September 25, 2018
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How 2 Maine moms regained custody of their kids after child welfare cases

Stock photo | BDN
Stock photo | BDN
In 2016, some 380 children exited foster care to reunite with parents who had lost custody of them through child welfare proceedings. Gov. Paul LePage has proposed legislation that would remove reunification as a priority in those proceedings.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff
Updated:

At first, Angela was confused when a Child Protective Services caseworker knocked on her door and started looking into allegations that her two preschool-age children weren’t safe.

She was living with an abusive partner at the time, and he had just been arrested. The caseworker determined Angela, who was then pregnant with her third child, had failed to protect her children from an unsafe person.

Before she realized how serious the situation had become, the state had placed Angela’s two children with their biological father. Angela was in family court and beginning what would become a 2½-year process to regain custody of her children.

She had grown up around domestic violence, substance use and mental health challenges.

“These were not things that I looked at and was like, ‘These are problems,’” said Angela, who was then in her mid-20s. “It had been my experience my entire life at that point. They were very normal.”

But they were of concern to the local police department that reported her family to Child Protective Services after her partner’s arrest, to the child welfare caseworker who worked with Angela, and to the family court that laid out the conditions she’d have to meet to regain custody of her kids.

Angela did regain custody — after more than two years of intensive therapy, supervised visits with her children, domestic violence support group meetings and parenting classes. When her children returned home, Angela’s family became one of the hundreds each year who are reunited after intervention from Child Protective Services.

Fifteen years later, two of Angela’s children have completed high school. One is in college. The youngest, still in high school, is excelling academically. Angela is working full-time after earning a college degree.

“I wish it hadn’t happened,” she said recently of her experience with Child Protective Services. “But if it didn’t, I don’t even really want to think about what life would be, because it wouldn’t be pretty.”

These sorts of successes are common in cases where there aren’t clear-cut instances of serious child abuse.

Multiple studies have shown that in “marginal” child welfare cases — in which one caseworker might push for parents and children to be reunited while another might not — the children who end up with their parents tend to fare better in the long term. They’re less likely to commit crimes and become teenage parents than comparable children who end up in foster care, and they’re likely to earn more money later in life.

But as Maine’s child welfare system has come under scrutiny this year following the deaths of two young girls, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, Gov. Paul LePage has put family reunification in the crosshairs.

Through a series of internal changes, LePage’s administration has removed more children from their parents’ custody this year than last year. Caseworkers speaking on the condition of anonymity told the BDN in July that they’re instructed to err on the side of removing children from their parents’ homes.

[Maine is removing more kids from their homes — often to stay in hotels]

In 2016, about 380 Maine children left foster care to reunite with their parents, or about 41 percent of all children who left foster care that year. About 400 children were adopted out of foster care, according to federal welfare statistics. The percentage of Maine children who left foster care to rejoin their parents was actually the third lowest percentage in the nation in 2016.

One of five bills LePage submitted recently to rework the state’s Child Protective Services system would downgrade reunification’s status in state law. While the law currently designates family reunification as a priority in child welfare cases where it’s feasible “as a means for protecting the welfare of children,” LePage’s legislation would merely require that caseworkers make “reasonable efforts” to “rehabilitate and reunify families.”

A legislative committee Monday opposed that change in a 5-3 vote, and the proposal is expected to come before the full Legislature on Thursday.

For Angela, a Child Protective Services process geared toward reunification with her children became an opportunity — albeit a challenging and shameful one — to grow as a person, improve as a mother and develop a different outlook on life.

“I just think about that, two generations from now, with my own children’s children’s children, how amazing it is that they didn’t have to spend their life breaking a cycle, and they can just live freely, contributing to the world in a positive way,” she said.

Terrifying, shaming

Jessica was in the hospital for a medical problem during her first encounter with a Child Protective Services caseworker. Family members had notified the state that her months-old infant might be unsafe due to Jessica’s substance use and untreated mental health problems.

Ten years later, Jessica said the outside intervention from a government agency helped her family work through a challenging period, and she’s become a better parent as a result.

But to go through 10½ months of working to regain custody of her child was “terrifying,” Jessica said.

“It’s incredibly shaming. It’s not often as adults, unless you’re in this corrective or punitive system, that you really are in the spotlight in front of not just an entire court and a judge, but 10, 12, 15 family members, mental health professionals, substance use treatment professionals, who are all there to judge what you have done and how well you are fixing your problems,” she said.

Jessica and Angela both agreed to share their stories of losing custody of their children, then regaining it, with the BDN. In order to protect their privacy and the privacy of their children and other family members, the BDN changed their names and withheld some details about their cases. Even though both women regained custody of their children years ago, many people in their lives have no knowledge of their involvement with Child Protective Services, they said.

“When you’re done with this experience, you do not want to wear the badge of former child welfare mom,” said Jessica, who lives in southern Maine. “That’s not a title anybody’s proud of, ever.”

The BDN verified their stories with people familiar with their cases.

Through the 10½ months of her child welfare case, while her child lived with family members, Jessica had to attend therapy sessions, court-supervised visits with her child and parenting classes. Each month, Jessica, family members, service providers and her child welfare caseworker gathered for a family-team meeting — then a new practice in Maine — to assess Jessica’s progress.

The idea was for Jessica to start using healthier and more helpful behaviors, and for her to keep using them in the long term.

“It’s hard to stay hopeful” through it all, Jessica said. “A court has an obligation to keep an eye on what has happened to your child when all you want to do is focus on how it’s getting better, how it’s never going to happen again, but that’s a really long process to prove it to the court.

