If Jennifer Hemmingsen doesn’t let up, Fathers and Families may be forced to give her an award for the best journalism in the area of fathers’ rights. Here’s the blog I did on her first piece. And here’s her second piece (The Gazette, 12/31/11).
Again, the story comes from Iowa. Victor Rogers had a girlfriend named Molly. She became pregnant with his child, but the two split up and Molly got together with another man. In February of 2009, five weeks before she was due to deliver Rogers’ daughter, Molly’s new boyfriend beat her up so badly that doctors decided to induce labor. That man’s violence against her got the state’s Department of Human Services involved.
Rogers learned about his new daughter and rushed to the hospital only to be told by the DHS caseworker that she’d placed the child in foster care. The little girl was his and he’d never done anything to hurt her or her mother. In fact, there was nothing to suggest that Rogers was anything but a fit father. But, as is so often the case, that wasn’t good enough for an agency whose job is to protect children and unite them with their parents, assuming the parents are capable of caring for them.
Contrary to Supreme Court case law, Iowa DHS forced Rogers to prove that he was a fit parent. DHS didn’t make it easy or quick, but, over the astonishing period of two years, he succeeded. He started off with only brief periods of visitation with his daughter that were strictly supervised. Gradually he worked up to unsupervised weekends
Even though Rodgers had no history of child abuse or neglect, DHS would make him jump through more than two years’ worth of hoops to prove he was good enough to keep her…But if you think things were that simple for this perfectly fine, upstanding father, think again.
Over the next few months, DHS records show, Rodgers worked his way up from supervised to unsupervised visits, meeting every personal and parenting goal the agency laid out for him. In October 2009, he even had his girlfriend, Molly, who had an extensive history with DHS, move out of his apartment because his caseworker told him to.
Rodgers agreed to take his daughter, Karee, to a safe place and call police, if Molly or Karee’s mother showed up at his apartment. By December 2009, he was consistently having weekend-long visits with his child. Social workers would drop in unannounced twice a day just to monitor his care. Things were going fine.
By Jan. 13, 2010, DHS gave him full-time custody of Karee on a trial basis — the last step toward reunification.
That month, when Molly showed up at Rodgers’ place, he took Karee to his cousin’s house, in accordance with the safety plan.Rogers still had done nothing wrong. Over the course of a year, he’d proven to everyone’s satisfaction that he was a capable and loving parent, but when his girlfriend behaved badly toward him, he’s the one whose access to his child was cut back to next to nothing. Her wrong, his punishment (and his daughter’s of course).
Yet when police arrived, Molly told them she lived there, and it was Rodgers who was forced to leave. When he returned later that night, Molly stabbed him in the shoulder. The next day, a DHS worker showed up at Rodgers’ home with police, demanding Karee.
Rodgers refused to hand over the child without a court order. Instead, police stunned him with a Taser and took Karee. DHS moved him back to fully supervised visits.
Then of course there’s the fact that, in requesting that DHS produce a court order allowing its caseworker to take Karee, Rogers was completely within his rights. But when you’re a fit father, your rights can be a frail reed indeed.
But that wasn’t the end; Rogers wasn’t about to give up.
Still, caseworkers were positive about his progress, noting that Rodgers had maintained stable housing, employment and school throughout the case. He had everything needed to care for Karee and was showing good parenting skills.But when caseworkers once again found Molly at Rogers’ apartment, they moved to terminate his rights. That was true despite the fact that he’d done not a single thing to indicate his unfitness as a father. On the contrary, DHS reports on him were glowing; not a word in their file on him criticized Victor Rogers.
“Victor has been able to do what DHS wanted done and progress to getting Karee home,” a February 2010 note reads. “Victor is very conscientious in moving forward in his life for himself and Karee.
Rodgers continued to visit his daughter, under supervision. The worker’s notes are poignant: “Victor was very appropriate.” … “Victor was calm and relaxed during the visit, but did seem to be sad when this worker took Karee to his vehicle and drove off.” … “Karee never wanted her dad to let go of her.” … “Karee was very content sleeping in her dad’s arms for the majority of the visit.”So there you have it; a perfectly fit father who all agree would never harm his child and who was a nurturing, protective, responsible parent to her. And yet, because DHS didn’t like his girlfriend who occasionally appeared in his life, his child was taken from him and adopted by strangers.
At Rodgers’ termination hearing that August, the social worker testified she didn’t believe Rodgers ever would harm his child. She was just worried he wouldn’t be able to keep her safe.
On Nov. 16, 2010, Rodgers’ parental rights were terminated. He appealed. He lost.
Karee would later be adopted by an unrelated family.
As I so often remark, that child didn’t need to be adopted; forcing adoption on Karee means that another child somewhere with no loving parent, who desperately needs adoption, lost out. The parents who adopted Karee, could have adopted that child, but didn’t. They already had Victor Rogers’ daughter.
As it turns out, Rogers had two strikes against him from the outset, instead of just one. Being male and a parent was the first strike. As we know, state child welfare agencies try to avoid involving fathers in their children’s lives when possible. But Rogers is an African-American man, and that makes him doubly suspicious to Iowa DHS.
A recent third-party analysis of Linn County DHS, conducted by the non-profit Center for the Study of Social Policy, cited a concerning, widespread confusion between child safety and the potential risk of future harm among Cedar Rapids child welfare workers. The confusion was further compounded by “stigma, labeling and negative inferences drawn based on a family’s history.”He speaks for countless fathers of all races, creeds, colors, religions, ethnicities and classes.
The analysis noted a “culture of caution” that leads to excessive intervention, coercion and monitoring of families, particularly black families. It found “the child protection system and its partners intervened with some African-American families in extensive ways with no clear reason or rationale.”
As Rodgers, now 48, tells it: “They were just suspicious of me from the beginning.”