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When the bough breaks: Beaver County moves faster than average to sever parents' legal rights to their children

Second in a series

Monday, December 13, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Picola Pope's caseworker visited her in jail one day in August and gave her the news: Beaver County Children and Youth Services was going to ask a judge to terminate her parental rights.

  Picola Pope got out of the Beaver County Jail yesterday and plans to do whatever CYS demands to get her children back from foster care. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Her relationship with her daughter would be legally severed, and the girl would be adopted.

Pope was stunned. It had been less than a year since she had agreed to let Mimi Wilson, the assistant director of juvenile court services in Beaver County, become foster mother to one of her six children, a baby girl named Sierra. Pope had never imagined that CYS would try to take Sierra away from her forever.

Pope also was scared. She knew other women who had been in jail when CYS asked a judge to terminate their parental rights, and their pleas to attend the hearings so they could try to defend themselves had been ignored.

State and federal laws guarantee every biological parent -- even a less than perfect one -- certain rights, but it's hard for someone to seek those rights when she's barred from the courtroom. Even Pope, a high school dropout, knew that much.

The 27-year-old was feeling hopeless until she managed to get a lawyer -- a benefit she did not have earlier in the process. The lawyer got the hearing postponed until March, and that may give her a chance to keep her daughter.

But what has happened to Pope so far illustrates several disturbing patterns in the way Beaver County's CYS and its courts deal with abused and neglected children and their parents.

  When the bough breaks, Part Two:

Working against a family's reunion

Child welfare hearings usually secret

PG Online chart: Termination in record time

Part One: A mother of five, a parent to none

Part Three: Mother asks CYS for help; it takes her children

Part Four: CYS fights family's adoption, then opposes benefits

About the authors


The first is how quickly Beaver County officials move to terminate parental rights -- twice as fast as the national average, and even faster than that when the child is a baby.

The second is the unusual number of babies CYS has placed with people who have connections to the agency. Besides Wilson, these include Linda L. McGaffic, a former member of the CYS board of directors; Robin Thompson, a former juvenile court probation officer who had routine contact with CYS; and Tamell Huffmyer, a former foster parent liaison for CYS.

Because of state-mandated secrecy about adoptions, it is impossible to know how many people with connections to CYS or the courts received babies, or whether they jumped ahead of other couples patiently waiting in line to adopt.

The secrecy and a lack of state or federal scrutiny of terminations and adoptions means no one closely examines the practices of Beaver County CYS or most other county child welfare agencies.

Working against parents?

In addition to possible favoritism in adoptions, Beaver County's CYS engages in practices that make it difficult for parents to retain their rights to their children.

Despite state and federal laws requiring the agency to help parents regain custody of their children whenever possible, many Beaver County CYS policies and practices work against that goal.

An example is visitation times. CYS routinely refuses to schedule visits between a parent and children at any time other than normal working hours on weekdays, forcing some parents to choose between visits and work. CYS has used missed visits as a mark against parents in court when the agency tried to terminate their rights.

In addition, although state and federal laws require agencies whenever possible to place children with relatives rather than strangers for foster care, Beaver County CYS lags far behind the state average in accomplishing that.

It is true that even if Beaver County had followed every rule and assured every right, many of the parents it has terminated -- maybe even most of them -- would have lost their children anyway.

But a process that does not protect the rights of parents leaves them feeling they never got their day in court, and in some cases, it may uproot children who could have been raised successfully by their parents.

One sign of the problems in Beaver County is the fact that in the past two years, four Beaver County terminations have been reversed -- including three in which jailed women were not transported to their hearings.

A fifth termination is being challenged now in Superior Court.

In that case, the birth mother, Amanda Kolle, had a baby who was given away for adoption without Kolle's knowledge or permission. The woman who received the baby is Deborah DeCostro, the attorney who has been appointed to represent virtually all children in Beaver County termination cases.

Then, Judge Robert C. Reed, who has appointed DeCostro to represent children in the county, terminated Kolle's rights to the baby DeCostro wants to adopt.

The Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Beaver County late last year, decrying its termination practices. The case was settled early this year when Reed, who presides over all terminations, agreed to revise court rules to guarantee parents' rights.

But that settlement does not address all the questionable practices by the court or CYS, and doesn't reverse many of the debatable terminations and adoptions that occurred in the past.

