Michael T. Regan
(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION)
Barbara Clayton has only three minutes to speak, but she could stand up here for hours. She would gladly unburden herself to this room, filled mostly with women, about her nightmarish journey through the child welfare system: the unreturned phone calls, the dismissive treatment, the apparent insistence on the part of the Department of Human Services (DHS) to put her grandson up for adoption. Instead, she just explains how she's "been working very hard to get my grandson back." But even this brief divulgence seems cathartic, because Clayton knows these women understand.The group that Clayton is talking to is a gathering of parents who've had their children taken into custody by Philadelphia's DHS. They've convened in West Philly's Tabernacle United Church on this rainy Monday night for a meeting of the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network. EMWMN formed in 1997, to oppose what organizer Pat Albright calls welfare "reform" because the group believes that society should give financial support to mothers. Recently, it's focused on the child welfare system, and particularly on parents whose children are in government custody.
Philadelphia is ripe for such a group. DHS had already removed children at a higher rate than child protection agencies in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago when, last fall, The Philadelphia Inquirer launched an investigative series about the agency. The paper revealed numerous cases in which DHS decided to leave children in their homes after receiving reports about them, and the children were harmed, sometimes fatally.
Beginning in October 2006, social workers responded by doing what they probably thought was "playing it safe." They began removing children at an increased rate. Between October and the end of January, 1,367 removals were conducted, a 28 percent increase over the same period in 2005-06. The spike leveled off in February, but shot up again in June. When child removals go up, so does the number of mothers who feel their children have been wrongly taken from them.
EMWMN might never have engaged child welfare had it not been for the stick-to-itiveness of a woman named Tilly Ayala. Ayala's two children, then 3 years and 6 months, were taken in 2004, she says, after her (now former) husband scared passers-by on a beach by saying that he had a baby for sale.
"It was a joke," Ayala says.
Since then, Ayala's children have been in the system, living with her ex-husband's relatives. Over a year ago, after unsuccessfully trying to get them back through traditional methods — attending parenting classes, etc. — Ayala began protesting in front of DHS headquarters. Every Thursday afternoon, she stood in front of 1515 Arch St., holding signs that said things like, "DHS, Give Us Back Our Children." At first, nothing came of the effort. But people gradually began to take notice. Ayala ran into Albright, from EMWMN, who took an interest in her cause; other parents, visiting the DHS building to deal with their own cases, began to join her, as well.
These parents were women like those at the recent meeting: like Clayton, whose grandson was taken from her daughter-in-law because of the woman's drug problems, and who found it infuriatingly difficult to get DHS to consider her as a possible caretaker for the boy (her cause was harmed by the fact that she'd been estranged from her daughter-in-law, and hadn't known her grandson well). Or Nina Boyd, a mother who believes that DHS was called to her house because she was a black woman living on a mostly white block. She says the agency took her children away, claiming she had roaches, and because her children had some absences from school.
It's very difficult to assess these stories because DHS can't discuss individual cases, but the underlying policy debate is clear. Generally, society should separate children from their parents only under dire circumstances, when the children are at definite risk. And indeed, DHS's protocols emphasize "family preservation."
But EMWMN believes the agency interprets the word "risk" too liberally. DHS, they say, equates "removal" with "safety"; EMWMN believes the safest place for a child is almost always in his parents' home. It's bringing aggrieved mothers together to create a child welfare system in this image.
EMWMN is not yet a formal organization with an official membership. Rather, its core group meets at least once a week, and is working to define the organization's role. Already it has succeeded in becoming a lobbyist for family preservation: A few months ago, DHS Commissioner Arthur Evans walked by one of Ayala's protests, struck up a conversation, and invited her to join the agency's community advisory board. "I think one of the things the Department can't afford to do and be is defensive," Evans says.
Since then, Ayala, Albright and a few others have attended meetings where they've tried to drive home the message that DHS takes too many kids from their families. Evans, who has been at these meetings, agrees "with their basic premise," and says that family preservation "has been the consistent message we've given" since taking over last year. His administration, he says, is "actively working" to reduce placement rates by implementing a new guide for assessing children's safety, among other things. He wonders whether the activists' "personal experience hasn't caught up with our philosophy."
Those personal experiences are another aspect of child welfare that EMWMN is trying to change. In addition to lobbying, the group has become a resource for individual parents caught in the complex system. In the past few months, Albright says, EMWMN has helped people appeal to unresponsive workers' supervisors, and put cases in front of the commissioner. (Evans confirms this, though emphasizes that while DHS makes recommendations on removals, the final decision lies with a Family Court judge.) A couple of women they've worked with have even made progress in getting their children back — though not Ayala.
EMWMN has also stood next to women during difficult hearings, which leads to the third thing EMWMN has tried to do: Act as a support network. "You can hardly imagine anything more painful than losing custody of your child," Albright says. At the meeting tonight, the shared pain in the room is palpable; people gasp and sigh while Clayton, Boyd and others relate their stories. Also obvious is the release these folks feel as they spit out their harsh feelings about DHS. Some believe the agency's contractors hoard children for profit; some think there's no distinction between DHS and the Nazis.
These critiques ring false to people who know DHS workers. But these women have lost their children. Who could blame them for their anger? Certainly not Clayton. The next day, she would learn that, after months of desperate pleas, DHS had finally assented to inspect her house and consider her as a custodian for her grandson. But she wants to remain part of the group anyway.
"I told Pat Albright, 'I'll be happy to stick around and help,'" Clayton says. "You have to stick together."