Ripped apart at the seams
Two local families fight a losing battle against Children’s Services’ secretive system
We’ve all heard horror stories of children being beaten, molested, exposed to hardcore drug abuse and even prostitution. For most, these situations boggle the mind, melt the heart and justify just about any amount of intervention by government agencies to ensure the future safety of the children.
Child Protective Services—now known as Children’s Services in Butte County—operates under a veil of secrecy and privilege, but because of stories like those above, for many that secrecy and privilege seem justified. Others argue that the secrecy is being used against them, the privilege taken for granted. And if half the services offered to foster parents were offered to biological parents or family members—as the federal government and even Children’s Services suggest—fewer families would be ripped apart.
The priorities outlined on Butte County Children’s Services’ website suggest that keeping the family unit intact is a priority, but the Perrys and Garveys, both Butte County families, know different. In both cases, a child who is most definitely wanted and loved has been plucked from his or her home and placed instead in foster care.
There must be a good reason for these children to be in foster care, you might think while reading this. You’re likely one of the majority whose life has not been touched by Children’s Services. Of course, you could be right—the point of this story is not to discredit the department.
But organizations like the Pacific Justice Institute offer another, darker explanation: That perhaps Children’s Services is not working in the best interest of every child. Perhaps it’s fueled by a need for federal grant money, allocated based on numbers of kids in foster care and those who get adopted. Perhaps the secrecy involved is not so much in the child’s best interest, either, but is used to help increase those numbers—and federal funding—when possible.
Al and Rita Perry have been fighting to keep their grandson in their lives for the past year and a half. Their daughter, the child’s mother, is developmentally disabled, and none of them have money to hire a proper attorney. Gloria Garvey has been fighting to obtain guardianship of her granddaughter since May 2009. She hasn’t had a visit since August, when she was reprimanded for leaving a love note in her granddaughter’s backpack.
Both children are facing possible adoption at the end of this month, and both have loving, caring homes they are not allowed to live in.
In March 2009, Dorothy Perry gave birth to a baby boy. With the help of her parents, she took home baby J. (the Perrys requested the CN&R not repeat his name), but a cleft palate made nursing him difficult.
Dorothy took several trips to Enloe Medical Center for help and had made an appointment at UC Davis Medical Center, but before J. was even two weeks old—and before any trip to Sacramento—Butte County’s Department of Children’s Services stepped in and removed him from the Perrys’ home, citing a “failure to thrive” due to a drop in weight since leaving the hospital (which, if you talk to any pediatrician, you will learn is completely normal).
Dorothy, however, is not your average mother. She is developmentally disabled, and although she is quite capable of holding a conversation and a job—she works as a home health aide—she does have trouble with other tasks. Her father, Al, an Army veteran, believes it’s Dorothy’s disability that made her an easy target for Children’s Services. Two weeks ago he paid a visit to Sacramento, where he dropped off a load of documents with Disability Rights California, a nonprofit with a mission to “advance the rights of Californians with disabilities.”
The Perrys fought for a full year—for Dorothy’s rights as a mother and for Al and Rita to become legal guardians—while baby J. was in foster care. The family taking care of J. has known the Perrys for years—Dorothy, now 24, went to prom with J.’s foster mother’s eldest son. In June 2010, the judge—Tamara Mosbarger, who oversees juvenile cases—stripped Dorothy of her parental rights.
“The judge took away Dorothy’s parental rights, saying that [J.] had only been with Dorothy for 13 days but that he’d been with the foster mom for 13 months,” Al said. “She said there’s no bond between Dorothy and [J].”
“Which is completely untrue,” Rita interjected. “That baby recognizes me, but he really recognizes Dorothy. There’s definitely a bond there.”
To make matters more difficult, the Perrys thought at first that knowing the foster family would be helpful to them, that maybe it would help their case. That outlook quickly changed along with the relationship between the foster family and the Perrys. Before they knew what had happened, the foster mother was relating details of what occurred during the Perrys’ visits with J. to Children’s Services. Seemingly small stories and interactions among friends suddenly turned into information that could be used against the Perrys in court.
“The foster mother even told Dorothy, ‘If you ever have another child, I’ll take that one too,’ ” Al said. Baby J., now more than a year and one-half old, faces possible adoption by the foster mother, despite a plea by Dorothy to adopt him out in another county or at least to someone she doesn’t know.
Al is adamant he will not give up. He and Rita submitted a request to become J.’s legal guardians but were denied.
“The social worker made it her mission to make me out to be an unfit parent,” Al said. They brought up an arrest for a drug offense that’s almost a decade old, he added. After their request was denied, and Dorothy’s parental rights were taken away, the court also took away Al’s rights to visitation. He says it’s because he’s been outspoken to the media and often wrote about the case on his Facebook page.
“It’s my right to go to the media,” Al said. “It’s my story.”
But Children’s Services is used to operating behind closed doors. Because it deals with juvenile matters, it can shut the media out of court proceedings that ordinarily would be public record. An article on the Pacific Justice Institute’s website explains a similar situation to the Perrys’ involving a woman named Roberta who, after scheduling an interview with a reporter to tell her story, was told by her lawyer that if she went to the media she wouldn’t get her children back.