Pope's story

When Picola Pope went to jail in June for shoplifting and simple assault, her children were parceled out among relatives -- except for Sierra, who already was with Wilson. Three went to live with their fathers, one with Pope's aunt and uncle, and the oldest with Pope's mother.

  Jodi and Sheppard Pope have their niece Picola Pope's son, Robert, in their custody. CYS refused to give them Robert's sister, Sierra, who is in foster care with Mimi Wilson, assistant director of Juvenile Court. Sheppard Pope has vitiligo, which causes discolored skin patches. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Picola Pope has a four-year history of trouble with the law. This was the third time she'd pleaded guilty to shoplifting and her third time in jail. She'd also pleaded guilty to making terroristic threats and disorderly conduct.

She got involved with CYS when she first went to jail. No one had accused her of abusing or neglecting her children, but she obviously couldn't take care of them while she was locked up. During that first stay in jail, some of her children were cared for by relatives, and during her second stint, CYS temporarily gave Sierra to Mimi Wilson.

Given her difficulty staying out of trouble, Pope's qualifications as a nurturer may be questionable. But her motherhood is not open to question, and state and federal lawmakers have conferred special standing on that relationship.

The ties between parent and child, they have said, should not be easily severed. In fact, even when parents abuse or neglect their children, state and federal laws say agencies such as CYS should, in nearly every case, work to reform the parents and return the children to them. This recognizes that most children, even those who have been beaten, want to be with their birth parents.

Some parents, of course, should not get their children back. In cases of extreme abuse, states don't have to try to rehabilitate parents. But because termination is, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, "the equivalent of a death sentence to the familial relationship," it shouldn't be easy to carry out. "The proof required ... is the highest order, clear and convincing evidence followed by findings of clear necessity," the court wrote in a 1982 case.

In addition, Pennsylvania courts have said that the officials involved in terminating parental rights must be careful not to slide down the slippery slope that leads to deciding that only the richest, smartest or most religious people are good enough to raise a child. That is because society could almost always find someone better than any child's birth parents to raise him.

Superior Court put it this way: "The welfare of many children might be served by taking them from their homes and placing them in what the officials consider a better home. But the Juvenile Court Law was not intended to provide a procedure to take the children of the poor and give them to the rich, nor to take the children of the crude and give them to the cultured, not to take the children of the weak and sickly and give them to the strong and healthy."

If it were a simple matter of choosing which woman would seem to be the best mother for Sierra, then the odds on Pope would be about the same as those for her to win mother-of-the-year honors from her jail cell.

The foster mother, Mimi Wilson, is an educated, stable, successful career woman.

But blood ties, and the state and federal laws that protect them, may give Pope a chance.

Failure to understand

What hurt Pope most is that she'd trusted Wilson, who had been Pope's own foster mother when Pope was removed from her mother at age 15.

Pope had stayed with Wilson a year, and they had remained in contact ever since. Wilson had sometimes given Pope money. And last year, when Pope needed a place to stay, Wilson opened her Beaver Falls home to her and her children.

When Pope moved out of Wilson's house in the summer of 1998, she said she agreed to Wilson's request to care for 2-year-old Sierra, who suffers from sickle cell anemia. "I thought she was helping me out," Pope said. "She knew I was really scared about Sierra being sick. It was so sad to see her get sick. It was just pitiful." So Pope left the baby with Wilson for what she thought would be a few days, until she got settled.

But then, CYS took Pope to Juvenile Court. Pope said Wilson called her about the hearing, and explained that "Her boss told her to go through this process ... so she would not get in trouble for helping me out.

"She didn't tell me it was for custody. I didn't know that until I got to the hearing ...

"I know they knew I was confused about what was going on in the courtroom. They asked me if I wanted my daughter to stay with Mimi for awhile. I said yeah. I thought it was just to get my permission for Mimi to have her for awhile."

But that's not what it was. At the hearing last fall, Sierra was declared to be an abused or neglected child and was formally placed with Wilson.

The next thing Pope knew, CYS had asked a judge to terminate her parental rights. Pope said Wilson came to her this past summer, crying, apologizing, saying she hadn't known that would happen.

Whether Wilson knew CYS would seek termination or not, it happened much sooner than it would have in other parts of the country.

A hurried pace

While child welfare agencies nationwide have waited an average of 40 months before trying to terminate, CYS gave Pope less than half that time before seeking to end her rights to Sierra.

Until this year, state law said that parents who abused or neglected their children should get 18 months to mend their ways. After that, a court had to decide whether to give them more time or move to termination.

