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

Tuesday, December 14, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Oddly, it was two sisters named Polite who started the uproar in Beaver County. They did it because they thought the courts and Children and Youth Services there had treated them uncivilly.

Nichole Polite and her sister Youlanda challenged Beaver County's practice of conducting termination hearings without parents, even those who had asked to be present. Nichole briefly got her parental rights restored. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette) 

Orphans' Court and CYS ignored their requests to attend the hearings at which their parental rights to their children were terminated. Because both were in jail, the court needed to arrange for them to be escorted to the hearings.

It would be hard to describe either sister, Nichole or Youlanda, as a model of motherhood, since both have spent much of their children's lives locked up for various crimes committed in relentless pursuit of crack cocaine.

Nichole Polite admits she has done wrong. But, she says, that doesn't justify wrongdoing by court and agency officials. "I am paying dearly for my mistakes," Nichole said. "At the same time, my rights were violated."

She was in the Beaver County Jail on July 16, 1997, when Beaver County Judge Robert C. Reed presided over a hearing on her parental rights to a baby daughter.

Nichole had called her caseworker and asked to be taken to the hearing, and the caseworker told the judge. Reed could have dispatched deputy sheriffs across Third Street in Beaver to escort her the 200 yards from the jail to the courthouse. But he didn't. He did nothing to accommodate her desire -- and her right -- to try to defend herself. He terminated her parental rights without giving her a chance to tell her side of the story.

Even Nichole, a drug addict with a limited education, knew that was wrong. She wrote every lawyer whose name she could find asking for help. No one responded. Then she branched out, writing places like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. Finally, Jere Krakoff, from the law project, responded.

Krakoff demanded that her rights to her daughter be restored. The court's behavior, Krakoff wrote, "offended the most elemental notions of fundamental fairness."

Reed reversed the termination. Krakoff thought his court arguments would end that kind of improper termination, but Reed continued to terminate the rights of jailed parents who weren't present at hearings they wanted to attend.

In one of those cases, the parent, Michelle D. Warnick, was told by CYS that termination was to be discussed at a conference, where no final action would occur. She received a letter informing her of the "conference" seven days before it was to occur.

Through her probation officer, she sent word to her caseworker that she wanted to be taken from the jail to the court session. But no one came to get her.

At the "conference" -- which was actually the hearing to end her parental rights -- the caseworker told Reed that Warnick was in jail, but didn't mention that she had wanted to attend. Reed never asked why she wasn't there. In a proceeding that could have lasted no more than five minutes, he permanently ended her rights to her children. Afterward, court officials failed to tell Warnick she'd been terminated or that she had a right to appeal.

Youlanda Polite was in a state prison when she got notice of her termination hearing. She wrote CYS Solicitor Robert Masters, telling him she wanted to attend. He didn't arrange for that. In fact, when Reed asked him if Polite had called to say she wanted to attend, Masters said she hadn't. He did not tell the judge that instead, she had written asking to attend.

After Reed terminated Youlanda, she complained to Nichole, and they wrote the ACLU. Then the ACLU asked the state Supreme Court last December to order Beaver County to institute decent standards of due process.

Before the Supreme Court could act, Reed agreed to settle the suit. He reversed Polite's and Warnick's terminations and established a committee that wrote new court rules, which took effect in October. They include standard forms for giving parents notice of termination. And though they still include technical terms parents may not understand, the notices no longer refer to termination hearings as "conferences."

Also, the notices give specific instructions to jailed parents on how to get lawyers, who could arrange for them to attend hearings.

The ACLU held a press conference with a jubilant Warnick in January after her rights were restored. She was out of jail, working steadily and on her way to getting visits with her children. But then, she resumed drug use and returned to jail. She's out again now and working toward visits.

Similarly, Youlanda was living in a halfway house, working full-time and visiting her son. Then she threatened a guard and was sent back to prison.

Nichole was terminated from her daughter a second time. Afterward, she returned to drugs and, then, prison.

While the Polite sisters did not get their children back, the ruckus they kicked up did lead to new fairness rules for all families in Beaver County.

"Out of their hardship and pain, they helped to shine the spotlight on a very troubled system and get some very important reforms," said Witold Walczak, director of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU.

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