Category Archives: Foster Care

The Guardian ad Litem

The other day I was on the radio (94.5) talking to Deb Sofield on The Morning Answer about foster care (Thanks, Deb!). One caller (or texter) commented about how sometimes DSS is wrong–they remove children from homes and put them into places where they’re worse off. In my time as a Guardian ad Litem, I never had a case where removal wasn’t warranted, where the standard for probable cause wasn’t met and upheld by a judge. However, I have had a case where the DSS social worker and the state’s attorney and I disagreed. In that case, they were fully prepared to argue to the judge that both parents should be denied visitation (even supervised visitation) while they worked towards termination of parental rights. I had spent a lot of time with the kids, their parents, school teachers, extended family, etc. Based on all that time and investigation, I felt that the mother should be offered a treatment plan that included separation from the father. He was the abusive one. If she were willing (unlike Ann’s mother, who I told you about the other day) to leave the abuser and take parenting classes, enter therapy, etc., I thought she could get to a place where reunification was possible. The DSS worker and attorney disagreed. They did not believe the mother would separate from the abuser (a position I totally understand; see: Ann). They thought mom would lie and let the abuser have access to the children despite the court order. They thought she wasn’t strong enough. I thought mom was willing to do whatever it took to bring her kids home. I thought that, with the right resources and support, she’d leave him behind and forge a better, brighter future for herself and her children. And as I mentioned on the radio, I come from an unstable background myself. I’m no idealist. I know first-hand parents will choose something (husbands, boyfriend’s, booze, drugs, whatever) over their own children. Been there. But I think that made me an even better advocate in this case. I digress…

If you’ve never been to family court, it’s much like any other court…or politics…in that much of the work and negotiations take place outside the courtroom (or voting chambers). And so we met together in a small huddle in a room outside family court to hash that out. Me, Dad, Mom, Social Worker, DSS attorney. There was yelling and finger pointing and all kinds of tears. Listen, I don’t care what the circumstances are, the tears and pleas of a mother faced with losing her children will break your heart. Every time.

The job of the Guardian ad Litem is important for this reason. The GAL, as I explained on the radio, is the voice of the child. Not another voice for DSS or the state. In training, that’s made clear again and again. The other thing that’s clear, not just from training, but from my interactions with family court judges: they give great weight to the report and testimony of the GAL. I will never forget this particular case because after that little meeting in the room, we were called into the courtroom, and the judge (with whom I’d had cases before) said, I read the reports and see that you disagreed as to the viability of a treatment plan. Did you have a chance to reconcile those differences? I honestly wasn’t sure. But the DSS attorney begrudgingly agreed to a treatment plan for mom that included no contact with dad. Dad was denied visitation of any kind. I accepted that. So did the judge. The attorney looked at me as we left, and said “This is on you. I hope you plan on checking up on them.” I did plan on it. And I did. In fact, I scheduled random, unplanned visits on a regular basis to see if I could catch mom letting dad visit despite the court order. I talked to neighbors to see if they saw any sign of him there. The kids and I regularly got together to talk about what was going on. I checked to see that a physician regularly checked them for any signs of abuse. I followed up to ensure mom and kids were in therapy and attended regularly. I made sure extended family were involved in the kids’ day-to-day lives. I was clear: if she lets him have contact with the kids, all bets are off. Why? Because those children and their health and well-being mattered. But part of what was best for them and their health and well-being was being with their mother…as long as she could provide the safe and stable home they needed.

So, yes, sometimes DSS gets it wrong. And that’s why the Guardian ad Litem is so important. The state gets DSS. Parents get themselves and sometimes an attorney if they choose and can afford it. Children get a Guardian ad Litem. Well, some do anyway. See, the thing is, GAL is a volunteer position. And there are almost never enough volunteers. Every child should have a GAL. Period. But that means more people need to step up. As I mentioned on the radio, the time commitment is up to you. Some people take one case at a time. Some cases are very short term. Some are long term. Some people take 2-3 cases at a time. Some more. The thing is that it’s volunteer work. It’s some of the most rewarding volunteer work there is. You can make a big difference in the lives of children who really need it. So think about it: maybe you can’t foster, but maybe you could be a Guardian ad Litem. And if not that, I know there’s something you could give. Foster children are OuR children. Ask yourself: how can you use your time, talent, and resources to support our most vulnerable children and make their lives and our community better and stronger?


