“Tina” wrote with concerns about how to protect children, from the perspective of a foster parent.  She and her partner sought to be adoptive parents ultimately and were only supposed to receive foster placements that were “high prospect” for adoption, meaning there was a low chance that reunification would be an option due to the circumstances of child removal.

A premature infant who was exposed to drugs during pregnancy was placed in their care, and their hopes for adoption were high. The mother had a known history with the foster care system already with prior children. The father was initially unknown. The birth mother attended visits and then the man who proved to be the infant’s father began coming also. These visits at DCFS (the department of child and family services, also called CPS, child protective services) were unsupervised, in a private room. After expressing concern, Tina and her husband were told to “go with the flow.” The birth mother stopped coming to these unsupervised visits, but the father continued to go for about five weeks. The birth father requested a home study of his mother, with whom he lived. He was also helping to raise his two pre-teen nieces, who were living in her home also, because his mother had health problems and needed the assistance. Tina recounted, “The birth mom popped back up for one last visit and birth dad was there too. We sat across the hall watching them fight over who would hold the baby. No caseworker was to be found, again.” Two months passed without word from either parent or the grandmother.

Tina asked the caseworker about the grandmother’s homestudy because they were getting very attached and wanted to move forward with the adoption. The caseworker said the grandmother hadn’t called to even ask about the infant. Five weeks later, they learned the father had been arrested for disturbing the peace and the carrying a weapon, a crime since he was already a convicted felon. Although it was the first that apparently anyone involved with case (besides the grandmother) had heard of it, he had been convicted eight years earlier for forcible rape of a twelve-year-old girl. Nonetheless, DCFS approved the homestudy for the grandmother – an approval that the home is considered safe for the infant. (Recall that the known sex offender has stated he is living with his mother and two underage nieces.) The infant is now 8 months old, and they were given notice that she would be given to the grandmother soon. Tina was also concerned about the grandmother’s involvement. She had already missed several visits without attempting to make them up. Meanwhile, as a premie, the infant had started having health complications: upper respiratory concerns, asthma, was diagnosed with RAD (reactive attachment disorder), and was on several medications. Over the course of the next few months, as evidence of grandmother’s questionable fitness, they produced photos of urine soaked clothes left in her diaper bag after visits, spoiled bottles left in the bag, diaper rashes, unused prescription medications over and over from overnight visits. Additionally, grandmother was not following the DCFS visitation plan—she had been taking the baby with her to work, a tax preparation office, for two months instead of having her in her home where she was supposed to be becoming acclimated to the grandmother’s home. Tina provided recordings of meetings with DCFS where case workers admitted that they “dropped the ball with this child and her case” and that they were “so busy” they “failed to move the child” and that they hesitated moving her because she was already in a “good placement.”

In the meantime, they learned that CASA (court-appointed child advocates) was also recommending the baby not be placed with grandmother. They went to a DCFS supervisor and strongly disagreed with the infant’s placement with grandmother, particularly concerned about access to the baby by her father. The supervisor was reported to have said, “That did not matter in this case.” The CASA worker argued that the circumstances of his past incarceration and recent incarceration were both relevant if he had access to the baby. DCFS responded by leaving the infant in Tina’s home for several more months.

At the baby’s first birthday visit, the grandmother told the CASA that the only reason she wasn’t willing to leave custody with Tina’s family was because then her son wouldn’t be able to see the baby, and she wanted him to have a chance to parent the baby. They reported this to DCFS and were told that the placement with grandmother was stopped. Then DCFS mandated post-placement visits with the grandmother twice a week. During these visits, the grandmother continued to take the sick infant out, rather than keep her in the home. She became sicker. A month later, CASA’s support had waned as their interest in the case dissolved. Custody once again shifted toward the grandmother.

Tina’s family hired a lawyer to present their evidence and claims for custody, and more accurately their claims that custody should not go to the grandmother because of the father. Nearly seven months later, the case went to trial. The judge kept her in Tina’s home until the case ended, but did not view or let them present all their evidence. The judge said that the child would be better off in Tina’s home and that if it was “family against family, he would be in favor” of Tina’s. He appeared to be very disturbed at the evidence they were allowed to present. His final decision to deny custody to the grandmother, but also to Tina’s family. The infant was removed from their home. As far as they know, DCFS has official custody, but the child is living with the grandmother currently, and they have an upcoming permanency hearing.

Meanwhile DCFS has requested that Tina and her husband “voluntarily” withdraw their certification because they are “not a good fit with the program.” Tina said this was because they disagreed with their decision, which they claim was in the best interest of the child.  Tina and her spouse would like stay in the system for any adoption-available children, or for emergency care situations. Tina concluded in frustration with these thoughts: “I think judges and workers need to start being held accountable for their actions and decisions. They treat these kids like a number, or animal, just to be passed around. It needs to be exposed! We are looked at as foster parents not wanting to ‘let go’ and that’s not so. It’s so much deeper than that. My husband and I are all for reunification with birth families, if and only if, it’s in the best interest of the child! DCFS has placed ‘the best interest of the child’ on the same line or as an equal to ‘placement with blood relatives,’ and it’s not!”


Insights:

For most of us, it is difficult to understand how there was any question that the grandmother’s home was unfit, considering the proximity and access of a convicted rapist. It is also unclear why the judge decided against Tina’s family as a placement, considering DCFS’s prior opinion that they were a good placement. I will use this as an opportunity to speak to Tina’s concluding remarks instead. There may be more accountability in some states or counties than others. Many social workers work under conditions where they fear losing their jobs too. Often their ability to do what they think is best, personally, is hampered by policy red-tape. This may not have been the case in Tina’s story, but it is important to keep looking at all sides of the issue for how policies impact everyone. Additionally, social workers often do not get the support they need, like proper training for certain kinds of situations or additional resources in a particular case. The foster care system reporting mechanisms are results-driven. This may mean that supervisors tend to focus on administrative outcomes instead of supporting social workers. Results-driven reporting may also encourage deceitful practice or the kind of self-protection Tina described in her story.