RE CHOICE OF FEATURE IMAGE:
The term “first responder” appears nowhere in this essay. But first responders are often the first persons to know that an orphaned child will be entering the foster child system. So many first responders are parents, so none should be surprised that being the first one to encounter a dead parent and, upon learning there’s no family to take in the orphaned children, can be a heavy burden to bear. This image, borrowed from a Five Finger Death Punch video that’s raising money for the Gary Sinese Foundation fbo first responders, is here to honor those who often know before anyone else that a child’s life is about to be turned upside down.
Homeless parents – veteran or otherwise – want their kids back, too.
I’ve encountered rough-sleeping moms and dads who’ve been told by child welfare workers that they can get their children back if they’ll just find a suitable place for their family to live. Of course, these are the same parents who aren’t eligible for much of the family housing that would satisfy child services because their children aren’t with them at the time. No, I have to tell them. No. It doesn’t make sense to me either. No. I don’t know what they’re supposed to do.
Even if homeless parents manage to get that housing, it’s too often not enough to get their kids back. Much of the time, child services tells parents that they’ll get their children back if they find a safe place for the family to live so long as they complete courses on parenting and anger management and what not.
“It’ll be easy,” says the child services worker. She then gives the parents a list of the classes they must complete by a certain deadline, names of the relevant providers, and phone numbers the parents must call to enroll in the classes. More phone numbers for caring ones who don’t respect these parents enough to return their calls. Calls left every day for three weeks. Messages that echo panic as the deadline to complete the required courses nears. And even if a class provider or Child services staff does eventually, perhaps on the eve of their court date, call, it may be too late. By that time maybe the parents lost phone service again for non-payment. And perhaps there’s no time left on the parents’ free “minute phone.” After all, it eats up a lot of minutes when you have to call and leave a bunch of pointless messages.
It’s all very sad, of course. But who knows? Maybe the foster family that’s been caring for their children is growing attached to the kids. And the family has a steady income. Money lets them pay the electric bill so that no one has to sleep in a car. The kids can have stable education. And the foster family will take them to a house of worship every week. Just think of the opportunities these kids’ll get!
You know it and I know it. The parents are losers. There’s no way that they’ll ever do any of that for them. Come on everybody. This is nobody’s first trip to the rodeo. We all know those kids’ll get such a better life with that foster family. When the parents’ court day finally arrives after weeks of unreturned calls, the “best interest of the child” clearly demands that the worker testify to the judge under oath that the parents haven’t complied.
And now it’s the parents’ turn to testify to a judge who’s barely taller than the stack of deprived child files that she drew theirs from. But this is the first time that either parent has been to a court. It’s all new. The pedestrian court room is so full that it snaps its buttons, and family members and attorneys spill into the hallway. A baby cries, and a bailiff quickly tells a mother to take her infant outside.
These parents may have been told by an appointed lawyer who first met them today that they will get a turn to speak to the judge. So as one case after another gets called, they wait their turn and try to focus and think of what they might say to the judge in this unfamiliar place with unfamiliar rules. They try to listen to the cases called before theirs for clues, but it’s hard to hear from where they sit. A thin buzz hovers around and through them while along the sidelines lawyers have hushed conversations with police officers and child welfare workers and attorneys for the State.
It gets even harder for these parents to focus each time they hear the stern woman in the black robe say it is ordered that a family’s children will not be returned at this time and a new court date will be set for several months from now. When that happens, wailing drenches and saturates the anxious courtroom.
And as these parents watch that family leave the courtroom, they hear those parents shatter courtroom decorum. Their anger and frustration trigger a line of cops against the far wall. Tired cops who just got off night shift and now wait to testify in their various cases. Those cops don’t want to be here. Too many don’t want to be questioned about what they filed with the court. They wrote their reports. Shouldn’t that be good enough? But they show up anyway. There’s just too big a chance that if they don’t, their cases will be dismissed. And that doesn’t look good to their higher ups. And sometimes it leaves kids with a truly dangerous predator who has hurt or killed before. “You said it was a slam dunk!” that other mother screams at her lawyer as she slams open the door into the hallway.
But now that these parents get to speak to the judge, what will they say? Somehow that worker who told them that all she wants to see is for this family to be reunited forgot to tell these parents to get a spiral notebook at the dollar store. A notebook they should use to write a note about every date and time anything happens that has something to do with their children’s case. Especially every time they try to do what Child services told them to do to get their kids back and every time they called or tried to call anyone about their case. Yes, somehow that worker who cares so much about reuniting their family just forgot to tell them to do this. Of course, the same worker has no excuse for not telling them. This was the 300th time she’s testified in a case like this.
But in the worker’s defense, maybe she’s simply trying to make the whole process run smoother. Or, run at all. You know, so that the law’s insistence that “the best interests of the child” can actually mean something. For at least some of the kids.