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Filed under Foster Care, Social Problems

We Are South Carolina; These Are Our Children

When an 11-year-old boy attempts to slit his wrists with a razor blade plucked from a pencil sharpener, it is a cry for help–a very loud, very important cry for help. And for one such boy, it was a cry no one really responded to–his cry was silenced, his pain ignored.

And it happened right here in the great state of South Carolina–at the Boys Home of the South in Belton. The state failed him. The Department of Social Services failed him. The adults at the group home charged with his care failed him, leaving him vulnerable to abuse by putting him what they knew was a potentially dangerous situation.

But finally something is being done about it–because, of course, of a lawsuit and not because someone accepted responsibility for this epic failure and decided to make changes to protect the children of SC because it’s the right thing to do (The Boys Home of the South maintains their internal investigations show no wrong on their part).

That little boy is not alone. There are reports of children in state care who were starved to death, were not getting proper medical care or, in at least one case, were placed back into a home where the child suffered more sexual abuse.

SC leads the country in institutionalizing children. About 24 percent of children in state care remain in group homes or institutions–and the regulations by which they operate are outdated and ineffective (which is how 11-year-old boys get raped in state care). We do not have nearly enough foster parents in this state.

There are children who did not celebrate Father’s Day today because they have no father to honor. South Carolina is their legal guardian. And we, who live here, are South Carolina.

These are our children. And they deserve better than we’ve been giving. These are our children. They are our responsibility. And we need to do better.


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Filed under Child Abuse, Foster Care, My Opinion, Ripped from the Headlines, Social Problems

Denise Richards Makes It Her Problem

I heard on the radio yesterday morning a discussion about Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen–previously but no longer married.  Apparently, custody of Charlie Sheen’s two kids by his current wife, Brooke Mueller, has been temporairly granted to Denise Richards.  She’s not blood-related to them, so the radio discussion focused on that: would you offer to take care of your ex-husband’s kids by another woman indefinitely because she and he couldn’t care for them?

As I’ve said before, biology doesn’t make family. When children are removed from the care of the parents, the first option is always to find a familial placement.  Denise Richards is that option in this case.  Rather than sending those kids to foster care or to live with a distant relative with whom they are unfamiliar, Denise Richards is allowing them the opportunity to live with their two half-siblings and in the same gated community as their father, who can regularly visit them. While Brooke Mueller gets her ducks ina row, Denise Richards has volunteered to take up the mantel of motherhood for these two young children. She has put their best interests first.

Good for her. We need more of that in the world. And less “It’s not my problem; they’re your kids.”

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Filed under Foster Care, My Opinion, Ripped from the Headlines, Social Problems

676,569 Children

Today I’m going to visit one of my kids, a special little boy in foster care, awaiting an adoptive home.

He is also a traumatized little boy–traumatized by his own parents, who abused him for years–until someone finally reported them to DSS for suspicion of abuse, and the State intervened. Why did it take so long? Because there were no marks upon his body–his abuse was rarely (if ever) physical.

Child abuse comes in many forms–and they are all damaging.

This child experienced isolation–he was 4 and had hardly ever even made it as far as his own front yard.  He was inside the house most of the time.  And it wasn’t pleasant inside that house–he spent a lot of time hiding under the bed or in a closet–hiding from the emotional abuse of yelling, threats, name-calling. He was four. His most frequent emotion? Fear. In fact, when he first came into foster care, he would run from the room in terror whenever someone new entered the room.  His foster mom reported that every time the doorbell rang, he ran and sometimes couldn’t be coaxed out of whatever safe space he’d chosen for hours.

