The broken-hearted stood up to give witness in Clinton, Iowa on October 8, 2016. After campaigning political candidates finished, families took the microphone. A soft-spoken, middle-aged woman went first (edited for clarity):
“Iowa Department of Human Services [DHS] took my three granddaughters that had been living with me – two biological and one non-biological granddaughter. DHS said I could adopt the non-biological granddaughter but not the biological sisters. I did adopt my daughter’s stepdaughter.
But my 6 and 8 year-old granddaughters were sent into a stranger’s home where a charge had already been made that a teenage foster girl was abused. My granddaughters were fostered for a year then adopted by this family even though I tried to stop it in court. Last year the two girls ran away, six miles through the woods in their flip-flops to people they once knew. When police arrived, the sheriff took them back to the foster home.
I know they are being hurt. No one will investigate. Just as bad, they tell my girls that I don’t love them and that is just not true.”
Next a sweet-toned and sad-beyond-words young mother told how Iowa DHS took her twin baby boys:
“There had never been any abuse in our home. The babies were born prematurely. DHS took our twin baby boys without any paperwork, without court orders, and without any warrant for removal. DHS illegally terminated our parental rights and [when the boys were ten months old] ‘adopted them out’. When they finally gave me paperwork, the paper said ‘possible future abuse’ even when there was no abuse ever in our home.”
Then Dillon Wyckoff walked to the front of a now very quiet room. About ten weeks earlier, Dillon’s 2 year-old-son Mason died from oxycodone given to him by his drug-addicted mother who died of an overdose shortly later.
“Despite my concerns about Mason being in his mother’s care, the fact that she had not followed through with her mental health treatment recommendations, my reporting over and over to law enforcement, DHS and the courts that she was a threat to herself and to Mason, all supported by documentation and audio recordings . . . my actions triggered the following result — DHS did nothing, nothing.”
Because they were not married, the court awarded full custody of Mason to his mother. Dillon fought for Mason his entire life. He believes if DHS had listened and investigated more closely, Mason would be alive. A year after his son’s murder, Dillon works to change Iowa family laws to support shared custody.
After a short break, a wiry and determined woman walked to the microphone:
“My three grandchildren lived with me their whole lives. They were taken by Iowa DHS on November 1, 2013 when they were 13, 12 and 7. The two oldest went through years of therapy for abuse from their father. The youngest had never met her father. DHS takes them from me and places them with their father. They went from a 5-bedroom house they called home to a 2-bedroom trailer with eight people.”
Foster care is a national scandal not just an Iowa problem. Billions of taxpayer dollars go to breaking up families and sustaining a system that produces abused, traumatized, trafficked and murdered children.
About 95% of the time when state agencies take children away from families, the accusations turn out to be false or unsubstantiated. Or social workers remove children for reasons confusing “neglect” and poverty, a combination brutally impacting families of color. Or state rules prevent grandparents trying to help in a family crisis gain custody of their own grandchildren.
Even worse, outcomes for children who spend any time at all in foster care are mostly terrible. Children placed in foster care are far too often abused, assaulted, over-medicated and sexually trafficked. More likely to be depressed, they often attempt suicide, become pregnant or land in jail at an early age.
Certainly, some children must be taken out of abusive homes. In 2014, about 1,580 children died from abuse and neglect. With an expanding opioid crisis in America, the number of at-risk children will only grow as will the need for quality foster care in loving homes.
Instead, foster care in America is an abusive, multi-billion dollar, for-profit failure. About 671,000 children are taken each year from biological families and placed in a stranger’s foster care with 428,000 children in state-ordered care on an average day. Taxpayer dollars to the states quickly add up:
The federal government pays states about $6,000 per child per month in foster care. Many thousands of dollars more per month go from federal accounts to states for family assessments and home studies that then require federally funded parenting classes, anger management or drug and alcohol treatment. More dollars flow to the states for “special needs” fostered children such as any child who requires any medication, bringing on a whole other set of abuses. A $4,000 or bonus goes to states for the termination of parental rights and “adopting out” of foster children.
The federal government sends between $4 and $12 billion to states for taking children and breaking up families; add to that multiple funding streams in state funds convinces some reform activists that foster care is a $50 billion industry. In turn, states hire large corporations and non-profit organizations to manage a state’s lucrative foster care system.
With billions of dollars driving local agency decisions, children are taken by the state often for lifestyle choices. A young married couple traveling America delivered their baby in Alabama. Without a warrant or court order, the Alabama Department of Human Services took their healthy son literally as the mom nursed her newborn. Alabama DHS justified what some call “medical-kidnapping” because the parents did not want to name their baby that day or assign their newborn a social security number. The baby was born on October 10, 2016. As of September 2017, Alabama still had the baby in foster care.
