I can do all this through him who gives me strength.Philliipians 4:13
I was getting ready to visit JoJo in jail, and that led to a conversation with Cristi about CASA’s. I rarely discuss my volunteer work, partially because I’m sworn to secrecy by the family court judges who assign me to represent foster youths in court as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.
My online custody records ended in 1976, when Judge Lottinngger reversed the previous judge’s decision to place me in the guardianship of PawPaw and MawMaw. Coincidentally, that same year, Seattle juvenile court judge David Soukup felt he had insufficient information to make a life-changing decision for a 3-year-old girl who had suffered from child abuse. He realized that children needed unbiased people who knew them and their unique situations to speak up for their best interests in court. In 1977, he founded the national Court Approved Special Advocate program that trained and oversaw volunteer CASA’s who could dedicate time with kids in the foster system, their parents, and their caregivers. Because they are volunteers, they can remain unbiased and uninfluenced by external pressures. A CASA’s report becomes a permanent part of court records and is used to support a judge’s decision, similar to predicate court cases but more personalized to the child’s welfare. Few judges or juries know all the facts, and my experience with Judge Lottingger and in reviewing Chief Justice Warren’s decisions, that’s true at all levels of government. Sometimes, it take digging through many court records to piece together all the facts, and by then it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Decades later, when I’d serve fourteen years as a CASA, I’d ensure I met all of the adults and would spend years getting to know each child and try to write my court reports from the child’s perspective
I told Cristi and Hope I’d be back later that afternoon, and I went to visit JoJo in the George Bailey Detention Center in South Bay, right on the border of Tijuana and surrounded by a few other jails and a splattering of manufacturing plants and shipping warehouses. He was 27 years old, and by law I couldn’t help him much after he turned 21, and I had lost my right to represent him in court when he turned 18. I was his CASA for four years, and for nine years I was unsure what to call myself when I checked in with him in various jails and rehabilitation centers for low level criminals addicted to drugs. JoJo had been addicted to some type of drug since he was a baby, records show; though those records ended when he turned 21, and now, according to his probation officer and public defendant, JoJo was just another small time criminal without the motivation to change himself.
Giovani Alvaro “Jo Jo” Lopez was a 27 year old male, about 6’2″ tall and 190 pounds, lean and obviously with strong arms. He’s usually smiling subtly, and he calls ladies “ma’am” and men “sir.”
When he was younger, young ladies swooned at his good looks and charm; and, ever since he was a kid and whenever I’ve seen him enter a taco shop, I’ve seen that he’d paused and looked around before walking in, and if anyone was nearby he’d hold the door open for them and wish them a good day, sir or ma’am. If it were a young lady, he would have simply smiled, or smiled and winked, depending on how she responded to him holding the door open for her. Most young ladies said he was strikingly handsome – in City Heights slang, he was called hot, que mango!, muy guapo!, etc. – and when he smiled many young ladies swooned, and he never wanted for companionship whenever he skipped school to be happy. He had liked living in City Heights because ever since he was a kid, he’s been a respected drug dealer who made money easily without ever handling the product during transport and who had been known to take a baseball bat to a fe, and ladies liked him. And he liked that, unlike in the gentrified area of Balboa Park, no one in City Heights looked down on him or commented on his light brown complexion and sharp features that belied his mixed blood of at least Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and Caucasian, all of which are common races in the densely packed negiborhood of City Heights, where he had been born in 1991.
City Heights is only eight miles from downtown San Diego, about six miles east of Hillcrest, yet it’s remarkably different than what tourists imagine as America’s Finest City. It’s considered America’s most diverse neighborhood, a city of around 120,000 people speaking 82 languages and an unknown number of dialects in only a mile and a half radius. It had always been a rough and tumble area, and had the highest murder rate of anywhere in San Diego County; which is remarkable considering we have about 4 million residents and border Tijuana and LA county. And, because of San Diego’s Pacific facing port and the relatively cheap apartments only eight miles away in City Heights, the United States had settled refugees there for decades. In the mid 80’s, the US government granted political asylum to 300,000 Iraqi Caldeans fleeing Saddam Hussein, and 26,000 had settled in City Heights and blended in with other, smaller groups six or seven thousand Somalis, Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Sudanese, and a host of other nationalities fleeing their war torn countries, starting with Vietnamese fleeing after the final US troops withdrew from Vietnam after almost two decades, and a handful of Afghanis after we began withdrawing from there, coincidentally after twenty years of the second Gulf war. The list is long enough to provide 82 languages, and many if not most or even all refugees, by definition compared to immigrants or slaves, come to America for freedom from loosing sides in war zones, don’t have enough resources to immigrate or are prevented from it by their governments, and they would be prosecuted for presumably helping Americans whenever American troops finally pull out; and though they pull out, they leave a lot of children behind who don’t have a lot of options, and they become refugees and settle where we put them. They are human, and therefore imperfect, and many come with connections to countries with many other boys and girls needing a way to escape. City Heights had become a sex trafficing hub. A recent research study by USD and SDSU made national news showing statistics that City Heights may be the sex trafficing hub of America; but the San Diego tourism office doesn’t tell people that part, and few people walk from the Hillcrest farmer’s market all the way to City Heights, no matter how tasty the local ethnic restaurants are.