He had never been exposed to other children his own age–not at school or church or a playground. He didn’t even know how to play–he had to be taught. He had never been encouraged or allowed to play–in fact, that sort of thing was discouraged not just through isolation but also through emotional abuse. Can you imagine? A child to whom you have to explain play! And who you constantly have to reassure that it’s ok to laugh, to cry, to squeal in excitement, that it’s ok to go outside and to run and jump and do summersaults in the grass (supervised of course).

To our knowledge, his parents never hit him or kicked him or otherwise physically harmed him, but the damage they did was just as great. He will likely never fully recover from his early life experiences. After all, as I’ve noted before, there are some wounds that time can’t heal.

In 2011, throughout the United States, there were reported 676,569 victims of child abuse and neglect. Over 25% of those were under the age of 3. Another 20% were between the ages of 3 and 5.

April is National Child Abuse Awareness month. Learn more about recognizing and understanding emotional abuse and spread the word because you may be able to help save a child.

This is a disclaimer you should read if you haven’t already.


Filed under Child Abuse, Foster Care, Guardian ad Litem, Social Problems

Everybody Wants the Bi-Lo Center Baby

The other day I wrote about a little girl who’d been abandoned on a stranger’s porch. Thanks to lots of media attention, we now know who this little girl is. Her name is Zoe Brown. She’s four. Both of her parents have been arrested. She’s still in foster care, reportedly happy and healthy.

All of this is good.

In 2011, another local story caught the attention of people near and far: the story of the Bi-Lo Center baby. In this case, a woman gave birth to her baby in the restroom at the Bi-Lo Center, and left the baby in the toilet, where luckily it was found by housekeeping staff. Like the story of Zoe Brown, this is a heart-breaker. And like Zoe Brown, the Bi-Lo Center baby garnered lots of press. The Bi-Lo Center baby was placed into foster care and has since been adopted, and her birth mother plead guilty to child neglect and is serving her sentence.

All of this is good.

Here’s what’s still bugging me, though: In both of these cases, hundreds of people contacted local authorities, offering to adopt the child. Hundreds. And I know it’s because these stories pull at the heart strings, and that pull compels people to act. I get it. But if you’re willing and ready to jump up and adopt the Bi-Lo Center baby, Zoe Brown, or any other media sensation, you should be willing to adopt any child from foster care.

In the state of South Carolina, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, there are over 4,000 kids in foster care, at least 1/2 of whom are waiting and hoping to be adopted. There are over 4,000 kids with stories just as compelling as the Bi-Lo Center baby’s. There are 4,000 kids from situations like Zoe Brown’s. Remember Fred? He’s still in foster care, waiting to be adopted. Nationwide, there are over 400,000 children in foster care; of those, 130,000 are eligible and waiting to be adopted.

If those hundreds of people who called in offering a home to Zoe Brown would each follow through on that offer with a different child, imagine how many of our children could move from foster care into permanent loving homes!

It’s great when the media draws attention to the plight of abandoned children like Zoe Brown, but I just wish that people would recognize that, sensational though those stories might be, they are not all that unique. I wish people would remember that there are so many more children who need homes and that they would extend to one of those children the same offer they so readily extended to Zoe Brown and the Bi-Lo Center baby before her.

{Disclaimer = here.}


Filed under Child Abuse, Foster Care, My Opinion, Ripped from the Headlines, Social Problems

Dial Back the Rhetoric

Our society values independence—often at the expense of interdependence. We love the story of the man who pulled himself up by his boot straps and defied the odds through sheer will power alone! His self-reliance wins our admiration.  We hold him up as an ideal; we strive to be like him: I, too, can make it on my own—if only I want it enough. But that’s BS. That guy? Is one in a million. And to hope to be like him is folly.  Rather, if we want to succeed in life we have to admit that we sometimes need help. We have to be unafraid to ask for help and unashamed to take it when it’s offered.

Lately, the message we get from the media (such a powerful influence in our 21st century lives) is that to need help, to seek out help, to accept help is bad—the news is inundated with politicians and pundits who claim Americans take too much. They call us a “country of takers.” They claim we all want handouts, that America labors under the burden of an “entitlement epidemic.”  All this rhetoric works to perpetuate the myth that we shouldn’t need help. It shames people into avoiding help when they need it.

