Friday, December 24, 2010

J.W. and collective self-delusion

This case will be heard on January 27. Both parents are appealing the termination of parental rights. Only one appellant brief has been filed so far, and nothing from the appellee (Morton County Social Services).

According to the appellant brief, J.W.'s mother was found to have used meth before J.W. was born. She has been on probation, although the reason for probation is not specified. J.W. never went home with his mother. He  has lived with a couple in Kentucky (names are provided, no information about relationship) "against the advice of Social Services" but based on parent preference. That statement is odd--Social Services has had legal custody, after all. How did the arrangement come about? Did a juvenile court referee sanction the placement?

At any rate, the appellant brief doesn't have a lot to say. There has been no contact between parents and J.W. for the state reason that J.W. was too young to talk on the phone or read letters. What the brief does say is that J.W.'s mother has completed substance abuse evaluation and treatment and has never tested positive for drug use in the time--two and a half years--since the baby was taken into custody. It also says that the mother never believed she would ever be allowed to have her child. "Reasonable efforts" is not listed as an issue for appeal, but the appeal does claim that the juvenile court erred when it ruled that such efforts have been made.

The brief also mentions a probation revocation hearing--it doesn't say what the outcome was of the hearing, and curiously also says that the probation officer who filed for revocation also stated that J.W.'s mother had carried out probation requirements.

I don't know whether it is better legal strategy to say little in an appeals brief. Maybe it just means what is often the case--the lawyers don't get to know the clients well enough, and they are out of the picture completely (in most cases) in between the legal milestones. It's in those in-between stretches, when nobody is looking over their shoulders, that social services really makes its decisions. By the time the lawyer gets into the game, he or she is dealing--really--with abstractions. If J.W. thought nobody was ever going to let her have her baby, very likely things had been said somewhere along the line that made her believe that.

North Dakota law concerning reasonable efforts seems pretty darn loose to me. It is contained in a section of state law called the Uniform Juvenile Court Act, so much of the language is a verbatim copy of language from other states' statutes. But the laws do vary.

According to North Dakota law, reasonable efforts can stop when the court says it's ok--but they can also stop when the agency decides it's ok, no court action required. Sometime in between a deprivation hearing resulting in a foster care order, and the expiration of that order, an agency might do just that--decide it is not interested in pursuing reunification (and maybe has expected this all along). The decision may or may not be explicit. Sometimes case plans don't actually state whether the goal is reunification (this must be how it is that a social worker can testify that the plan was just to improve the parent as a person, not to get them and their child back together).

We need to get rid of statutory language empowering social services agencies to unilaterally decide they no longer have to make reasonable efforts. Period.

There's more: the law in North Dakota says that reasonable efforts have to be in compliance with federal Title IV-E and IV-B requirements--but it doesn't matter. As long as any court order is valid under all other sections of state law, non-compliance with federal law cannot void the order. Hard to know what the point is of even mentioning the federal requirements, isn't it? (Federal child welfare law does not confer a "private right of action" in federal courts either--so there really is no consequence to anyone if the agencies disregard federal provisions that might, in theory, support families.)

And a third problem with "reasonable efforts" in North Dakota: the courts seem to consistently find that such efforts have been provided. Of course, all we get to look at are the appeals cases--but I think you can pretty much tell the overall legal winds from what the appeals cases say.  But flying in the face of this persistent conceit are the federal child welfare reviews (and, currently, regional self-reviews the state is doing) which conclude that in a fairly large percentage of cases sampled, the agencies are not doing what they are supposed to do, especially in terms of involving families in case planning. Makes me think that collective self-delusion is a fairly pervasive phenomenon in our juvenile courts.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Falling through the potholes

A few weeks ago, on a subzero night, the phone rang. The friend who called knew somebody who needed a ride to a town 50 miles away--by 8 in the morning. It was already 8 in the evening.

I didn't make the drive--I was worried about the car battery (in fact, the alternator died a few days later) and it's been years since I wouldn't think twice about driving off into the sparsely-populated darkness on a frigid night. Not only that, I had to work in the morning, the company I work for has draconian requirements about time and our whole team had just been written up for "occurrences" such as logging on at our work stations 1 minute late.

I have to admit to some impatient thoughts during the conversation. My caller said the woman's baby is in foster care and thought she needed a ride because of a court hearing the next day. My first thought was that anybody who is trying to get a 50-mile ride from strangers late in the evening before a hearing stands precious little chance of getting her child back--especially since, as my caller told me, the parent is also homeless. Whatever the issues were, it was not likely a ride that night--or lack of a ride--would make or break any deal involving social services, lawyers, and juvenile courts.

