Monday, November 13, 2017

By Richard Wexler, Executive Director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

KEY POINTS:

This case is the story of child welfare all over America, not just Connecticut

● Profoundly embarrassed after they took away the children of Kirsten Fauquet only to have one child nearly die in foster care, the Connecticut child welfare agency is conducting what amounts to a vendetta against Fauquet and her partner John Stratzman.

● The extent of the vendetta can be seen in the fact that  DCF is seeking termination of parental rights against the recommendation of its own expert. 

● As is so often the case when child welfare agencies take swings at parents, the blows are landing on the children.  DCF’s vendetta has compounded the trauma for the children.  They have been separated from siblings as well as their parents and moved from foster home to foster home.

● At the root of this case is the biggest problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with neglect.  Yes, the parents made mistakes – but when you are poor, there is no margin for error. 

● This is the kind of case that is far more typical than the stories of parents who beat and torture their children.  The only thing that makes this case unusual is the brutality inflicted on one of the children while in foster care.  (Abuse in some form is not unusual, however.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.)

What has been done to this family is done to tens of thousands of families every year. But it goes largely unnoticed.

● That’s partly because child welfare systems can hide almost everything they do behind confidentiality laws that protect agencies, not children.  This case illustrates the value of open court hearings in child welfare cases.

● But there’s another reason child welfare systems get away with hurting children this way:  Too many reporters are too willing to accept a child welfare agency’s version of events without asking tough questions.  This case illustrates how often, when all sides are heard, the full story looks very different from the version presented by the child welfare agency.


Kirsten Fauquet’s children never should have been taken away.  One of the children nearly died in foster care. That embarrassed the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. So the agency has turned its full fury on Fauquet – and her children are suffering for it.


On the day a caseworker for  the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) came to Kirsten Fauquet’s home in June, 2015, there was nothing wrong that couldn’t have been fixed by a homemaker, an air conditioner and, maybe, a visit from a nurse.

Instead, DCF took away her four young children – and nearly got one of them killed.  Instead of trying to do everything possible to undo the damage, DCF now is compounding it, re-traumatizing the children over and over and moving to terminate the parental rights of Fauquet, who works as a certified nursing assistant, and her partner, John Stratzman, who works as a dishwasher.


How Dylan nearly died


After five months of the best efforts of Connecticut DCF to “protect” him by placing him in foster care, this was the condition of one of Fauquet’s children, (known by the pseudonym “Dylan”) according to a report from the state’s Office of Child Advocate:

At nineteen months old, Dylan was “unable to walk, talk or feed himself.” He had loose skin on his body, his ribs were very prominent, his eyes were sunken in and his temple muscles appeared wasted. He had swelling in his face and hands. His left elbow was swollen, and he could not extend his arm completely. His right wrist was swollen, and he had an old scar that appeared to be from a burn. His hair and skin were extremely dry from malnutrition and low protein, and he had developed a fine hair over his body that grows when a child is starving. … [H]e weighed only seventeen pounds, less than he weighed when he was last seen by his pediatrician, seven months earlier.
…[H]e also had broken bones in both arms, several weeks old. … He had a healing burn on his wrist and a torn frenulum (tissue that extends underneath the tongue) in theinside of his mouth. He had multiple bruises and abrasions of different ages on his chest, shoulder, abdomen, elbow, back and arm.
…Medical evaluation showed evidence of a retinal hemorrhage and old bleeding into Dylan’s brain that was deemed “most likely the result of inflicted trauma.”

Even now, two years later, the boy has serious medical problems.


DCF was embarrassed


The child advocate’s report proved embarrassing to DCF – especially the parts where it found that DCF ignored one red flag after another, with one DCF supervisor actually bragging about her own laziness.

I believe it was the release of that report which led to a series of decisions that only compounded the trauma to the children. They’ve been moved over and over from home to home, because of a fear bordering on paranoia about what happens if a home now doesn’t pass the agency’s white glove test and something goes wrong. Here’s an example of how that paranoia has played out.

Worst of all, in a prosecution that carries the strong odor of vengeance, DCF is moving to terminate the parental rights of Fauquet and Stratzman  – even though the state’s own expert witness says this would be “profoundly psychologically harmful”  for at least one of the children. 

Embarrassment is one reason for what appears to be a vendetta against this family.  I think there are at least two others:

● Fauquet and Stratzman have sought the right to file a civil suit (from which they personally will gain nothing. All funds would be for Dylan, administered by an independent guardian).  But that gives DCF another reason to try to make Fauquet and Stratzman look as bad as possible.

● Throughout her ordeal, Fauquet was blunt and outspoken when she thought her family was being treated unjustly. So she flunked what one attorney long ago called “the attitude test.” 

Grovel before caseworkers, confess your sins and beg them for help and sometimes you can get away with keeping children who really should be taken away.  Proclaim your innocence and condemn the agency and that’s just more “proof” you have a mental health problem, and more reason to push to terminate parental rights.


