Local mom slams agency

CPS accused of bias, overreaching

Reunited: Imogean Harlan and her children, Ivory, 4 (left) and Triston, 4 months. Both children, as well as two older siblings, were taken from Harlan’s home for nearly one month this fall.

Reunited: Imogean Harlan and her children, Ivory, 4 (left) and Triston, 4 months. Both children, as well as two older siblings, were taken from Harlan’s home for nearly one month this fall.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On Sept. 24, Imogean Harlan experienced

what is surely a parent’s worst nightmare.

As she tells it, she had gone that afternoon to check on her uncle, who had just had a heart attack, leaving her four children with a neighbor’s 16-year-old son, as she didn’t have time to hire a babysitter. Her fifth child, 2-month-old Triston, was being watched by a different neighbor, who was 18. Harlan reports being back at her Del Paso Heights home within 25 minutes.

When she arrived home, however, she found her 3-year-old son, Ivory, missing.

“Of course, I was frantic,” she says, noting that she immediately called 9-1-1. After an extensive, four-hour search by officers, Ivory was found across the street, sleeping on a neighbor’s driveway, his head resting near a parked car. A potentially dangerous situation, but Ivory was safe and unharmed.

What happened next, however, turned life upside down for Harlan and her husband, Burnette Peteet, and serves to illustrate what many say is a quagmire of arbitrary and hyper-discretionary guidelines used by county Child Protective Services when determining how and when to remove children from the home.

After Ivory was located, a Sacramento police officer told Harlan that he would be placing her children in protective custody for 24 hours to give her time to clean her apartment, which, by Harlan’s own admission, was dirty and in substandard condition. Harlan says she was assured that her children would be returned to her after that time and after authorities had revisited the home.

“I was actually OK with that,” Harlan says. “It was dirty … I admit that. But a lot of what was wrong with the apartment was wrong when we moved in.”

Indeed, pictures taken of the home by police at the time of the incident showed a kitchen floor with gaping holes in the linoleum; dry rot under the floor and walls in the kitchen and bathroom; black mold, from water damage, growing under the sink and in the bathroom behind the toilet and under the floor; and chipped and peeling paint on the bedroom walls. The family pays $550 per month to live in their neighborhood, surrounded by crack dealers, vacant lots strewn with garbage and homes enclosed by wire fences with broken-down cars in the yard.

Harlan and her husband live on about $600-$800 per month from Peteet’s job as a contract worker for the state, where full-time employment pays $6.50 an hour. The couple gets another $300 in food stamps and another $550 per month in cash aid—the latter two sources kicking in after Harlan left her job in 1999 due to her pregnancy with Triston, which exacerbated life-long kidney problems and other health conditions stemming from severe burns she received in a fire when she was 3 years old.

“We moved here eight months ago and basically couldn’t afford to move out when the landlord didn’t fix what was wrong,” Harlan says.

But the day after Harlan and her husband gave the place a good scrubbing and painted the walls, she was informed by CPS that her children would not be returned to her any time soon. Further, she was prohibited from seeing or speaking to her daughter Sophia, who turned 9 on Sept. 27 while staying in a county receiving home along with her brother Ivory, before the two of them were transferred to a foster home in Lodi. Harlan’s other boys—Preston, 7, and Adrian, 6—were placed in a receiving home and allowed one-hour supervised visits with their parents. She and her husband did not see their infant, Triston, until two weeks had elapsed.

“My daughter told me she had dreams that we no longer wanted her,” Harlan says, tears coming to her eyes. “My children have been traumatized, and for what? Because my home was not clean. To that, I plead guilty. But my children are well cared for and not abused, and I’m absolutely appalled at the fact that this happened.”

It took three and a half weeks for the children to be returned to Harlan and Peteet. But in the intervening 48 hours after they were removed from the home, the couple had serious doubts as to whether they’d see their children before year’s end, if not later.