Because most Pennsylvania courts routinely have given parents more than 18 months, the average time a child spent in foster care before termination in this state in recent years was 36 to 42 months, or 3 to 3 1/2 years.

In Beaver County, however, parents got about half that time, based on the county's own statistics for the past five years. And in cases where a Beaver County child was 1 or younger when placed in foster care, termination came even more quickly -- an average of 15.4 months.

CYS Director Victor Colonna does not apologize for the faster termination actions.

He said his agency decided nearly 20 years ago to seek quick terminations to prevent children from languishing in foster care.

"We have had a philosophy at this agency ... that the worst thing an agency could do is nothing. That was the reason for foster care drift [where children stay in such care for years]. We decided we would not do nothing ... some people can criticize us for that, but the whole country is moving in that direction."

Despite the 20-year policy, the pace of terminations in Beaver County has increased significantly in recent years. While it completed 67 terminations from 1994 through 1998, 41 of those occurred in the last two years.

And Beaver County doesn't just terminate parents' rights more quickly than elsewhere.

It also appears to terminate in a higher percentage of cases than other counties its size. According to state statistics, Beaver County in 1998 had the highest termination rate by far when compared with the six Pennsylvania counties most similar in population.

Beaver's rate was 64.3 terminations for every 1,000 children in foster care, more than twice that of the next closest, which was Washington County at 28.7. The others were Butler, at 18.6; Cambria, 9.5; Cumberland, 4.1; Fayette, 3.5 and Lackawanna, 1.0.

A valuable commodity

This year, to conform with new federal legislation, Pennsylvania changed its law so that child welfare agencies now must file petitions for termination after children have spent 15 months in foster care.

Beaver County could argue that it was simply ahead of the curve by terminating infants' parents at an average of 15 months.

But Beaver County did not terminate that quickly when the child was older. On average, older children remained in foster care 45 percent longer than infants -- an average of 22.3 months -- before their parents' rights were terminated.

One reason for the difference may be that infants are in great demand for adoption. While it's often hard to find adoptive parents for older children, adoptable babies are, pound for pound, one of the most valuable commodities in the United States.

A New York lawyer was indicted in March for trying to sell an infant for $60,000. Many couples spend $20,000 traveling to China to get infant girls. Adoption agencies often stop adding the names of desperate couples to waiting lists because they know there won't be enough healthy infants to go around.

Child welfare agencies, like Beaver County CYS, are one of the major sources of adoptable babies today.

Colonna denied his agency deliberately treats infants any differently.

He said the average termination time for infants' parents may be shorter because the agency begins severing rights in as little as three months on abandoned infants. And, he said, the average time for termination of older children's parents may be longer because it takes more time to find adoptive homes for those children.

Still, it's not just a matter of how quickly Beaver County terminates parental rights on infants. The county also creates an unusually large pool of infants who may be adopted because it puts a remarkably high percentage of them in foster care to begin with.

On average, across the state, only 3 percent of the children entering foster care in recent years have been 1 or younger. In Beaver County, it was 22 percent.

Is there favoritism?

Pope's baby, Sierra, was a little older. She was almost 2 when she and Pope went to live with Wilson, and she's 3 now. Pope said she doesn't know why Wilson wanted only Sierra. Maybe, she said, it was because Sierra's illness means she carries with her $527 a month in Social Security disability payments.

Wilson declined to talk about Sierra, but she may simply have wanted to ensure stability for a sickly member of a large and chaotic family. And she may have grown close to Sierra when she served as foster mother for her earlier.

Pope doesn't believe that. She thinks that because of Wilson's job, she may have manipulated the situation to her advantage.

Mimi Wilson is employed by the court that removes children from their parents and decides whether to change their goal from reunification to adoption.

She is one of several people connected with CYS or the court who have received babies through the agency.

CYS director Colonna did not dispute the fact that several people with connections to CYS or the courts have received babies for potential adoption, but he denied that any group gets special access to infants. "I don't care who people know and who is who. I am just interested in the best interest of the kid."

Robin Thompson, the former county probation officer who has now been selected as one of four people to be part of a new CYS project for foster parents who want to adopt, said, "I do not think I get any special privileges because I knew people down there, and I do not expect any.

"If a baby comes [to my home] to be adopted, I want it to be because we are the best people for that child."

