Friday, November 4, 2011

Lawmaker: Mom’s struggle to keep her children shows problems with DCFS

By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake Tribune

Price • This is what Jennifer and Brandon Stark brought in a plastic grocery sack as goodbye gifts for their four boys: a few rocks for their oldest son’s collection, puzzles, piggy banks, crayons and letters expressing their love.

On Oct. 25, a week after a judge terminated their parental rights and 14 months after the state Division of Child and Family Services first investigated the couple for alleged drug use and neglect, the Starks saw their sons for what may be the last time.

The case has caught the attention of parental rights advocates and a state legislator who says it exemplifies the way the court and child welfare systems work against parents, especially those with limited resources.

"She lost her children and her major crime was she didn’t have a job and a driver’s license and was therefore dependent on her husband," said Rep. Christine F. Watkins, D-Price. "I just found it astonishing in a very negative way."

Among troubling aspects of the case, according to Watkins, is the amount of time the parents were given to regain their children, the children’s placement with foster parents rather than relatives and the high rate of children in foster care in the region.

The Starks plan to appeal the placement of their boys, who range in age from 6 years to 7 months, with foster parents and say their attorney is optimistic. But odds of success are slim: 97 percent of parental rights terminations are upheld, according to DCFS. The division doesn’t track appeals challenging placements.

Watkins said she began investigating the DCFS Eastern Region, which includes Carbon and Emery counties, about 18 months ago after being overwhelmed with complaints from constituents.

"If you don’t do everything they tell you to do, exactly as they tell you to do it, then you’re done," said Watkins. "They will take your kids. It is tragic."

"There were a lot of things very wrong here," she said. "I worked with the state director, and a lot of changes have been made."

Among those changes: appointment of a new region director about nine months ago. But Watkins is still concerned and is already drafting legislation to address what she sees as flaws in the system. Among them, she says, is the lack of funds put into home services to help families stay together.

Last year, DCFS spent $94 million on foster care and kinship support services, but just $7 million on in-home services to help families correct problems that put their children in jeopardy.

Brent Platt, DCFS director, said he believes with a new director in place, the Eastern Region office is "moving in the right direction, but it takes time. He [the new director] is working closely with the Price office and trying to rebuild that relationship with the community."

It is unclear what, if any, effect the region’s problems played in the Stark case. The division’s stated preference is that in-home services be provided so that children remain with their parents and, if that is not possible, that they be placed with relatives.

Liz Sollis, DCFS spokeswoman, said she couldn’t legally comment on the Stark case specifically other than to note it is the juvenile justice system that ultimately decides what happens in child welfare cases.

That leaves the Starks, who provided some documentation to back their account, and their supporters to tell what happened.

The allegations • The Starks, both in their mid-20s, had three sons in August 2010 when police and child protective service workers first investigated them for alleged drug use and child neglect.

At the time, the Starks had been together for eight years and married for more than two years. Jennifer Stark, pregnant with their fourth child, was employed at a care center while Brandon Stark looked after the kids and ferried his wife to and from work. It was alleged they left the children alone during those trips, which they deny.

When the Starks refused to take drug tests, the state placed their three sons in a temporary shelter. The couple quickly relented.

As with many child welfare cases, some facts are disputed but not this one: as alleged, Brandon Stark periodically used marijuana, methamphetamine and opiate drugs. Over eight months, Brandon Stark was drug tested at least 34 times; about half his tests were positive. Jennifer Stark, in contrast, went through more than 16 drug tests, and each was negative.

After his first positive test, DCFS required Brandon Stark to separate from his wife and children and get drug treatment; he moved in with a friend, got a job at a fast-food restaurant and entered drug counseling.

The couple had moved out of their rented home, and Jennifer had lost her job. Her service plan was to find a place to live, get a job and sign up for counseling and peer parenting support.

Right from the start, Jennifer Stark, whose siblings and parents live in Ohio, asked her caseworker to consider placing the children with her sister, who was more than willing to take them.

"But we never heard from her," said Kim Kisseberth of Findlay, Ohio, one of Jennifer Stark’s nine siblings.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Stark found a place to rent, paid for by her husband, and in late September the boys were returned to her care; about a month later, Brandon Stark was allowed to move back in with his family.

The setbacks • As winter set in, Brandon Stark’s $8 an-hour job wasn’t enough to cover rent, utilities and $50 a week for his drug treatment program. The Starks moved to a cheaper place but were still underwater financially.

"It was either rent for us or it was his drug treatment," Jennifer Stark said. Brandon Stark dropped out of the program and couldn’t afford a second $140 drug assessment the state requested, she said. He soon relapsed.

DCFS drew up a new service plan allowing Brandon Stark to stay with his family as long as he re-entered drug treatment. A caseworker suggested he find a better-paying job or take on a second job to pay for the program and the family’s monthly expenses, according to the couple.