In one of my cases as a Guardian ad Litem, I worked with a mother whose children had been removed into DSS care because of neglect—it was benign neglect, though. She just didn’t have the resources to support her family as a single mom, receiving no child support. She tried as best she could, but with a minimum wage job and two kids, she was struggling to make ends meet.  We were working with her to get her set up with resources to help her care for her children while she was getting back on her feet. She was absolutely mortified that her children were in DSS custody, humiliated to have caseworkers in her home, judging her fitness as a mother. She loved her children desperately. She broke down and cried and asked what she had to do to get them back: “I’ll do anything!” she promised. As we signed her up for SNAP, I asked her why she hadn’t applied for food stamps previously; she certainly qualified, and it could have made all the difference. She cried more. She asked if there were any way around it.  She was incredibly resistant; when she finally relented, she hung her head in shame, defeated.

I struggled to understand until she made it crystal clear: “I don’t want to be one those welfare moms.” This is an example of the detrimental impact of all that entitlement rhetoric—the people who need help, who deserve help, who would use the resources we have in place the way they are meant to be used are ashamed to take advantage of those resources. For that, we should all be ashamed—ashamed enough at the very least to dial back the rhetoric.

PS: have you read my disclaimer?

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Filed under Foster Care, Guardian ad Litem, My Opinion, Social Problems

Empathy in All the Right Places

Toddler left on stranger’s porch

Earlier today I got a push notification on my tablet for this story. To summarize, this little girl, age 2-3, was left on a stranger’s porch with a note that read “Please Call DCAF” (DCAF = Department of Children and Families, aka DSS).

Heartbreaking: I think we can all agree.

Most people, though, immediately react by condemning someone who “could do such a thing.” But that isn’t really fair.  This little girl deserves our empathy–but so do those who gave her up. This child appears to have been well cared for.  She also bears a scar that is likely from a heart surgery–something that was probably very expensive, especially if her parent(s)/caregiver(s) has no insurance. And who knows what other things may have been going in this child’s or her parent’s lives?  There’s a very real possibility that whoever left this child on the porch was a lot more heartbroken having to do it than we are having to read about it.  Chances are, he/she/they were at the end of a fraying rope–this was a last resort.


“Auntie Loves Me”

This child is in foster care until the Sheriff’s Department can locate any family. Hopefully, their search will yield a relative placement and hopefully, those relatives will accept help and guidance from DSS, so she can go home where she belongs–to people who clearly love her (did you see the “Auntie loves me” shirt?).

For me, this story serves as an example: not all children in the foster care system are there because of abuse or purposeful neglect–they’re not all unloved. Every time DSS intervenes, it’s not a case like Fred’s. Sometimes, it’s a case where a parent is unable to care for a child properly–or doesn’t know how to. Reunification is always the first goal when a child is removed from home. Relative placement is the second. DSS offers every parent/caregiver a treatment plan designed to provide them with the skills, resources, and other help they need to provide a safe and stable home for their child(ren). Terminating parental rights, like in Fred’s case, only happens when there are no other options.

Here’s hoping for some options for this little one.

In case you didn’t know, there’s an important disclaimer on this site.


Filed under Foster Care, Guardian ad Litem, Ripped from the Headlines, Social Problems

You Could Be Fred’s Neighbor

I was assigned a case once: 6-year-old boy, developmentally delayed. Let’s call him Fred (it seems like no one is named Fred anymore).

Some pretty serious accusations of abuse landed him in emergency foster care.  A Probable Cause Hearing kept him there and made me his Guardian ad Litem. One of the first things I need to do upon being assigned a case is some investigation: I get to know the child and everyone involved in the child’s life, including family, teachers, doctors, social workers and others.

