I just concluded almost three weeks of trial to terminate the parental rights of a father whose three children were removed from the home (a cheap motel room) three-and-a-half years ago. Well, two were removed. The third was born during the dependency and she is now two-and-a-half. This has been an amazingly complex case that has surprised everyone with its twists and turns (“Oh, THAT case”) and has churned through seven or eight social workers, fifteen or more different public defenders and retained counsel, several dozen hearings, and two trials. At one time there were six children, nine assigned lawyers, two social workers, two mothers, four fathers, one Indian tribe… and one volunteer CASA, me. Imagine the public payroll for just one court appearance.
The number of parties dwindled as one child and his tribe were dismissed out of the case, one mother and two fathers had their parental rights terminated (the parents didn’t show up in court), and another child found her biological father. That left two boys and one little girl with one father.
The dependency system is set up to return kids home if the parents work to alleviate the conditions that led to state intervention in the first place. In this case two of the children were abused and they all had been exposed to domestic violence. When the kids came into care they were all revealed to have special needs, particularly developmental delays. The State will pay for things like parenting classes, psychological evaluations, domestic violence intervention, therapeutic child care, special ed classes, drug and alcohol evaluations and rehab, and whatever it takes to return the kids home not take them away. But the parents have to cooperate. In my very first case the mother was a junkie, but she got sober and won her son back. In another it took the mom five years to get her psychological stuff together enough to be a parent again. Unfortunately some people just never get it because they relapse or their mental health issues prove overwhelming. I seem to always get the mental health issues. Bipolar disorder, anti-social personality disorder, even personality disorder not otherwise specified, just ask me.
So, for three and a half years the social workers in this case tried to steer the parents (those who showed up) to services. But the parents blew them off. Failure to complete the services within a certain period of time, usually eighteen months, is grounds for the worker to petition the court to have parental rights terminated. Kids cannot languish in foster care, even relative care, indefinitely. For a child in care, time is the enemy.
Part of the case involved the paternity of the little girl born ten months into the process. The mother named a mystery man as the father and denied that her partner and the the father of two of her children was the father. He denied it too. Until the little girl was almost two-and-a-half. Then he raised his hand and said I’m the guy and I want her back. The state said prove it, but we’re not paying. He paid $510 and proved he was the dad. The state still wanted to terminate his parental rights as well as those of mystery man. I agreed.
Through all the the hearings (many of them continued, meaning oops no court today, come back another day), the different judges and commissioners, the substitute lawyers, the newly-assigned social workers, the flurry of letters to the parents reminding them of services, and the lies and evasions there was one constant, me, the volunteer CASA whose job it is to speak for the children. At one hearing the judge and the lawyers turned to me for answers on the status of the case and the most recent court orders. Me, a volunteer. I had the answers for which I am paid mileage.
The last barrier to permanency for the three youngest children was termination of the parental rights of the father, a convicted felon, registered sex offender, documented batterer (“dangerous to his family and the community”) and walking advertisement for the need for anger management. Some parents agree to have their rights terminated in exchange for open adoptions. In those cases the biological parents get to keep in touch with the children while the adoptive parents do the heavy lifting of raising the children. But the parents usually have to admit that they have been poor parents and cannot overcome their deficiencies. No one in this case was about to admit that and certainly not this father.
I have an amateur theory about these parents. They are generally from the lowest income levels and suffer from an array of psychoses from substance abuse to mild disorders to serious mental health issues. When pulled into court they are entitled to public defenders at no cost (even those with jobs get free legal help) and these clients discover that they have rights. They interpret “rights” as “power” and play it for all that it is worth. Instead of cooperating for the benefit of their children they use their rights/power to fight every inch of the way.
To terminate the parental rights of this father we had to go to trial. I, as the Court Appointed Special Advocate (Guardian ad litem) am a party to such an action and I appear as a witness. As luck would have it the trial began as the long trial in which I was a juror was wrapping up. I missed the first day and a half of the termination trial.
Just a week before the trial was scheduled to begin, the father fired his public defender (who is quite good) and hired his own lawyer. Did I mention he had anger management issues?
Interestingly, in these cases, the first witness called by the state is the parent himself. You would think that would not come until the defense put on its case, but this was a civil case. The Assistant Attorney General questioned the father, but his time on the stand was broken up several times over many days to bring in other witnesses who were scheduled. Some witnesses testified in person and some appeared by phone (the judge tells the person to raise his or her right hand). When done each time, the father went back on the witness stand.
The court hears testimony four days a week leaving Fridays for sentencings and hearings. The lawyers expected the trial to last seven or eight days. Then the judge got sick two days and and things spilled over into week three. After two weeks of jury duty and more than two weeks of trial I was getting pretty familiar with the courthouse and lunch places nearby.
I testified about day five. I am comfortable on the witness stand, having been sworn dozens and dozens of times starting with traffic court in 1969. I have testified before the Queen’s Bench in Canada and before a Congressional committee. And I still clean up pretty good. Not that the judge much cares. She is trained to look at the evidence, not the shine on my shoes. Still, it feels good to put on a professional face with a suit and tie. I testified how the father was always angry, to how he stomped out of a hearing calling everyone “kidnappers”, and how he dismissed advice from experts who evaluated his sons as developmentally delayed.
In his defense the father pulled in the mother who had fled the state and had her rights terminated for not showing up. At first he didn’t know where she was, but when the judge pushed he had her there in twenty-four hours. She lied on the witness stand, but she always does that. We got in all our evidence and adjourned to get the judge’s verdict after lunch.
Usually, in handing down a ruling, a judge will start with comments to the opposite of where the ruling is going. I expected things like, “the father really loves his children,” or “the father has been remarkable faithful in attending all court dates.” Not so this time. She launched into what a sad case this is and how many times the father blew off his services. It took forty-five minutes for her to comment and then to read an eighteen-page order of findings of fact and conclusions of law.
So the kids are “legally free” and living in prospective adoptive homes where they have been thriving. The six-year-old says he wants to stay there. The ten-year-old half brother now in a group home wants to live with his younger brothers.
Happy ending? Not yet. The state is required to consider placing the children within the extended family. The kids could still be pulled from the only stable homes they have ever known and placed with “relative” they do not know. With the State of Washington headed in that direction the only voice for the children is a volunteer, me.