San Diego county court records unavailable online show that, as an infant, and then as a todler, JoJo had been sold to men in a cheap hotel for drugs or money; for almost five years before one of San Diego’s 300 overwhelmed child welfare social workers timed her calls luckily and police removed JoJo from his mother’s custody.
One of his many court reports, unearthed by a CAMA volunteer researching his piles of paperwork across several jurisdictions that social workers are not allowed to cross for reasons I don’t understand, and she shared a lot of JoJo’s history with me, his CASA, and of all the shocking things I learned, the one that sticks in my mind the day he had been taken from his family, and it quotes one of the arresting officers as holding up her hand and making an “OK” sign, telling the judge that was how big JoJo’s bleeding asshole had been when she found him and arrested his mother and the men in the room. The report was missing many details – most court records are – but that had been enough for me to realize how lucky I was, or at least to begin seeing it. I never told JoJo that about that report, and he’s never asked me questions about the time before he began forming memories.
Some secrets are okay, and I’ve never asked JoJo if he were OK; I can’t hear that word without wondering what it means to every person who hears it. I rarely ask JoJo questions, unless to clarify that I heard him correctly, or to try to understand what the words mean to him so that I can listen to what he’s trying to say rather than jumping to conclusions.
Despite his upbringing, JoJo was a good kid. City Heights is only six miles from Balboa Park, only a few bus transfers or a relatively flat bike ride. Yes, he had sold meth and beaten a few people with a bat who had attacked him, but you’d have to consider that he lived in a neighborhood where rents are sky high and the mean income for a family of four was only $22,000, about minimum wage, and not even enough for a one bedroom apartment. A family of four makes less than a decent drug dealer, and some families sell drugs or other things to earn their livelihood in City Heights.
Many families lived under single roofs, and people do what they feel they must do to make a better living for themselves or their families trapped there. And with all of those people under one roof, it’s no wonder that so many people in City Heights are similarly colored and heavily tattooed with whatever affiliations keep them safe. Birds of a feather flock together, and JoJo had been in and out of addict-centered jails and prisons and undergone every therapy and medication possible; he still suffered from biopolarism and PTSD, and every time he had been stopped and questioned he would be defensive and be arrested for minor infarctions and sent back to jail for things like loitering because he had been on some type of parole ever since I knew him. In his early 20’s, he began showing signs of scziphrenia – the mental disease most commonly begins showing signs in a bell curve with most occurring between 21 ish and 27 ish – and that increased his meth use and created a downward spiral. His family court records discussed what was called PTSD, ADD, ADHD, dxlexia, biopolarism, anger issues, etc.; his criminal records omit his PTSD and learning disabilities and focuses on his clinically diagnosed scziphrenia and the medications they keep prescribing yet he somehow forgets to take when he’s on the streets again, sleeping in alleys of City Heights and earning his livelihood however he can without selling drugs; he will use, but he doesn’t want to sell and harm other kids. He wants to earn his livelihood honorably, without harming others, and he grew to become less concerned about his own well being. He’s HIV positive and carries herpes simplex; though, in fairness, several studies show that more than 85% of all people in California carry the herpes simplex now, though most are asymptomatic and don’t realize they spread a version of cold sores or genital sores every time they kiss Grandma on the lips at Christmas; I don’t know the statistics on HIV, or how many people kiss their Grandmas, but I know I kissed Grandma Foster every time I said goodbye, and I probably gave her herpes; I try not to judge others who haven’t studied statistics, asymptomatic transmissions, or empathy.
