Thursday, December 29, 2011

Poverty is an inadequate reason to take children from families - Michigan

By Vivek Sankaran

Detroit Free Press Guest Writer

A loving father sees a judge place his children in foster care because his Walmart job doesn't pay enough, and he and his child live with his sister.

Another father can't get his two boys out of foster care because he can't afford to buy them separate beds.

And a baby is removed from her parents' custody and placed with strangers simply because the family is homeless -- despite the parents' attempt to place the baby with family friends, instead.

All three Michigan families share a common denominator: poverty.

The foster care system exists to protect children from being abused by their parents. Yet, every day, children are separated from their families and placed in the system for no better reason than their parents' low income.

A short conversation with lawyers, caseworkers and judges bears this truth out. And in a state like Michigan, where the child poverty rate has increased by more than 60% in the last 10 years, recent cuts in public assistance and a staggering economy have only made things worse.

The Legislature, courts and the Department of Human Services must take immediate actions to address this growing problem. Here are steps they should consider taking:

• First, Michigan's Legislature should join other states around the country and revise current laws to clarify that a child cannot be placed in foster care -- nor can a parent's rights be terminated -- solely because of poverty. As noted by the California Court of Appeals, "Indigency, by itself, does not make one an unfit parent."

• Second, courts must enforce federal laws that require the Department of Human Service to make "reasonable efforts" to prevent a child's removal from his or her home. When dealing with poor families, this must include providing services such as emergency cash and housing services, day care or assistance in paying utilities, which may be the only barriers preventing the family from being able to take care of itself. Making these types of efforts is far cheaper than paying for children to live in the homes of licensed foster parents.

• Finally, the DHS must offer comprehensive training and enact policies to help its caseworkers, hundreds of whom are brand new, understand the difference between poverty and neglect. Too many caseworkers seem to be confusing the two and, as a direct result, Michigan children face a risk of being unnecessarily separated from their families.

The unfortunate reality in our state is that some families will continue to struggle for as long as the economy does.

But we need to remember: Society's failure to eradicate the evil of poverty can never justify taking children from their loving parents.

Vivek Sankaran is a clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School and the founder of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.


CPS caseworkers tell of own lives in system


What Gaby Valladares remembers most about many past Christmas holidays is receiving a drugstore alarm clock. Year after year, for five years in a row.

It was not a gift she particularly wanted, but it reminded her of one thing: She was in foster care. The clock was a present from her foster families that was provided to them by a child placement agency.

"It's one of the reasons, to this day, that I can't use an alarm clock," she said.

Valladares, now 27, spent almost all of her teens in foster care in the Houston region until she "aged out," becoming too old to be in Child Protective Services.

The one-time foster child went on to make her career as a CPS youth specialist in Harris County, helping teenagers who grew up in the same environment she did.

She mentors teens who age out of CPS, trying to help them cope with life after years of foster care.

It is not uncommon for people who went through the system to find careers as adults in the agency or with other social service organizations, said Estella Olguin, CPS spokeswoman for the county.

Some, like Valladares, say that working for CPS allows them to use their personal experiences to make a difference in others' lives.

CPS custody at age 7

They can also help improve an agency they were intimately familiar with for years.

"I do what I do because of what happened to me," said 23-year-old Megan Davis, a CPS caseworker in the intensive investigations unit in Harris County.

Davis said she and her twin sister were placed into CPS custody at age 7 after suffering physical abuse by their stepfather.

She recalls at least three caseworkers coming to her home to investigate her parents when she was a girl. The caseworker she remembers most is the one who made a second visit and finally removed the twins from the home.

Davis and her sister were fortunate enough to be placed in the same foster care home, and by the time they were 14, both had been adopted by the same family.

"I can honestly say she (the caseworker) saved me and my sister's life," Davis said. "It was the fact that she didn't forget us. It was nice to finally be remembered."

That experience not only led Davis to become a CPS caseworker herself but also shaped the way she works with the children assigned to her. For one thing, she says, it has taught her to spend time building a rapport with each child and to look for the same signs of abuse that she herself exhibited.

