To the unfamiliar eye, the courthouse seems to be simply a lackluster building with no memorable features. Nestled in between a variety of blank buildings it is quite forgettable and easily evade attention. However, once the daily bustle of activity begins it impresses upon observer the seriousness of the business conducted within its walls.
In some cases the court does bring bearings of cheer and good fortune. Within the hallways of the second door are courtrooms that hear adoption matters in which children await placement with a “forever family” who vows to treasure and love them for the rest of their lives. Families come in all smiles and laughter as they are formally united under the presence of a judge. But that is just about the limit of such warm and cuddly feelings. The entire first floor addresses matters of a far more serious and grave matters. Within the courtrooms on the first floor, dependency hearings are held. Dependency hearings address the matters of supposed child abuse and neglect in which parents are stripped of their custodial rights and must adhere to certain procedures in an attempt to regain custody.
The courtrooms themselves appear to be a paradox of the situation. Beside the judge are shelves lined with stuffed toys and board games that appear to mock the parents’ grief with cavalier venues. Children’s drawings line the walls along with colorful brochures designed to educate children about the court process. Yet despite the mild interior filled with playful children’s drawings redolent of lost childhoods tensions run high in the court courtyard. Attorneys meet and confer with their clients minutes before their hearings. If sitting quietly, one can glean moments of the conversations. Parents and attorneys exchange their concerns and confusion through desperate whispers. Words concerning rehab, alleged neglect and abuse, and detained children slip through the constant babble. It is a sorrowful sight to behold. As the parents fears and tensions escalate escaping in various forms of crying or gasping voices, their counsel reminds them that their deportment is paramount.
"The court hears, sees, and judges all. Do not give DCF any further reason to pull custody and rights"
It is also quite a sad place as there are parents who truly have had their children removed due to ongoing criminal activity or substance abuse. Some parents had case files filled with numerous rap-sheets that made the court file hilariously fat. They continued violating the conditions of their parole and returned for more court dates and added an even fatter case file. But there is laughter to be had in this courtroom.. It may appear stereotypically comical on the outside but the reality is far from it.
Putting a face to the case numbers
Having been specially invited, my personal journey into the mire of the system begins with the first hearing of many; the detention hearing. This hearing scheduled addresses the matter of whether the DCF detained their children lawfully. For new parents facing detention hearings, each parent receives a copy of a court document called the petition. This document outlines in detail the allegations that the parents face and the reasons for why DCF believes the children are in danger. These allegations are often severe in nature and the document itself ranges from 20-40 pages. For any parent especially new ones, this time can be extremely alienating and aggravating as emotions are their freshest and rawest.
Within the cavernous first floor, Rachel E meets her court appointed counsel. Her counsel, an older woman calls out names locates her and hands her a copy of the 45 page detention report and petition filed by DCF. Her eyes widen in shock as she scans the allegations. Within its voluminous sheaves of documentation, reports from family and friends detail false allegations of supposed abuse and mental illness. Reports trickle in about delusions and how the child should be moved out of state to maintain distance from the mother lest the child be “tortured” and “shaken to death”. The mother tearfully hands the report back to counsel as she began to prepare Rachel E for the upcoming hearing. She reminds that the mother that the nature of the first hearing is to determine whether the child is in immediate danger of "at risk of physical and emotional harm, damage, danger and death" if they remain in the mother’s custody. As her counsel departs to attend another hearing the mother collapses and confides her sentiments.
“It’s as if you are treated as a criminal… a child molester or murder and no one is willing to believe you. They just read the paperwork and make a prima facie assumption about your entire life. How is that fair at all? I would… could never do such things to anyone let alone a child. Why would they say such things about me?”
Soon the mother’s case is called and she shuffles in with her court appointed counsel in tow. As she enters the bailiff directs her past the bar to a chair at the defendant’s table. Amoung the table are quite a number of other people whom she fails to recognize. To the far left sit DCF case workers and their counsel, county counsel. In the middle sits minor’s counsel. Adjacent to her is the minor’s guardian ad litem. Behind them the minor’s CASA worker; a special worker designated to help the child navigate the court process. Finally, at the left end of the table sits the mother and her counsel. A few moments pass before the judge enters the courtroom and calls order. As the judge begins the proceedings, he stares intently at the computer monitor throughout the entire hearing. Not once did he afford the mother a glance. Rachel E's hearing was brief.
7 minutes brief.
Rachel E’s child was ordered to be detained out of her care and placed in a nondisclosed foster care home and Rachel E ordered back to court in a month for her jurisdiction and disposition hearing. The judge added that the mother have supervised visitation for two times at week clocking in at two hours each. This future hearing would be a formal reading of the charges against her and her one and only chance to contest the validity of the facts in the petition. Regardless of how serious the nature of withholding custody was, Rachel E’s hearing was brief and intended that way as her hearing was one of dozens that day in the courtroom. The few dependency court-appointed attorneys spent the entire day in and out of the courtroom as they met with a steady stream of desperate and scared parents.
As of this abrupt hearing, the clock began ticking as Rachel E would have to comply within her year long deadline to comply with her court ordered case plan … or have her parental rights forever terminated.