But I did get the woman's cell phone number and called her. Here is her story:

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago. Hospitalizations?--she's had many, the last less than a year ago. She spent much of her adolescence in foster care and residential treatment. In fact, she turned 18 in residential treatment. She's had the same therapist and psychiatrist for several years and, it sounds like, stays on her medications. She and her mother don't get along. Work?--she said she worked for a few months a year ago at a long-term care facility, in the kitchen. The job had been arranged through some kind of program. Before that, she had worked briefly at a fast food restaurant. She'd given birth to a daughter 8 months ago. She was living with a boyfriend (who is actually the stepson of my caller, who is divorced from his father) who was not the baby's biological father--the actual father has never shown any interest in his offspring and there had been no relationship with him. The boyfriend has some kind of mental impairment himself and receives SSI benefits. Last spring, she says, she had left the baby with her mother. When she came to pick up the baby, her mother locked and blocked the doors. The baby's mother--I'll call her Georgianna--called 911. When the police arrived, Georgianna's mother unlocked the doors and denied having tried to prevent Georgianna from picking up the baby. Georgianna, it turned out, had a knife on her, and was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. She insists her mother was drunk but the police did not breathalyze her. In any event, the baby ended up in foster care--but not with Georgianna's mother. More recently, Georgianna left the boyfriend because of violence on his part. She reported domestic assault and has a restraining order against him. But now she has no place to live.

I asked if she has any income, such as SSI or SSDI. No, she said, she has asked her caseworkers about this and has been told she is "too young". Nonsense, I told her, SSI has nothing to do with age--and her history sounded like SSI would be a slam dunk.

Georgianna has, apparently, been visiting her baby regularly. The baby, who was born 2 weeks pre-term, has had some developmental problems and, at 8 months, is just beginning to sit up and roll over. She receives infant development services as a result. I was impressed to hear Georgianna attends and participates in the infant development services regularly. The program Georgianna's baby is in comes under federal special education laws. A baby getting these services has to have an individual plan--and the law requires agencies to involve parents in creating that plan, along with providing services in natural settings (such as the home) as much as possible. But if the baby is in foster care, oftentimes parents are brushed aside either by agencies who don't bother with parent involvement, or in favor of foster parents.

Georgianna said she did not have a hearing the next morning, she had a visit scheduled, along with an infant development session in the afternoon. With no place to live in the town where the baby is, social services and the courts are--and also where her own therapist and psychiatrist are--she has been staying with friends here, 50 miles away. She complains that social services listens to everything her mother tells them--and shares information with her mother. Georgianna is an adult in her early 20's. Her mother comes to permanency plan meetings (held quarterly)--over Georgianna's objections. This sounds crazy, I told her. Social services did not place the baby with grandmother, presumably is not considering permanent placement with the grandmother--and the two have a conflicted relationship.

Some people might think Georgianna is a likely train wreck who should not be entrusted with a baby. She has bipolar disorder, she's homeless, she was just involved with a boyfriend who turned out to be violent, she has no income or transportation, she did jail time in connection with the episode at her mother's.

Here's the flip side: no alcohol use (the scoff I heard from her when I asked about that was authentic). Some marijuana use in the past, but they've had her do UA's for 7 months and, after an initial positive test, all have been clean. Long-term relationship with therapist and psychiatrist, stays on her medications and knows what they are. Graduated from high school--since she spent her teen years in foster care and had a serious mental illness and left foster care when she aged out at 18, this alone means she beat odds 5 to 1 against her (these odds come from studies done by child welfare research centers). Gets to regular visits with her daughter--even though it has meant scrounging rides involving long distances. Gets to the infant development sessions and can report her daughter's developmental issues. Goes to her child's permanency plan meetings. All with, essentially, no resources of her own.

Since Georgianna left a domestic violence situation and reported it to police, she should qualify for a housing assistance waiver. The region also offers housing assistance to persons with mental illness who receive case management services through the regional human service agency. Georgianna could keep her private therapist and psychiatrist (she apparently has Medicaid) but add a mental health case manager in the regional system. A component could be added to her reunification plan requiring social services to help with referrals. A case manager would have obligations to Georgianna herself--which child welfare does not. But those obligations could help Georgianna reunite with her daughter.

With her psychiatric history, someone should be helping her apply for SSI. Housing and an income of her own might well be just the additional ballast she needs--and keep her from having to depend on friends or problem boyfriends for basic food and shelter. I know several women with similar histories who have raised children successfully because they did have that ballast.

