off the machines.
When Curry speaks of the children she has represented, she likes to use the word “darling.” The way they sit in her lap when she reads to them and how their faces light up when their foster parents come in the room makes her want to adopt them herself, if she wasn’t so old.
But not all of them have been darling. And when they weren’t, Curry knew why.
Of the Indiana children placed in foster care in 2017, 60% of them were removed from situations involving drug abuse – a one-third increase from 2013.
Curry did not need to see these numbers to know that drug abuse – and with it the number of children affected – has increased. She’s seen it time and time again.
When parents use drugs, particularly opioids, they leave babies in cribs for days at a time as they binge and crash. They pass out with toddlers crawling atop them, clutching baby bottles full of fruit punch. They overdose in cars, kids strapped in the back seat. They forget to feed their babies. They miss doctor's appointments, and a pediatrician calls the child abuse hotline. Moms leave their children with boyfriends, who throw them against the wall. Parents lose their jobs and take their kids with them into shelters, motels or out onto the streets. They bring dealers and pimps into their kids’ lives. They grow paranoid. They go to jail, leaving their kids alone.
Drugs were not as much of an issue when Curry started as a CASA. Her first case was an exception. Kids born exposed to drugs might shake and scream for weeks, struggle to feed and struggle to attach to their caregivers. It all made Curry wonder how parents could do that to their children.
She’d never find a satisfying answer.
Curry spends around 100 hours on every case.
The stakes are high. She weighs in on whether kids should be removed from their parents, whether parents should get one more chance. She helps decide if and when the kids can return home, or whether it’s time to sever their ties to their parents.
She has never doubted her decisions. Still, she is happy she doesn’t have to make the final call the judge is tasked with.
CASAs are the one person in the courtroom whose only intention is to represent the child’s best interest. Their final report is seen as the perspective of the children, if they could articulate their feelings during such a confusing time.
Today, there are enough CASAs for the children in Monroe County. Just over three years ago, however, when the opioid crisis was surging and the cases piled up, there weren’t enough to go around.
By 2016, there were 100 children on the waitlist for a CASA representative, and that number stayed level for two years.
In 2016, the 10th circuit court of Monroe County was double-booking in order to hear more than 35 juvenile cases a day. Just three years before, there had been 153 CHINS — children in need of services — cases. By 2016, there were 323.
The stacks of paper on family court Judge Stephen Galvan’s desk grew 2.5 feet tall. More than 500 children were waiting for a decision.
It was difficult to do the job correctly.
DCS wants one thing. The parents want another. The foster parents sometimes want something else.
Sometimes the children speak in court. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are too young to know the difference between a good living situation and a bad one.
Testimonies can be false or subjective, leaving the judge lost or confused on what is best for the child. That is why the CASAs are so important.
Like essential food preserved during a crisis, CASA representatives were rationed to the more serious cases.
This left some cases without a CASA for a portion of thetime.
Now, the cases have slowed, a direct result of Indiana DCS opening fewer cases.
A report released by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group last year on Indiana DCS included many negative impressions, including the number of children that were removed from their homes. The state has grown stricter about what constitutes grounds for removal.
This has caused the number of cases and children on the CASA waiting list to go down, but it has also left many children in situations considered unsafe a year ago.
It’s going to take children dying for this to change, said Monroe County CASA director Kristin Bishay.
Curry scuffled through a play room lined with gym mats and bunny art, through the kitchen and into the living room, pushing past a red baby swing.
She lowered herself onto a red couch that had three Goldfish crackers stuck in the cushions.
“Trouble with these damn things,” Curry said. “I sit down, and I can’t get back up.”
Now that she was permanently stationed, she made conversation with a foster dad and his daughter.
Curry reached deep into her blue purse, pulling out a crumpled tissue and unfolded it in front of the family’s biological daughter, a second grader. In between the crinkles of Kleenex lay a small white bear, carved out of soap.
The girl gingerly took it out of Curry’s hands and pulled it to her chest. Close to her heart.
Then, her darling arrived.
The little girl and her foster sister were the type of raggedy that only comes from a day of violent coloring and playing with other 2-year-olds.
Curry had known the child since she was a month old. She’d met with her birth parents, visited each one in jail. She’d worked with two foster homes and two case managers. She’d testified in court that the child had gone from shy and withdrawn to bubbly and adventurous.
She’d shown the judge photos of the child with her foster family.
She’d written reports advising Judge Galvin that the child had waited long enough for her biological parents to shape up, and she needed to be adopted.