By mid-March, when Jennifer Stark gave birth to their fourth son, Brandon Stark had stopped participating in drug tests and was once again barred from living with his family. Jennifer Stark said she agreed to a new service plan only after the caseworker threatened to remove her children.

"I had no job, no means of transportation because I don’t have my driver’s license and was living far from everyone I know, trying to handle four kids by myself and stay as mentally stable as I could under the conditions," Jennifer Stark said. The caseworker’s advice? Rely on friends, family and the community for childcare, transportation and support, she said.

Jennifer Stark said she was told "something was wrong with me that I was with someone like [Brandon] and hadn’t seen the signs" of his substance abuse.

In early May, a caseworker found Brandon Stark at the home — though Jennifer Stark claims he had just stopped by to drop off a rent check — and the division again took custody of the four children, placing them with a foster family in Orem.

"We were told there were no foster families in this area equipped to take four kids," Jennifer Stark said — something DCFS acknowledges is a problem in rural areas.

A new service plan was drawn up, which looked much like the others: drug treatment for him, increased independence for her through learning to drive, getting a job, counseling. A permanency hearing, when decisions are made about whether to continue efforts to reunify a family, was set for late August.

"I was looking for jobs as much as I could," Jennifer Stark said. With public school out until fall, there was no chance she’d finish driver education and get her license in time.

And Brandon Stark’s plan "failed right off the get-go," Jennifer Stark said. He spent six weeks in jail this summer after falling behind in restitution payments in connection with a March 2010 misdemeanor shoplifting offense, according to court records.

For Jennifer Stark, the result was lost financial support and transportation to job interviews and to visits with their children in Orem. The state suggested she move into a women’s shelter.

"I was offended," Jennifer Stark said. "I had a roof over my head and Brandon was in jail at the time. So why?"

Still, she agreed to check it out.

"I was told I would have to cut all ties [with other family], on top of losing my kids, my husband and everything," Jennifer Stark said. "I didn’t want to lose my mother-in-law and what little support I had. They couldn’t guarantee transportation for anything. They said I would get a month [at the shelter] and then they’d try to find me a place to go. I said no."

But the decision to stick with her husband and stay out of the shelter proved to be more strikes against her, Jennifer Stark said, resulting in caseworkers describing her as "co-dependent."

It’s one of the issues that irks Watkins. "Are we helping families or are we destroying families?" she said.

Kisseberth said she’d offered over the years to help Jennifer when her relationship was in trouble, but her sister would "always say we were raised to not divorce that easily, that she was going to hold it together. She’d said, ‘So what if I leave him and one day my boys are coming to me saying, ‘Why did you take us away from our dad?’ "

The outcome • By June, the Kisseberths had completed all the steps necessary to be a kinship placement and were on track to be certified as foster and adoptive parents by the August hearing, which the state helped pay for them to attend.

The Kisseberths had remodeled their home, completed a home inspection, background check, foster parenting classes and interstate paperwork, and lined up daycare and other support. They had never met the three youngest children and hadn’t seen the oldest boy since he was a toddler but began building a relationship through weekly phone calls over the summer. They also sent a photo album introducing them to their extended family.

Kisseberth said that at the August hearing, the Starks’ caseworker, the state’s attorney and the couple’s attorney all recommended that the boys live with them.

Jennifer Stark said she acknowledged at the hearing that neither she nor Brandon were currently able to provide for their children — an admission they were told would increase odds of their children being placed in the custody of her sister.

People who had worked with the Starks and their children submitted letters describing them as well-bonded and, in Jennifer’s case, as making "a good amount of progress in a short time to be reunited with her children."

But days after the August hearing, 7th District Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen sided with the children’s guardian ad litem, who recommended the boys stay with the foster family with whom they had spent the previous four months and who are interested in adopting them.

"When they take the kids away from us, and put them in foster care, they don’t have any ties, they don’t know the foster parents," Jennifer Stark said. "What would have been the difference with my sister and her husband?"

On Oct. 18, the Starks’ parental rights were terminated. Days later, they bid their boys goodbye.

"Yeah, I made some mistakes, but I don’t feel it was bad enough to lose our children forever," Brandon Stark said.

His wife, he said, did "everything in her power and it was still not good enough for the state because she chose to stick with me. ... All we can do is hope and pray for the appeal to go through and hope her sister will get them so we can see them again."

Their last meeting with the boys was just a half-hour, and they were warned by a caseworker to not make promises, to not talk about the future, to leave their sons’ questions about when they might visit again unanswered, to leave Jennifer Stark’s tears unexplained.

That left them with these words: "Just, ‘Love you,’ " a weeping Jennifer Start said afterward. " ‘No matter what, we love you.’ "


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