"It also always reminds me not to remove (children from parents' custody) too quickly," she said.

Although Davis has many cases - at one point she had at least 42 - she remembers every child's name.

"Because I don't forget them, the way my caseworker didn't forget me," she said.

Valladares also knows that her own experiences help her make better connections with the young people she works with.

"At least they can know, I may not feel what you feel, but I can relate," she said.

By the time she was 15, Valladares and her younger brother and sister were living in a Houston homeless shelter with their mother.

Eventually, a CPS caseworker was called to the shelter and the children were removed from their mother's custody. The decision was mostly based on the fact that the children had been out of school for two consecutive years, Valladares said.

Siblings separarted

The caseworker tried hard to keep Valladares and her siblings together, but the children were split up not long after being taken away from their mother.

Valladares ended up living in five foster care homes in less than a year.

It wasn't until she ended up in a home in La Porte that she was able to finish high school. Because she had missed so much school, however, Valladares said she started her freshman year at 17.

Many people tried to convince her that she should get her GED, but Valladares decided to stay in school.

"I had so many obstacles to get there, and once I had the opportunity to knock high school out of the way I was like, 'I'm going to do this,' " she said.

While many children age out of foster care at 18, Valladares stayed in the system until she finished high school at 20.

Sharing her struggles

After graduation, Valladares moved to Houston and began attending classes at Texas Southern University. She worked graveyard shifts at McDonald's to supplement an allowance the state began paying her when she left foster care.

In 2006, she went to work for CPS when the youth specialist positions were created in the agency.

Valladares works at the The Houston Alumni and Youth Center, a transitional facility where teens aging out the system can come for assistance.

Part of her job at the H.A.Y. Center is to help youngsters in foster care understand what resources are available to them after they age out.

One of the most important parts of her job is being open about sharing her own struggles in foster care, and in life afterward.

"The more personal, the better," Valladares said. "I feel like sometimes they need to look at me not as a (CPS) worker, but as someone who takes pride in having made it out of the system."

Juanetta Smith, 27, is another CPS employee who spent several years in foster care. Smith, however, had no aspirations of making a career at CPS.

"In all honesty, I did not want to work for CPS, because I had known CPS from a negative perspective as a child," she said.

Smith said she entered foster care at age 14 after being taken from her parents because they were cocaine addicts.

After going into state custody, Smith had a difficult time in several foster homes. At one point, she even ran away and ended up spending time in a juvenile facility.

She eventually was placed with a foster family near Austin. That turned out to be a good match, and she stayed with the family until she aged out of the system at 18.

Destiny at work

After graduating from college, Smith filled out several job applications, and CPS was the first to call her back.

She gave the job a chance, and found that she loved it.

"I feel like I'm destined to be here," she said.

Smith started out as an investigator, but now works in the foster and adoption department at the agency in Harris County. Her job is providing the training to help prepare people who want to become foster or adoptive parents.

She enjoys being able to offer people her perspective on what life was like in foster care, as well as explain the problems she had coming into it.

"I tell them, 'Anything you want to ask me, I am open to answer,' " Smith said. "I want them to know that these kids coming into their homes are going to have some issues, a lot of issues similar to the things I went through."


Reasons unclear for fatal CPS decision to return a child to her parents

Blogger Note:


It is obvious that CPS does not know a good home or good parents from bad ones.

By Brad Branan

Giovanni Melchor was just a year old when he drowned in the stagnant water of his family's backyard swimming pool in late 2006.

The family's single-story, purple-trimmed home in south Sacramento seemed well maintained on the outside. But inside, a neighbor said, the house was infested with roaches and city inspectors later cited Giovanni's father for an unsecured pool fence, the lack of a door closing off the garage from the pool, and a host of other health and safety code violations.

Not even three years later, Giovanni's sister, Yeinira, who had been removed from the home and then returned, was also dead, a victim of medical neglect by her parents.