A few weeks transpired before Rachel E attended her first family team meeting. These meetings designed in an effort to help bridge the gap between social workers and parents would address the issues that preventing Rachel E from “safely parenting and providing for her children”. Children family team meetings would attempt to neutrally discuss and plan the mother’s plan of action to ameliorate her underlying issues. However, as she would soon discover, it would be a harrowing and emotionally draining meeting that would Rachel E
Rachel E woke up in that day filled with a sense of dread as she was unaware of what awaited her during that meeting. Around her lay an assortment of pictures of her newborn daughter. Some of her swaddled, nursing, and a few of Rachel E holding her. These pictures evoke sadness and an empty hollowness that could not be contained. Following the detention hearing, the San Diego County Department of Child Welfare Services had scheduled Rachel E's first family planning meeting in which a team of members whom she had never met would discuss her case plan and what requirements she would need to have in plan before regaining custody of her daughter.
Case plans are plans set forth by the child welfare agency that spell out the specific supports and programs the parent needs to partake in order to remain in compliance with the court and the agency.
Within the brightly lit restroom of the child welfare office, Rachel E clad her narrow body in a professional outfit aimed to impress the impassive case workers. In part she hoped to disguise her despair and depression that threatened to settle and make home within her thoughts. Once she was beckoned into the large intimidating conference room, she was greeted by the sight of six foreign members. Each one was supposedly present on behalf of her and her child. There were mental health professionals for her and her child, caseworkers, and other members vested in her daughter's welfare.
The goal: reunification??
As the meeting began to take off, various issues were brought up and discussed as points of concern. Amoung one of the most frequently cited was the her mental health concerns Written in the report were concerns of the mother's delusions driving her to believes all sorts of untruths such as believing that breastfeeding was a fabricated experience or that hidden rage would lead her to shake the child to death. All of these damming statements built up as a well of tears behind her eyes. As the mother fought back tears and defended such outrageous statements, she was only met with hostile defensive statements citing that the experts knew far better than her. The latest evaluation performed by a competent medical doctor cited that her mental illness was a moot point and symptoms were minimal. Never mind the fact that her last mental health episode was over three years ago.
"I was told that it's ok and there is no shame in having a severe mental illness and that I just needed to accept that fact and that I needed meds. It would be ok if that was true but when it simply is not and when they say it in such a rude and degrading manner... then I begin to feel overwhelmed." the mother recalled tearfully after the meeting.
Add insult to injury, Rachel E added to me in confidence that she felt extra vulnerable having recently birthed her firstborn. "When you are a new mother the emotions run high. Like you feel very tender and exposed. Each feeling is amplified and I dunno [sic] like I needed a lot of love during this time. I really wanted my own mother there to comfort me and remind me that I was an ok person. And when you have all of these people who don't know me or my story, it makes it far more miserable. Most new mothers get to bask in the warm soft feelings of loving and bonding with their newborn. And here I am separated and shamed. How am I supposed to react".
Soon after the detention hearing or so Rachel E begins to attend her visit in a month and a half since the child was taken. Each visit proceeds in the same fashion. She arrives and waits for her child to arrive by a transporter. Once they arrive, she takes her child into a nondescript room with a few toys and chairs and begins to care for the child. She changes her daughters diaper tenderly whispering how much she misses her and how much love she holds for her. Once her diaper has been changed, she swaddles her child within several soft blankets and walks around the room in circles in an attempt to sooth the child.
Sometimes her daughter wails and little comforts her. Other times the baby falls asleep on her chest oblivious to the unusual circumstances and basks in her mother's warmth. It feels entirely unnatural. "Who ever envisioned motherhood as this? Being able to love your child 2 hours a week?"
Every single move she makes is carefully documented and sent to the courts for later inspection. Whether she was attentive to her child's needs, whether the baby was calm or upset, or whether she brought the correct supplies. Either way, at the end of the hour, she must willingly hand her child back to the worker to be taken away to her alternative care giver.
"It hurt a lot the first few times. I found it difficult to hand my only child away into the arms of strangers and know that I could not see until 7 days from then. What mother wouldn't struggle with that?" With each time it became a little easier but the hurt never eased.
Several visits and weeks later, Rachel E. arrives at the courthouse on an early Tuesday morning to challenging the allegations surround her and her daughter. She imagined that this hearing would be the beacon of shining light in which the truth would be at least revealed..
The entire hearing took under 10 minutes....
As Rachel E sat that in shock after the hearing she sorrowfully recounted how her counsel had failed yet again to properly defend her. There was no cross examination or even witness testimony. No one had asked her what she believed to be true. All that had occurred was a simple exchange of words in which the judge adjudged that she continued to be a danger to her child based on the false allegations. Allegations that no one had attempted to dispel. Her voice was another of the many silenced by the system. She walks out shell shocked and worn out. Her eyes dulled from the tedium of fighting for basic dignity and respect. She sighs softly and states, "Well I am in it for the long run."
As Rachel faces the next six months of preparing to ready herself to complete the various tasks outlined for return of her child, she mentally readies herself for months of impartial treatment from those in charge of her child. Years or more face her and her child.
Even though Rachel E's case does not represent every single DCF case, it does represent an overwhelming number of cases, The overworked, underrepresented, and reviled parents who struggle to reshape their parents after such a rude intrusion on their lives.
Here's the harsh unspoken truth that rings true for many of these families: What the county DCF has done to her, her child, and her family unit is far more damaging than any purported mental illness.
part ii to come soon...
Juvenile Dependency and