February 29, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The Livingston Daily continues its excellent series on Michigan’s child welfare and foster care system. Here’s the latest (Livingston Daily, 2/25/16).
Last time the paper revealed a system that’s, as one attorney put it, “designed for parents to lose” when they battle the state to keep their kids. As we’ve come to expect, Michigan’s caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, but when poor parents have a child taken by them, they encounter much the same in court. They’re entitled to a lawyer, but those lawyers, like the caseworkers, have more to do than they can possibly handle. The result is that parents short on cash are doubly at risk for losing their children.
Then there are oddities like the refusal of the State Department of Health and Human Resources to assist unmarried fathers in establishing paternity when a child is taken from its mother. That’s the same preference for foster care over father care that the Urban Institute discovered back in 2006 when it found that CPS agencies fail to even attempt to notify the dad as a possible placement for a child taken from its mother.
This is an agency that’s required by law and best practices to do everything it can to keep families together.
Today’s Livingston Daily piece is about Angela Donnellon and her ultimately successful efforts to become the caregiver to her niece. It wasn’t easy. That’s true despite the fact that state child protective agencies are required to seek kinship care for children whenever possible. That is, a child’s extended family is to be preferred to foster care by strangers. That makes both intuitive and empirical sense. The trauma of being removed from their parents is lessened if kids are going to live with grandma and grandpa or, in this case, Aunt Angela.
But DHHS did what it could to avert that result. Why? It looks very much like the agency was bent on having the little girl placed with foster parents and then adopted by them. Readers of this blog know that the federal government pays sizeable sums of taxpayer dollars to states when that happens. Readers also know that at least one former state senator from North Dakota told NPR that that federal largess had a huge impact on how the state’s child protective bureaucracy treated kids. All of a sudden, more children were taken into care by the state than ever before.
State social workers took Angela Donnellon’s niece from her biological mother, who had a history of drug use, when she was 2 days old in 2014.
The infant was placed in foster care by the state’s Department of Health & Human Services’ Child Protection Services division with a couple who has a criminal history and who were rejected for a foster care license through Livingston County Catholic Charities in Howell.
“(The state) purposely placed her with this family so they would be able to adopt her,” Donnellon said. “They never gave the birth mother or (birth) father a chance or anyone in the family a chance. …
“They stole the baby and told the foster parents there would be an immediate surrender and they’d get to adopt her,” the Oakland County woman added.
And what foster parents! These were people with fairly extensive criminal records. They’d been evicted from their home four times and were in danger of losing their current residence in a bankruptcy proceeding. So placing a two-year-old with them might well have meant she’d be without a home.
The allegations included that the state revoked the foster mother’s nursing license after she was convicted of a drug-related offense and that the foster father had a criminal conviction for embezzling less than $20,000. The allegations against the couple also included convictions in multiple counties for writing bad checks.
[Attorney Heather] Nalley and [Attorney Dennis] Brewer told the court the foster parents also could lose their home and/or vehicle at “any time” because they had failed to follow the terms of their bankruptcy.
Brewer also noted that the foster father was wanted on an outstanding warrant from Tuscola County at the time of 2015 hearing and Nalley noted the couple had four landlord/tenant filings where they were evicted from their homes.
Those were all reasons why the Livingston County Catholic Charities had actually refused the parents who wanted to foster and then adopt Donnellon’s niece a foster care license. Catholic Charities had apparently investigated the would-be foster parents and found them lacking. The DHHS apparently didn’t investigate them at all.
“The response from the (DHHS) is, ‘We didn’t know this,’ but they should have known it at the time,” Brewer told the court.
Cavanaugh questioned a DHHS worker about her office’s knowledge regarding the foster couple’s background, and she said, “The majority of this is news to me,” although she was aware the department was investigating an alleged “narcotics violation.”
But that’s not all. The child’s father, Donnellon’s brother is so mentally impaired that he’s been found by a court to require a guardian to handle his affairs. That guardian is his sister, Angela Donnellon. But when it came time for him to file an affidavit with the court – something he was incapable of doing on his own – DHHS caseworker simply bypassed his guardian. The same person also bypassed Donnellon when notice of a court hearing was required.
All of that suggests more than mere incompetence on the part of the DHHS; it also suggests a strong desire to place the little girl in foster care preparatory to adoption. That in turn raised an interesting issue in the mind of attorney Brewer.
The prosecution boiled the situation down to one thing: The infant’s biological family and the foster family both wanted to adopt her and the prosecution argued that the child should not be removed from the only home she’d known at the time without first holding a hearing to prove the allegations.
“How many times has (CPS) been asked to move a child on less allegations?” Brewer countered.
“It blows my mind you’re being told we need a hearing,” he added. “The state doesn’t care how long a child has been with a parent. If the home isn’t appropriate, they want the child removed immediately. … The same standard applies no matter what side you’re on.”
Good point. If parents are even suspected of abuse or neglect, their children are out the door in the blink of an eye. But when criminal, unlicensed foster parents have part-time possession of a child, all of a sudden the state’s story line changes. All of a sudden, we can’t take the child from her only home.
The state’s behavior is entirely consistent. In Donnellon’s case, it invariably erred on the side of getting the child away from its blood relatives and into the hands of strangers. So avid was DHHS to do that, it ignored obvious signs that its chosen foster parents were unqualified.
Justice prevailed in the end, not because of DHHS, but in spite of it.
At the end of the court proceeding, [Judge Miriam] Cavanaugh, who appeared upset about DHHS' lack of knowledge regarding the foster family, ordered the infant be removed from the foster family and placed with Donnellon, who plans to adopt her niece.
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