North Dakota Human Services reports statistics each year on its child welfare system. In 2009, 189 of the "services required" cases (i.e. substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect) were families without adequate housing. Of those, 11 families received housing assistance as a result of child welfare agency involvement.

I asked Georgianna if she has an attorney. She was represented in the initial shelter care and deprivation proceedings by a lawyer from across state lines, who lives 60 miles from her hometown (where the baby is). That's 60 miles in an entirely different direction than Fargo, where she was staying when she looked for a ride.   She said he told her to admit to deprivation because there was nothing else she could do. (How often have parents heard that legal advice?) Of course, based on North Dakota's public defender system, once deprivation was ruled, he was off the case. She has nobody to help advocate for the services she really needs--services which is it well within the power and capacity of the system (in this case, anyway) to provide.

In a situation like this, there is no need to strum the heartstrings or rage about injustice. Seems to be a plain look at public agencies we authorize and pay for not doing a competent job. If it was a street department, it would be the kind where the potholes never get filled even though it plants flowers by the curb. We wouldn't put up with it. We don't see the child welfare potholes too often--they're too well hidden.

System biases against fathers?

Yesterday, the  North Dakota Supreme Court announced its decision regarding A.B., or Abel Blotsky, a little boy whose mother died after a beating by her husband last March. In short order, Burleigh County (ND) social services petitioned to terminate the parental rights of Abel's father, who lived in Washington and was a former boyfriend of the mother. The mother had another former boyfriend as well--one whose father, Kevin Cramer, happens to be a prominent North Dakota GOP politician and current Public Service Commissioner.

Although Abel's father sought to gain custody of his son, he was dismissed as a parent right from the start. Social  Services "misplaced" contact information after he called them. He was not served notice of hearings. Although Social Services later testified he had not completed their recommendations, the fact is they had already decided to terminate his rights and turn the child over to unrelated individuals who had clout. In court, Social Services would testify--and the prominent politician's lawyer would argue--that Abel's father had taken no action even though Abel apparently lived in an unstable, violent environment from the day he was born. The politician should know--his son was involved with the child's mother for awhile himself. The mother, her brother, the mother's husband, and the politician's son all had criminal records even before she was killed. The politician and his wife would take in the child when his mother asked them to care for him. They were certainly in a position to act--and they likely knew that the mother operated a small daycare (perhaps unlicensed) in her "unstable, violent" home.

This termination was accomplished in record time, as was its appeal.

According to the father's attorney, he had completed a home study which found him to have a stable home.

There is plenty of room for concern here--simply because one would think that, if one parent of a child dies, the other parent--even one who lives several states away--should be able to immediately assume custody unless there has been a prior finding that parent has deprived or harmed the child. But money and status do make a difference.

The case also illustrates the problems faced by non-resident fathers when a child is removed from the care of its mother for whatever reason. Child welfare and juvenile court systems are, in many ways, inherently structured in a way that often biases them against nonresident fathers, particularly fathers who can't manage to pull off the alpha male role.

(In the Interests of A.B.)

(American Bar Association information about representing and advocating for non-resident fathers in child welfare proceedings)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Judges favoring open child welfare courts

In an editorial in the LA Times, Michael Nash, the presiding judge of dependency court (child welfare court) in Los Angeles County has it right on the money. Quoting the editorial,

Judges and others involved in child welfare, Nash said last week, "need to be accountable to the public we serve." The current emphasis on closed hearings, he added, has worked to undermine the primary responsibility of dependency courts: the protection of children. "The main entity that's protected by closing these proceedings is the system itself," he argued. And that system, as Nash noted, "is far from perfect."
More than 20 states presently conduct proceedings in their dependency courts openly, along the lines that Nash proposes for California. Oregon has a respected system, as does Minnesota. Their successes have helped convince those who once feared openness that it in fact has protected children, not exposed or harmed them. California has missed previous chances to lead in this area. Now, it should catch up with those that have paved the way. Then, at last, the children of this county and others will know that their fates will not be sealed in secret, but that those whose responsibility it is to care for them will be held accountable for doing it well.
A decade ago, a Minnesota task force consisting mostly of judges noted that it is hard to claim child welfare courts are based on community standards for the rearing of children when the community is barred from the proceedings. The task force, too, concluded that accountability was best served by opening the state's juvenile courts. A small minority of the task force feared children's lives being smeared across the 6:00 news. It never happened, and Minnesota's juvenile courts remain open ten years later.

