The Fight to Keep Families Together in Child Welfare

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Griggs also has documents showing that the kids didn’t actually attend school in Philadelphia for more than a week after they were removed, raising additional questions about why they were placed with strangers. And at least as egregiously, the city appears to have ignored a court order that would have allowed their grandmother to be considered to care for the kids.

Griggs’s mother, who wants to be referred to using the initials R.A. to protect her anonymity, would have taken the children in at start of the case. She was told, however, that she couldn’t because she had a protective services report against her from more than 20 years earlier.

R.A., it turns out, is one of thousands of people in Pennsylvania who have been placed on the child abuse registry without cause or sufficient notice. In R.A.’s case, a child had thrown a toy, striking her daughter in the head, way back in 1998, probably causing someone at the hospital to file a report that never even yielded an investigation. R.A. only learned that her name was on the registry in 2015, after a background check to clear her for work as a home health aide. She quickly challenged the record, which a judge ordered expunged. But the report, almost six years later, was still used to deny her kinship care of her grandkids.

“It’s very simple,” says Attorney Janet Ginzberg, who oversaw many cases like R.A.’s at CLS. “The report should not have been used against her.”

The Department of Human Services does maintain a phone line for families to call with complaints. Sometimes families report that they called the line, and no one called back. The Griggs say they called, too, but got almost no reaction. In what could be a coincidence, after a list of questions about Griggs’s case was emailed to DHS, she was assigned a new caseworker and supervisor. Someone from the complaint line also emailed, to suggest this change in workers should satisfy her. Later, someone from the case manager’s office complained to Griggs that she called the complaint line at all.

All the parents involved in the cases described in this two-part series agreed to waive their privacy rights, so that Next City could review their case files. But DHS responded to a request indicating the parent’s agreement by stating that the agency will “not discuss specific cases.”

Reporting on dependency cases is notoriously difficult. Dependency courtrooms are closed to the press and public, ostensibly to protect the privacy of children, though the larger if unintended effect is that the public remains in the dark about the court’s workings. Even when transcripts from hearings are obtained, they are generally of such little depth that they might only capture fragments of the case. Still, the families in this story presented documents when they could to back up their accounts. For instance, reading through the Judge’s orders that gave custody of Talea Griggs’s children to DHS, backs up Griggs’s sense of confusion about why the agency has taken her children at all.

“The child is without proper care or control, subsistence, education as required by law,” reads the court document, “or other care or control necessary for his physical, mental, or emotional health, or morals.”

To a mother whose children were well fed, not sick, and attending school, the order can’t help but confuse. Is the problem “care,” “control,” “morals” or some other reason(s) in the vague multiple choice selection listed? The courts move too fast to put such things on paper.

Having People on Your Side Who “Get It”

In the face of such blockages, the interdisciplinary family defense model offers a reliable countermeasure—and would certainly aid the Griggs.

The peer parent advocate and social worker provide crucial emotional and practical support. “Losing your children is deeply traumatic for the kids and their parents,” says April Lee, a peer parent advocate at CLS in Philadelphia. “I’m able to say to people, ‘I’ve been through this’ and be that support for them to express their emotions.”

The value is easy to see: Lee can hear parents’ stories and truly commiserate, then offer practical advice on the steps they must take to get their kids back. “Being able to say to them, ‘These are the hoops you have to jump through,’ as many times as they might need to hear it when they’re dealing with so many emotions, is really important.”

The dedicated social worker is a help in working with case managers. “It’s incredibly helpful to have that social worker for the parent to speak with,” says Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney at CLS’s family advocacy unit, “someone whose sole job is to hear the parent out, and serve as a kind of interpreter for what might be asked of them by the caseworkers. There are a lot of rules and jargon and if you have not encountered it before, it can be very confusing.”

The removal of Griggs’s children from their aunt’s house, for instance, might have been averted by the holistic defense. A social worker assigned to aid mom and her family would likely have been in dialogue with the caseworker, heading off concerns and keeping the family apprised of needed paperwork, permissions and deadlines.

The most dramatic component of the holistic defense model, though, is the quality of lawyering families receive. The low fees those court-appointed attorneys receive force them into taking on high caseloads to earn a living, and this limits how much energy they can spend on any single case. Court staff also urge speed, say family attorneys, as a hedge against their own lengthy case lists, and can punish zealous parental attorneys for clogging up their schedules by calling their cases last, causing them to lose a day waiting in court.

“The system operates with a kind of ruthless efficiency,” says Finck. “Because caseworkers are generally overworked, with big caseloads, and the courts have overloaded dockets, a lot of times speed and efficiency become the overriding value, rather than helping families… and exploring these cases in real depth.”

Philly dependency court judges hear an average of 15 or more cases per day, leaving judges and court staff with just 20 minutes to hear each case across an eight-hour shift. This can cause even private attorneys, eager to stay in the judge’s good graces, to keep their witness lists and range of issues tight.

Talea Griggs has used two attorneys thus far — a wheel attorney and then a private attorney she hired — but according to her, neither lawyer brought up placement with kin as an option or the flagrant disregard of R.A.’s expunged record in court.

“I think, strategically, a lot of attorneys will look at reunifying the parent with their child as the ultimate goal,” says Sarah Katz, a Temple law professor who directs the Family Law Litigation Clinic. “So they don’t fight over placement [with kin], in an effort to kind of pick their battles and avoid taking up too much time. But obviously that leaves families with no recourse.”

Attorneys at CLS, which runs Philly’s small-scale version of the holistic defense model and is known for fighting every case vigorously, take a different tack.

“The parent is the client,” says Creamer, at CLS. “But placement is important to the client, obviously, and we can absolutely call family members as witnesses to help contest it. And we do.”

The Buies, too, might have been helped by this, pushing back against the villainization of Elizabeth Buie or perhaps bringing Bert Buie to the witness stand. What the record shows, however, is that Anita Buie and her family never really stood a chance, as a system supposedly built to keep families together and place kids with kin whenever possible, all too often demonstrates more dedication to expediency than compassion.

This story continues in Part Two, “In the Push to Keep Children With Kin and out of Foster Care, Are Families Heard?

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