Blogs by Deborah K. Frontiera
8/12/2012 5:24:19 PM
The purpose of this blog is to provide updates on some of the cases I reported in my book (Fighting CPS: Guilty Until Proven Innocent of Child Protective Services Charges ISBN 9-780-9800061-6-2) that had not been resolved when the book went to press, and to report other cases where CPS is not working up to par. I’d also like to hear about cases in which Child Protective Services did the right thing so those cases can serve as examples of what should be done. Occasionally, I will report helpful tips and web sites with advice on fighting CPS.
To comment on this blog, or to tell your story, email Deborah Frontiera at frontiera.fightingcps.deborah.gmail.com
This blog will post new material two times a month, instead of every week. Look for the next post Aug. 27, 2012.
A Lawyer for Children Weighs In
I met Donna Broom, a Lawyer ad litem (281-229-9747 dbroomlaw.aol.com) in May 2012 at the Spring Art festival in Friendswood, TX. We talked for a while as she purchased a copy of Fighting CPS. I asked her if I could interview her for this blog. The results of that interview are posted below. This post is much longer than my “usual,” but I hope many will read the entire thing, pass it along to others, and act on it.
Frontiera: May I use your name? Or would you rather be “Ms. 4-a-child”? (Sometimes people tell me it’s okay to use names, while others prefer to remain anonymous—like the caseworker supervisor I mention in my book that was critical of judges in her area but still needed to go before those same judges in other children’s cases.).
Broom: You may use my name. My grandmother taught me early on that you never do anything anonymously. If you are too afraid to use your name then maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all.
Frontiera: Tell me a little about what you do as a lawyer ad litem.
Broom: I have been a licensed attorney for over ten years and during that time; I have practiced primarily family law, probate, guardianship and estate planning. I have been an appointed ad litem or amicus attorney for over 200 family and guardianship cases across the state of Texas.
There is no one size fits all answer as to what you do as an attorney ad litem. The first thing you have to know is what type of court appointed attorney the judge put in the order. There are at least three types of court appointments an attorney can receive: An Amicus Attorney, attorney ad litem or guardian ad litem. All three generally have the same duties and responsibilities they are treated very differently and have three different powers to advocate and you may not blur the distinctions.
The Amicus Attorney is a very powerful appointment and this type of appointment carries with it a lot of responsibility. It is the usual appointment in family law cases (divorces, modification orders). Not the typical appointment in a CPS case. This attorney must meet with the child(ren), families, medical personnel, school officials and can view any report pertaining to the child(ren). They generally file reports with the court and make recommendations to the parties on custody, child support. While the Amicus Attorney is appointed to represent the child(ren), they are not required to advocate what the child wants. They have to represent and advocate what is in the child’s best interest. This is sometimes against what the child(ren) may want. If the Amicus has a recommendation it is generally wise for the parties to work with the Amicus because the courts generally give lots of weight to the Amicus recommendations.
The guardian ad litem works very similar in that they are merely protectors of the child’s best interest. This person is an objective adult to provide independent information about the best interests of the child. This is the role you will see CASA play in cases because this person does not have to be an attorney.
An Attorney Ad Litem is the typical appointment that occurs in a CPS case. This person must generally advocate the wishes of the child and if the child is unable to speak their wishes (younger than four), this ad litem is to then advocate to their best ability the best interest of the particular child. This person has statutory duties to represent the child and not CPS or the parent. The conflict occurs and frustration mounts because the ad litem is put in the middle of two parties who are reluctant to turn anything over to the ad litem. The ad litem is often left beating their heads against the wall frustrated because they cannot obtain the information they need to represent their minor clients.
Frontiera: About how many children’s cases do you handle at a time?
Broom: To be honest, I pick and choose my cases now and do not handle CPS appointments. Instead I take on cases of families that are caught in the CPS system and need assistance or guidance.
Frontiera: I think I remember that you mentioned you worked on some of the cases a few years back with the kids at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. What are you allowed to tell me about that?
(I followed the case pretty closely in the newspapers and outlined it in my book on pgs. 214-229)
If you can, I’d like your opinion as to how that case was handled, and what could have been done better.
Broom: I still get frustrated when I talk about this case because there was so much that went wrong with how this case was handled. On April 3rd, beginning at 9 pm Voss, the CPS caseworker, the County Sheriff’s Department, the Texas Rangers and the DPS troopers raided the ranch; interviewed 30 girls throughout the night. Within days of the raid, CPS removed 463 children living at the ranch.