“Roberta, like almost all parents in her situation, felt little choice but to cancel the interview,” the article reads. “In other words, the juvenile court system’s seemingly unbridled discretion creates a wall of intimidation, a wall preventing the kind of public accountability necessary to expose the need for judicial reform.”
The media were allowed in the juvenile courtroom last month, on Adoption Day (Nov. 22), when several families finalized the adoption process for children in their foster care. An Enterprise-Record article brought attention to the feel-goodness of the act of adoption—and for good reason, as the families highlighted obviously cared for the children a great deal—but failed to look at the families left behind.
Gloria Garvey is one of those families. When she started talking about her granddaughter during a recent interview, her face lit up. She told the story of last Christmas, when Megan (not her real name) was celebrating at her house and had a friend over. They had so much fun, Garvey gushed.
Christmas is Garvey’s favorite holiday. On a table at the end of her wrap-around sofa are several framed photographs, all of Megan on Santa’s lap. Garvey excitedly explained the presents she’d gotten her only granddaughter for this year’s holiday. A walk down the hallway in Garvey’s two-bedroom apartment off Rio Lindo Avenue revealed a little girl’s paradise—a twin bed, dolls of all kinds, artwork, a dresser, a desk. Pink was clearly the color of choice.
After Garvey related joyfully the favorite toys and games Megan loved to play with, her smiling face turned serious and then sad. She hadn’t seen her granddaughter since August. She didn’t know when she’d see Megan again.
About a year and a half ago, Garvey’s daughter, Elaine Garvey, was arrested and charged with felony child abuse/endangerment after police found a hypodermic needle in her home, accessible to her daughter. Understandably, Butte County Children’s Services stepped in. But Megan had lived with her grandmother for most of her 10 years. Gloria had even filed for guardianship in 2007, but at that time Elaine had decided she wanted to be a full-time mother. Some bad decisions, however, and an addiction to illicit drugs kept her from being a model parent, and now she’s in prison, having just filed an appeal but not expecting to be released for another six months.
When Megan was taken into court custody, Gloria Garvey was heartbroken. She had extended, unsupervised visits, so she was able to spend time with her granddaughter. Over the course of the next year, however, those visits got to be shorter and more restricted. Three weeks unsupervised in January 2010 turned into weekends unsupervised turned into supervised hours until one afternoon in August Garvey left her granddaughter a note in her backpack telling her how much she loved her and longed for the day when Megan could come back and live with her. That, apparently, was a big no-no.
When Megan’s foster mom—at least the third one in a year—found the note, she immediately brought it to the attention of Children’s Services, who called Garvey and explained that she was “upsetting” Megan. She hasn’t seen her granddaughter since.
“You see her room? I have all her clothes, her winter coats, her toys,” she said. “I didn’t know [Megan] wouldn’t be coming back.”
Garvey’s last court appearance was in November, at which time she said the judge agreed to allow a visit.
“The social workers have made it very clear that she’s more than 500 miles from Chico,” Garvey said. “I don’t know how I’ll get to see her. But they did say they would bring her to the courtroom.”
Kevin Snider doesn’t know the Perrys or the Garveys, but he knows what they’re going through. As chief counsel for the Pacific Justice Institute—a conservative nonprofit legal-defense organization that specializes in issues of civil liberties including parental rights—he says that easily 100 cases of California families fighting CPS wind up at the PJI each year.
“You know that thing called the Bill of Rights in the Constitution? That doesn’t exist for the most part when you deal with Child Protective Services,” Snider said in a recent phone interview. “When it comes to them, we basically live in a police state.”
The evidence used in court against parents and grandparents is often circumstantial at best, he said, and would never stand up in any other court of law. Much of the time the social workers rely on hearsay as testimony. They talk to the children at school when their parents aren’t around; they pressure parents into getting divorces or admitting guilt—and when they don’t admit guilt, he said, they’re labeled “uncooperative.”
“I tell people: Had you murdered your child, you would have had more rights,” Snider said. “My view is that parents deserve the same rights that we give terrorists and criminals.”
Snider’s views may seem a bit radical, but when you read some of the stories on the PJI’s website, and you hear from families like the Perrys and Garveys—and several others who have spoken to the CN&R but were not included in this story—you start to see the picture of a broken system that relies on secrecy to survive.
Messages left at Children’s Services were not returned, although the agency over the years has maintained that its employees care deeply for children and work hard in their best interest. Their priorities, as listed on the website, are family preservation and reunification before putting children into foster homes or adopting them to other families.
In a June 2009 CN&R story about the Perrys, former Assistant Director of Butte County’s Children’s and Adult Services Karen Ely gave some insight into her agency’s role.
“There are some cases where we have to remove a child,” said Ely. “If there is imminent risk to a child of substantial harm, that would be the time we would possibly remove a child from the home. Our philosophy when we go out is we’re not looking to remove a child, but how to leave a child there safely—how can we assist this family?
“The key thing for me is we don’t do anything independently,” Ely continued. “We make the initial decision, but we rely on the courts to sustain that original decision. … We don’t want to keep kids in out-of-home care. … We want those kids to go home, too.”