It's time North Dakota did the same.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

News from elsewhere, and from here

Texas, November:

Early in November, a Texas boy was the 4th child to die in a facility run by an organization called Daystar in Texas. In 2009, staff in a Daystar facility were found to have incited girls with developmental disabilities to fight, resulting in injuries to 4 girls. In that case, the staff involved were fired but never prosecuted. Because of hundreds of abuse/neglect incidents in Daystar facilities, a monitor had been appointed to oversee its operations. The monitor had left the position shortly before Michael Owen died in November. The county where Daystar was located refused to send children in its custody to Daystar, but other Texas counties did, and at the time of Michael's death, 24 California foster children remained in Daystar facilities. Michael died in his room in connection with staff restraint. Security cameras in the facility do not show the bedrooms' interiors. Facility officials claimed that video from the hallway area showed staff acting professionally. Of course, staff would likely reserve unprofessional conduct for off-camera locations. (Duh.)

Nebraska, September:

In September the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services temporarily halted referrals of Nebraska children to psychiatric residential treatment at the renowned Boy's Town, due to improper psychiatric treatment. Corrective action requirements were imposed by Nebraska's Medicaid managed care contractor. The issues involved improper restraint and seclusion, alleged use of chemical restraints, and failure to report injuries. One girl, placed in seclusion, had choked herself with a hair tie, passed out, and was not discovered until 45 minutes had past. Federal law requires face to face monitoring of youth in seclusion in psychiatric facilities receiving Medicaid payments.  The monitoring cannot be by means of video but literally means face to face. Boy's Town denied any improper treatment but complied with the plan, and eventually Nebraska referrals resumed.

States often place children out of state for treatment. Both sending and receiving states have responsibilities for supervision, although the receiving state does not have responsibilities within the first 90 days. The question is, when a facility comes into question, who has what obligations regarding the children in the facility who are from other states--or counties? If there was a North Dakota child in treatment at Boy's Town last September, did Nebraska inform North Dakota about their own suspension of referrals? Were California authorities notified that their foster children might be in danger at Daystar?

Residential treatment facility deaths sometimes occur within the first weeks of placement--sometimes within the first hours. I don't know if anyone has studied whether there is a pattern of higher risk early in a residential placement--but it would make sense. Staff may over-react, kids may not have figured out how to protect themselves in a new facility.

In Fargo:

When my son was placed at a locked residential "treatment" (using that word reservedly) facility operated by Dakota Boys Ranch (now Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch), staff were not permitted to be inside residents' rooms with the door closed. Because DBR made a point of ensuring all contact between us was closely scrutinized--face to face, telephone, letters--he could only share fragments of what was happening to him there. Initially DBR violated state licensing requirements (and, possibly, Medicaid requirements--I tried to find out whether federal regulations applied to the facility but even Centers for Medicaid/Medicare Services in Denver could not give me clear information) by failing to document seclusion or restraint, or to even verbally report it--even to my son's caseworker, who was legally responsible for supervising his care. Only when I contacted state licensing authorities did the facility begin to document seclusion and restraint. After the clinical director (Carol Halone) was contacted by North Dakota DHS, she made it clear to me how angry she was, and insisted that all required documentation was done, just waiting for signatures. In fact, the facility never did complete reports for those first several weeks, even though a resident log (which they provided as a substitute) made brief references to multiple uses of seclusion and restraint during that time. The reports staff did eventually begin writing were very poorly done. It was obvious that the psychiatrist who had to sign them did not read them--since the wrong kind of information was often entered into spaces on the form, and since the right type of information was often contradictory, illogical, or simply vague. 

Bits and pieces emerged over the years after my son left DBR. Here's one:

Staff were not allowed to be in residents' rooms with the door closed. But one staff (a staff whose name often appeared on the seclusion and restraint reports) did just that a few times--went into my son's room, closed the door behind him, and said, "I'm in here and the door is closed--what are you going to do about it?"  Apparently the staff didn't do anything else those times--only intimidated, threated, caused fear--psychologically maltreated--a 13-year-old. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Inside the fog--sample case 1 (in no particular order_

Every few days, for several weeks, I have read briefs and opinions from parental termination proceedings appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court. My original intent was simply to study how parents' attorneys in North Dakota argue "reasonable efforts"--or if they argue this issue at all. The principle is this: the state is required, in most cases, to make reasonable efforts to preserve and unify families in cases where the state finds it necessary to become involved in the lives of children. The law permits exceptions in cases involving aggravated circumstances--such as abandonment, homicide cases, if a parent has previously had parental rights terminated non-voluntarily (which means that a parent facing caseworkers who want to terminate rights also faces a terrible choice: fight the proceeding, with the threat of having other children taken away, or surrender one child in order to keep others--in the present or the future. Of course, other children could not be taken away unless they were also found deprived, but--informally or in some states based on statute, any history of deprivation becomes the basis on which later deprivation is found. And, based on the stories of parents who have been confronted by this choice, they are not told that having other children removed is a certainty. Still, imagine being the parent who is told, "give us this child and you can keep the rest." Imagine being the child who has been given away as the price for his siblings staying with a parent.

