by Michelle Chan
How does Child Protective Services balance a child’s best interests with the perceived risk that the child may have contact with an alleged “offending parent?” Who makes and un-makes decisions that send children off to live with strangers, all too often in far-away communities and on an adoption fast track?
Child welfare and modern adoption laws were developed in the mid-1800s based on the premise that certain people were unfit to raise children and that those children were better off with more affluent families. “Child-saving,” they called it. As it turned out, “child-saving” often had more to do with poverty, or “dependency” as they used to call it, than actual abuse, neglect or parenting deficiencies.
How does Child Protective Services balance a child’s best interests with the perceived risk that the child may have contact with an alleged “offending parent?”
Although these “poor” children were sometimes adopted for love or for reasons such as infertility and philanthropy, they were too often treated as property and used as child labor. Some would argue that not much has changed.
The developmental and emotional benefits of kinship placement – when children are sent to live with relatives after being removed from parental custody – is rooted in notions of blood and belonging, needs and rights, and family and cultural preservation. According to the Fostering Connections to Success Act and Welfare and Institutions Code §361.3, CPS is supposed to make efforts to place children with relatives before placing them in foster or group homes. In addition to being in the best interests of children, it is also more fiscally conservative.
Unfortunately, children are frequently deprived of the basic human right to be raised by suitable and loving family members with whom they had preexisting relationships, because CPS claims that doing so would give the alleged offending parents access to their children.
Jennifer Ford has been fighting since February of 2015 to have her grandson placed in her custody. She passed the kinship home assessment, submitted five character letters, passed the criminal background check, and took parenting classes and a foster care class – all of which resulted in her approval for kinship care.
Moreover, she clearly demonstrated that she had a preexisting relationship with her grandson. She attended visitation two times a week with the child and was not late once. During these visits, she poured out her soul to the child. “On his first birthday,” she said, “We threw him the nicest party they said they ever had at that CPS office.” Jennifer beamed with pride as she shared the story of balloons and cake and casseroles and cookies, the story of the little boy who was loved and wanted.
In the end, none of Jennifer’s efforts or good intentions, nor the best interests of the child, mattered.
Jennifer’s dedication towards getting her grandson back in her custody is further motivated by her personal experiences growing up.
She never knew her birth mother. On the surface, Jennifer appears to have been quite fortunate. She was taken in by middle-class foster parents who later adopted her. Her adoptive father, Silton, was retired from the Navy and worked at the Hunters Point Shipyard and City of Palo Alto maintenance. Her adoptive mother was an LVN and cosmetologist.
Silton was a kind and protective man. When Jennifer speaks of him, tears of pure joy well up in her eyes as fragments of childhood memories flash through her mind.
Except, Jennifer reports that her adoptive mother, Norma, never loved her and was extremely abusive. “It was almost like she was jealous of me, like the more my father loved me, the more she wanted to hate me,” Jennifer said. “She beat me with her hands and with her words. Bitch this, bitch that, she said. She called me bitch so much, I started to think that was actually my name.”
Silton did all he could to protect Jennifer, even going so far as to rent a room for her temporarily with family friends during Jennifer’s adolescence. However, even if he was sometimes successful in keeping Jennifer away from Norma to avoid beatings, the pain of feeling unloved and unwanted burned a hole in Jennifer’s heart.
It is these memories that Jennifer holds close, because she does not want history to repeat itself. She knows first-hand the risks and vulnerabilities adopted children can face and does not want her own grandson to be raised by a foster or adoptive family.
On Oct. 25, 2015, Jennifer’s son, Warren Morrison, got in trouble with the law. Jennifer reports the incident as a “fight gone wrong.” Now, Morrison is incarcerated at McGuire Jail in Redwood City and is doing hard time for first-degree murder.
When Morrison’s parental rights were terminated, so were all of Jennifer’s grandparents’ rights. “I just don’t understand how this can happen. How our family can just totally lose my grandson like this,” she says. “CPS fought against awarding me custody because they were worried I would allow my son to see my grandson. Well, my son is locked up now and he’s going to be there for a long time. Why does (the child) have to suffer? Why does (the child) have to be raised by non-relatives who may or may not love him like I will?”
When Morrison’s parental rights were terminated, so were all of Jennifer’s grandparents’ rights. “I just don’t understand how this can happen. How our family can just totally lose my grandson like this,” she says.
Jennifer is determined not to give up hope. She has joined Parents Against CPS Corruption, or PACC, to fight for grandparents’ rights and increased efforts towards kinship placement in child welfare proceedings. “This fight is not only in honor of my grandson, but also in honor of my adoptive father and my incarcerated son. I believe that, one day, justice will be ours,” she says.
Call to action
PACC is putting together class action lawsuits to address various issues in multiple counties in Northern California. A class action is a legal procedure that allows many people with similar grievances to join together and file a lawsuit. The lawsuit is filed by a lead plaintiff (or lead plaintiffs) on behalf of a larger group and can be brought against a county for abuses or violations of law.
Social change can be enacted through the civil courts. PACC is urging everyone who currently or previously has had a CPS case to please get in contact. People may not be aware that they or someone they know qualifies.
PACC is still fighting for greater oversight and accountability, fair hearings and trials, due process and greater efforts towards timely reunification and kinship placement. For advocacy, court attendance, peer support or to find out more about their cause or class action lawsuits, visit ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 415-815-9415, or follow them on Twitter @ProtestCPS.