This process led to the scheduling of a mandatory Adversarial hearing - which – by law – must take place within 14 days of taking a child from a parent and for which a child must have an attorney ad litem provided.
That led to – as you might imagine – a wild scramble throughout Texas to find, in a matter of days, 463 child ad litem qualified attorneys, who would volunteer to help – of which I was one.
When I first arrived in San Angelo the night before the Adversarial hearing was to take place, I was furnished a skimpy file on an assigned child. I received this file at a church in San Angelo and was sent to the San Angelo Coliseum where my client was being held. Upon arrival at the Coliseum, I had to hack through the maze of DPS troopers and guards and contend with the bureaucratic hassle that included a medical evaluation to make sure I would not expose my client to any disease. In any other case, I would not have had to go through this process to meet with my client. This process was conducted in a mobile trailer parked at the entrance of the Coliseum. To get to my client I had to ride in a DPS cruiser to the entrance of the Coliseum. At the entrance, I was greeted by more officials who signed me in and who were responsible for obtaining my client for me.
The first time I met my client it was about 8:00 pm on April 16. She was a bewildered 8 yea- old,
who was frightened and was not going to talk very easily to a stranger. I knew this interview
was going to be difficult but I had no idea what horrible conditions I would have in which to
interview my client. Our first meeting was in an atmosphere of chaos, anxiety and frustration.
CPS had separated the room into many, many little conference room like settings. The walls
were sheets thrown on clothes line. No real privacy existed. CPS workers and DPS troopers
walked through the great hall and you could hear other attorneys meeting with their clients. I could barely hear my client when she spoke because of all the noise.
My client, sitting across from me on the floor, was – in some ways – quite mature for her age – and in other ways so very, very young. She did not understand why she had been taken to, and kept in, what she called “this yucky place,” but felt assured that the judge would send her back to her mother. That was April 16th. She kept telling me to “stay sweet”.
As we know the adversarial hearing resulted in CPS being named managing conservator and the children were shipped all over Texas to various foster homes. Today most if not all of the children have been returned to their mothers but getting those kids back to their mothers was a legal nightmare. I saw my client approximately eight times during the six months that she was separated from her mother. I never felt that I actually got to talk to her privately because every time there was a CPS caseworker, foster home representative, law enforcement, or later her mother in easy earshot whenever we met.
The case was a brutal and massive tug-of-war between two unyielding and well-funded entities:
The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and, the Texas Department of Family and
Protective Services (CPS). Month after month each of those kids were put though a seemingly
endless stream of interviews with attorneys, caseworkers, CASA volunteers, law enforcement
officers, medical personnel and therapists and often without the benefit of their attorneys
knowing about the interview much less being present.
The children also had to endure DNA testing, medical exams, pregnancy testing and in some
cases immunizations all out of the purview of the ad litems appointed to represent those children. There were reported cases of chicken pox and other illnesses while the children were in CPS custody. The ad litems formed many groups in which to talk to one another and assist in trying to get information about families. Most families had four or five children and that meant that four or five attorneys were assigned to the children. This required lots of phone calls to the sibling’s ad litems and attempts to negotiate with the ad litems to present a united front to CPS to get the siblings back together. With so many egos, this was not always easy and many conflicts broke out between the ad litems. I took lots of what was going on public and many condemned me for it but that was the only way to let the public know what was going on behind the CPS veil.