Fred’s family included a grandmother and her dubious “boyfriend.” The boyfriend let me into their apartment; he was wearing dirty boxer shorts and no shirt, smoking a cigarette. I tried not to judge.  They gave me a tour of the apartment and told me their side of the story. The grandmother cried as she told me about how much she loved Fred. She showed me his report card with pride, bragging about what a good boy he is.  One of the DSS investigator’s claims was that the home was unfit for living–she’d described it to me in detail, and it sounded disgusting. When I was there, it smelled like bleach. Not surprising, really.

I went to Fred’s school to meet with his teacher. He was in special education–not inclusion, so his teacher was the same one he’d had for 2 years now. We went over his IEP and talked about his performance in school, his test results.  And then she told me more. She told me how on multiple occassions, the bus driver who took Fred to and from school had to bring him back at the end of his after school route because there’d been no one home when he stopped at Fred’s.  And when there was someone home, it was the sketchy boyfriend, with whom the bus driver didn’t want to leave him.  She told me how Fred often came to school dirty, clearly unbathed, wearing the clothes he had worn the day before. He was always hungry but hesitant to eat. She described him as the “sweetest boy in the world,” always eager to please.

When I met Fred the first time, he sat across from me in a chair, swinging his legs back and forth and then tucking them up against his chest, resting his chin on his knees. Repeat. He didn’t say much. He answered me mostly in nods, shakes, gestures, and facial expressions.

The second time I met Fred, he ran up to me as if he’d known me his whole life, wrapped his arms around my midsection, and held on tight. I tried not to react. He was still basically silent.

The third time I met with Fred, he told me he wanted to go back to his old school. He never mentioned his old home.

Meanwhile, his grandmother called the office. I called her back. She cried nearly the whole time.

I went to meet her the next day. She basically cried the whole time.

The boyfriend was smoking one of those weird new electronic cigarettes–he made sure to point out it wasn’t real.

I asked the grandmother specific questions about the allegations of abuse–neglect, we can work with–but these abuse allegations were…well, nauseating. And in his forensics interview, which I observed, Fred explained in detail abuse that a child should not only never have to endure but also shouldn’t even be able to describe. He specifically told of instances in which he’d asked his grandmother for help in escaping the abuse he was suffering at the hands of the boyfriend. She claimed this was untrue. “He likes to tell stories,” she told me. She cried.

As we prepared for trial–both in criminal and family court in this case–we learned more and more about the abuse that Fred had to deal with on a daily basis.  I watched the judge watch the tape of the forensics interview and wondered how he could manage not to cringe. I couldn’t watch that tape again.  The DSS attorney stared down the boyfriend the entire time. The grandmother cried. The boyfriend stared at the monitor where that 8-year-old boy struggled uncomfortably to tell his story. He seem completely removed from the situation. The defense attorney claimed the boy didn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie.  The rest of us knew by this point he did.

The judge in family court made sure Fred would never go back to that situation.  The criminal court did its part. Fred is no longer 6. He is still in foster care. He struggles, but he’s safe. And he’s making A’s in his class. He wants to be in the band. He also wants a family to love him forever.

There’s a point I want to make here, and this is it: Fred’s case only came to the attention of DSS because a neighbor finally called to say something might be wrong. An investigator only went out there because a neighbor called. Fred was only removed because a neighbor called. His abuse was only discovered and ended because a neighbor took the time to notice and call.

I know I already mentioned this, but April in National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not prove child abuse is occurring in a family, but a closer look at the situation may be warranted when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination.” –US Dept. of Health & Human Services

Know the signs. Because you could be Fred’s neighbor.

–>Disclaimer (in case you haven’t read it, yet)


Filed under Child Abuse, Foster Care, Guardian ad Litem

Love at Any Cost

In response to yesterday’s post, someone asked me to elaborate more on the connection between children and their abusive parent(s). Specifically, what is it that tethers children so tightly to such parents? Here’s what I said:

If my parents don’t love me, who will? Society tells us that there is no love greater than the love of a mother for a child. If my mother abandons me at home with an abusive father or if she chooses her boyfriend over me, that sends me a message: the one person in the world who loves me the most, loves me only this much. That’s the most I deserve, the most I’m worth. And so I better hang on to that—because something is better than nothing. In fact, maybe I can make her love me more—if I’m better behaved, if I keep the house clean, if I keep my abusive father preoccupied, so he doesn’t bother her, if I make good grades in school, if I’m very quiet, if I recant my story and lie to social services…ad nauseum. After all, love is conditional—even the bad parents dole it out in certain circumstances; of course, they also take it away (it’s a brilliant manipulation that keeps children coming back for more).  And the messages the children receive as a result are all mixed up: love is not freely given; it is earned, and so they spend time, energy, and effort trying to earn it–at any cost to themselves.


