Carollynn Smith, the grandmother who has been fighting the Department of Human Services for custody of two of her grandchildren for the last four years, is getting some long-deserved help.
A group of women, lead by Jeri Williams, members of the Urban League of Portland and D'Norgia Price, are trying to help Smith challenge an Oct. 30 court hearing that could forever separate the large family. The group had a planning meeting at the Urban League building on Oct. 14.
Kofi, 7 and C'Lynn, 4, have been in foster care for the last four years because of their mother's past drug problems. Smith has already had custody of Kofi and C'Lynn's five siblings, ages 9 to 16, for a decade.
"The Urban League has to do everything to stand up and support you," said Midge Purcell of the Urban League. "You should be celebrated for standing up for your grandchildren."
Currently, Kofi and C'Lynn are living with the White couple that is looking to adopt them, which could become final on Oct. 30 unless Smith finds a lawyer to interdict in the hearing. Previous attempts by Smith to gain custody have been met with resistance by both caseworkers with DHS and caseworkers with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). She was told she was too old, her house was too small and that she couldn't provide a safe environment for the children. While Smith is in her early 60s, she shows no signs of slowing down. She runs the organization Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and for months staged a one-woman protest outside the Alberta DHS office.
"Just because one parent loses parental rights, doesn't mean you've lost your entire family," said Patricia Trice, a former foster parent and Smith supporter.
The brother and sister nearly came home in time for Thanksgiving in 2007. The judge in the case, the Honorable Nan Waller, told Smith they could reside in her home – a large four bedroom home that DHS workers initially told her was too small – until a CASA caseworker stepped in and blocked the judge's decision. Much of the decision making about the case happens behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the public due to the nature of the case. Even Smith is treated like an outsider.
"One lawyer told her the best she could do is to just visit them when they're 18," said Alverda McCoy, one of Smith's supporters. "To think those two kids won't be able to grow up in their culture … they're going to be disconnected from a whole generation. It reminds me of slavery."
Smith was asked to attend a meeting on Sept. 11 with four DHS supervisors. She was not allowed any counsel, but she brought some anyway. Smith brought along five friends, including a former foster parent and this reporter. In the meeting room, we were told the meeting could not happen unless we all left. Smith was not allowed to have anyone to assist her in a meeting with the four professionals – the original caseworker, a supervisor, the director of Child Services and the branch manager of the Alberta DHS office. She was not allowed to record the meeting or take notes. In order to allow the meeting to take place, Smith and the DHS managers agreed to make it a one on one meeting. The meeting was allegedly about arranging a visitation arrangement with the adoptive family.
But now that the Urban League and others are firmly behind her, Smith is not merely looking at the end of October with dread. Although it's not to say there isn't a lot of hard work ahead. Oregon Action is searching for a lawyer and the Urban League's Sunshine Dixon and Midge Purcell are making the most of the nine business days before the court hearing.
"We have a family member who wants to take those children," McCoy said. "They should make sure you are enabled to (get custody)."
And for an agency with a stated and codified goal to keep families together, their effort is coming up more than short – the potentially adoptive family has had custody of Kofi and C'Lynn less than year and already has five children in their home. And if they are successful on Oct. 30, Smith will lose them until they are 18. Visitation, if it is even allowed, is controlled entirely by the adoptive parents.
If you want to show your support for Smith, they will be making a presentation to the Portland City Council on Wednesday, Oct. 22. There will also be a rally from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27 at Calvary Christian Church. You can also contact Smith at 503-283-9594, or Jeri Williams at 503-823-5827.