Many mistakes were made. Some of the mistakes were:
One: The fiasco was started with inadequate investigation into the legitimacy of a phone call that sparked the raid;
Two: the standard policy of removing the suspected perpetrator, rather than the child and removing children from the home only as a last resort, was ignored and, instead, all children were removed in mass, the fathers could have been removed much easier and kept out of the ranch. The reports of tunnels and inability to remove the fathers were in my opinion exaggerated;
Key mistake number three: Authorities failed to take into account, the enormous logistical problems of forcing more than 400 children to move from one location to another across the state of Texas;
Four: Authorities failed to realize the statutory time lines that would be triggered by removing the children from the parents that wouldn't have been triggered if the children had stayed with at least one parent;
Five: The absurd 14-day adversarial hearing en masse – in which the voice of ad litems and thus the children was pushed to a remote auditorium;
Six: The psychological well-being of the children being taken away from their parents and, later, from siblings seemed to be ignored. For example, during the middle of the night there were cases of siblings being separated while they slept. Children woke up to find their siblings gone and moved to separate shelters. Many children were not allowed to see their parents until they had been removed to a shelter outside of San Angelo;
Key mistake number seven: There was an incredibly inadequate ability of the attorney’s ad litem to represent the children in an individualized manner. Most of the children were listed under one case number; and, everything pertaining to one child was imputed to all children;
Key mistake number eight: Countless interviews of children by CPS, law enforcement, doctors, therapists took place without benefit of counsel, even after attorneys were appointed to represent the children;
Nine: Frustrated volunteer attorneys who dropped everything to rush in to assist the children were hit with constant roadblocks from all sides. Those roadblocks appeared to be motivated by people who seemed bent on saving face or touting political agendas rather than protecting the children. For example, there have been articles and public statements by Members of Congress ad nauseum to make sure everyone understands that the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints are separate from the Latter Day Saints;
Ten: Lack of thought of the long term effects on the children resulting from this whole ordeal regardless of outcome;
Key mistake number eleven: Earlier teachings by the FLDS to distrust government and law enforcement have been reinforced with what these children have been through;
These are but a few of the gross mistakes in what I refer to as the FLDS fiasco.
Frontiera: As a lawyer for the children, do you find yourself agreeing with CPS in most cases? About what percent of the time do you disagree?
Broom: I find myself frustrated with the inconsistency of CPS investigations. I have been lucky in some instances to find caseworkers who actually return phone calls and talk to you about the case in a professional manner. Others are rude and refuse to talk or give any insight as to what CPS is going to do.
A lot of the family law cases I have had to deal with center on a parent seeking a modification after CPS has gotten involved with their family. There was a long period of time where one parent was found to be abusive and CPS created a safety plan but then when the safety plan expired, they went away and left the families hanging. The perpetrator had not fallen through with the plan but CPS decided to just go away. Other cases, CPS decides that not only are they going to get involved they are going to go all the way and seek managing conservatorship over the children. No one can tell definitively what CPS will do in any given case because their whole role is too subjective. You can have very similar fact patterns in two different cases and CPS will take different routes. The safety plans made sense and we were able to work towards keeping the families intact. Again, this is because the caseworkers have such subjective authority and depending on their mood will determine how the case will be handled. I had one case where the caseworker was just going to close the case because she could not get the father to answer the door so she could interview him. Another caseworker would have been more aggressive or filed for removal.
A pet peeve I have is when I am reviewing CPS reports, I really would like to read something that is grammatically correct and words spelled correctly. If it is an official report, then some care to the way it is written should be taken into account. A word about the reports. Good luck getting reports. This process has become more and more difficult. I remember when I was a new attorney it would take 2 weeks to get a CPS report. Now it takes 5-8 weeks if you get a file at all.
Frontiera: What things do you see that CPS is doing right?
Broom: I have seen some improvement in how the CPS caseworkers talk to the attorneys. They actually return phone calls. This is a huge improvement. One of the best things that CPS did during the FLDS case was involving Charles Childress with the legal team. I think his efforts in that case as well as a continued mentor for attorneys working on CPS cases have helped improve how CPS handles some cases.
Frontiera: What do you recommend to “fix” the things that CPS does poorly?
Broom: In my humble opinion, the following changes are needed:
First, create strict guidelines for removal of a child from his or her parent and for returning children to their parents – especially when dealing with large-scale communal groups. The code gives too much authority to the investigative CPS worker to make the call of whether there is imminent harm to the child to force a removal. The standards are such that one jurisdiction would remove where another would not.
Second, empower the attorneys ad litem role in representing the children and prevent them from being treated as window dressing. Too many times attorney ad litems are ignored and treated as if their representation doesn’t matter. In the FLDS case there were just hundreds of attorneys needing information. CPS had no right to complain because they brought this on themselves and should have been ready for the onslaught that occurred.
Third, set up regulations that require mandatory and timely disclosures of information by all parties, in order to force CPS to present a clear case before acting. The code gives the ad litems the ability to get the information but CPS caseworkers ignore the rules in many cases because, like one told me once, “We have too many cases to handle at once”. CPS is notorious for taking its time in turning over their evidence. If CPS is really in the business of protecting children then they should be very interested in making sure all issues pertaining to the children are shared. If they believe the reunification is the goal, then by all means, they need to be assisting the families in getting that reunification as quickly as possible.