Because CPS officials would not comment on the case or allow the social worker who initially filed a petition against the family to answer charges, Harlan and her husband are the only people who can speak about the way the case was handled. As Harlan tells it, a CPS worker visited the couple Sept. 25—the day after police were called to find Ivory. Arriving at 5 p.m., the court investigator reportedly handed the couple a document known as an informal supervision plan, which outlined various requirements the couple would have to agree to in order to get their children returned. When asked if they could read the document before signing, perhaps taking the night to do so and returning it in the morning, the CPS worker reportedly told Harlan and Peteet that “If we didn’t sign it, right then, she could keep our kids for six months to one year. How could I sign that? For all I knew, I’d be giving up custody of my children.”

The couple eventually signed the document on Sept. 29, after being advised by a court-appointed attorney that they stood a better chance of getting their children back faster if they did so.

Just as disturbing as the overt threat, however, was the fact that the plan was allegedly drawn up before the worker ever evaluated for herself the children’s living situation, Harlan and other critics of the agency say.

“How could she come to the conclusion that informal supervision was the proper solution [that] suited my family if we hadn’t ever met, if she’s never met my children or even visited my home?” Harlan asked.

Included in the plan were requirements that both parents attend anger management classes and parenting classes, as well as submit to thrice-weekly drug tests.

“I’m well aware that in this neighborhood I could step outside and ask for it and crack would be delivered to my house,” Harlan states matter-of-factly. “But I don’t do drugs. I haven’t done drugs, except to try them when I was in high school.”

But the petition filed in family court against Harlan and her husband alleges that “The mother … has a substance abuse problem from which she has failed or refused to rehabilitate, and which renders her incapable of providing adequate care” for her children. So where did the agency derive its information? The petition states Harlan herself “admitted prior drug use” to hospital staff at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center after she delivered Ivory on Dec. 6, 1996.

“Yes, I told a nurse that I had tried drugs in high school,” Harlan says. “Obviously, I wasn’t using when I was pregnant—how could I? I had gestational diabetes with all my kids, so I had regular blood tests every six weeks and I never tested positive for drugs. Besides, with my kidneys, I’d be dead if I used drugs or alcohol. They couldn’t process it. It’s ridiculous that [CPS] could say that.”

But CPS said the same thing about the father, Peteet, who, Harlan says, has been in recovery from drug abuse continuously for the last five years, after a prior relapse of four months.

While it would be easy to write off parents like Harlan as having an ax to grind, it’s harder to dismiss observations from former employees in the system.

“There’s a lot of practices going on that I have a problem with,” says one former Sacramento County CPS worker who was with the agency for more than 10 years. For professional reasons the former worker asked not to be identified by either current occupation or gender.

“It’s not just when they take the children, it’s once the kids are in the system. It’s hard to get them out, and brand-new workers are making decisions about kids’ lives and about parenting with very little experience and an extreme amount of power.

“Most social workers are responsible and caring … but when there’s an exception, CPS closes their eyes and closes ranks. There’s no recourse for the parents,” the former CPS worker said.

The worker went on to contend that as a matter of practice CPS doesn’t make a distinction between former and current drug use and typically orders anyone with drugs in their past to go through drug testing and, sometimes, alcohol and drug rehabilitation classes.

“It’s kind of a ‘cover your butt’ sort of thing with the county,” the worker asserted.

Child Protective Services has taken its share of hits over the last two years. The 1998-99 Sacramento County Grand Jury report concluded that the agency had far too few caseworkers for its caseload and that many of those were seriously under-trained. And, earlier this month, it was reported that the county agreed to pay $70,000 to a family for violating the family’s civil rights in a suit alleging that two children were unlawfully taken from their parents.

Civil rights attorney Barbara Archibald, who, along with attorneys Lanny Winberry and Andrea Miller successfully settled the recent lawsuit against CPS, said, “It’s always disturbing” to hear of cases where parents are made to “sign anything when under duress.”

“I hear of this happening all the time. It’s taking advantage of people when they’re most vulnerable and they have to give up their rights in order to get back what’s most valuable to them,” Archibald continued.

Archibald states that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has “made it very clear” that children cannot be seized without a warrant unless there’s an imminent danger of harm to them if they are not immediately removed. “In too many cases, no such proof is offered, however,” she added.

“If someone wanted to come and take money out of our bank account without our permission, it would be a very complicated procedure, with protections at every stage,” she continued. “But when it comes to our children … social workers have an extraordinary amount of power, and that power has to be made subject to parents’ and childrens’ rights.”