Case files from Sacramento County Child Protective Services, recently obtained by The Bee, show how the 2-year-old girl died. Court records show that her parents, Jose Jaime Melchor, 35, and Elizabeth Melchor, 29, pleaded no contest to child endangerment charges in July and were deported this year.

What the records don't explain is how the agency made the decision to return the child to care that led to her death.

County officials say they cannot discuss the case or the records because of confidentiality laws.

But without documentation, evaluating the agency's actions is difficult, said Ed Howard, senior counsel at the Children's Advocacy Institute in San Diego, who reviewed Yeinira's file at the request of The Bee.

"If we take them at face value – that there is no documentation for reuniting this child with a very troubled family – then this is a fiasco," Howard said. "You can't do this job without documenting your reasons for making such a decision."

Specifically, CPS records for Yeinira do not show whether the agency conducted an assessment about the risk of returning her to the home – using what's called the Structured Decision Making tool – in violation of its own policies.

"In all of its reports, the (CPS) Oversight Committee has recommended comprehensive and consistent use of the tool," said Gina Roberson, co-chair of the committee. "It means social workers are using the best practices in trying to prevent child abuse."

The CPS Oversight Committee, echoing the complaints of experts and child welfare advocates, has repeatedly found the agency's social workers have made questionable decisions and serious errors in high-risk cases such as the Melchor's. That assessment was repeated in other reports this year, including one by the California State Auditor.

CPS released two sets of files on the Yeinira case. The first contained 12 pages and no information about the family's extensive record with CPS. The second, released after The Bee requested it under the California Public Records Act, had 124 pages.

County Health and Human Services Director Ann Edwards said the release of the incomplete file was unintentional. But neither set answers the questions about the fatal decision to return her to her parents.

A troubled history

The year Giovanni died, the Melchors were living in a working-class neighborhood on Center Parkway. They had five children.

Neighbors, attorneys and a social worker who had contact over the years with the Melchors, an immigrant family from Mexico, said the family needed help. They said Elizabeth Melchor seemed incapable of caring for her children and, according to court records, Jose Jaime Melchor physically abused his wife.

Five reports of alleged abuse or neglect involving the family were made to CPS prior to Yeinira's birth in July 2006, court records show.

Some of the reports involved the father, who allegedly had a drinking problem and abused his wife, according to court and CPS files. Other reports involved the mother, accused of hitting the children. Two of the reports were upheld by CPS.

Yeinira had a heart defect and a cleft palate that made feeding her difficult. Less than a month after she was born, CPS received another complaint, noting the mother wasn't learning how to take care of her fragile daughter. The child was still in the hospital and at risk of dehydration if not properly nourished.

Melchor "admits she is depressed and overwhelmed," according to an unidentified reporter quoted in the CPS case file. The mother and the father were refusing the training needed to feed Yeinira, according to the report. The source recommended placing Yeinira in a special foster home for her medical needs.

The complaint was upheld. CPS started monitoring the child, but allowed her to go home with her mother. Yvette Washington, a home visitation worker with the county's Birth and Beyond program, was assigned to counsel the family.

"She seemed withdrawn," Washington said of Elizabeth Melchor in an interview with The Bee.
Washington said she brought a public health nurse to the family's home to explain the risks of having a pool with stagnant water and a small and unsecured fence.

The mother didn't seem to take the matter seriously, Washington said, adding that she stopped providing service to the family in 2006 because Melchor was unreceptive.

Giovanni drowned in October that year. Melchor told police she was taking care of Yeinira, and left her other children unattended in the garage for about an hour, records show. Giovanni apparently wandered from the garage and into the pool.

Police found the missing garage door and the unsecured pool fence. Neither parent was charged. CPS also initially declined to take protective action, determining that an allegation of neglect was unfounded, court records show.

That reluctance befuddled some of the Melchors' neighbors.

Andrea Garcia, who lived next door to the family, said the Melchors were troubled. Her interactions with the family usually came when something went wrong, she said, such as when the children were left outside in diapers in cold weather.

The Garcias watched the other Melchor children while the parents dealt with the emergency of finding Giovanni in the pool.

