Big Government Foster Care: A Toddler's Case at Children's Court
It is the late afternoon, and foster parent Jeanette Ledesma sits in the waiting room at the Ed Edelman's Children's Court in Los Angeles. This morning, concerned about being late, Jeanette had left her Lancaster home at 6:00 AM for the two-hour trip. She was relieved to be on time, and to have found a scarce parking place nearby.
Jeanette is the foster parent of a little girl named Patricia. Jeanette is in court today because she wants to tell the judge how infrequently Patricia's birth mother visits. The birth mother has seen Patricia five times in the past year. Patricia has lived with Jeanette since birth, and Jeanette wants to adopt her before she turns three years old in a few months.
The waiting area is large and noisy. It is packed with children at play, shouting bailiffs, chatting grandparents, whispering lawyers, and the sounds of electronic toys.
Foster children, transported here by bus, are confined to a small play area. They play with beat-up toys as they wait for their hearings. The children are cared for by ladies who wear a special T-shirt, designating them as room monitors who watch over foster children.
The children are here today in case they are required to testify or make a statement. Frequently, however, the foster children will simply play in the area, take a break for lunch with the monitors, and be transported back to the foster home late in the day. Many of the kids will return to the foster home with little knowledge of the proceedings or of what is to happen to them.
Court-appointed lawyers, the lowest-taxpayer-remunerated attorneys in the county, sit across from clients. Some of them are dressed casually. Many sit at tiny tables meant for children, as there are not enough proper tables or chairs to go around.
The lawyers glance, perhaps for the first time, at files regarding the accused birth parents' cases. The attorneys will confer for ten or fifteen minutes with their birth parent clients. They will then represent the birth parents in the brief five- or ten-minute hearing, which will decide the immediate future of the family.
Birth parents and extended families seem to occupy every chair along the sides of the waiting area. The families patiently wait for their names to be called remind the author of the DMV, or even of a county emergency room on a Saturday night.
The crowds at children's court are thickest in the morning; they thin out considerably by late afternoon. The wait can be six or even eight hours, but most cases are disposed of after three or four. A case name can be called at any time up until 3:00 or 4:00 PM.
There is a cafeteria downstairs, but many families are afraid to use it. The birth families don't want to miss the cattle call (and that's what it is, really) and wait months for the next hearing. So the families wait, often with quiet desperation, apparent by tapping feet and paying sharp attention when the bailiff calls out a new name.
A missed or postponed hearing may mean that children stay in foster care much longer. Not always a bad thing when one considers the alternative. Yet if you ask the abused and neglected children what they want, the majority will tell you they want to return home, no matter what parents have done. And some parents have done horrible things to their children.
There was a movement from some journalists and politicians to open up hearings to press and other interested media. But children's court hearings are still generally closed, ostensibly for the protection of the abuse victims who are entitled to confidentiality.
Even when the hearing is open, however, some frightened attorneys have requested a postponement, knowing full well that there are few reporters or other media available to do a proper vetting when the hearing is rescheduled.
Without daylight, there is no public check or audit on county incompetence, mediocrity, or malfeasance. And without transparency, bad things may happen. A child may be returned to Frankenstein or kept apart from a Mother Teresa. And nobody beyond the immediate players will ever know.
Sometimes cover-ups under the guise of confidentiality occur.
One of the most egregious instances of neglect and ineptitude by a county official only became known when CSW (County Social Worker) Rocia La Voie tried to contest a two-week suspension she earned by allowing a child to be tortured for years.
Ms. La Voie failed to investigate obvious signs of abuse which her own department believed she should have noted. La Voie barely visited the horrible home, and she overlooked obvious indications that something was unconscionably wrong.
Like teachers here in California, it is harder to fire a county social worker than it is to send a man to the moon. It was only La Voie's protest of a minor two-week suspension that allowed us a tiny window into internal DCFS machinations.
Finally, after over six hours, the bailiff shouts the last name of Patricia, Jeanette's foster child. Jeanette wants the birth parents' rights cut. She wants to finally be allowed to adopt the child who has lived in her home since birth over two years ago.
