Maybe you've seen her. On Thursdays she stands on Williams Avenue carrying signs that read "Give me my grandchildren." Come rain or shine, Carollyn Smith is there, holding her one-woman protest against Oregon's Child Welfare division.
Smith, a lively, 60-year-old grandmother, spends those Thursday mornings near the Department of Human Services office, protesting the way Oregon's Child Welfare division has placed two of her grandchildren in the foster care system.
The children's mother – Smith's daughter – has a drug problem, but Smith wants to keep her grandchildren together. She has the drive and she has the love. What she doesn't have, according to caseworkers with Child Welfare, is a big enough house, the right birth date or "adequate protection" for the children.
A case worker told her she was too old, that her four-bedroom house wasn't big enough and that she couldn't provide her youngest grandchildren, Coffee, 6, and C'Lynn, 5, with adequate protection.
"What is too old?" asks Smith, who doesn't look a day over 45 and has spent the last 15 years raising five of Coffee and C'Lynn's brothers and sisters. "They said, 'Who would take care of the kids if you got sick?' I'm not getting sick. That's a curse when someone says that to you."
Smith's latest battle began two years ago when her daughter, Conchita Smith, brought Coffee to the hospital. The 4-year-old was having a seizure and had cocaine in his system.
"She (Conchita) called me about 11 o'clock and said 'Coffee's having a seizure … they're taking him to the hospital,'" Smith recalled. "She called a few minutes later … she said 'they won't let me see him' … because (Coffee) had cocaine in his body. They took both of them."
"They could've let me have the kids, but they did not," she says. "I've got the other five, they've been with me for years."
When Smith talks about the grandchildren she's raised from infancy, her face lights up.
"They get beautiful grades," she says. "And when I say beautiful, I mean BEAUTIFUL."
DeQuranDra, 15; Chaquita, 12; Kaseen, 11; Jarah, 9; and Tyree, 8, are all waiting to be united with their siblings. When the children ask why they can't just take their brother and sister back, Smith laughs. Kids don't understand how the system works, she says.
Sometimes, neither do adults, says Joyce Whitmore, one of Smith's friends.
"We're trying to offer them a safe environment," she says. "That's our blood … that's our blood."
Carolyn Graf, assistant district manager of Child Welfare, says the organization makes it a priority to place children with relatives. Graf is legally unable to discuss the specifics of Smith's case, but says children's extended families often make the best caregivers for a child in the foster care system. She also says officials are doing more to connect children with relatives.
"We are not happy with the number of children placed with relatives," she says. "We'd like to have more of them."
Graf says foster children placed with relatives are less likely to be disruptive or move out; and more likely to be successful. And new studies say displaced children are safer in the homes of relatives than with foster parents, she says.
To increase the number of foster children living with blood relatives, Oregon's Child Welfare Department sends foster parent recruiters to court hearings, where relatives often accompany parents, to identify possible caregivers. The Commission on Children and Families also provides training for department supervisors to help reach out to relatives.
But it's hard to make a foster parent out of someone who isn't prepared to take on young children. In addition to their own lives, relatives often have children of their own and are not paid by the state – as a normal foster parent would be. However, a law recently passed by the Legislature this year should fix that problem by providing payments to all foster parents, beginning Jan. 1, 2008.
They must also complete foster parent certification training and pass a criminal background check – most violent crimes completely exclude a person from becoming a foster parent, but many other crimes, including drug convictions, are judged on a case-by-case basis – and be approved for the foster parent application.
Age, says Graf, is never used as a factor in the application process, and says having grandparents take care of children is quite common. There are adult to children ratios that affect a relative's chance of gaining temporary custody; unless extraordinary circumstances exist, like keeping siblings together, one parent can care for four children or two parents can care for seven children. The size of a house is also an issue, although Graf says the department generally just wants to make sure every child has a room, even if they have to share one.
Helping Smith deal with her case is an organization called Mother Interrupted, which take a very critical look at child welfare agencies in Oregon and across the United States. Susan Detlefsen, the organization's president, said she's saddened that someone willing to fight to provide a home for their grandchildren has been denied custody.
"She is unlike a lot of grandmothers because she's willing to do whatever it takes," Detlefsen says of Smith.
She said she helps parents, grandparents and other relatives fight for custody of their children in a system she believes judges a mother or father guilty until proven innocent. Detlefson's daughter was taken from her when she was 13, after the girl overdosed on aspirin. Detlefsen says she felt powerless to challenge her case, and only after a year and a half of fighting the state did her daughter returned home. Unfortunately, she says, her personal story and Smith's are not isolated incidents.
"I hear from people everyday like Carollyn Smith," Detlefsen says. "What state workers fear most is public exposure."
Smith has retained a lawyer to help her through the appeals process. According to Graf, a person who has been denied foster eligibility can take their case to a hearings officer. That officer is an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings, which is under the Employment Department.
For foster applicants, the formal appeals process ends there.
"People can complain to us anytime," she said. "Sometimes, where situations look marginal, it is hard to make decisions. We encourage people (and children) to give us feedback. … What you really have to do is figure out what's best for the children."
Carollyn Smith says she knows what's best for her grandchildren – staying together with their grandmother. Until that happens, Smith says, she'll come back each Thursday to tell her story, and keep up her one-woman vigil.