Andrea Garcia said the children were filthy. She said she entered the Melchor home for clean clothes and saw cockroaches everywhere.

Her father, Jesus Garcia, said he had worried about the safety of the Melchor children under their mother's care."We never understood why CPS let her keep the kids," he said.

Taken away, brought back

Ten months after the drowning, the four Melchor children became dependents of the county as a result of abuse and neglect, court records show.

In Yeinira's case, her parents repeatedly failed to bring her to doctor's appointments, CPS records show. She missed eight appointments in seven months. Doctor's notes indicated a growing concern about her well-being.

In foster care, she had surgery for her ailments and had recovered well. But in May 2008, less than two months after her surgery, Yeinira returned to her parents' home, joining her siblings who had been reunited with them several months earlier.

To place a foster child back in a parent's home, CPS must convince a dependency court judge that the conditions that originally made the home unsafe had been fixed. For Yeinira, CPS needed to ensure the issues at home had been addressed, said Bill Grimm, senior counsel at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, who reviewed the child's file at The Bee's request.

"Given all that was going on before, there was a pretty high threshold for them to resume care," Grimm said.

The lack of documentation calls the agency's decisions into question, said Grimm, adding that returning Yeinira home without doing a risk assessment would have been a serious error, if that's what happened.

Without care

After Yeinira returned, she did not see a doctor for about a year because the family didn't have insurance, her father told Sacramento police investigators in 2009.

During that time, Yeinira had a seizure, her mother told police. She said she put rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball and placed it under Yeinira's nose to revive her.

A couple of months later, Yeinira had another seizure. Yeinira "fell back, arched her back, and her feet twisted" as she fell onto concrete, her mother said, according to the investigative report. She again used rubbing alcohol and an onion to revive Yeinira.

The problem returned the next day, as Yeinira "fell forward, and her head hit the wall and her eyes went up," her mother said.

Again, Melchor turned to an onion and rubbing alcohol to revive her daughter. Her father was holding Yeinira in his lap when the mother noticed Yeinira wasn't breathing, she told investigators.

The father brought her to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, south Sacramento, minutes away from their home. Two days later, April 20, 2009, Yeinira died at Kaiser's Roseville hospital because of a lack of oxygen in the brain, an autopsy found.

The Coroner's Office said physical abuse also may have contributed to her death, noting that she'd had a broken arm and other recent injuries.

In court documents, Dr. Michael Myette of Kaiser said he could say with "95 percent to 99 percent certainty that if the parents had accessed care when she began seizing, she would still be alive."

One of the Melchors' attorneys, Lori Calvert, said the couple grew up without doctors and that Elizabeth Melchor had been taught to revive her mother, who also suffered from seizures, as she had revived Yeinira.

The Melchors faced a number of obstacles, their attorneys said. They were illiterate in their native Spanish, couldn't speak English and were poor.

The prosecutor handling their neglect case agreed and cited those factors when explaining to a judge why she sought approval for a plea agreement resulting in a two-year jail sentence for the Melchors, the lowest under sentencing guidelines.

The judge agreed to the sentencing recommendation. The Melchors had served about a year in jail awaiting trial and, with various credits, were released in July after pleading no contest to the charges. They were deported to Mexico shortly afterward, without any of their children. Their attorneys said the children were put up for adoption by the county.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mother says her autistic son was put in bag as discipline at school - Kentucky

Blogger note:
What do you bet not much becomes of this unless there were a lot more adult witnesses to the event than is noted in the article? Not much usually happens when a school abuses your child.

From Kiran Khalid

(CNN) -- A Kentucky woman says special education teachers put her autistic 9-year-old son inside a net ball bag as punishment at his school.

The mother, Sandra Baker, told CNN Monday that she was called to her son's elementary school on December 14, because he was being unruly.

"I saw a big green bag with the drawstring pulled and the (teacher's) aide sitting next to him," Baker said. "As I approached the bag, I heard Christopher say, 'Who's out there?' "

The head of Mercer County public schools did not directly address Baker's accusations in a statement, but Superintendent Dennis Davis acknowledged that, "The Mercer County School District is aware of recent reports of conduct directed by staff toward a student in one of our schools."