That's another issue (every issue I try to untangle turns into another issue, another path into the bramble patches). What about reasonable efforts?

In quite a few cases, it is not clear whether there ever was a reunification plan stated as such. One father who appealed had, he thought, followed the plan laid out for him. But the county's brief tells us that in the view of the caseworker, the plan was never intended as a reunification plan--it was intended "to strengthen him as a person."

Whoa. I reeled when I read that. Anyone should. Sure, as a mother, as a sister, as a friend, even as an acquaintance, I'm sometimes subject to having notions about what someone else should do to be a better person.  In private relationships, it's called meddling (and is not the same as supporting or helping or caring about another person). On the part of the state?  The sheer obliviousness, tone-deafness, on the part of state actors (that's what they are) making such a statement (the caseworker, but also the state's attorney who thought it belonged in a formal appellee brief) makes me shudder. On the part of the state, the word is hubris.

Generally, it looks like these cases do not specifically identify anything altogether conceded to be a reunification plan. Sometimes parents protest that they've "done everything" they were supposed to, but social services won't give their kids back. Sometimes it means the caseworker brings up something that was never in the written plan. Sometimes it means the caseworker just doesn't think it's time yet. The child welfare agency is never going to like the notion that a reunification plan is some kind of contract--but why shouldn't it be? Why shouldn't it be based on the deprivation findings, period, and why shouldn't caseworkers be required to lay out--in clear and measurable terms--exactly what parents must do?

At the very least, reunification plans need to be identified as such--and plans or recommendations intended to turn someone into a better, stronger person should come with a disclaimer ("these recommendations are not intended to contribute to reunification of child and parent").

(No, the appeals court did not reverse.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Child welfare and the 4th Amendment (cont)

As noted in the previous post, one side of the argument in Greene v. Camreta is that if child abuse investigators are restrained by the 4th Amendment (the 14th Amendment is also an issue in this case), all the control will be held by the perpetrators, especially if the suspicion implicates parents for either the suspected abuse or keeping it hidden. This point of view falls prey to the mistake that suspicion equals fact. It also hails to past misconceptions--which have not been put to rest--about child sexual abuse (in particular) and how children disclose abuse. Prosecutorial history of child sexual abuse includes the legal--and human--disasters that resulted from the McMartin preschool accusations, the Scott County (MN) mass sexual abuse allegations, and many others. Some made headlines across the nation, some did not. Although research has debunked some of the myths used to prosecute these cases, don't assume the myths have been discarded altogether.  One of the tragedies of these cases is that some children, whose "recovered memories" of abuse turned out to be false, remain in fact afflicted by those false memories as they grow up. The implanted memory of abuse is as damaging as a real one. Another side of this coin is the phenomenon of false confessions by young people accused of crimes.  Add to that research into the potential flaws in witness testimony. Constitutional protections are a good thing, because they can help ensure a measure of clarity amidst the fog. They protect us all.

In North Dakota., in 2009,  142 reports of alleged sexual fondling of children (the type of sexual abuse investigated in the Oregon case) were investigated. Of those, 35 were confirmed--slightly less than 25% of children involved. If all had been investigated in the same manner as the Oregon case, 107 children would have been isolated and interrogated by authorities, removed from their families, and subjected to intrusive physical examinations--complete with digital cameras. How many actually were investigated in this fashion, we don't know. But these children, and their families, are a side of the equation we easily fail to consider.

The North Dakota Attorney General's office, which signed a states' amicus brief siding with the state of Oregon in the federal case, certainly failed to consider. On June 1, 2010, the office received an invitation to join the brief, written by an assistant attorney general in Arizona. The invitation was ignored for 4 weeks (the office was, perhaps, too busy getting ready to join a different federal case, the one filed by states seeking to overturn Obama's healthcare reform legislation, claiming it is unconstitutional). The chief solicitor in the office came across the email invitation when he returned to the office after an absence. Within 70 minutes, he had conferred--so to speak--with a colleague and the Attorney General, Wayne Stenehjem, and the decision was made to join the states' amicus arguing against fundamental civil rights for children and parents in child abuse investigations. What kind of "conferring" took place? A total of 5 emails and 46 words. Neither the two staff attorneys or the Attorney General had read the announcement before, and it is apparent in the emails none read the decision the day they accepted the emailed invitation (the brief had to be filed the following day, and if they did not act fast they would miss the chance to weigh in).