Filed under Child Abuse, Foster Care

Children Just Want To Be Loved

I had a case once—a 16-year-old girl, who I shall hereby refer to as Ann.  Ann was removed from her home due to allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s live-in boyfriend.  When DSS intervened, her mother refused to enter into a treatment plan—and she refused to ask the boyfriend to move out. Her mother called the girl a liar. So Ann came into emergency custody. As they took Ann away, she begged her mother to let her stay:  “Why don’t you believe me?! Why don’t you love me?!” Heart-breaking. A probable cause hearing was held, and the judge found probable cause to keep Ann in the custody of the State. Ann became a foster kid, and I became her Guardian ad Litem.

As is too many times the case, there was no available foster home or even group home placement available in our area, so Ann was shipped off to another county 2.5 hours away from home—away from everyone and everything she’d known her entire life with only a garbage bag half-full of clothes.

3 days after she’d been put into foster care, Ann recanted her story of abuse.  When I met with her, she cried. She hated being in this strange new place with new people, hated her new school, hated her foster mother. Hated everything. Her clothes were still in a garbage bag on the floor. She was completely miserable. She wanted to go home. And so she said it never happened. And she begged to go home.

Often people wonder why children of abuse want to go home to the very people who abused them.  One former foster kid recently posted on this topic, and he did a pretty good job of explaining it. For Ann, she wanted to be back with her mother, who she loved (and who she believed loved her). She wanted to be back at her old school with her old friends. She wanted her clothes back in her closet in her house in her neighborhood. I don’t think it’s too hard to understand why Ann would want to go back home.

What it all really boils down to is this: children just want to be loved. And they want to be loved by their parents—the people who are supposed to love them unconditionally—the people who they love unconditionally. Even children like Ann, whose own mothers choose boyfriends (or meth or booze or whatever) over them, will take their terrible parents back with open arms and hearts if shown only the least little bit of affection. Because they want to believe. They want to believe that mommy loves them, that this time she’ll stay, that she’ll give up the boyfriend, the booze, the meth. They want to believe daddy didn’t mean it, will try harder, won’t do it again. They want to believe they are loved—and they want it so badly that they will believe it in the face of even the most egregious parental acts one could imagine.

As her advocate, it was my job to report to the judge about what Ann wanted—she was 16 after all and deserved to have her voice heard. However, it was also my job to advocate for her best interests even if those best interests weren’t her preference.  Ann’s mother was offered a treatment plan again. DSS asked her to send the boyfriend packing. She chose the boyfriend. And I had to tell Ann that. I had to tell the judge that Ann shouldn’t go back to live with her mother and boyfriend. But I also had to tell him she recanted her original story. Ann stayed in foster care. She moved to three different foster home and one group home over the next 6 months. She never stopped asking to go home.

Luckily, we tracked down Ann’s biological father and after a LOT of work, we were able to send her to live with him and his family permanently. For a while, everything seemed to be going well. Ann was enjoying life with two younger brothers she’d never known. She didn’t hate her new stepmother, and she was building a relationship with a father her mother had never let her know. She was doing well in school, and though she missed her old friends, she was making new ones. And then she ran away…to her mother’s house.  Ann’s father went after her. When he arrived on scene, he pulled Ann’s mother off her. She was screaming at the girl, hitting her over and over, blaming her for ruining her life. Like many abused children, Ann was still seeking the approval and love of a woman who clearly had neither to give—but that wasn’t about to stop Ann from trying again. And again.


Filed under Child Abuse, Foster Care, Guardian ad Litem