Fourth, set mandatory guidelines that siblings will be kept together during the removal process, because, while separating children from parents is traumatic, further separation from siblings is abusive. If the siblings are separated, then by all means, safety plans should include contact with the siblings under conditions that do not cause harm to the children.
Five: Recognize that judicial oversight of the actions of CPS may not be enough and a citizen review board of CPS may be in order. This citizen review board cannot be a “Junior League” group. They should have authority to review any and all CPS cases in the form of audits to make sure caseworkers are adhering to the rules in every region of the state. They should have authority to take disciplinary measures when CPS fails.
Six: While encouraging the ability for people to report legitimate abuse from those wishing to cause malicious harm, procedures must be in place to confirm legitimacy before CPS involves. There is a duty of everyone to report suspected child abuse and attorneys, doctors, nurses, teachers and others can lose their licenses if they do not report. Many will err on the side of caution because of the fear of losing their license. The problem I have found in some of these cases is that when the families followed the rules and did everything CPS said, they were treated very harshly and the children often times were removed. When the families took a difficult approach (not answering the door, uncooperative) or refused to follow the rules, CPS would close the case as “Undetermined” and went away. Very frustrating because families are being penalized more severely for following the rules.
And, finally, Seven: Regulations must be established that will insure consistency among all authorities that demands consistent – not selective enforcement. While the FLDS case was going on, I was appointed to a Houston case that involved an underage girl who was seeking to marry her much older boyfriend because she was pregnant. Her parents wanted to consent to the marriage. The judge and I felt that CPS had to be notified because of the similar fact patterns to the FLDS case. Both cases involved a very young girl whose family was seeking marriage to very older man. CPS opinion in Houston was that because the family was Guatemalan it was not considered abuse for the parents to condone the underage marriage. This was completely contrary to the findings in FLDS which found that parents could not hide behind religious or cultural convictions. I was blown away by the way CPS treated the two cases. If CPS is going to work as a state agency, they need to have state wide regulations.
It has been said that “When the dog bites you the first time, it’s the dog’s fault, but when he bites you the second time, it’s your fault.” Due to the unfortunate nature of the FDLS debacle and the incredible use of poor judgment by CPS and the insensitive treatment of the FDLS children, we have been bitten once and been warned. And, now it is our sacred obligation to make very, very sure that nothing like this ever happens again
Frontiera: What will it take at the state and national level to improve the way CPS operates?
Broom: CPS is not going to change unless the legislature forces change through rewriting many of the family code sections dealing with CPS. Those changes are not going to take place unless people notify their elected officials and pin point the exact code sections that need to be changed and offer proposed changes. There are quite a few CPS officials who really want to do the right thing. Giving them clear rules on how they can do their jobs would go a long way to help improve the system. I do think that CPS has grown too big for its britches, especially in Texas. It oversees way too much and there is not enough oversight of what it does.
Frontiera: What can the ordinary person do to help the process along?
Broom: Continue to bring to light the cases that have been handled poorly. Unfortunately, when you are caught up in the case you are afraid because of the power of CPS. I know that every time I work on a case or times when I have said something negative about CPS, I have a twinge of fear of what if a caseworker showed up at my door step to investigate me. We cannot turn a blind eye to the actions of CPS and the more people stand together to facilitate change, the less likely they will be retaliated against.
The media is so wrapped up in showing what restaurants have “slime” in the ice machines. I would think they would be a great source to broadcast good and bad CPS actions. I know that when the media was watching CPS during the FLDS case, changes were made and after the case there were some changes. Now, some years have passed and the media is no longer interested in what CPS doing. Maybe they should be.
Frontiera: What it the best advice you have for parents currently “caught” in the system who should get their kids back, or whose kids shouldn’t have been taken away in the first place?
Broom: Do not give up. Talk to elected officials about changing code sections and removing child abuse investigations away from CPS and putting it with law enforcement. For those caught in the system, go up the chain of command and if that means going to Austin, that is what you do. Do not just sit idly by and let the caseworker call the shots. Go to her supervisor and their supervisor and theirs until you get answers to the questions. Read the family code that pertains to CPS and their timelines and point those out to them when they are in violation.
To everyone out there who reads this, please pass the word along. Only by working together, can we make things better for all children—rescuing those who are in abusive situations and saving innocent families from the nightmare of CPS involvement.
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