None of that can happen, of course, if the worker has to be bothered with one parent after another who’s prepared to contradict her testimony to the judge. With facts. With specificity. With credibility. She’s got too many kids on her caseload and too much paperwork already. She doesn’t have time for nonsense like that.
So, the worker testifies to the judge directly from her own notes, and her agency’s version of the parents’ compliance is the one the judge thinks is stronger. Far too often, unless the judge has a thorough – enough report from a court-appointed special advocate (CASA[i] worker) or a guardian ad-litem, almost the only thing the court will be allowed to consider as it decides whether to release the children to their parents is the sworn testimony of a government agency that cares.
After the lady in the black robes has heard from everyone who has a say in this proceeding, she finds that the parents have not complied and orders that it’s in the best interests of the children to stay in the care of child services. Without suitable family members anywhere close or who are suitable to take the kids in, the children will stay – either together or severed from one another – with whatever foster families the government puts the kids with. Another court date on the same issues is set for months from now. What else is the judge supposed to do in the brief minutes that she can spend on each case?
Maybe these parents, the ones who don’t have any of the resources that many of us assume we own by birthright, will somehow find a way to satisfy the worker and the Court enough to recover their children. But they may not, and a court may sever these siblings’ relationships with their parents as neatly and cleanly as a nurse clips an umbilical cord.
So, after the frost melts in the shadowed spaces between the trees and gives way to families and picnic baskets at the edge of a Civil War battlefield, and after summer is spent and the colors that fall to the ground take on regal hues, twice, I’ll run into those parents again.
If I’m careless, I’ll ask them, “so, how’s the family”?[ii]
Researcher’s role as a participant in America’s “foster-child system”
The author’s responsibilities in criminal and civil matters while serving as an assistant district attorney for the State of Oklahoma were, among others:
(a) reviewing child welfare reports to determine which warranted applications for judicial child removal orders and possible criminal prosecution;
(b) representing the State’s interests in civil “deprived child” actions arising from these cases, as well as in civil cases alleging actions by minors that, if done by an adult, would be criminal offenses and subject to prosecution;
(c) learning whether a crime committed against or by a child occurred on land and under circumstances that authorized the State of Oklahoma to act (the judicial district I served is a patchwork of jurisdictions that include a number of Indian tribes and in which the land that the State couldn’t touch might be no bigger than the lot where the crimes occurred);
(d) primary assistant D.A. on call to respond to ER, courthouse, or other locations in order to seek, if necessary, order from the judge authorizing the emergency commitment of persons deemed danger to self or others, an order which, in the absence of suitable family, resulted in kids going into foster care;
(e) took turns with other assistant D.A.’s on call to respond to scenes of suicide and other deaths when requested by law enforcement;
(f) on occasion, participating in case conferencing with other relevant actors re children placed in the custody of child services and perhaps housed in foster homes; and
(g) serving as the District Attorney’s representative at some of the informal foster parent gatherings held in that judicial district.
Regardless of which side I’ve represented over the years, America’s foster system has always insisted on showing up, either openly or by lurking in the shadows in cases involving:
(a) criminal defendants, appellants, and petitioners who had been removed from their homes as children due to abuse, neglect or a parent’s inability to keep them housed, fed, and in school;
(b) clients whose children had been removed for any or all of the same reasons and who had not been reunited with their kids;
(c) persons arrested, charged and sometimes previously convicted for committing crimes against children, including sex crimes, assault, criminal neglect, and homicide; and
(d) persons who insisted on pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit or which the State couldn’t have proven at trial, under threat that child services would be sent into the home to remove their children if they did not plead guilty.
Feature Image courtesy National Military Family Association. Accessed on-line 5 Oct 2018. http://www.militaryfamily.org/kids-operation-purple/deployment.html
[i]“CASA/GAL volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. For many abused children, their CASA/GAL volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives.” National CASA Association | 800.628.3233 | www.casaforchildren.org
[ii]“Marine family opens heart, home to foster children”
By Lance Cpl. Harley Robinson | 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing | October 13, 2016
2018 Women’s Day article features U.S. Army Lt. Col. whose family has – despite deployment to Iraq – taken in 34 foster children since first being approved by state officials in 2013: https://www.womansday.com/relationships/family-friends/a20962937/military-family-foster-parents/
PDF of 2016 U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services/Children’s Bureau factsheet for military families considering adoption (which in many cases begins with fostering children who can’t be or aren’t returned to their families): https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/f_militia.pdf
Charles Bloeser is a lawyer and the researcher behind the creation of combatresearchandprose.com, a new open-source applied research initiative examining combat and those marked by it. His most recent publication, in August 2018, reports how a cancer-stricken, combat-haunted Vietnam veteran fell between the cracks in a modern jail. It’s an account that, from that warrior’s deathbed, he asked author to share with those best able to keep the same thing from happening to others. STRIFE, at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London, gave him a way to do that.