Citing federal and state confidentiality laws regarding students, David said the district could not confirm or deny "the specific allegations which are being raised in the public."

But he added, "Upon learning of the allegations, the school system reviewed the incident immediately, and the matter is being handled consistently with School District policies and with State and Federal law."

"The employees of the Mercer County Public Schools are qualified professionals who treat students with respect and dignity while providing a safe and nurturing learning environment," the statement added.

Baker, meanwhile, said Monday that she was stunned to arrive at the school to find her son trapped in a bag.

Baker said the bag was made of net and, in addition to her son, it contained dozens of small plastic balls like the ones found in inflatable bounce houses for children.

She said she demanded that her son be removed from the bag immediately, and she became more alarmed to see the aide struggle with the tied knot to free the boy.

"That shook me up because what if he had gotten sick in there, or there would have been an emergency and no one could get him out?" Baker said. Her son emerged from the bag "sweaty and scared," Baker told CNN. She added that her son, who is in the school's program for autistic children, may not have known whether he was being punished or was participating in a "game" of some sort.

Baker said she and her husband met with school officials the day after the incident, but she said the couple has no choice other than to return their son to the same school after the holiday break.

The incident has led to an online petition on a website calling on the school district to fire the teacher or teachers responsible and to institute a comprehensive training program in the school district. More than 10,000 people scattered through all 50 states endorsed the petition during the weekend, according to the website

New study suggests autism starts in the womb

The alleged incident in central Kentucky also has ignited the outrage of advocates for autism awareness.

"People with autism are especially vulnerable, and some may either be unaware that they are being mistreated or may be unable to effectively communicate that mistreatment has occurred," said Lisa Goring, vice president of the organization Autism Speaks.

"It's critical that we do everything possible to prevent mistreatment and abuse, by arming parents and children with key safety information, as well as improving our ability to detect and report any instance of wrongdoing."


Monday, December 26, 2011

Several DHS workers have been prosecuted - Oklahoma

Some of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services workers caught in wrongdoing at work ended up being prosecuted, too.


Some of the DHS workers caught in wrongdoing at work ended up being prosecuted, too.

The DHS worker who stole Christmas gift cards was charged with a misdemeanor, petit larceny.

Deborah Jean “Kasey” Parrish, 55, of Cherokee, was fired in August 2009 after pleading guilty.

A bank had donated nine Visa gift cards to be Christmas presents for foster children. They had been placed in gift bags to be handed out along with other presents, records show. A worker discovered four were missing three days before Christmas in 2008.

Parrish claimed she found four $50 cards on Dec. 17, 2008, in the DHS employee parking lot in Alva. She admitted using the cards to make personal purchases at J.C. Penney, Hobby Lobby, Cato and Walmart.

Parrish pleaded guilty in June 2009 to four counts of petit larceny and was put on probation for 30 months. She had to pay $1,649 in fines, fees and court costs and $200 in restitution. She was a social services specialist who had worked at DHS for 14 years.

In a discharge notice, she was told: “Your actions in using the Visa gift cards that belonged to someone else demonstrate you cannot be trusted to complete your job duties in the ethical and honorable manner required.”

Stole from elderly

A DHS worker who stole from elderly DHS clients was fired on Nov. 25, 2008. She eventually pleaded guilty to three felony charges of exploiting a vulnerable adult.

Debra Maxine Roberts, 53, of Chelsea, is on three years' probation. She also was required to serve a 30-day term in the Rogers County jail last year and to make restitution.

“I regret any harm which I have caused these individuals,” she wrote in a statement for a presentence report.

Prosecutors allege she stole $4,497 from an 84-year-old man, $5,905 from a 74-year-old mentally disabled man and $900 from an incapacitated 73-year-old man.

Roberts, an adult protective services specialist, had been appointed a temporary guardian for the men. She had access to their financial accounts so she could pay expenses such as nursing home bills.

Fictitious accounts

Two former DHS social services specialists are serving 10 years on probation for creating fictitious food stamp accounts.

