Cheery and dreary
National Adoption Day offers an opportunity to celebrate family while shining a light on the secretive foster-care system
Children colored with crayons and munched on Oreos and other goodies while a woman handed out balloons and parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles milled about, chatting and trading congratulatory remarks. Clearly this was not an ordinary day in court.
For 10 families, Monday (Nov. 21) marked a milestone they’d worked toward for some time. In celebration of National Adoption Day, Judge Tamara Mosbarger, who presides over the Juvenile Court, and the Department of Children’s Services allowed the press—and, in effect, the public—a rare glimpse at the court’s inner workings (there was an agreement, however, that names not be used and photographs not be taken).
“I don’t think she’d have had a family had we not stepped up,” said Sarah (not her real name). She sat in court with her husband, Tom, their biological son and another son adopted last year. She looked over at 17-month-old Susannah, who came into Sarah and Tom’s home when she was just 7 weeks old. Born three months premature, Susannah faced risks other foster parents weren’t prepared for. Sarah and Tom took the challenge and couldn’t be happier for it. The only thing left was to make it official.
“We’re the only ones they’ve known,” Sarah said of her two youngest, both of whom were foster children before being adopted. She knows that other foster parents face a more difficult path, one filled with visits by biological parents and lengthy, emotional court battles.
“It breaks your heart,” she said, fighting back tears. “We just don’t have enough beds.”
Mosbarger also acknowledged the emotional challenges inherent in the foster-care system. “I have to make many heart-wrenching decisions,” she told the roomful of people. “Today, I get to make decisions where every family can walk away happy.”
This was the sixth year Butte County celebrated National Adoption Day, created to shine a spotlight on the thousands of children in foster care who are in need of permanent homes. In Butte County, 650 children are currently in foster care. Including the 12 kids adopted on Monday, 64 children in Butte County have been adopted this year.
“Every child deserves a family,” Mosbarger said.
For every family that celebrated on Monday the adoption of a child, there is another family out there that experiences the loss of that child. Some of them, like Susannah’s parents, gave them up at birth. Others had them seized by Children’s Services (formerly known as Child Protective Services and commonly referred to as CPS) because of neglect or abuse. Some, however, like Ronny Fisher and Dorothy Perry, believe that secrecy and monetary incentives within the foster-care system have led to many children being wrongfully taken from happy homes.
“I already lost my two daughters—they’ve been adopted—now I’m fighting for my son,” said Fisher, who was standing outside the courthouse with a few others carrying signs protesting wrongful adoptions. The woman spearheading the protest preferred to remain anonymous, donning sunglasses, a hat and a bandanna around her face. Her son was in foster care, she said, and she was afraid of backlash by Children’s Services if they saw her protesting.
“What they’re doing is wrong,” she yelled. Passersby—those walking into or out of the courthouse—looked on with a mixed reaction of curiosity, support and disgust.
“You oughta be ashamed,” one woman said.
The problem these parents face is that Children’s Services is a much-needed agency. There are, sadly, children in our county who are being abused or neglected by their parents, Fisher said. What Fisher wants is transparency when it comes to the proceedings.
Al Perry agreed. His grandson was taken by Children’s Services days after he was born in spring 2009, and he believes the agency wrongly discriminated against his daughter, Dorothy, because she is disabled. His sign targeted CPS as well as Enloe Medical Center because it was personnel at Enloe who called Children’s Services despite efforts to ensure the health of the baby.
“They hide in the juvenile courts,” Perry said, referring to the fact that juvenile courts are sealed from the public in California.
“There is no way to defend yourself in there,” Fisher added. “It all comes down to what your caseworker says. I jumped through all their hoops, but my daughters were adopted out anyway. The system is set up for failure.”
In Fisher’s case, two years ago he and his then-wife came on hard times. Money was more than tight. “We were poor,” Fisher said. “But they [the kids] didn’t know we were poor. They had a roof over their heads. We fed them, we clothed them, we made sure they went to school.”
A phone call from a relative to Children’s Services concerned about the welfare of the kids, however, was all it took for Fisher’s three young ones to be yanked from his home. In the ensuing months, he said he did everything the court and his caseworker at Children’s Services asked him to do. He went to a parenting class, a life-skills class, anger management.
“I had completed three out of five classes and the other two were almost done,” he said. “But the court said I hadn’t shown progress, and my parental rights were terminated.”
His daughters were adopted by another family shortly thereafter. His son, the youngest of the three at 8 years old, is now in the process of being adopted. Fisher wants the world to know he wants his children back, he loves them, and he’s willing to do what it takes to care for them.
“It might be too late for my daughters, but it’s not too late for my son,” he said.
Without the children at home, Fisher and his wife grew distant and eventually split up, he said. She’s now living in Arkansas.
The issue of opening juvenile courts to the public has been a particularly volatile one. Many, including public agencies like Children’s Services and the union that represents them, the Service Employees International Union, cite privacy and safety as reasons to keep the proceedings closed. Others, like Fisher and Perry, argue that by keeping them closed and confidential they’re hiding a broken system.
Earlier this year, a judge in Sacramento pushed to get juvenile courts there open to the public and media. The effort was squashed by opponents. Just this month, however, the presiding judge for Los Angeles County’s juvenile courts made a similar motion, according to an L.A. Times article.
“Too many families do not get reunified. … Too many children and families languish in the system for far too long. Someone might want to know why this is the case,” Judge Michael Nash is quoted as saying.
Assembly Bill 73, introduced last December, would have opened “dependency” proceedings, as they’re called, to the public in most California counties. That bill was opposed by the SEIU and other “adult” interests, reports the LA Weekly, and effectively killed.
“We need CPS and the foster-care system,” Fisher summed up. “There just needs to be a system of checks and balances.”