Dawn Williams, the Arizona attorney who wrote the brief, also asked for information from state attorney generals. She asked for information about state laws or policies relating to joint investigations by child protective services and law enforcement, limits on multiple interviews, information-sharing among agencies, and rules pertaining to interviews conducted in schools or other public settings. The AG's office did not include this information, nor did they contact the state child welfare director for input or information about current policy and practice. The decision to join the brief amounted to posturing, period.

Here's the discussion and deliberation within the AG's office about a Supreme Court case:

June 28, 2010

9:49 Doug Barr to Jon Byers
"I have been out of the office. Have you seen this and had the chance to review? If not, can you please do so today?"
10:11 Jon to Doug
"I had not review[sic] it, but I did this morning. Yes we should join. We have a statute that authorizes the interview of kids at school without parent consent. The Ninth Circuit is wrong yet again."
10:40 Doug to Wayne Stenehjem (ND Attorney General)
"Can ND join? I will forward you the brief in another e-mail"
[note: The brief was not in any of the email attachments. Arizona was probably still writing their brief when the June 1 announcement was sent out. The information attached to the emails consisted of  the Arizona assistant attorney general's talking points only.]
10:41 Doug to Wayne
"FYI. The deadline is tomorrow."
10:59 Wayne to Doug and Jon
"Yes, North Dakota should join."

In October, Tara Muhlhauser, ND director of Child and Family Services, was contacted to find out if the AG's office had contact with DHS in regard to this issue. (Previously, Tara Muhlhauser had noted to me in an email that her agency was aware of and monitoring the 9th Circuit decision. The AG office emails were provided in a response to an open records request for copies of all records pertaining to the amicus decision, including correspondence, emails, and memos with other state agencies/officials. The only records provided in response to the records request were the Arizona announcement--disseminated by the national association of state attorneys general--and the emails, along with announcement as an attachment, shown above--plus a final email directing a staffer to prepare a short letter to Arizona to add Wayne Stenehjem's name to the amicus.) Tara's response:
"I think this question would be better positioned to the Attorney General, as I do not know what they considered when signing on to this amicus brief.  My experience of working in that office is the issue is very thoroughly considered when a decision to sign on to an amicus brief is made."  Now we know what "thorough" means in the business of state v. families. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Coming soon to the U.S. Supreme Court--chid welfare and the 4th Amendment

In March or April of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case having to do with child abuse investigations and the 4th Amendment. The 9th Circuit issued a ruling this year pertaining to a lawsuit filed against a CPS worker and a sheriff's deputy by the mother of a little girl who was questioned, and later underwent medical examination, based on allegations that she might be sexually abused by her father. Although investigators maintain that the girl did disclose abuse (which led to the medical examination), she subsequently denied having done so. The investigation did not turn up abuse. The investigation itself has been criticized--including criticism by prosecutors who are following the case--as conducted unprofessionally. As a result, a case could be made that the girl was being abused (but a poorly-conducted investigation undermined any possibility of protecting the child), or that she was not (and a poorly-conducted, intrusive investigation caused her a great deal of trauma). But prosecutors who are following the case still object to the 9th Circuit decision (which favored the plaintiff in the lawsuit, and affirmed 4th Amendment protections in child abuse investigations). They claim it will endanger children by protecting perpetrators.

Greene v. Camreta

A conversation?

Wednesday night, the church I attend (Fargo-Moorhead Unitarian-Universalist Church) held a meeting for the purpose of determining a social justice issue for the congregation to commit to. I've had random thoughts about the process we used, and maybe I'll have time to sort out those thoughts later on. Generally, it included a brainstorming activity which generated a few dozen issues/programs to consider; a narrowing-down voting process which winnowed these few dozen to a handful; time-limited discussion of each area coming from the primary vote; a second vote to pick one issue area.

Support for families involved with child welfare was my contribution to the brain-storming session--and it did survive the first vote. During the discussion period the woman sitting across from me at my table turned around to ask me what exactly I had in mind about supporting families involved with child welfare--because she is a CPS investigator and child welfare caseworker. I think she's new to the congregation, but she had referred to he job during the pre-meeting pizza supper. That caught my attention, since I went to the meeting with the conscious purpose of getting this issue on the table of possibilities. I didn't mention this during the suppertime conversation, since our table topic at the moment was quirks of our jobs (specifically, punch in/punch out requirements).