Tsa E. King, 41, of Midwest City, and Douglas Ray Howard, 59, of Oklahoma City, pleaded guilty this year to two counts of conspiracy and two counts of computer fraud. They were fired last year.

Howard acknowledged they obtained more than $20,000 worth of food stamps through their fraud. Each was required to pay $10,346 in restitution.

In one instance, they used the identity of a California man who has never been to Oklahoma, a DHS investigator reported. The man was described on a DHS computer as needing food stamps because he was homeless and later because he had two newborn twin girls. He actually did not have any infant daughters. Howard had once known the man.

In the second instance, they used the identity of Howard's cousin, who had died at age 15 in California in 1967. They created fictitious children for the cousin, too.

Medicaid fraud

A fired child-welfare specialist, Eileen Filer-Whitson, is serving five years on probation for Medicaid fraud.

While at DHS, she held a second job as a private social worker. Prosecutors allege that at her second job she submitted false claims for Medicaid payments. Prosecutors said she lied in the claims about counseling children who actually received no services.

Filer-Whitson, 47, of Luther, pleaded guilty to the felony charge and was ordered to make $35,000 restitution.

A DHS investigation also found she had claimed to be working simultaneously at DHS and her second job 165 days. She was fired in March 2008.


Sheila Stogsdill


Some DHS workers allowed to keep jobs after child deaths - Oklahoma

Agency audit discovered ‘substantial violations,' blatant irresponsibility by child-welfare workers in three deaths


DHS workers are not always fired over mistakes that contributed to children's deaths.

In 2008, a Craig County child-welfare specialist, Jamie L. Veysey, was suspended without pay for only five days after a 3-year-old boy died.

A supervisor, Debra L. Grace, was suspended without pay for 60 days.

A DHS audit after the death found “substantial violations” of DHS child-welfare policy.

DHS workers had returned the medically fragile boy to his mother from foster care in February 2007. The boy, Blake Ragsdale, died of natural causes less than a month later.

He was placed with his mother even though she did not have a job, a telephone or a car, records show. The mother had failed to take care of him properly a year before during a reunification attempt.

He was in foster care because he had tested positive for methamphetamine at birth.

DHS found the workers failed to notify a judge the boy was being reunited with his mother, failed to make a safety assessment of the mother's home beforehand and failed to put any services into place to help the mother with the boy's care.

DHS found Veysey failed to check on the boy enough times after the reunification. DHS also found both did not notify the proper DHS authorities of the death.

Veysey resigned in 2010, records show. Grace no longer handles child-welfare cases, a DHS spokeswoman said.

Beaten to death

A Beckham County child-welfare specialist, Liberty Michelle Carter, was suspended for 15 days without pay in 2009 after a young boy, Ryan Weeks, was beaten to death. Carter was disciplined for her “action/inaction” in the case.

Ryan, 3, died on Nov. 4, 2008, after DHS placed him back in his mother's Elk City home from foster care. The mother's live-in boyfriend eventually pleaded no contest to first-degree murder.

A foster mother had pleaded with the agency not to return Ryan to his mother's home because he had returned from visits there with bruises. The foster mother complained to a DHS county director that Carter would not listen to her. DHS found Carter had concluded in July 2008 that the foster mother likely was making false allegations.

DHS also found Carter failed to properly look into an injury to the boy in September 2008 and failed to address Ryan's mother's fear that her boyfriend was overwhelmed.

Carter resigned in December 2010, the DHS spokeswoman said.

Medically fragile

An Oklahoma County child-welfare specialist, Glen E. Marshall, was at first offered more training after a medically fragile baby died a few days after he failed to get the child help.

“Your failure to ensure the safety of this infant demonstrated a blatant disregard of your responsibilities as a child-welfare specialist, poor judgment and egregious lack of risk assessment skills,” he was told.

Marshall was fired in November 2009 — more than a year after the child's death — after he continued to mishandle cases and lied to a supervisor, an assistant district attorney and an Oklahoma City police detective, the disciplinary records show.