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IN RESPONSE TO REPORTS OF CIVIL AND CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS VIOLATIONS OF BOTH PARENTS AND CHILDREN
by Sharon Rondeau
(Sep. 21, 2012) — After learning about a case in which custody of six, and presently seven, children, was lost to the Los Angeles Department of Child & Family Services (DCFS) by two home-schooling parents who have chosen to represent themselves in Juvenile Court proceedings, The Post & Email placed several calls to DCFS Director Philip Browning. While Browning’s office does not allow calls to reach him directly, we left a message with an assistant last week. We called again on September 20, 2012, when a message was taken and relayed to Mr. Armand Montiel, Public Affairs Director for DCFS.
We have also contacted First District Board of County Supervisor Gloria Molina on two occasions to bring attention to the Henderson case. The Board of County Supervisors oversees DCFS, and Ms. Molina is the county supervisor in whose district Mrs. Henderson is currently residing. The Post & Email has been told by a source close to the family that an order issued by the court mandates that the parents cannot live together, and Mr. Henderson is currently living in a tent, subsisting on donations from concerned citizens.
Neither Ms. Molina nor anyone in authority at the Board of County Supervisors has responded to our phone calls and initial email inquiry, although we did speak several times with Regina Marquez, an assistant in the Board of County Supervisors’ office.
Mrs. Henderson told The Post & Email that neither she nor her husband has ever abused their children; however, she stated that the children are “repeatedly abused and neglected in foster care.”
Mrs. Henderson’s five and one-half-week-old infant was torn from her arms on August 31, 2012, by members of the Los Angeles Police Department and a DCFS social worker after a social worker had come to her home previously and apparently found no reason to take any action. When the police and social worker arrived on August 31, the other six children were having an unsupervised visit with their mother. The Post & Email has been told that visitation has now reverted to having a monitor without an explanation and that the monitor makes negative comments to Mrs. Henderson about her parenting methods when they are neither abusive nor neglectful.
Mrs. Henderson was nursing the baby and faces a two-hour bus ride each way to transport milk to the baby’s social worker, changing buses mid-way through her trip. She is also experiencing physical discomfort from the baby’s separation from her.
The next court date for the Hendersons regarding the placement of their infant in foster care is scheduled for Tuesday, which is Yom Kippur, described as “the most important holiday of the Jewish year” on which “no work” should be undertaken. The family is Orthodox Jewish and the two parents will be fasting the entire day. When we mentioned this to Mr. Montiel, he responded that DCFS “is absolutely respectful of the religious practices of the families it serves.” He said “In Los Angeles County, we have many religious groups,” and that “Judaism is not something that is new to us.”
On the issue of court-appointed attorneys, Mr. Montiel told us that the attorneys available to parents in child custody cases “do not represent the county.” He said they are well-trained, licensed and competent to represent both parents and children. Each child placed in foster care is assigned his or her own attorney to represent the child’s best interests. Montiel vouched for the “integrity” of the attorneys assigned to both children and parents and said that they adhere to “the way the law is written.” He said parents who feel their rights have been violated have “appeal opportunities” through “independent, competent attorneys,” who “represent the interest of their client.”
When we told Mr. Montiel about the scenario which Mrs. Henderson and another source had described regarding two occasions when the Henderson parents were told to leave the courtroom and the hearing regarding their infant’s placement proceeded without them in apparent violation of state law, Montiel said, “Our judges follow the law.” He stated that Juvenile Courts are now open to reporters unless a petition is granted to remove the reporter “for cause.” “There are a lot of eyes on the court,” Montiel explained, “and we would have to show cause to exclude a reporter.”
We asked if parents are allowed to represent themselves as the Hendersons have requested, to which Montiel responded, “I would not recommend that to anyone,” but that “If parents believe that they could represent themselves as well or better,” then theoretically such a request should be granted. “The court and presiding judge go to great lengths to ensure that everyone’s rights are upheld,” Montiel said.
We told Montiel that it is our understanding that two of the seven Henderson children have been placed in Spanish-speaking homes when they do not speak Spanish. In a telephone call with a close friend of the family last evening following our call with Montiel, we were told that five of the children are in Spanish-speaking-only homes. Montiel stated that placing a child in a home where another language is spoken would be “unusual” and that if that is the case with any child, the issue should be raised with the child’s social worker.
Montiel stated that the primary goal of DCFS is “reunification” of children and parents. “We reunify more than anything else,” he told us. “It is the first thing we try, the second thing, and the third thing,” he said. “The case plan is to reunify first.” The Henderson children have been in foster care since May 20, 2011.
As The Post & Email reported, the week of September 10-14 was designated by LA DCFS as “Family Reunification Week.”
Montiel stated that the purpose of DCFS is to “help the family so that the child can return safely.” “We want infants to be with their family.” Regarding the job that DCFS is doing, Montiel said, “Frankly, I think we do it well.” He invited The Post & Email to meet with him if we are ever in the Los Angeles area.