“So, it’s exhausting and really draining to be in a position, rightfully so, where you have to prove to a lot of people that you’re safe enough to be a mother.”

At each meeting, the caseworker showed the team a poster board with a timeline displaying everything the court had required Jessica to do to regain custody, what she had accomplished already and what she had yet to do. It proved a helpful tool in keeping Jessica and her family focused on the end goal.

“If that hadn’t been there, we very easily could have all been stuck in, ‘This isn’t moving fast enough. We need to make other plans,’” Jessica said. “That was an enormously successful tool for my family.”

Her caseworker proved adept at helping everyone on the team — including the family members who first alerted Child Protective Services to potential danger — arrive at an agreement. Jessica worked with the same caseworker throughout the case, and they built a rapport.

“I never had a feeling like I would not be able to be a mother,” Jessica said. “It was just, when would somebody allow me to do that again?”

‘Empty house’

While Angela’s older children first went to stay with their father, they later ended up in foster care. Angela’s youngest child was born by that point and placed in a separate foster home.

Angela, who then lived in a rural area of eastern Maine, saw her children every week for about two hours at the office of the supervised visitation agency for her area. A social worker watched the visit unfold, taking notes on Angela’s parenting. They met in an office building in a room with office fixtures — not an environment that felt like home.

Her older children knew enough to realize they weren’t going home with their mom at the end of these visits. They asked questions, but Angela had been instructed not to discuss the ongoing Child Protective Services case with her children.

Her children knew when the visiting hours were drawing to a close, she said, “and so behaviors start or emotions are high. Many times would be very emotional, when they had to leave or I had to leave.”

As the end of their child welfare case neared and it became clear that Angela’s kids would return to their mother’s home, the regular, court-ordered visits became in-home visits.

Angela spent much of her time during her child welfare case working nights at a gas station, not only to improve her situation financially but to keep her mind off her “empty house with three little bedrooms that were empty.”

“I didn’t have to juggle child care to work 80 hours a week, so I did it,” Angela said.

‘Serious humility’

Court-required parenting classes proved a foundational part of Jessica’s journey back to being a mom.

“That class was amazing, what is still the foundation of my parenting today,” she said.

In therapy, she learned to look at herself critically — and realized it was OK to be imperfect and acknowledge it.

Jessica had to go through the same series of court-ordered, supervised visits at an office building, where she had to prepare bottles in a break room and lay her baby down on a couch to nap, all while a social worker took notes. Other families were having their supervised visits at the same time.

“You’re learning about what’s important in parenting, and you want to try those things out, and maybe you’ve learned that repairing a broken connection with your child is really, really important,” Jessica said. “How do you do that in such an unnatural environment?”

But visits later transitioned to her home, and that’s when she started applying the lessons from her parenting class. Soon after, Jessica was allowed custody of her child again.

“It takes, sometimes, turning yourself inside out, wearing all your flaws on a court order,” she said. “Having an old white guy from a bench be like, ‘Yes, you’re good.’ Some serious, serious humility — really serious humility, which I still carry.”

‘Not the perfect moment’

Reunification was what Angela and Jessica were both working toward, but it was by no means an idyllic moment when it happened. There was a lot of healing to be done.

Angela said she was a different mother by that point. Her kids were different, too.

Her youngest had grown up in foster care up to that point and had bonded with the foster mother. Her older children still had questions about what had happened. And, logistically, it was an adjustment to have three children in the house after more than two years without them.

“It’s not the perfect moment you picture of them running happily into your arms and skipping down the road together as a happy family,” she said.

She was relieved to have her children back. After their time apart, she now knew exactly where they were sleeping. She spent many nights watching over them after they returned home.

The investigation of alleged abuse, removal of children from their homes, and their placement in new, unknown environments are traumatic events for children. They’re especially traumatic for infants whose period of bonding with their primary caregivers is disturbed. The effects from that trauma remain when children return to their parents’ care.

“The amount of healing that has to happen for you and your kids after it’s done is just enormous,” said Jessica, “because that pain from that separation, and that lack of bonding, and all of that missed time doesn’t just go away because you live in the same house again and a piece of paper from the court says you have legal custody again.”

Jessica’s instinct was to reassert her control as a parent. She was reluctant for years to let her child attend sleepovers. “Why would I give my child to somebody for time when I fought for all of that?” she said.

She also had the task of rebuilding relationships with family members who doubted her ability to parent safely.

“The first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, you just want to act like a normal person,” Jessica said. “But it’s not gone yet.”

Today, Jessica is working full-time, and her child is in middle school. She’s married. She’s even kept in touch with her caseworker, sending her Christmas cards, photos and emails.

And Jessica’s relationship with her family has transformed. They don’t discuss the period of their lives consumed by the child welfare case, but Jessica speaks openly about the challenges of parenting and the fact that she’s imperfect.

“I don’t think we have to talk about it anymore because of my humility and my recognition that I’m not infallible, and life is a struggle,” she said. “And those around you feel a lot more comfortable, I find, when you voice that.”

Even after reunification, the fear lingers that Child Protective Services could come knocking on the door again. Multiple involvements with Child Protective Services are common.

Those repeat involvements never happened for Angela and Jessica, but the fear of further involvement with a government agency that has “ultimate power,” as Jessica put it, never fully dissipates.

“Once you’ve experienced that that exists, and that is there, and that power was exerted unto you and your family,” she said, “that would be terrifying to have to do it again.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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