A mother meets her goals, but may lose her daughters
The Post-Gazette got permission to attend the termination hearing in this case by agreeing not to use the names of the older children, their father or their foster parents. In addition, the foster family was not permitted to talk to the Post-Gazette. State regulations forbid foster families and CYS from discussing children placed with them. Normally, termination hearings are closed.
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Angela Edwards completed every task required by her caseworker so she could get her daughters back.
Then the caseworker asked a judge to terminate Edwards' legal rights to the two girls so they could be adopted by their foster parents.
It's not supposed to work that way. When an abusive or neglectful parent achieves the goals set by the agency, the kids are supposed to go home. The action against Edwards didn't seem to make sense.
But then, much of what has happened in her case has defied logic. Allegheny County Children and Youth Services changed the goal to adoption for these girls when they'd been in care for about 15 months, long before the agency, under old legislative mandates, normally gave up on birth parents. But after that, CYS waited three years until late 1997 to ask a judge to sever Edwards' parental rights so the children could be adopted.
That delay gave Edwards time to grow up. CYS had told her she had to take classes on how to be a better parent, get housing, visit her daughters regularly and submit to a psychological assessment. She did all that, and she got married and had two more children. She's 26 now.
Her daughters, however, remained with foster parents who grew increasingly attached to them. The couple nursed both girls through serious illnesses. The foster mother repeatedly asked Edwards to relinquish her rights to the girls so she could adopt. Edwards repeatedly refused.
Finally, CYS asked Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen Craig to decide who should raise the girls
That decision, which is expected as early as this week, is complicated. The fact that Edwards accomplished her goals beyond the limit mandated by new federal legislation raises difficult questions:
Is it moral for a judge to terminate at 15 months the rights of parents like Edwards who could turn themselves around in 36? Is it right to return children to parents like Edwards after the youngsters have formed bonds four years strong with foster parents? Is 15 months too short for the parents or too long for the children?
Each case must be decided individually, but in the contentious atmosphere of court hearings, it's often hard to know what's fact and what's exaggeration. That was certainly true in the Edwards case, where little of the testimony was uncontradicted.
First, CYS attorney Alexis Samulski and caseworkers described Edwards as an incompetent parent who neglected to visit her girls at the hospital when they were sick and who refused to grant permission for the girls to go on vacation with their foster parents.
Then Edwards, her attorney and the lawyer appointed by the court to represent her daughters told the judge Edwards stopped visits at the hospital because they always ended in arguments with the foster mother. And, Edwards said, she refused permission for the vacation drive to Delaware after the caseworker had repeatedly canceled the girls' visits with her, contending they were too frail to be driven 30 minutes to her home in Lincoln.
The most crucial of the conflicting testimony concerned the girls' reaction to their mother.
Caseworkers testified the girls kicked and screamed in terror of visits. But a psychologist hired by CYS to evaluate the relationship told a very different story.
The psychologist, Neil Rosenblum, has seen the girls and their mother four times over the years, including once soon after they were placed in foster care.
Edwards lost the girls when she was trying to escape what she said was an abusive relationship with their father, who is not her husband now. The older girl, who is now 6, was taken from Edwards when the child was about 6 months old. The younger girl, who is now 4, was taken at birth. They were in several foster homes before they went to the current one, where they've been for nearly four years.
Rosenblum first saw them in 1993, when the younger girl was only a few months old.
He told Judge Craig that Edwards was, at that point, immature, angry and unrealistic.
Two years later, in 1996, Rosenblum met with Edwards and just the younger girl. "I was told [the younger girl] feared her mother," Rosenblum said.
But, the doctor said, he didn't see any fear at all. The little girl spontaneously hugged and kissed Edwards. "I found she had a very good relationship with her birth mother," he said.
By the time of this session, Rosenblum said, Edwards had changed. She was, he said, relaxed, poised and affectionate with the child.
Last year, Rosenblum evaluated the girls and their mother again. He was told visits between Edwards and the older girl had been stopped because they so upset the child.
By the day of the evaluation, the older girl had not seen her mother for half a year. She had been in her mother's custody only the first six months of her life, and after that, like her sister, had seen her only two hours a month. Under those circumstances, tension between mother and child could be expected, and that's what Rosenblum anticipated.