Activity that is legal in one state may mean termination of parental rights in another state. A Colorado couple, Raymond and Amelia Schwab, are fighting the Kansas Department of Children and Families who took five of their six happy and healthy children in April 2015. Kansas took the children in part based on allegations that Raymond used marijuana.
Discharged from the Navy in 1996 with a 50% disability rating, Raymond became dependent on painkillers prescribed by a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital that led to a heroin addiction. He overcame the addiction in faith-based rehabilitation and by switching to medical marijuana, legal in Colorado but not Kansas.
In 2013, Raymond moved to Kansas to work as a VA benefits counselor. In 2015, he decided to move back to Colorado to access medical marijuana for his chronic Gulf War pain and disability. In April 2015, literally as they were packing to move to Colorado, Amelia’s mother took the five children to a police station saying they had been abandoned. Cleared in court twice of all allegations of abuse, the children remained in state custody.
In March 2016, Raymond went on a hunger strike when notified by the Kansas Department for Children and Families that their five-year old daughter had been sexually molested and two of their sons had been physically abused in foster care; and their 13-year old son was about to be sent to a psychiatric facility and had already started psychotropic medication despite the parent’s objections.
In December 2016, the County judge ruled against termination of parental rights, ordering the children home. Reunification would wait on an interstate agreement and a Colorado home study. Visitations increased. As of mid-September 2017, the children remain in state custody. Just this one family means revenue to Kansas of at least $840,000 and likely closer to three million dollars since medication and counseling mean the Schwab children are now labeled “special needs,” bringing Kansas more federal dollars.
Foster Care’s 95% Failure Rate
Outcomes for children who spend any time in foster care are consistently terrible. Foster care in America is considered by many broken families child kidnapping funded by taxpayers. Except in cases of significant abuse and neglect, the mounting evidence says child services budgets should be spent keeping families together. The largest studies from 2006, 2007 and 2008 found that except for the most severe cases of abuse, even maltreated children who remained at home did better than maltreated children placed in foster care.
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) reported that of every 100 children investigated as possible victims of abuse, three are ‘substantiated’ victims of physical abuse from the most minor to the most severe, and about two more are specifically victims of sexual abuse. Most of the rest are false allegations or cases in which poverty is confused with neglect.
Family advocate Jennifer Winn and prior spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Families and Children, Theresa Freed, agree: “Only 4% of the children they [Kansas state agencies] remove from homes are removed on grounds that are substantiated.”
True damage is inflicted on children seized by the state:
- A Casey Family study showed adults who had been in foster care were twice as likely to be depressed, 22 times more likely to experience homelessness, and three times more likely to live at or under the poverty level than the general population.
- The Casey study also found fostered adults had Post Traumatic Stress twice the rate of Iraqi war veterans. One out of three reported maltreatment in the foster home. By age 25, 81% of male foster care alumni had been arrested at least once and 35% incarcerated.
- Children in foster care and those who age out are four times more likely to attempt suicide (even as young as 7 years old) and 12 times more likely to receive psychotropic medication.
- A Colorado study found the resting heart rate is higher for children in foster care: they are always alert for danger and in “flight or fight” mode.
Most children used for sexual trafficking are foster children. In a 2013 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) nationwide raid to rescue child sex trafficking victims in 70 cities, 60% were children in foster care or group homes. The year before in Connecticut, 86 of 88 victims were from child welfare agencies. One in three foster care children later report sexual abuse in the foster home.
Whistle blowers face punishment or worse. Social workers in Kentucky were fired for refusing to place children in foster homes suspected of abuse or refusing to terminate parental rights despite pressure from supervisors who had already picked out influential adoptive families. The late Georgia state congresswoman Nancy Schaefer, who died under mysterious circumstances, spoke for every state in the union when she said: “I am convinced there is no responsibility and no accountability in Child Protective Services.”
The stress and emotional damage heaped on families with children seized by the state cannot be underestimated:
“Once they have you in the system you cannot get out. There are evaluations and required classes and searches of homes without notice. There are demands to show up for meetings that mean lost pay and lost jobs. And if you lose your pay and can’t cover your car insurance they say you do not have a safe home and your child stays in foster care.”
The married parents of the newborn taken by Alabama Human Services wrote a powerful 25-page letter to Alabama officials listed thirteen federal laws and nine Constitutional amendments broken when their baby was seized:
“So stop trying to make up laws in your bureaucratic mind any longer and try to coerce us, oppress us, or place us under any more duress or any more threats of harm, like you have already done to us, or to our live, healthy baby, and just give him back to us now… You, one and all, have therefore violated our rights by constructing laws in your mind that do not even exist and have kidnapped our live, healthy child for not obeying these two imaginary laws that apparently exist only in your individual and collective brains.”