In the intervening months since her children were removed and then returned home, Harlan has talked about her case to anyone who would listen, taking her concerns as far as the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. She believes that while CPS is a “necessary entity” and supports the agency’s efforts to protect children that “clearly have been sexually and/or physically abused,” she also feels that biases are present and work against families in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are either working poor or receiving county aid.

“We’re all painted with the same brush,” she says during a recent visit with a reporter in her home.

One of the risk factors that CPS workers use in deciding whether to remove children from a home is the number of prior contacts with CPS a family has had. In Harlan’s case, the petition filed against her in September shows there were 13 such contacts between December 1996 and July 2000, three of which were for “general neglect” and were cited as “substantiated” by the agency. The children were not removed from the home during these contacts.

Because the petition does not elaborate on the nature of the charge and because CPS refuses to discuss the petition in question, the SN&R was unable to determine the veracity of the charges or what prompted the calls. When asked to comment, Harlan maintained that she called CPS herself at one point to ask for help in paying her SMUD bill and that the other calls “came from a neighbor who wants to make trouble for me.”

“I’m not saying she’s ‘Mother of the Year,’ ” says the former CPS worker who was asked to review the case for the SN&R. “But her current situation illustrates the general thinking of the agency, which is, ‘Agree to our plan or we’ll hold your kids until you come around to our way of thinking,’ and that isn’t right. Again, there’s little recourse for parents if they feel legitimately wronged.”

And Harlan has her backers. Shyrell Willis, business administrator for the North Sacramento/Del Paso Heights Community Health Alliance, wrote a letter of support Nov. 8, outlining her three-year association with Harlan, who both served on Willis’ board and participated in the agency’s Welfare to Work program. In her letter, Willis calls Harlan “reliable and responsible” and an “asset” to her company.

Marjorie Turner, chairperson of the Community Action Coalition—a 500-member advocacy group working with low-income and working-poor families—called CPS’ actions a “serious injustice” and promoted the theory that the risk assessment tool used by the agency was created to “destroy families.”

“Imogean … has been active in school reform issues, community health issues and [working] with children suffering from dysfunctional family issues,” Turner wrote in her letter of recommendation.

While CPS Division Manager Laura Coulthard said she was not familiar with Harlan’s case—and couldn’t comment specifically on it if she were, for reasons of confidentiality—she did tell the SN&R that preparing an informal supervision plan prior to personally assessing the family’s situation was not accepted practice.

“The case plan should be specifically tailored to the identified problems in the home,” Coulthard said. “Further, social workers do not and are not supposed to threaten families with ‘sign this or else’ statements. No one from CPS should be giving a timeline [to parents] or any other statement like that. It’s not our decision how long the children will be [kept] away—it’s the court’s decision.

“I’m not accepting that the social worker in this case said things in those terms, but if [she did], then that was wrong.”

As to the criticism that CPS often overreaches its authority, Coulthard conceded that, because administrators aren’t out in the field, “We have to depend on people to call us when they feel they have problems with how things were handled. We need to keep that communication open with the community so we can investigate and, when necessary, make improvements.”

But what happens when CPS is accused of making a mistake? Do parents really have recourse, or does the agency close ranks, as one of the agency’s former workers contends?

“We’re subjected to hits because of our inability to comment on specific cases,” Coulthard said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s policy. I’m saying that we do work with the community and we do listen to complaints and take action when appropriate.”

The job is made harder, Coulthard claimed, because social workers are often working off limited information.

“It’s a very tough call. … They’re coming into the middle of a circumstance, and they may or may not be getting a straight story from the people they’re talking to. They have to take the information that’s available to them at a given point in time and make sure the kids are safe.”

For Imogean Harlan, the threat of losing her children continues to loom large. She has about five more months of classes to attend and drug tests to take. She says that she is “so paranoid” about “getting nailed” again that she no longer leaves dishes in the sink or food sitting out on the counter to defrost. And she continues to believe that the agency should have recognized the distinction between her situation and, for example, a situation where a child in the home had been molested.

“They aren’t realizing what message this is sending to the community,” Harlan says. “It isn’t right, it isn’t fair or just. I’m not the world’s best housekeeper, but we’re not evil people, and we didn’t deserve this.”