The woman at my church looks every inch the social worker--particularly the CPS social worker. Her hair is cut short, her clothes feminine but comfortable, practical, and conservative. A yellow cardigan topped her outfit. When on call and summoned late at night to pick up children being removed from their home, she drives to the county courthouse to punch in by thumbprint, then to the small town, farmstead, or street in the county seat to fetch the children.

Her response to my comments about my proposed social justice issue felt like a challenge. It was rather abrupt--and also punctuated by her statement that she, herself, is a CPS worker. She must have felt challenged herself--especially as someone who is new to the congregation, maybe she suddenly wondered what or where she was getting into. For that matter, stepping into a UU congregation--including a 120-mile round trip to join this meeting to pick out a social justice issue--doesn't conform to stereotype.

Our congregation includes a retired juvenile referee who has made decisions to place children in legal custody of social services or terminate parental rights, along with her husband, a retired pediatrician who is highly critical of putting kids in foster care in nearly all situations. And myself, a mom whose son spent a very long time in foster homes, and thus became an activist in any way open to me to challenge child welfare practices. At least one congregant is raising her grandchild, another sought for awhile to gain custody of a nephew she felt was living in an unstable situation, and at least one does foster care. I wonder what a conversation among us all might be like.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

And which story is the right story?

It's complicated. Last July, an 11 year old Montebello, CA boy hanged himself a few hours after a visit by child protective services workers. According to officials, the boy had sought help from a school counselor, saying he was bullied by classmates and hit by his mother while his stepfather held him down. According to news reports, he said he wanted to shoot himself. In the past, apparently, he had threatened to hang himself. After receiving a report from the school, CPS came and interviewed the child. They looked for a gun but not a rope. They asked questions about abuse, which he denied. The child's mother showed concern for him. The officials left; it is not clear whether they planned to continue the investigation. They say they did not have the records that would have led them to remove the child.

Later, the mother said she believed her son hanged himself because of the CPS visit. He'd been in foster care for a year previously, shuttled among 5 different foster homes, feeling unwanted in all of them. He believed he would be taken away again.

Which story is the right story?

Reading the newspaper account,, it strikes me that regardless of what information the social worker had or didn't have, she did not respond very well to the child's search for help. First of all, when suicide is mentioned, you take it seriously. You get the person--especially a child--to a psychiatric facility for immediate assessment.  You make sure mom and dad come along. You get the message to the child that his suffering is taken seriously by everyone. You do not treat it as a "is this kid being abused or not abused?" investigation.

I also believe the mother may well be right on target herself. I am willing to bet that whatever the alleged abuse and neglect issues led to the boy's previous removal, on many levels foster care was a worse place to be. I am willing to bet that the boy never received any post-reunification counseling to deal with the trauma of being in foster care. But the mother, too, dropped the ball, although quite possibly without realizing it. As someone who has had a lot of personal contact with mental health issues, my response would have been different than hers, even though I am not a mental health professional.

The child could have been taken to a hospital for observation, with the explanation that this was NOT foster care, nobody was accusing anybody of anything, but because when kids express the level of suffering he did, adults do care and will act.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Downtown Fargo (where the movie by the same name premiered several years ago) has been subjected to frantic upscaling for quite awhile now. When I first moved here in 1986, there was still a Greyhound station on NP Avenue. Since then, Greyhound is gone; another bus company has come in, but you catch that one near Walmart in the retail and franchise district.

Used to be, across from the Greyhound were the dirty bookstore, a former army surplus store, an evangelical mission, the Cole Hotel (one of three downtown residential hotels), two bars, and an odd little store. The store was long and narrow, and opened late at night when buses came in. Long tables held dusty old toasters, clocks, electric motors, and other detritus. An old man--anciently old--sat in a sagging chair at a desk. Nearby was a cooler from which he sold sandwiches and cartons of milk. The old man's head and neck were sunk between his collarbones, vulture-like. In front of him was a large glass tumbler, half full--his doctor, he said, advised him to drink a glass of scotch every night for his heart. He diligently filled the glass every evening. He slept in the back of the store.

The odd little store was torn out, probably when the old man died. It was a brick building abutting the neighboring building; the lot was paved and you can still make out the line where one building once joined the other.

The bars are memorialized in Louise Erdrich's novel, Love Medicine. Both had elaborate neon signs. The Round-Up featured a cowgirl twirling a lasso; the Pink Flamingo featured just that. The signs were sold when those buildings went; a North Dakota farmer apparently installed the Pink Flamingo neon on his farmstead. The The Cole was emptied out. The mission disappeared. The Greyhound station has recently become the new municipal court building. Not far away, the condos and boutiques and galleries and banks crowd Broadway. The dirty bookstore has stayed put.

