by Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Pam has come to dependency court on behalf of Jacob, who is four years old. Pam wants the judge to arrest Jacob’s mother.
Pam is a volunteer in the Court Appointed Special Advocate program in juvenile dependency court in California. These CASA volunteers are independent advocates for the child during any court procedure.
“Children’s lives are ripped apart here,” Pam told me, just before the day’s session.
Jacob’s mother, let’s call her Tina, is 28.1 She has a decade-long crystal meth addiction. It’s kept her bouncing in and out of court-mandated rehab beds and jail cells.
When Jacob was two, Tina’s probation drug test came up dirty for meth. She got her longest sentence: three months in jail. Jacob went into foster care. His first placement was considered an “emergency stay” — in the home of a foster family for only a few days, because Pam had no relatives nearby. Then he was off to another longer stay with a foster couple.2
While Tina served jail time, Jacob’s social worker told the foster parents that the adoption was going to be a “slam dunk,” because women like Tina rarely stay clean and was pretty much destined to have her parental rights terminated.
It’s fairly hard to lose custody of your kids in Los Angeles County. In some ways, you have to really try at it. The process takes no less than 14 months.3 It can — and often does — last up to two years. Drugs, negligence, abuse, and felonies: None of these speed up the process of losing parental rights. They typically do the opposite; slowing down the process to give a parent every opportunity to sober up and straighten themselves out so they can be functional caretakers.4 The place where custody decisions are meted out, or delayed, is the juvenile dependency court.
The mandate of California dependency court is to “fix” families through social services so children can be reunited with their biological parents. If children are not placed with their biological families, then they become wards of the state (through long-term foster care or group homes) until they are adopted or age out of the system.5
In some cases, a child’s welfare and parental custody are at odds.6 To put it more bluntly, some parents are beyond redemption and their child’s life would be greatly improved if he or she were taken away. A judge makes this decision based on what social workers, foster parents, volunteer child advocates, siblings, relatives, parents and sometimes probation officers say. In some California counties, to be a judge in dependency court is a considered a position of great prestige. In others, it’s a rung down the ladder from traffic court.
The great bulk of CASA volunteers, rigorously trained to navigate the labyrinths of dependency law, are mothers, like Pam, with grown children. The margin of maneuver granted a CASA is quite wide: Everything from making sure a child gets placement in a reading proficiency program, to arranging free transportation to therapy sessions, to getting foster parents to purchase cleats for a child who is interested in sports.
Jacob’s adoption was not, it turns out, a slam-dunk. “But she surprised everyone,” Pam said. “Tina took it all very seriously. She wanted to be a good mom.” After Tina did her jail sentence, she attended a dispositional hearing in dependency court. This is the first step the court takes. A case plan was presented by the social worker: in order for Tina to get custody of Jacob, she would need to go through rehab, stay sober, and take parenting classes.
As Tina’s drug tests continued to come up clean, she was granted visitation rights, visiting Jacob weekly. Pam would meet Tina and Jacob in the park for her monthly visit with the two. Tina’s recovery foiled the foster parent’s petition to adopt and “there was a lot of anger from the foster parents,” Pam said. “They were sure they’d be able to adopt Jacob, and as Tina got better, they saw him slipping away.”
Tina was living in a homeless women’s shelter but she had six months sober when Jacob was put back in her custody. Jacob was still considered a ward of the state but for the time being, he was in the care of Tina.
Tina, Pam, and Jacob continued having biweekly visits. “Sometimes I’d meet them in the park or I’d come by the shelter,” Pam said. Tina’s next hearing in dependency court — a 12 month review to determine if she was still sober and therefore able to regain full parental custody of Jacob — was another six months away.
Six weeks after Jacob came to live with Tina at the shelter, Tina tested positive for meth and was kicked out. Tina called Pam and left a voicemail saying she and Jacob would not be able to make their biweekly visit. Then she turned her phone off. The two have vanished. “I’m worried she took him to Arkansas,” Pam said. “That’s where Tina’s only family is from.” If Tina did take her son across state lines, then she could be charged with kidnapping.
If and when Tina resurfaces she will be immediately arrested. Her parental rights will be permanently terminated. Then where will Jacob go? Jacob’s former foster parents, who Pam says were excellent, will be barred from housing or adopting him. That’s because their initial adoption petition was thrown out by the court as a result of Tina’s initial recovery.
So when he turns up, Jacob will be remanded to the foster home of strangers.
The judge issued the arrest order, as recommended by Pam. “I hope he’s resilient,” the judge said of the four-year-old, before gaveling the court to adjournment.
1. All names have been changed.
2. There are three options in the first days of a child being removed from a parent: the first and most prefered is with a nearby relative (who has no felonies and a relatively safe home for children). Next is a short term foster home, meant only for a few days stay. If neither can be found in time then the child goes to an emergency shelter.
3. There are about 8 to 10 hearings that have to take place before a parent’s rights are terminated. If done according to schedule that process takes 14 months to complete.
4. Reunification as a primary goal has become increasingly controversial in Los Angeles. The state of California gives incentive bonuses to private foster care agencies if they reunify children with their biological parents. While this is a noble idea in theory, what has occurred in L.A. is children being reunited prematurely with their parents who are incapable of keeping their children safe.
5. The ideal scenario for a child in foster care is that they are place with no more than two foster homes. But if a child is not adopted within the first year of being in foster care, they are more likely to average ten to twelve foster home placements. The longer a child is in foster care, the less likely they are to be adopted.
6. Parents are entitled to a trial and due process when there is suspicion of abuse. For instance, on the same day I attended dependency court, a very distraught couple were in court because medical staff suspected them of abusing their infant. The infant had fallen and fractured her arm. The couple rushed the baby to the hospital, where one of the doctors filed an abuse complaint with DCFS. The baby was taken out of the couple’s home that evening and placed with an aunt. Multiple people came into the testify that their hearing that the couple were not at all abusive — that they were very devoted and affectionate parents — and that the injury was a result of an accident. The judge explained that he believed their testimony and put the baby back in the parent’s care, and ruled on that there was no substantiated abuse.
7. This of course assumes that they were placed with a relative or foster family that was not abusive or neglectful.