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.

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