A few weeks ago, before we had heavy snows, I'd seen one homeless guy pulling a cart of sorts, packed heavily with belongings. He had just a rope to pull the cart, and the wheels didn't seem to always behave--the contraption had a tendency to fishtail. I caught sight of him a few more times over the next several days. Since we got the snow, I'd changed from the varying alley routes I'd been taking to walk to work to the main streets, and noticed the man's cart parked just off the sidewalk on Broadway. I thought he might have parked it when it got too difficult to maneuver in the snow. It's still there, hasn't been touched, the snow has piled up around it. It's parked close to a hair and nail salon--until recently, women would sip glasses of wine while they were indulging in their mani-pedi's (a turn of phrase I only recently realized has become a phrase--or is it a word?). But there are liquor license rules and the authorities put an end to that.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


North Dakota is a stranger place than you might think. Currently, our courts are hearing cases involving murder most gore, and little children left orphans. Cases--plural? Yes. While Nakvinda's contract killer case in the murder of Phillip Gattuso plays out in district court in Fargo (with a defense completely worthy of the Coen brothers, with the alleged contract buyer out on $1 million cash bail--no, this was not a murder for the life insurance), North Dakota politics seem to have more than a little to do with a custody/parental rights  case involving the child of a woman beaten to death in Bismarck-Mandan last spring. Before the Gattuso murder case took off, custody battles between Phillip Gattuso's family and the family of the child's mother (who had died previously from a heart condition) made plenty of headlines. (A maternal aunt trying to get custody is now mentioned in the murder trial, because of an email she sent to the family's lawyer before her brother-in-law was killed, asking what would happen if the family had the father killed--"just kidding, ha-ha"). In the other case, playing out in Bismarck, only one side of the dispute has money and power--no headlines.

The 2010 election unseated a Democrat House incumbent, replacing him with Rick Berg. According to news reports, Berg will be the richest member of the 112th Congress. Berg, who has made his money in property management, opposed state human rights legislation several years ago on the grounds the "business community doesn't want it". In particular, with housing rights one of the key areas which state human rights enforcement might enforce, and Berg VP of perhaps the largest purveyor of rental residential property around--well, of course his personal business community would have no use for human rights legislation or enforcement (not that it has ever been particularly enforced since it was passed).

Byron Dorgan, one of North Dakota's Democrat Senate delegation, retired, and has been replaced by Republican John Hoeven, who steps down from his third term as Governor. For years, North Dakota has been a Republican state which sends Democrats to Washington. It's a simple plan: national office Democrats bring home the bacon, state office Republicans make sure it gets to the right places. North Dakota's last two Republican governors are viewed as too liberal by the state's tea party types, and even pre-tea party conservatives sometimes grumbled. Both Hoeven and his predecessor (Ed Schaeffer) have mustaches. Neither was a farmer--both had a business background, Ed's including fish farming, and John's in banking (working for the nation's only state-owned bank, a legacy of our socialist past). This is enough to make them cosmopolitan in North Dakota society. Ed's father was an entrepreneur known for inventing and launching "Mr. Bubble", a bubble bath for children. You might remember the jingle. North Dakota's new governor will be an individual with the name of Darymple--not a name that gets you consideration for national office, and not cosmopolitan.

Another North Dakota Republican, Kevin Cramer, once indicated that Lee Atwater was his role model. Remember Lee Atwater? He was the Karl Rove of campaigns before we got to taste Karl Rove--he was just the intro act. Before dying of brain cancer, though, Lee Atwater got religion and professed his regret for the dirty politics he'd engaged in. Cramer is currently the state's Public Service Commissioner. PSC links to coal and oil, and coal and oil are (along with federal pork) the primary reason for North Dakota's budget surpluses and money-under-the-mattress. But lately Kevin Cramer and his wife have been busy "intervening" to take the child of a mother who was beaten to death by her boyfriend, from the baby's father (who was not her boyfriend). The Cramers have no connection to the baby other than the fact that their son was boyfriend #2 in a series of 3 boyfriends in 3 years the mother was involved with. The baby's father was boyfriend #1. He has a court-appointed attorney. Court records indicate that social services "misplaced" the baby's father's phone number before handing the child over to the Cramers. The case moved startlingly swiftly towards termination of the father's parental rights, even though court records also state he passed a home study (done to determine a parent's stability and ability to care for their child) and is the father of two other children who do live with him. The termination has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Arguments were presented yesterday. We will wait and watch for the Supreme Court decision.