The first thing most people notice about JoJo is the crude, faded, blue gang tattoo on his neck. Or the two black teardrops near the corner of his eye. Or perhaps that his arms are full sleeves of black and white tattoos, ostensibly blended into a single mass on his strong arms. But, if you looked closely, you’d see that he had chosen words like Hope and Trust and Family and Love. And if you knew him as long as I had, you’d know that he had spent his lifetime trying to be a better person, and he had listened to and repeated all the words he thought would help. He had many learning disabilities and couldn’t read, which made it hard to find a job, but he listened well and loved deeply. He had traded a lot of drugs to a skilled artist to tattoo a photo of his baby daughter’s face on his right forearm, and to write her name in an elaborate, eloquent script worthy of her. If you peered at the laced lettering closely, you’d see that it said, “Victoria.”
Victoria had been taken from his custody almost 13 years before. I had been his CASA at the time, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, with access to his court records and given paperwork that allowed me to legally able to represent him in school, the doctor, his mother, his many foster parents and group homes, and, of course, at his criminal hearings for minor infarctions. I was his CASA until he was 21 and the law wouldn’t allow me to represent him, and he was no longer considered by public defenders a troubled youth, but as a man with a long history of being in and out of trouble with the law. By then, no one checked his family court records, so no one today would have seen the reports I had written that are still on file in the San Diego county family courthouse.
At an early age, JoJo had been physically large and had a quick temper and, of course, was bipolar and tattooed; he had been considered unadoptable, and the CASA office that coordinated volunteers had asked if I’d help him emancipate and represent him to schools and courts and parole boards. It had been a high profile case, because JoJo and Victoria’s mother met at Penbrook Children’s home and Victoria was conceived there, and many people thought the Children’s home was a waste of taxpayer money; one half was the Penbrook Juvenille Detention center, and many opinionated tax payers believed that stricter punishment would deter future crimes. JoJo and Victoria’s mom, coincidentally named Christy, were being used as an example of a broken and expensive system, and the independent and nonprofit national CASA organization had assigned a CASA to each of them so that we’d remain unbiased as possible. Victoria was adopted ten years before, but he still had hope that he’d see her one day and be the type of father he’d like to be.
“Hey JoJo,” I said into the filthy and antiquated phone against my ear.
“Hey, J,” he replied through his. Several inches of safety plexiglass separated us. As usual, he was smiling.
I told him I was happy to see him, and he said the same. There was nothing he needed, he said, humbly; except that he’d like a few dollars to buy some deoderant. He stank, he said, smirking. And he liked to smell good after doing pushups in his cell all day. He had several learning disabilities, and couldn’t read and they weren’t allowed television, so he spent his days trying to stay healthy and pondering free will; he felt there was none, and that’s why he wasn’t a bad person.
I told him I could smell him through the plexiglass.
“?Por que me changaste?” he jested back.
“Por que tu eres feo y apariencia divertida, y tu mama te vesta que un papayo!” Yo diga.
“Me gusta mirate, J. Lo siento sobre tu moma; May she Rest in Peace.”
He replied in Spanglish, probably the closest thing City Heights has to a common language, and made the sign of a cross and then clasped his hands in prayer, and said, “Namaste.” That means “I see the divine in you,” and was originally intended to help Hindus pause and feel the sentiment before speaking words that were untrue, or asking how someone’s doing or replying “okay” mindlessly. Now it’s a shirt logo at Hillcrest yoga studios, but the intention of the word can still be important to ponder. I chose my words carefully, hoping to transition from bantering to learning more about his situation.
“Gracias, mi hermono.” Yo se diga, en verdad.
“I’m glad you’re smiling again,” JoJo said. “You were triste la ultima vez.”
I was. I was having a hard time smiling for a few months after Wendy died. JoJo had commented on that a few weeks before, and had said, “It’s like your tattoo, La murte es inevitable; but, you always forget the second part, “Disfruta la vida.”
“Como estas?” I asked after taking a moment to look for a feeling unlike namaste implies.
He answered truthfully, because I had asked, though he knew I wouldn’t give him money, even for deodorant. And I couldn’t give him anything through the plexiglass. He’d have to earn money in jail however he could, and that made me sad to consider.
Theories of will power and free choice aside, he seemed unable to resist buying meth, and he’d go hungry before forgoing it. Instead, we had made or bought many burrittos over the years, and I walked through Hillcrest with him to buy clothes from thrift shops, and I taught him magic tricks and how to research more magic tricks on the library’s free internet; and how to use the internet to sell things from the thrift store on eBay. But he had been good at dealing meth, and he reacted strongly to anyone in a uniform who questioned him, and he had been in and out of youth detention and then jail and rehab since I had known him.