Anything may happen at the hearing. Patricia's birth parent may be reunified with her daughter. Or contrarily, the abusive birth parent may have her rights cut, leaving Jeanette free to adopt Patricia.
For accused birth parents, the process goes something like this:
You will have seven to ten minutes to make your case...maybe. Actually, much of the time, you won't be allowed to speak. Rather, your modestly paid lawyer will speak for you.
The attorney probably reviewed your file earlier that day, and the two of you may have spoken for a few minutes about your case in the noisy waiting area, surrounded by children and families.
At the hearing, the judge will glance at your file, often for the first time, while listening to attorneys. The files include reports written by county social workers (with input by therapists, teachers, and foster parents), who describe your child's progress in foster care. The reports also include your own progress and efforts toward becoming a fit parent.
Often the birth parent will need to complete some type of parenting education, or turn in a series of clean drug tests. The birth parent may also need to show proof of counseling, which includes family therapy, anger management, domestic violence, or participation in a chemical dependency program. She may have completed many of these programs while incarcerated.
Or perhaps, like many, this birth parent did not have to bother with any such programs. She kept tweaking, barely visited her child, and somehow had the wherewithal to remember the time and address of her child's court appointment. In which case, maybe she gets her child back anyway, in spite of everything.
To be fair, though, some parents will have done everything the court and the county social worker has asked. In such cases, the birth parent may or may not be allowed to reunify with their child. It can seem like a crap shoot.
Like good people everywhere, some birth parents will move mountains and walk through fire to reunify with their children. Birth parents will have formed bonds with the foster parent and worked as a team with the county and others to become good parents.
In some cases, the birth parent may have removed themselves from any person or environmental influences which caused their children to be taken. All of the above happens (especially in training videos), but not nearly enough. Unfortunately, some birth parents will make the choice to live with a perpetrator instead of with their own children. And this is not uncommon.
As Patricia's foster parent, Jeanette has no standing in court. Jeanette has waited several hours to tell the judge about the birth mother's missed appointments and infrequent visits.
Patricia's appointed lawyer has spoken little to Jeanette and hasn't returned phone calls. Patricia's CSW communicated much better, but Jeanette remains frustrated by the lack of information.
The hearing begins, and Jeanette watches the birth mother enter the court room. Jeanette speaks with the sympathetic bailiff, who tells her to quietly raise her hand during proceedings. The judge may allow her to speak.
Jeanette and the writer enter the room and sit quietly. The judge glances at the reports and asks to hear from the attorneys.
The birth mother's attorney speaks first. He asks that the status quo of foster care be continued. The lawyer notes that the birth mother will do her best to stay sober and attend parenting classes. He asks the court to delay until the birth mother can reunify with her daughter.
Then Patricia's attorney speaks. He notes it has been close to two and a half years, and that the toddler has been with the same foster parent since birth. It is time to sever parental rights.
Jeanette tentatively raises her hand to speak. At one point the judge glances in her direction. He sees the raised hand but does not acknowledge it. However, within five minutes from the start of the hearing, the judge tells both attorneys that the birth mother's parental rights will be cut.
This is the result Jeanette had hoped for. It means that she may begin the formal adoption, hopefully within the next year.
On the way out of the court room, Jeanette tries to speak with Patricia's attorney, who listens only for less than a minute. Then the attorney politely gestures for Jeanette to leave the court room. The attorney has another hearing with a different child in a couple of minutes.
Outside, Patricia's birth mother approaches Jeanette, who has left Patricia with her adult daughter. The several-hour wait would have been too difficult for a toddler.
The birth mother is sad, and there are tears in her eyes. She wanted to see Patricia, perhaps for the last time.
The birth mother approaches Jeanette and whispers quietly for a few seconds. After years of missed visits, lies, and dirty drug tests, Jeanette has little patience. She quickly walks away.
The writer asks Jeanette what the birth mother had said to her. Jeanette shakes her head, obviously frustrated and angry.
The birth mother had asked Jeanette if Patricia could keep the birth mother's last name after Patricia is adopted.
"Not in a million years," says Jeanette.