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When the bough breaks: Mother asks CYS for help; it takes her children

Third in a series

Tuesday, December 14, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every weekend, Jessica Regelman takes her twins for an outing, which would be unremarkable, except that technically, they aren't hers anymore.

Mothers Vicky Neeley, left, and Jessica Regelman, right, are surrounded by three contented 2-year-olds and one 10-month-old. The youngsters, from left, are Alex, 2; Olivia Leona, 10 months; Ruthe, 2, and Amber, 2. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette) 

They belong to Vicky and Dr. Steven Neeley of Brighton Township. The Neeleys adopted Alex and Amber on Sept. 3, just days before the toddlers turned 2.

Regelman still gets to see them because she chose the Neeleys to adopt her children, much against the wishes of Beaver County Children and Youth Services.

But Beaver County CYS didn't just fight her attempts to choose adoptive parents for her son and daughter. It also acted quickly to end her parental rights, even though she had never been accused of abusing or neglecting her children.

CYS officials got involved after Regelman, a single mother with learning disabilities who had been under CYS supervision as a teen, called them for help dealing with her premature twins.

She thought they'd help her care for the babies, who were on heart monitors. Instead, CYS put the twins in foster care the day they left the hospital.

But CYS didn't stop there. Even after the babies were off the monitors, the agency repeatedly refused to let Regelman care for them, and then began trying to terminate her parental rights when the twins were just nine months old.

Later, the agency refused to consider Regelman's request that the Neeleys be allowed to adopt.

Federal law requires child welfare agencies to do whatever they can to keep families intact, and the Neeleys firmly believe that Regelman could have managed her babies with a little help. Also, federal law envisioned agencies spending twice as much time in working to return children to parents as CYS gave Regelman.

In addition, many child welfare agencies across the country grant parents' requests that children be adopted by specific relatives or friends -- such as the Neeleys -- in exchange for voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. But CYS refused to consider the Neeleys until after they had hired prominent Beaver attorney Albert A. Torrence to represent Regelman.

Like the Neeleys, Torrence thought all Regelman needed was a little assistance from CYS to care for two fragile newborns. Instead of helping her, Torrence felt CYS was determined to terminate Regelman's rights and place the babies for adoption with a couple the agency had chosen.

A frightening birth

Alex and Amber were born seven weeks prematurely at Magee Womens Hospital on Sept. 13, 1997. Together, they weighed less than eight pounds. The hospital connected them to monitors that would sound alarms if the babies forgot to breathe, as preemies sometimes do.

  When the bough breaks, Part Three:

When the bough breaks: Parents' legal rights often ignored in Beaver County

When the bough breaks: The Polite sisters weren't, and it led to reforms

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

Part Two: Beaver County moves faster than average to sever parents' legal rights to their children

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

About the authors


Regelman was intimidated. She was a 21-year-old responsible for two tiny babies tangled in wires. She had broken off her relationship with the babies' father, who is mildly retarded and has a criminal record for indecent assault and resisting arrest.

She also knew her own limitations. At the age of 6, she'd been struck in the head by a mirror on a passing car. As a result, she had some learning disabilities.

Vicky Neeley, who was a special education teacher before her children were born, described Regelman this way: "She is not really mentally retarded. Her reasoning ability is affected, but she takes the bus, passed CPR, can handle money. She has a perfect memory."

Regelman thought CYS was the kind of agency that would help her care for the newborns because they'd helped her when she was a rebellious teen-ager who repeatedly ran away from home. CYS assisted her grandmother, who was raising her, by enrolling Regelman in after-school activity programs.

When Regelman called CYS from Magee, it never occurred to her that the agency would take the twins from her. She thought the agency would send someone to her house occasionally to help her care for them.

But CYS did take the babies, and placed them in separate foster homes. Later, after Regelman and her grandmother requested it several times, CYS put the twins in the same home.

CYS gave Regelman two one-hour visits a month with her infants, the briefest time permitted by state law. Torrence said that is not nearly enough time for bonding to occur between parents and newborns.

Much later, when Torrence asked a hearing officer to increase the visiting time, CYS resisted strongly.

Witold Walczak, director of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, believes the agency deliberately limits visits as part of its strategy to terminate parental rights. Walczak, who has forced reversal of two Beaver County terminations, explains that a weak bond, no matter what its cause, may be used against a parent in termination proceedings.

Fighting inside CYS

The agency's initial focus isn't supposed to be termination. In 1997, when the twins were born, child welfare agencies like CYS were expected to spend 18 months helping parents get their children back, and most in Pennsylvania tried longer than that.

Regelman's first caseworker, Debbie Burr, seemed intent on following that federal direction. She gave Regelman moral support and provided her with a family service plan, which is a list of tasks that parents must complete, with CYS help, to get their children back. Regelman began attending classes on good parenting and on cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which was necessary because of her babies' premature birth.

But Burr's supervisor, Thomas Bond, made it clear he did not want the babies returned to their mother. For the hearing on whether to leave the children in foster care, Bond ordered Burr to subpoena witnesses who would testify about Regelman's troubled teen years, although by then, Regelman was 21 and had a stable relationship with a 56-year-old man, who was not the babies' father but who adored them.

Despite the testimony of those witnesses, a hearing officer decided that Regelman could get the twins if she lived with her grandmother, who would serve as a backup for her. Her boyfriend, who was less available because he worked full-time, was to be a secondary helper.

