Monday, October 1, 2007
"Her life is in your hands, Dude." - The Big Lebowski
Every second Thursday of the month, Erika Zimmerman gets her papers in order, heads to the Douglas County Courthouse and helps decide a child's fate.
On that day, after nights of poring over pages of court documents, she meets with parents, foster parents, case workers, therapists et al. And then the decision.
Sometimes it's something like: let the child visit a grandparent. Other times it's something like: terminate the parents' rights to the child.
She certainly could have picked a less weighty way to serve the community-planting a tree, for instance-than serving on the court's Child in Need of Care Board.
"There's always that, 'Agh, I don't want to make this decision,' or 'I should've made that decision,'" says Zimmerman, 28, who works as the teen program coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club. "There's always that second guess when it comes to the child."
Zimmerman's five-person board is one of six Citizen Review Boards that meet once a month to make recommendations on cases involving children. Their decisions go straight to the judge, providing an outside opinion before final calls are made.
The board sees children come in under a wide range of circumstances-some horrible, some hopeful, some both. Some of the children, Zimmerman says, have been in 15 or 20 different homes by the age of 10. Some have seen unimaginable abuse and neglect.
Part of the board's job is to navigate through the sludge of government bureaucracy and see that the children are receiving all the services available to them.
In the week leading up to the meeting, Zimmerman says she typically spends two or three hours each night going over the court documents for the three or so cases the board will review. Some Wednesdays she's up 'til 4 a.m., looking at the paperwork again and again, making sure she didn't miss anything.
On the day of the meeting, when the room is full of people debating what's best for the child, the air can grow tense.
"You have these families who are working really hard to get back to a certain point," Zimmerman says. "Emotions are really high and there's a lot of 'they said,' 'he said,' 'she said.'"
One meeting, she says, left all five board members in tears. Another time, the board recommended that the child be adopted to a new family and the unfit parents' rights be terminated.
"It was a happy ending," she says. "That's why we do what we do-so that the child has that happy ending. It's a very scary position to be in for these kids and these families."
In the end, she says, she can go home satisfied-despite the second-guessing-because she knows she did all she could to improve the child's life.
"Our ultimate, No. 1 goal is what is best for the child," she says. "That's the reason we are there."
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