She’d watched as the child moved from her first foster home into this one, the one that, if all went well, would become permanent.
Early on, the foster parents had gotten nervous about the chaos of adopting this child and another toddler, too. It was a lot to deal with. They wondered aloud if they were doing the right thing.
I just have one question, Curry told them. “Do you love her?”
That was more than a year ago. The foster parents were about to become the girl’s forever parents.
When the girls slinked off their foster mom’s lap, Curry saw an opportunity. She reached back into her purse and pulled out two more soap teddy bears.
“A bear!” her CASA child said, holding it up to show her foster parents.
A smile spread across Curry’s face.
Curry’s daughter Carrie Snapp, 60, knows her mother loves the job, even though Curry can’t talk about it with her unless prompted. Even then, she can only share small details, so as to protect the children in her care.
Over the years, judges, caseworkers, volunteers and peers have approached Snapp to compliment her mother. Curry’s passion for kids earned her a nomination for National CASA of the Year in 2012.
She is respected, she is adored. But she is now almost nine decades old.
Her hearing is getting worse. She doesn’t like driving at night. She’s getting older.
Snapp’s gut feeling is that Curry wants to step away because she doesn’t feel she can do the job as well as she used to, or as well as the children deserve.
Curry doesn’t have a better answer.
“Don’t ask me why,” she said.
She just woke up one day and knew it was time.
Still, Snapp thinks of her mother as a person who loves to interact with children. The person who, just a few years ago, rocked her step-great-grandson to sleep and sang the same song Snapp heard when she was still small enough to fit in her mother’s arms.
“Hello, honey-bunny. Hello, sweetie pie. Hello, sugar plum. It’s time to go to sleep.”
The clock struck 5. It was time for her visit to end.
She pushed up from the couch, looked around the room, walked past the red swing into the kitchen and stood there for a second as she, for the last time, watched the children with their family. It was enough to make her melt.
“Goodbye,” Curry said. “Goodbye, sweetie.” She pushed the girl’s blonde bangs back for one last look.
She wanted to stay, but she was tired.
“They’re darling,” she said. “But they’re a lot of work.”
As she walked out the door and down the driveway, the littlest girl ran to the window and waved.
Adoption day. Her last as a CASA. The snow was piled at least three inches on top of the car.
Curry was not prepared.
“If this were any other day I would’ve stayed inside,” she said, scraping snow using three envelopes from cards she received at her CASA retirement party.
By the time she’d gotten help chipping the ice, popped open the doors, checked the heat, grabbed the hat she’d forgotten, driven to the courthouse (one hand on the emergency brake), scouted a space and navigated security, she was still an hour early.
This day, Nov. 12, also happened to be National Adoption Day, which meant a waiting room full of adoptive families. To celebrate, representatives from DCS had brought lemonade, grapes, strawberries, apple slices, crackers and cupcakes. The kids clutched red balloons.
“The least they could do is have some coffee,” Curry said.
After all, she had woken up at 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 a.m. that morning because she was afraid her alarm wouldn’t go off. After 5, she had just stayed up.
It was worth it to ensure she made it to the last official time she would see her girl.
Families filed in, settled down, took pictures in matching T-shirts. CASA employees, attorneys and Judge Galvin, walked over to say hello and congratulate her.
At 9:54 a.m., Curry’s last CASA darling and her family walked into the waiting area.
“The gang’s all here, huh?” Curry said. “Hello, lovie.”
The little girl with big eyes pursed her lips and stared back at Curry, clearly baffled by the spectacle.
Curry put her hands in front of her face and sharply opened them to reveal a wide smile. Peekaboo!
In the courtroom, while the foster parents were raising their right hands and promising to furnish their child with love and affection, the little girl whose life was changing was preoccupied with the red balloon on a stick. She bounced it on the desk, hit it against her foster sister’s matching balloon and bent the stick until it broke.
All the while, Curry watched intently. Not just the young girls, but the parents too. She smiled as they bounced their girls on their knees. She mouthed the words along with them as they swore to protect their new baby girl. She laughed when the mom messed up her wedding date, and when her husband corrected her.
When she was called on by Judge Galvin to confirm that her last CASA baby would be safe and cared for, she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Then, that was it.
The rest of it was a blur of hugs, pictures, congratulations and goodbyes.
“Ms. Curry, I’m going to miss having you around,” Galvin said from the bench.
There were no tears.
“It’s been a wonderful, fulfilling 25 years,” Curry said.
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