In my posts about my work speaking up for abused and neglected children I have mentioned those kids who are adopted once their parents’ rights to them have been terminated. Not all children get adopted, some go to relatives’ homes under third-party custody agreements and some actually go home to their parents.
When CPS removes kids from the home, there are reasons. Issues such as mental health or sobriety make it unsafe for the children. The court tells the parents to get their acts together by agreeing to engage in “services,” evaluations to identify their problems, therapies needed to correct the problems, and even something as basic as parenting classes. The parents have time frames and concise performances to demonstrate to the court that they are ready to care for the children.
Sometimes the parents get it together and resolve the problems. They get sober and stay sober or they engage in therapies that overcome their emotional issues. I’ve seen it happen. When the parent has established a stable home and is doing services and cooperates with the social workers and we think the children will be safe, we will ask the court to return the kids home in an in-home dependency. The kids are still under state supervision, but they are home and the parents can demonstrate their parenting skills.
In a recent case that has gone on for almost four years, “Maria” has a mother who cannot parent because of her mental health issues and her abysmal choices of partners. Maria’s stepfather molested her when she was nine and she witnessed nearly constant arguing and fighting in the home. At one point she called 911. The transcript of that call as she described her stepfather threatening her mother with a knife is heartbreaking. Then her little brother showed up at school with cuts and bruises. CPS had to get arrest warrants out for the parents.
The kids were placed with relatives, but this was never really satisfactory. Maria’s mother was still involved in their lives and actively sabotaged the efforts of educators and therapists. Maria became something of a feral child, living where she wanted, learning to lie to the workers (if she spoke to them at all), falling farther and farther behind in school, and becoming a conduct problem for educators. She would barely speak to me because of the lies she was told about me.
But Maria had a father. He lived out of state and, at first, participated in the legal process. The mother and her relatives systematically walled him off from Maria and he quit returning calls from me and his lawyer. He surfaced again about a year ago, agreed to cooperate with the social workers, moved his wife and four children to the area, and offered to be in Maria’s life.The department got her connected to therapy for being a victim (Maria’s mother blamed her) and other help getting her used to a new home. Maria had a tough time adjusting to things like rules and supervision, but she settled in and bonded with her stepmother. A stable and loving home can do wonders for a child, even one on the crest of puberty.
I visited Maria who is now fourteen and a freshman in high school. She has adapted to a good home with structure and loving parents. She is catching up academically and there might even be an opportunity to develop an artistic talent I saw when I first met her. She was still pretty distant, but I could tell that she no long held the deep suspicion of earlier visits. As I explained the legal process and how we were all going to get out of her life I could detect a sense of loss on her part. The department, the social workers, the therapists, yours truly, and her lawyer (kids get lawyers when they turn twelve) had become part of her environment. Every week someone visited her or talked to her on the phone and asked her questions. Now she was going to be just a kid with a mom and a dad and brothers and sisters.
We had to go to court for the dismissal, even though all the parties were already in agreement. These dismissals are really kind of cool. They are meager celebrations of the tiny victories in the child welfare system. The parties are all smiles (rare in dependency court) and the judge congratulates us all for our good work on behalf of the children. There’s no cake or punch like we have at adoptions, just good feelings.
Alas, when Maria’s case came up, after four years of hard work and many tears, I missed it. I was down the hall in another courtroom explaining to another judge why a mother should not prevent the children from seeing their father. No smiles in that courtroom.
[A week after I wrote this, Maria’s mother abducted her.]