Will DCFS Follow its Stated Goal of Family Reunification? pb

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by Sharon Rondeau

(Dec. 31, 2012) — For the past three months, The Post & Email has been following the saga of the Henderson family, whose seven children have been separated into several foster homes despite no evidence of abuse or neglect cited by the county which took them.

The parents, Jeffrey and Erica Henderson, have filed a federal lawsuit under 42 USC 1983, naming numerous Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) workers, the presiding judge, and various county officials as defendants.  A chronology of events can be found here.  A press release from approximately a year ago cites numerous concerns with the children’s foster home arrangements and violations of the parents’ constitutional rights.

DCFS Public Affairs Director Armand Montiel had told The Post & Email in an interview that the primary goal of the agency was to reunify families as long as the home environment for the children was deemed “safe.”

Judge Marguerite Downing had been set to begin the process of “adopting out” the six elder children, who range in age from just under three years to ten.  The youngest child, a baby, was taken from its mother’s arms because of the “open case” concerning the other six, who had been placed in foster care after the parents were falsely arrested in May 2011.

The case was recently transferred to a different DCFS office, during which time Mrs. Henderson was not able to see her children for several weeks.  A court hearing on December 20 resulted in the parents’ ability to visit their children together, and the new social worker assigned to the case established a schedule of weekly visits on Wednesday for two hours and on Sundays for six hours.

The Hendersons reported that they were followed by armed police officers inside and outside of the courthouse on December 20, and several days before, while attending a hearing in support of an acquaintance, they were ordered to leave the courtroom without an explanation.

The first visit of the new schedule took place on December 26, which Mrs. Henderson described as “excellent.” “It couldn’t have been better.  It was really nice to see how we function as a family,” she told us.  She related that she was “really pleased that my husband was still the same papa, if not a better papa” as he had been before the family was divided.  “I held the baby pretty much the whole time, which was really nice,” she told us.  “We forgot how great a family we are!” she said, laughing.  “The kids just loved it.”

Mrs. Henderson said that on Sunday, two of her boys were brought to her home in anticipation of a visit, even though the Sunday visits were not scheduled to begin until January 6, 2013.  “They were misinformed,” she said.  “One of the problems that I see from working through the system is that the foster parents deal with the FSA (foster care agency), so they have independent social workers who work for them.  Then those social workers are supposed to deal with my social workers who deal with me.  We’ve had so many communication breakdowns because of that in itself; it’s very inefficient.  Even if I call the foster parents and say, ‘This is what’s going on,’ she has to get approval from her FSA.  It’s very frustrating.  She was very frustrated, and the boys were very upset.  They were removing their seat belts and getting out of the car, but I had to tell them that they couldn’t stay.  They were crying, and it was very hard.  They don’t understand.  I apologized to the foster mother and told her that it had been set up through my social worker, but she said, ‘I never got that message.’”

Mrs. Henderson said that the new social worker said “a lot of really wonderful things,” but she is reserving “getting excited” because “every time over the past year, we get all these promises…”

After being released from jail with all criminal charges dropped, Mr. and Mrs. Henderson have not been able to live together because Jeffrey’s visitation was ordered to be monitored but Mrs. Henderson’s was originally unmonitored.  The new social worker asked Mrs. Henderson, “Why don’t you and your husband live together?” to which she responded, “The previous social worker, Mr. Lorber, had made a really big deal about it and said in the court reports that he didn’t want him living here.”  The new worker then told her, “There are no restraining orders, and the court hasn’t ordered you to live separately.  I don’t see why you can’t live together.”

“What he was trying to say, after I had the baby, was that because I had unmonitored visits and he had monitored at the time, that even though the new baby was not on the case, Jeffrey should not be alone around the new baby because he couldn’t be alone with any of the kids.  The baby wasn’t even part of the case plan, but Mr. Lorber made a big deal about it in his court report. ‘Well, if he lived there, then he’s going to be around the baby…’ So he made it into an issue, and I think that’s when the judge said – because we weren’t at that hearing – to make both of our visits unmonitored.   But it was never something that the court had said.”

Mr. and Mrs. Henderson found out in November that several hearings concerning their children had been held without their knowledge, and the paperwork filed authorizing social workers to take the infant had never been verified by a third party as required by law.  Nevertheless, the infant was not returned to them.

However, witnesses reported a change in Judge Downing’s demeanor at the November 19 hearing, which lasted only a few minutes, and then again at the December 20 hearing.

Mrs. Henderson further told us that “the social worker said he wants to meet us in January after we have three or four visits, and if there are no issues, he will ‘liberalize’ to ‘unsupervised’ for both of us.  But I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that and sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t.  So I got really excited after I talked to him, but now I’m thinking, ‘Let’s see what happens.’”

The Hendersons had expected to be fully reunited last September.  The infant was seized on August 31 while Mrs. Henderson was breastfeeding.  Mrs. Henderson said that she believes there was retaliation on the part of Lorber because she chooses not to vaccinate her children, and after the baby was taken, she is sure he was vaccinated.

When we asked Mrs. Henderson if she or her husband had received a response on the lawsuit, she said that on Friday, they received notification that their request for “in forma pauperis” was denied.  They have three options, one of which is to attempt to raise the $450 filing fee.  Before the family was torn apart, the Hendersons ran an internet business building websites, which Jeffrey will still do if asked.  “He does the design and construction and the business part of it,” she said, referring to the process of constructing a new website.

“Right now we are both working for board and room,” Mrs. Henderson told us.

Jeffrey is scheduled to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in early February, and his pretests have shown high scores which Mrs. Henderson said they have been told would result in a full scholarship plus a stipend.  “If he places well, then he’ll be able to get a stipend which we can live on when he’s in law school,” she said, looking forward to a future when their family is reunited permanently.  They have received offers from relatives and friends from “all over the country” who have invited the family to live with them while Jeffrey attends school.  He is therefore applying to many law schools across the country.  “That’s only if we have the kids back, and it’s so hard to know…” she said.

Mrs. Henderson wants to be a stay-at-home mother when the children are returned.  “They’re going to need a lot of loving after all they’ve been through,” she told us.  “At this point I can only plan so much, because my circumstances don’t allow me to plan for any more.”

Donations to assist the Henderson family can be made here.

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