The day Regelman and her grandmother got Alex and Amber, their monitor alarms rang constantly. "She felt the kids were in danger," Torrence said later. "She had no sleep and was overwhelmed. It had to be a nightmare." Regelman called the foster mother and CYS the following morning and asked them to take the twins. She wanted to make sure the children were safe. "She did the right thing," Torrence said. "I really respect her for that."

She didn't find out until later that the monitor wires were not properly connected when CYS gave her the babies.

Even after the monitors were fixed, CYS refused Regelman's requests to get her babies back. Inside the agency, Burr and Bond continued to argue over Regelman's competency. Burr wrote that Regelman was resourceful and aware of her limits, that she understood the daily care and needs of infants, and that she faithfully visited her babies. Burr believed Regelman could raise the twins with help.

Bond wasn't buying it.

He took Burr off Regelman's case. He replaced her with Beth Hornyak, who wrote a report saying Regelman had a history of acting out impulsively and that she was easily frustrated and overwhelmed during her visits with the children. She concluded that Regelman could not care for the twins.

Regelman said Bond and Hornyak both treated her badly. "They were mean, the way they acted toward me." Her grandmother, Gale Regelman, backed that up, saying Hornyak told her she could no longer visit the babies because she was their great grandmother, not their grandmother.

As time passed, Regelman did everything CYS ordered, but still Hornyak wasn't satisfied. Regelman began to believe that no matter what she did, CYS would never return her babies to her. And then, she said, Hornyak told her that if she had another child, CYS would take that baby too.

Regelman couldn't endure that again. So, at the age of 21, she underwent sterilization surgery. "I hated to do it," she said. "I would have liked to have one more. I wanted three kids. But it doesn't happen when you are involved with CYS and they threaten you."

Bond, Hornyak and Burr are prohibited by state regulations and agency rules from talking about Regelman's case. Beaver County CYS Director Victor Colonna declined to discuss the case, citing state regulations.

The adoption battle

On June 20, 1998, when the twins were just 9 months old, the agency changed the goal for them to adoption.

Regelman's caseworker began pressuring her to sign away her parental rights to her children. "They told her, 'You know you are mentally retarded. You are not married and not capable of raising your kids.' They had her half convinced," Torrence said later.

Regelman said Hornyak kept after her all summer. "She asked me to sign papers to give up my rights to the babies and she got mad when I wouldn't. They got mad at me for a lot of things. I knew what they were up to. Just because I was in an accident, I am not stupid. They were just trying to take the babies all along."

Meanwhile, within the agency, workers had offered up the names of a dozen potential adoptive couples for Regelman's babies. It's not clear how CYS narrowed those down to the family it chose.

Regelman said CYS made it clear to her that the adoptive family would not let her see the babies again, so she began searching for a couple willing to enter an open adoption, one in which she could maintain a relationship with her children. Her boyfriend suggested the Neeleys, whom he'd known for 12 years through church.

Regelman called them. It was a perfect match. The Neeleys had been trying for years to adopt through an agency that places children who have mental or physical disabilities, but the agency never seriously considered them because they had seven biological children of their own, and by the time Regelman met them, Vicky Neely was pregnant again.

The Neeleys called CYS, but officials there, citing confidentiality regulations, refused even to acknowledge that the twins were in the agency's care, let alone discuss the possibility that they'd be available for adoption. CYS said it couldn't give the Neeleys information even if Regelman said it was all right.

Hiring legal help

The Neeleys next turned to Torrence, who was a friend of the family.

The Neeleys paid him to defend Regelman against CYS' attempt to terminate her parental rights.

He got the termination hearing postponed, but then found out CYS had picked an adoptive family and had no intention of considering the Neeleys.

Torrence wrote CYS to tell them he thought they'd failed to give Regelman an adequate opportunity to prove she could be a good parent. Keeping her children away from her because of one day and night when she was overwhelmed by malfunctioning medical monitors was not justified, he said.

If CYS did terminate her rights, though, he told the agency that the Neeleys should be considered as adoptive parents because the law does not preclude a mother from designating who adopts her children.

He reiterated those points at a hearing on Nov. 18, 1998, and the hearing officer gave Regelman additional visiting time with the babies, over the objections of CYS.

As he prepared for the termination trial, Torrence added Debbie Burr, Regelman's original caseworker, to his witness list to testify against CYS. He also pointed out that CYS' argument for termination was weak because Regelman had completed her family service plan requirements.

Before the trial even began, CYS negotiated a settlement. The agency agreed to withdraw the termination petition if the babies went to the Neeleys, not Regelman.

Regelman accepted the deal. She feared that if she didn't, the agency would somehow terminate her rights anyway. And she had the Neeleys' promise that she could see her children.

The Neeleys now have three two-year-olds: Alex and Amber, and their toddler, Ruthe, who is three months older. They have a 10-month-old baby, Olivia Leona. And they have six older children, Eleanor, 4; Steven, 7; Victoria, 9; Elizabeth, 12; JoAnna, 14, and Sarah, 16. They have two washers and two dryers and pay for outside help at least two days a week.

Regelman still wishes she could have kept her children, but she is grateful to the Neeleys.

"CYS wanted it so that Alex and Amber would not know their real mother, just the people who adopted them. They shouldn't do that. Every child has a right to know who their real parents are. My kids will know me and they will know Vicky as their mom too."

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