Family ties in jeopardy
Chico couple vow to continue the battle for their disabled daughter’s right to help raise her baby
Rita and Al Perry and their 23-year-old, developmentally disabled daughter, Dorothy, are not getting what they wanted for Christmas.
On Dec. 8, after eight months of juvenile court proceedings, Rita and Al lost their bid to obtain legal guardianship of Dorothy’s baby, their grandson, 9-month-old Jacob Henry Perry. This means he cannot come back to the home they share with Dorothy, the home from which he was removed on April 10 by Butte County Children’s Services, and placed into foster care.
Children’s Services cited “failure to thrive” as the reason for the 13-day-old infant’s removal from the Perry home. At the time of Jacob’s removal, Dorothy and her parents had sought medical care on a number of occasions for the baby, who was born with a multifaceted cleft-palate condition called Pierre Robin syndrome that caused him to have difficulty nursing. The Perrys were planning to take Jacob to an appointment with a specialist at UC Davis Medical Center the same day CPS took him.
“I think it’s extremely unfair,” said longtime family friend Kathy Farrell in a recent interview. “I thought CPS’ job was to reunite families and keep them together. So why didn’t they send someone into that home to help that family and keep the family intact? … How much does this cost to keep him in a foster home, the judge, five attorneys, all the social workers? And the taxpayers are paying for it in a broke state. Why wasn’t all that spent on keeping Jacob in the home with his family that loves him?”
Al pointed to a copy of a recent People magazine article (“‘Mommy Is Always There for Me,’ ” Oct. 5, 2009) about an intellectually disabled (ID) mother who is raising her 12-year-old daughter with the help of social service workers. A sidebar to the article mentions the 1999 Olmstead Act, which marked a major shift in the rights of the intellectually disabled in the United States, away from institutionalization and toward remaining in their own homes. What has followed from the law is also an increase in the number of ID parents raising their own children.
Dorothy and her parents want to know why they cannot raise Jacob under similar circumstances.
“At the very beginning, they led us to believe that he was going to come home after each court date,” Al said. Superior Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger “told us that she wanted him home as soon as possible. That never happened.”
“We were promised in-home [daytime] visits and overnight visits,” added Rita, referring to the time period between their July 16 court date and Dec. 8.
According to the Perrys, Children’s Services social worker Heather Murphy had given them a list of modifications that had to be made to their home in order for Jacob to be allowed back, even for visits. The list, they said, included mopping the kitchen floor, giving away some of their birds, moving their cockatiel cage from the kitchen counter to the living room and putting locks on certain cabinets.
“We did everything she had on the list,” said Al, “and we notified her that we were done and she never came back over to check. … Margaret [Bomberg, Al and Rita’s attorney] brought it up in court: Did Heather ever come back to the house? She said no. She couldn’t even give a reason why she didn’t do it.”
“Even the judge … ordered in-home visits and overnight visits,” continued Al. “That never happened. Dorothy asked for a visit on Mother’s Day. The judge said it was up to Heather and the foster mom. That never happened. Rita asked for visits with Jacob’s great-grandparents. That never happened. Dec. 2 was Dorothy’s birthday—she never got the visit she asked for.”
The Perry family also said that Mosbarger instructed them July 16 to not talk to the press.
“She said that it might have an effect on whether we were going to get the baby back,” said Al, “and that everything is public knowledge and everyone has access to that, but she didn’t want what was going on in her courtroom publicized.”
The Perrys followed the order until earlier this month, when Al and Rita’s hour-long, once-a-week, supervised visits with Jacob at the Children’s Services office ceased. Now, they may only occur at the discretion of Jacob’s foster parents, with whom the Perrys have a strained relationship.
Al, who works as a cook at Townsend House, an assisted-living residence for senior citizens, said that one of the reasons the judge gave for not granting legal guardianship of Jacob to him and his wife stems from a misdemeanor drug conviction of his from 2000 for possession of methamphetamine.
The 22-year veteran of the U.S. military (10 years in the Army followed by 12 years of National Guard service) said he takes prescription medication to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder acquired from time spent in the Korean DMZ, and that he went through Drug Court at the time of his conviction and has not used any illegal drugs since 2001.
Another reason given by the judge, said Al, was that she was afraid that Al and Rita might leave Dorothy alone at home with Jacob, something the Perrys insist would never happen, as they have numerous friends lined up—Kathy Farrell included—who are willing and capable of stepping in to help when needed.
A court document filed on Nov. 2 by Bomberg on Rita and Al’s behalf states that local mental health professional “Dr. Claire Fields has testified she has met and evaluated Al and Rita Perry and found them to be suitable for caretakers. Dr. Fields initiated intelligence testing for Al and Rita and found their intelligence to be normal.”
The document also states that Children’s Services “[s]ocial worker Heather Murphy raised concerns regarding Jacob’s safety in an unsanitary, unsafe home.” Neither Fields nor Butte County public health nurse Holly Pearson, who checked in on the Perrys’ home shortly after Jacob’s birth, observed problems with health and safety, it continued.
Additionally, the same document refutes Children’s Services’ initial claim that Jacob was suffering from a failure to thrive, saying that “Ms. Pearson stated Jacob never lost more than 10 percent of his birth weight while in the Perry home,” which is considered to be acceptable.
When asked to comment on the case, Bomberg responded by voicemail: “The only thing I really would like to say about the case is that I was very sorry that Al and Rita were not appointed as guardians because I think they would have done a wonderful job.”
Murphy could not be reached for comment, as it is not Children’s Services’ policy to allow social workers to speak to the media.
Commenting on the Perrys’ claims of promised in-home visitation, Karen Ely, program manager for Butte County Employment and Social Services/Children’s Services, acknowledged, in general terms, that “if a person is looking to have placement or visitation … they are asked [by Children’s Services] to do corrective action, with a timeline.”
Murphy is “not our usual person who does this,” offered Ely, “but if a social worker chooses to, they can. The social worker would then go back and look to see if those things are done. Sometimes, other circumstances can come up that can change what’s happening with a child [regarding visitation]. In that case, the social worker should let [the family] know, ‘We’re no longer considering you for visitation in the home, or placement in the home. Other circumstances have come to light that have changed the original plan.’ I’m not saying that that’s in any way related to any case you may be asking about, but just in general.”
Ely added that “it is not uncommon for families to make these comments [such as those made by the Perrys], to have misunderstandings. They believe that promises were made. We say, ‘We’ll look at this,’ but what people hear is, ‘If I do this, that will occur.’ It’s what they want to occur, but it doesn’t always happen.”
The Perrys certainly believe they’ve made every effort to regain custody of the child. Three days before Christmas, though, they were back in court for a hearing at which Dorothy was expected to sign over legal guardianship of Jacob to his foster family.
“The foster parents backed out on guardianship and want to adopt him,” said Al, who added that an adoption hearing has been scheduled for April 20.
“This whole case is a discrimination case,” Al summed up, “and if they think we’re going to stand by and let that happen—we’re not. Because we know that people with disabilities have raised their own kids and CPS didn’t get involved.”
Both Al and Rita Perry, and Dorothy Perry, plan to file separate appeals.