Despite those priorities, however, some families feel they’ve been overlooked in favor of foster care and adoption.
“I am sincere, and want so much to improve a badly needed system that everyone seems to think is conducted so wisely, with all their overused authority and power,” Garvey wrote in a letter earlier this year to Assemblyman Dan Logue, pleading for help with her case. Without the money to hire a proper attorney, she’s got little hope of getting custody of her granddaughter.
Garvey has applied several times to become Megan’s guardian while her daughter is in prison. She’s been denied every time. On Monday (Dec. 13), she attended a hearing in which she was able to review the evidence used against her. Some of it she’d never seen, she said. She was also able to plead her case. Walking out of the office that houses Social Services off Mira Loma Drive in Oroville, Garvey and her friend, Nancy Collins, shook their heads in disbelief.
“You see that pile of evidence that Children’s Services has, and then you see what Gloria brought—letters [from doctors and friends] and artwork from [Megan]—and you lose hope,” said Collins, who facilitates a support group for people caring for other people’s children at the Butte College Foster/Kinship Parent Education Program. Collins understands Garvey’s position better than most, as she’s been through the system, having obtained legal guardianship of her grandson after a lengthy battle with her daughter-in-law.
Plenty of documents were included as evidence against Garvey, but there was very little to back them up. For example, a lengthy document from 2007 when Garvey had applied to become Megan’s guardian was included. In it were several highlighted sections of interviews with her daughter, Elaine, in which she said Gloria drinks heavily and gets mean when she does.
“There is no evidence to support that I’m a drinker,” Garvey said. She’s never been arrested for DUI, hospitalized or gone through rehabilitation, she said—so those statements, while presented in a very convincing manner, are pure hearsay.
“Plus, they’re taken from an interview with your daughter who at that time didn’t want you to take her daughter away from her,” Collins added. “Now she wants you to take care of [Megan]—so, what changed?”
The biggest strike against Garvey is a misdemeanor child-abuse case from 1995. She had the record expunged last year after it came up in regard to getting guardianship for Megan. Despite the expungement—which, legally, turns a conviction into a dismissal, removing the necessity to declare it a conviction—Children’s Services maintains the conviction and copies of a police report related to the incident as evidence against Garvey. Excerpts from the police report were read at the hearing and quoted a neighbor who said she saw Garvey hit her grandson with a slipper.
She vows, swears to God even, that she’s never harmed a child. And she maintains that she was never given a fair trial—that she was instructed to plead no contest to avoid jail time. She did that, but the misdemeanor has followed her like the plague.
“Most of the time what we see is someone who is poor or working class, and the justice system is out of reach for them,” Snider said. “Even people in the middle class cannot afford a lawyer.”
And that’s what it seems to come down to: money. The problem is that states receive funding based on the number of children in foster care and the number of those children who get adopted.
These financial incentives were created as part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 as an amendment to the Social Security Act in response to an outcry over so many children being in foster care throughout the United States. The way it works is that states qualify for funding when they approve more adoptions this year than they did last year. In 2008, the program was bolstered by the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which added incentives for adopting out special-needs children and those older than 9.
According to the Federal Grants Wire, the Adoption Incentives program, run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers $4,000 per foster-child adoption (based on the number that exceed the number of adoptions the previous fiscal year). That amount goes up for children older than 9 to $8,000. In 2009, the federal government handed out $36.5 million in incentives to 43 states. In California, that number was $1.5 million—that’s money coming into the state to be used for foster and adoption programs, Adoption Day activities, and to improve state and county agencies. Put into perspective, if Megan gets adopted, she represents a possible $8,000, but if she’s reunified with her mother or taken into custody by her grandmother, that money is out of the picture.
“Even as the federal government doles out financial bounties rewarding the states for permanently destroying natural families, and adopting out their children, the evidence continues to mount that this is little more that another phony solution to the seemingly intractable problem of too many children being removed from their rightful homes,” reads a recent post from www.liftingtheveil.org, a website that has been dedicated to child-welfare matters for more than a decade.
“It’s my understanding that there’s a financial incentive to break apart families,” said Snider.
The Perrys are intent on pursuing legal avenues to get J. back to Dorothy. They’re awaiting a phone call from Disability Rights California. They also await word of a court date regarding adoption by the foster mother.
For Garvey, having Megan adopted out would be disastrous. Collins said she hoped that if Megan does get adopted at least she will maintain contact with her grandmother.
“I just love children,” Garvey said. “And I know that if my grandson were here, he would tell you I never hit him. I loved him.” Bradley, who was 5 in 1995, was adopted out, along with his two brothers, after their mother was unable to care for them. Garvey hasn’t seen any of them since.
She’s scared that’s what will happen with Megan—that she will be adopted by a family 500 miles away and her grandmother, who loves her dearly, will never see her again. To see the pain and fear in Garvey’s eyes when she imagines the worst-case scenario is heart-wrenching. Not only is Children’s Services trying to take her grandchild away, they’re trying to make a case that Megan doesn’t have a strong bond with her grandmother.
“She loves me, she loves her grandma,” Garvey pleads. “Nobody can take that away from me. Nobody.”