We had had a long standing debate on the best hot sauce for burritos.
“Tobasco,” I said.
“Chulula,” He countered.
Those were the two choices given to inmates at both Penbrook juvinille detention center and the adjoined Penbrook children’s home in Clairemont. The kids were given hot sauce for the bland food if they went a week without incident, and we had chatted about which was best whenever I had visited him there. Ten years later, at the George F. Bailey Detetion center in Otay Mesa, we had the same conversation and he had the same two choices. For some reason, my mind kept thinking of Wendy taking breakfast sandwhiches to Angola prison workers at the Saint Francisville Humane Society; but I was trying to not ruminate about that any more, and I always enjoyed the distraction of chatting about hot sauce and freedom to choose.
I prefered the vinegar based Tobasco, though that was probably because it came from Avery Island near where I had grown up, and he prefered Chulula. I admitted that it tasted better on his favorite, a carne asada burrito, or his other favorite, California burrito with added French fries; but, I said, I usually got a veggie breakfast burrito, even in the afternoons when we took a break from throwing Frisbee to hav lunch, and I said that I liked vinegar with eggs and avocado on my burrittos.
We agreed to disagree.
I once researched how much taxpayers spent on his jail time, and it was around $75,000 per year; I think California gets a bulk discount. Our jails are packed, possibly linked to our massive immigration and nice weather that’s hard to leave. In City Heights, $75,000 a year would get you three families of four to follow JoJo around and help him.
I told him about giving Granny’s watch to Hope, and told him that I wanted to be home before 2:20. I smiled and rubbed it in and said that I also wanted to grab a burritto from his favorite convenience store on my way home. He said that a day in Balboa Park sounded like fun, and to eat an extra breakfast burrito for him.
I said something that triggered him, and he began speaking as if I weren’t completely there.
“It’s not scziphrenia. It’s real. I see it because of you. 42 is the number of social workers I had, and I’ve been in jail 7 times and rehab 6, and you taught me that seven times six is 42, and you’re my CASA, and I need a home. But they say God provides like the birds, and he gave me rests with 5150, and you told me that was a Van Halen album from when you were my age, and I’m 27 and that has two and a seven and two times seven is 14, and I’m in cell 14 now, and you turned out OK because you liked 5150 and it’s safer in there than in here. But I learned to meditate like the Buddha, and I know that all things are transient and I let them take what they want and never harm them because though I walk through the Valley of Tigers, I fear no evil because I’m the toughest one in here but no one needs to know that and you said I should never harm anyone or myself, and you turned out OK.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too, JoJo,” I replied.
We wrapped up our 30 minute weekly allotted visit – I had missed many over the past few months – and I retrieved my keys and pocket knife and limped, emotionally, to my truck. It started automatically, and the relatively annoying and expensive auto-play entertainment system kicked in, and my current playlist popped up and was irritatingly upbeat. I felt frustrated at life, the universe, and everything; and I drove home with a lot on my mind, and I wished that I had begun practicing my Miranda Rights 14 years sooner.
I thought about Wendy, and wondered what words were going through her mind in her final moments. Whether we realize it or not, every word we listen to embeds somewhere, and comes out in ways few of us understand. Even on someone’s deathbed, they may hear words and interpret them differently, which is why we try to focus on Namaste before we speak, if we’re lucky enough to remain focused and speak from a good place. As JoJo said when he tries, “It ain’t easy, mi amigo.”
As I mentioned, I process things slowly. To me, that means over time, and also in a moment; my mind was slow and sluggish as I replayed all that JoJo had said. My mind was full and heavy, my bandwidth was narrow, and I was thinking slowly. I knew that I’d be home soon, and I wanted to be present. I stopped for burritos at the convenience store and picked up a couple of veggie ones to take home. They make great hot sauce there, too, and I asked for extra to share.
