Carollyn Smith was hoping to spend a perfect family Thanksgiving – complete with turkey, trimmings, and all seven of her grandchildren. Now, she's hoping the children might all be together this Christmas. But after almost two years of fighting to keep her grandchildren together, Smith knows that Coffee, 6, and C'Lynn, 5, might be spending yet another holiday apart from their five brothers and sisters.
Smith was last featured in The Skanner in July, when she was holding a one-woman protest every Thursday outside the Department of Human Services building on Williams Avenue and Alberta Street. Coffee and C'Lynn have been in foster care after being taken away from Smith's daughter, Conchita Smith, who has a history of substance abuse. Smith has currently has custody of five of Conchita's children, who range in age from 8 to 15
Then came the breakthrough, Smith says. On Nov. 15, family court Judge Nan Waller cleared the way to reunite the seven brothers and sisters in their grandmother's home.
"The judge said they could reside in my house," said Smith, who has resumed her Thursday morning protests at the DHS building. "They never came."
A representative for CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates, appealed the judge's decision. So now another court date has been scheduled for March 3, 2008.
CASA workers are volunteers trained to advocate for the best interest of the children in child welfare cases. While they are not professionals, they make reports to the courts and, according to CASA spokesperson Steve McCrea, the judge gives their testimony equal weight to testimony by the child welfare caseworker and other parties to the case.
"We do everything we can to be objective," he said. "To not make decisions on relationships or emotional reactions … but what's best for the interests of the child."
None of what McCrea said dealt directly with Smith's case. In fact, none of the agencies dealing with Smith's case can legally discuss it, making Smith's story difficult to either verify or question. McCrea points out that an iron curtain can separate what a relative knows and what government agencies decide, but can't discuss.
"A person could tell a story that is completely true, but other information they didn't know (could influence a custody decision)," he said. "It's not a matter of who's right and wrong. That's what (the courts) have to balance out."
It's precisely that information gap that Smith says frustrates her. She says Coffee and C'Lynn were nearly adopted out in May – the last time she was granted visitation rights.
Now, if the appeal to prevent Smith from taking them home succeeds, Coffee and C'Lynn, who are currently living in the same foster home, could be adopted out to a different family.
Carolyn Graf, assistant district manager of Child Welfare, says when a child is originally placed in the custody of child welfare, case workers are concurrently looking at two very different options – trying to arrange a way to reunite the biological parents with the child, and also looking at the option of adoption. Graf said the agency prefers to place a child in the care of a relative, but would rather adopt to a non-relative family than keep the child in permanent foster care.
So how could two children, who have a grandmother who is willing to care for them, be considered for out-of-family adoption? Several reasons are possible. According to DHS guidelines, Smith, as a single caregiver, is already taking care of too many children. That's the policy – never mind that these children all are brothers and sisters. Exceptions can be granted, which likely happened in Judge Waller's courtroom, especially to keep siblings together.
It is also possible that the CASA representative who made the appeal is concerned that Smith might allow the children to be alone with their mother, whose problem behavior was the cause of their removal. Smith has said she never allows her daughter to be alone with her children and complies with visitation restrictions. She also recently said her daughter appeared to be off drugs and working.
But the CASA caseworker could have appealed for any unguessable reason. Originally, Smith said she was denied custody because the size of her house (which is four bedrooms), her age (although Graf said DHS caseworkers can not use age against an applicant for foster or adoption), and her inability to provide "adequate protection."
Or it could fall into a massive grey area that child welfare caseworkers are constantly called upon to use – the "best interests of the child."
The decision on what constitutes the best interests of a child in a child welfare case is made on a number of decision points. It can be made by the caseworker for DHS, the CASA caseworker, the deputy director of Child Welfare, as well as the child's attorney. Not to say any one of these individuals has the final say – an administrative law judge has the final say – but their input and reports have a significant impact.
Smith has an attorney working on the case and has linked up to an organization called Mother Interrupted. She also belongs to the organization, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, who recently began working with two other organizations that help disadvantaged youth: Successful Families and True Dialogue.
As for Christmas – so far it looks as if next year is her best option – if she can prevail in court next March.