Foster Care, Poverty and Communities of Color
The traumas of foster care and the unethical and unconstitutional decisions of family courts fall disproportionately on poor families, families of color and especially African-American and Native American children. About 75% of the children taken by states are so-called “neglect” cases, a charge often difficult to distinguish from poverty. Children in families earning less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be removed than children in families making over $30,000.
This is what institutional racism looks like: One out of three children in foster care are African-American, a statistically significant larger proportion than children of other races and ethnic backgrounds. The percentage of Native American children in foster care is nearly twice their proportion in the general population. This study concluded that “bias, cultural misunderstandings and distrust” contributes to decisions to take minority children from families and kinship groups.
California’s 9th Circuit Court: Social Workers Lose “Right to Lie”
Historically, state caseworkers are immune from prosecution. In thirty-two states, government social workers hold absolute immunity from lawsuits related to child protective duties. Even if lying or misrepresenting family conditions, state workers cannot be sued. Family court judges need only listen to the state social worker. Parents, grandparents and the children taken by the state generally have no or very limited opportunity to give testimony in family court.
As a 2017 Harvard Law Journal article points out:
Today, an individual whose federal rights have been violated by a state has relatively limited options. Thus, it is fair to say that state sovereign immunity has never been more impenetrable.
While families damaged by child welfare decisions rarely win lawsuits in state court, federal rulings can charge state and national policies. Foster care class action lawsuits cite the 14th Amendment that declares American citizens are guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law. States cannot restrict these rights.
A major 2017 lawsuit challenging state social worker immunity, generally called the California 9th Circuit’s “Right to Lie” case, represents the foster child’s point of view. The state of California took sisters Kendall and Preslie, then 6 and 9 years old, from their mother in 2000 and held them in foster care for 6½ years. The original reason for taking the sisters was “impending harm and abuse” with no evidence of current abuse or neglect. The state prevented contact between mother and daughters. The sisters were upset every time a caseworker visited them and in counseling sessions always asked to go home.
When she aged out of foster care and reunited with her biological mother, Preslie Hardwick sued Orange County, California and individual state caseworkers for maliciously lying in court to remove her from her mother’s home. Her lawyers argued that such state abuse of power violated Preslie’s constitutional rights to her mother’s care and family relationship. The social workers who took the sisters committed perjury in court by saying the girls were happy in their foster home and by withholding evidence that would have cleared the mother of all charges. The social workers claimed state immunity laws meant they were immune from prosecution for anything they said or did.
In December 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in the daughter’s favor with Judge Stephen Trott confronting caseworkers:
”You mean due process is somehow consistent with a government worker presenting perjured testimony and false evidence? I can’t even believe for a microsecond that a caseworker wouldn’t understand you can’t lie and put in false evidence.”
This case surfaces issues voiced by parents and grandparents of taken children all around America:
- State agencies and individual social workers lie about family conditions to maintain an income stream based on removing children from families.
- Child agencies take children from biological families based on unclear guidelines especially the widely used “suspected future neglect.”
- Social workers and caseworkers drive wedges between taken children and biological families with mean-spirited threats.
- Parents and grandparents never give up trying to bring their children home and battle exhausting, traumatizing and expensive legal manipulations.
On its way to the Supreme Court, the California 9th Circuit ruling prompted some immediate changes. The Director of Iowa Human Services retired. Retirements and resignations in early 2017 included the South Carolina Director of Human Services, Oregon Director of Child Welfare, Illinois Director of Human Services and county Directors of Human Services in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Transforming Foster Care and Family Court
The purpose of the Million Parent March on September 18, 2017 is to raise awareness about all the different ways family courts and foster care damage and destroy children and families. The event brings together parents and grandparents of taken children, father’s rights groups battling biases in divorce court, parents and lawyers seeking shared custody after divorces, mothers and fathers of children kidnapped by custodial or non-custodial parents, children who have aged out of foster care, children of divorce, and advocates pushing for America to dramatically and deeply re-think foster care and family court.
Millions of families and children remain torn apart and psychologically devastated by the profit-driven abuses of foster care and the win-lose culture of family court. Whether the Million Parent March succeeds in raising awareness and achieving legislative and agency changes at all levels of government remains to be seen. Without a doubt, social media once again powerfully links millions of voices demanding we restore the civil and constitutional rights of parents and children.
A follow up article focused on solutions will be published after the Million Parent March.