So he was surprised by what actually happened. When the older girl saw her mother, Rosenblum said, she ran to her and "collapsed in her birth mother's arms with joy. She was delighted to see her birth mother." She clung to her mother for a long time, the psychologist said.
Without prompting, the younger girl told her mother she wanted to go home and live with her, he said. "That the girls are stressed by their mother has been overstated," he testified.
In fact, he questioned the behavior of the foster parents and caseworker. He said they seemed to be hypervigilant in their efforts to ensure the mother and children were not alone together and were antagonistic toward the birth mother. "The foster mother was irate when she saw how attached the girls were to their mother. She raised her voice to me," he said.
"I am concerned about the foster parents recognizing the emotional response [of the girls] to the birth mother. The [foster parents] are very threatened by the mother. And the mother is very threatened by them," he said, "And it has become a very ugly, adversarial relationship."
CYS attorney Samulski asked Rosenblum to choose between them.
Rosenblum did not do that definitively. He said he felt the girls' strongest attachment was to the foster parents in whose home they had lived the longest. "It would be difficult to reunify with the mother now that they have been so long in foster care," he said.
Rosenblum wondered whether Edwards could deal with the girls' medical needs while also trying to care for her two younger children, a 2-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. "She does not have a track record, and the foster parents do," he said. The older daughter has a seizure disorder, the younger a blood disease.
At the same time, the doctor praised Edwards for the progress she has made and said of the girls, "They certainly have a bonding to the birth mother as well."
"Over the years," the psychologist concluded, "the children have been torn by both sides."
At the end of the termination hearing, Edwards asked the judge to give her daughters back. She thanked the foster parents for taking good care of the girls and acknowledged she'd made mistakes.
"I was young. I was stupid. But I have grown up," she told the judge, "It is time for me to raise my own family now."
Her lawyer and the one who represented the children told the judge there are no grounds under state law to terminate her rights now. CYS argued there are.
Just days before the deadline for Samulski to give final written arguments in the case, CYS and Edwards entered a new conflict, this one over her younger children.
In February, Edwards, her husband and their two children moved in with Edwards' ailing mother to help care for her and for Edwards' siblings, a blind adult brother with cerebral palsy, an 8-year-old brother and an 11-year-old sister. Edwards' father died last fall.
Early in April, CYS investigated a complaint that the house was filled with dogs and the children were being beaten.
Caseworkers found none of that. The children were fine and the dogs were outside. What they did see, however, was a house in chaos. Furniture, toys, clothing, bedding and junk covered every square inch of floor space. The kitchen was a disaster, with dirty dishes, pop bottles, partially eaten pizza and food containers everywhere.
When the caseworkers told Edwards they would return with court orders to take the children, Edwards and her mother fled with their children.
Edwards' mother left the state and neither she nor her three children have been seen since. Edwards, afraid she'd derail any chance of getting her older girls back in the pending court decision, stayed and spent Easter weekend in a hotel room with her husband and younger children. They then attended a juvenile court hearing to answer CYS' charges about the conditions their family had been living in.
Despite limited evidence the children were in imminent danger, something required by state law for removal, Common Pleas Judge Timothy O'Reilly agreed to a request by CYS to place Edwards' younger children in foster care. The hearing lasted only a few minutes, and Edwards did not have an attorney.
The caseworker wrested the screaming children from Edwards' arms outside the courtroom door and sent them to a foster home, at a cost of $80 a day. The hotel where the family had stayed cost $36 a day.
When Edwards asked CYS to consider paying for the family to stay together at the hotel while they looked for an apartment, the caseworker refused even though CYS had done that several years earlier for Edwards' sister-in-law and her children.
Edwards believes this caseworker will never help her until she relinquishes her rights to the older daughters, a claim CYS won't respond to because it won't discuss individual cases.
After the Post-Gazette started asking questions about the case, CYS began helping Edwards get public housing. It also changed her caseworker. Then, yesterday, CYS found an apartment where Edwards may stay until she rents her own place.
At a hearing today, CYS is expected to recommend that Judge Craig return the children to Edwards immediately. Craig is not, however, expected to announce her decision in the termination case involving Edwards' two older daughters.