I used to not be able to talk about my work as a CASA. It’s the law, because most kids have very private background stories, and before I was authorized to spend time with kids in need I had to undergo four months of training and a background check, and agree to being continuously monitored in a national database. I hadn’t been JoJo’s CASA since he turned 21, but I kept his history secret out of habit. Before I left that day, he gave me permission to share anything about him if it could help other people. He even said I should mention CASAs in the book I was writing about how to honor your mother and father. He had never known his. We had several suspects, but because of his mixed races there was no way to know for sure, and none of the men we found were willing to take a DNA test; not that that would have mattered, anyway, except that, by California Law, if the father were Native American we’d have to consult with his tribe and add layers of bureucracy. He and I had talked about that back then, and he said it didn’t matter who his biologic father was, and that day he reminded me that there were 7,500 kids like him waiting for a CASA in San Diego, and we had fewer than 300 social workers and 300 CASAs and only a handful of CAMAs to do the really hard work of sorting through court records and absorbing all of that energy and helping make sense of someone’s past in a way that, hopefully, allows the CASA to speak to a judge transparently, in the child’s best interest, and after having crossed all types of boundaries social workers and even attorneys can’t; and you can’t hire love, and you can’t afford to pay $75,000 a year out of your pocket for the rest of your life to hire three families of four in City Heights to help JoJo. The San Diego office raised approximately $3 Million each year, about the cost of a condo on Balboa Park, to support the 20 or so staff members who worked there each day and supported us and ensured that we were within the law when we spoke on the kids behalf.
But, I didn’t tell Hope all of that that afternoon. I din’t feel like sharing that story with her yet. I don’t know where I’d begin. I told her that JoJo was fine and wished us happiness, and that he liked hot sauce, too, and that I was sad and didn’t want to talk more about it right then. I had already shared with her that we couldn’t take care of him, that he was contagious and prone to bursts of anger that I was fine being around; I’m more experienced with many things that keep me safer around physical threats than a nine year old girl could ever be. I hope she understood, and one day reads between the lines that I did not want to say.
Instead, I said, I wondered if she knew what an acronym was. She didn’t, so I told her what CASA and CAMA meant, and she said that was funny, because the acronyms spelled out “home” and “bed” in Spanish, and I told her that she was a very bright young lady.
We finished lunch, and she said they were the best burritos ever! She was right, as usual. We did dishes and I was silent as I put away all the types of hot sauce we had to choose from, and then we went outside and tossed Frisbee for a while.
Had I had a CASA in the 70’s and they had visited me at PawPaw’s, I’m sure I would have taken them fishing and taught them how to hook a cricket, or walked them to the convenience store to climb a tree and buy milk and cookies from an attendant who always recognized me when I wasn’t disguised as an old man, and the CASA would have added that to my court records. They may have mentioned me using a screwdriver as a knife and looking away silently when asked what I did with my parents each month. They or a CAMA may have dug deeper into my Partin history. But, CASA’s didn’t exist then, and no one asked me what I thought. I was a good kid, but I never met the judge, and he barely mentioned anything unique about me; he just parroted precedent cases without evidence that assume a mother is better than a father at raising a child. And Though PawPaw probably knew me better than anyone else, the judge didn’t seek his testimony on my behalf. But, he did include PawPaw’s opinion. He said “the Whites came to view Jason as their own.”
But, if the judge had asked, I would have said it better, in my opinion, because I know that PawPaw loved me as a son, and I still love him as a father; may he rest in peace.
I don’t remember all the words PawPaw spoke to me when he was my legal guardian. I was with him since I was a baby, and my first memories are with him, and though I can’t imagine recalling several years of words, and what they meant to each of us at the time, but I’m forever grateful for him and the words I do recall.
I told JoJo that one day, when he wasn’t in jail and we were throwing a Frisbee and chatting about our tattoos and scars, and he asked me what had made a difference in my life. Without hesitating and without a shadow of doubt, I told him my PawPaw, and I caught the Frisbee and tossed it back to JoJo in one smooth, continuous motion, and he returned it to me the same way, and we had the best day ever.
Later that evening, Hope saw me with my jaw clenched and a tear forming in the corner of one of my squinting eyes. She let me be for a while, like every time I returned from seeing JoJo. She had met him once, and knew he was a kind person. She never even noticed his tattoos. We had bumped into him on the streets of Hillcrest after he had been released from Scrips Memorial Hospital, and they chatted as if they were best friends. I had explained to her that we couldn’t take him home, and that if she saw him she could trust him, but that she must never let him know where we lived. That was a strict requirement of CASA’s, an unfortunate necessity for a safe home when you work with mentally ill, sometimes bipolar, and always contagious people. I was his CASA, but not his home, and that hurt badly at times; more for me than JoJo, because he always said that he understood. He was a kind person.