Earlier this year, Thompson received an infant from CYS, but the child was later moved to relatives. "She went to a beautiful home. As a foster parent that is all you could want," Thompson said.

Just before Thanksgiving, CYS gave her another infant whom she hopes to adopt, but she knows it isn't certain. "You take your chances. That's what foster parenting is."

There are no state or federal rules mandating whom county agencies should place children with for adoption. The only guideline is that placement be in the child's best interest.

Placement decisions are "up to the agency and the judge," said Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Judges, however, may not know or ask whether the adopting couple is connected to the child welfare agency in some way or whether they jumped in line ahead of 50 or 100 other couples waiting for an adoptive placement.

Another unusual practice in Beaver County is moving infants from their foster families to new families for adoption.

Beaver County commonly gives infants to elderly widows and foster families who have made it clear they don't want to adopt. Then, after termination of the parents' rights, CYS moves the baby to the adoptive couple.

That means the potential adoptive couple does not have to suffer the trauma of bonding with a baby who might be returned to birth parents. But it also means that those babies who are adopted suffer the trauma of being removed from foster parents with whom they have bonded.

Federal law urges agencies to place children from the outset with potential adoptive parents.

Colonna conceded Beaver County's practice of moving babies for adoption may injure them emotionally, but, he said, "If you place an infant with a family that wants to adopt, you will have difficulty with the foster parent whenever the time comes to return the child to the birth parent ... We do not have a lot of parents willing to take a baby on risk."

Reluctance on relatives

Beaver County also differs from many other parts of the country in its reluctance to place children with relatives of the birth parents.

After Pope was jailed in June, for instance, she asked her aunt and uncle, Jodi and Sheppard Pope of Beaver Falls, to take Sierra.

She trusted them. They already had Sierra's brother, Robert, and they had no intention of adopting him. They want Picola to get out of jail, reform her life, and get all her children back.

The Popes said they asked Robert's caseworker if they could get Sierra, and he told them they'd have to go through another set of parenting classes. So they did, and asked again. Then, Jodi Pope said, the caseworker told her that he wouldn't even try to get Sierra from Wilson because she was the assistant director of juvenile court services.

"I was really hurt when I went through that whole program and they told me no," Jodi Pope said.

The Popes aren't alone in complaining that CYS wouldn't place a child with relatives. The county has a poor track record for this kind of placement, even though child welfare experts say it works well because children are more comfortable with people they know.

Kurt Fuchel, a Beaver County public defender who previously served as a lawyer for parents there, said he always thought Beaver County should look more closely at relatives for placement.

He said he could only guess that the agency did not do that because of the old adage that the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. As soon as a child is declared abused or neglected, he said, "everyone involved with the child is immediately suspect."

Pennsylvania's record for placement with relatives isn't great, but Beaver County's is even worse.

Over the past two years, an average of 8 percent of foster children were placed with relatives statewide, according to statistics provided to the state by each county. That compares poorly with the 35 percent of foster children placed with relatives in Allegheny County, but is still better than Beaver County, where only 3 percent of children went to relatives in the same period.

Colonna thinks the state's statistics for Beaver County are unreliable. He believes 20 percent of Beaver County foster children are with relatives, although he did not document that estimate.

No foster payments

Regardless of whose figures are right, Colonna conceded that when relatives do get foster children in his county, CYS does not give them the $15 daily foster care payment for each child that it grants to non-relatives.

State and federal regulations mandate foster care payments for all certified foster parents, including relatives. To be certified, foster parents must attend classes and their homes must meet safety standards.

Beaver County skirts that rule by simply not certifying relatives.

That means those children not only may be living in substandard conditions, but also that their caretakers get only welfare to support the children -- which is about half of what they would get in foster payments.

Sending relatives to the welfare office saves Beaver County money because it pays nothing for welfare, but must contribute a small amount toward foster payments.

Colonna said he is planning to use an extra $1 million allocated to Beaver County by the state to start a program next year under which relatives could be certified as foster parents and receive foster payments.

Wilson is not receiving foster care money for Sierra because federal regulations prohibit paying those subsidies for a child who is receiving Social Security disability payments.

Whether Pope will get Sierra back from Wilson is still uncertain.

Pope was released from jail yesterday. Both times after she got out of jail in the past, she regained custody of her children. She hopes to do that again this time, and be a responsible parent.

After being a foster child herself, she said, "I do not want my kids to be in the system."

Tomorrow: CYS fights an open adoption for twins

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