A system that should know better


All this is not happening in one of the truly atrocious systems, such as Alaska, or Iowa or Oregon or Massachusetts or, well, most of them. This is happening in Connecticut, where the child welfare system has made significant improvements under the leadership of DCF Commissioner Joette Katz.  I once called Katz the gutsiest child welfare leader in America. I also defended DCF when the Child Advocate used her report on the failings in this case to make broad brush claims about the agency’s reforms.

I haven’t changed my mind about either. But in this case Katz’s agency has become a revenge machine.  At a minimum, Katz hasn’t stopped the machine. That will forever tarnish her legacy.

The injustices in this case run so deep that at one point Fauquet’s exceptionally-dedicated  lawyer, Lisa Vincent, broke down in tears and asked for a recess.  It happened as she was asking a DCF caseworker if the agency had at least called Fauquet to tell her she no longer would be allowed even to visit Dylan.  No, the caseworker said. Fauquet didn’t know until she arrived for a visit and found out her son wasn’t there.

That is just one of a litany of cruelties, large and small, inflicted on the family.  We only know about them because of the tenacious reporting of Deborah Straszheim of The Day in New London, a journalist with a keen eye for the telling detail.

She’s written story after story about the case.  I recommend those stories, particularly the four enterprise stories at the bottom of the list you’ll find by clicking this link, to anyone who wants to be fully up to speed on this case. (The Day may require registration to see some of the stories but that is free, as this is written the stories themselves are not behind a paywall.)

Straszheim got permission from the court to attend the trial. (In Connecticut these hearings are presumed closed, but judges can make exceptions.)  Except as otherwise noted, all of the information in this post comes from Straszheim’s stories. Again, except as otherwise noted, the long passages in italics are direct quotes from those stories.


How the case began


DCF became involved with the family in 2014 – because the family was homeless. Fauquet was living with the children in a shelter, Stratzman with relatives. To DCF’s credit, it did not immediately take away the children – the agency even helped with housing.

But just as agency supervision was supposed to end, the children’s doctor called DCF alleging that “the couple left the appointment with their infant in a carrier on Fauquet’s chest and no car seat.” 

Given that car seats generally remain in cars, it is not clear how the doctor knew this. And, as is discussed in detail below, in one of many examples of DCF applying double standards, its own method for transporting Dylan was potentially far more dangerous.

But the call prompted DCF to send a caseworker to the home. The caseworker alleges that when she visited Fauquet at home, on a day when it was 90 degrees out, the house was hot, a child ate food off the floor and an infant was in a swing under a quilt with a bottle propped up. 

But a lot of that apparently was because Fauquet was ill – at one point doubled over in pain.

Fauquet said she'd just had a baby. She said she had four children age 4 and younger and the social worker watched her struggle. "I'd just fed my kids lunch. I was nursing. So the floor was a mess. I'd just fed three toddlers lunch and I was honestly still in pain," she said.

In Westport or New Canaan, a mother feeling sick on a hot day can turn up the air conditioning and pay the nanny overtime.  Poor people don’t have that option.  So they can wind up under investigation and they can wind up losing their children to foster care – even though this is exactly the sort of case in which two massive studies found that children do better when left in their own homes than they do in foster care.

DCF could have sent in housekeepers and a nurse, and bought some fans. Or, if they really thought things were dire, done an Intensive Family Preservation Services intervention.  Instead, they took the children – possibly by conning Fauquet:

Fauquet said that, at the social worker's suggestion, she agreed to let the social worker take the children to a relative for the night so she could go to the doctor. She learned the next day that the department had filed an Order of Temporary Custody, she said.

All the children went straight into foster care. The two oldest, then 4 and 2 were placed with one relative, another child in a separate home and the fourth child, Dylan, with a cousin. 


Harm to Dylan’s siblings


What happened to Dylan has, of course, gotten most of the attention. But two other children would wind up in a foster home where conditions were remarkably similar to what DCF had found in Fauquet’s home. But DCF did not respond the same way:

DCF was concerned about cleanliness in the foster home, the social worker said. The foster family was dedicated to the children but couldn't follow through and keep the house clean, she said.
The foster mother complained of "nitpicking" by DCF, and later refused to take the children back when they left to attend an extended visit with a sibling, the social worker testified.  The children's belongings were moved from one foster home to another in trash bags, she said.
The social worker confirmed that a 4-year-old boy in the home was found to have nine cavities and needed to be put under anesthesia to have them repaired.

All of the children have been separated not only from their parents, but from each other.  At various times, DCF has cut back or eliminated visits with the parents. And they’ve all been moved from foster home to foster home to foster home.  In short, if you wanted to induce mental illness in these children, you couldn’t do better than DCF has done.

But instead of concluding that everything they have done has backfired so they really ought to try creating a network of support for these children’s own parents, DCF is seeking to cut the children off from those parents for the rest of their childhoods, by terminating parental rights. 

 

No one raises a child “independently”


So we have a psychologist chosen by the state to evaluate the parents testifying that the family should not be reunited because Fauquet had not “rehabilitated” enough to “independently” care for her children.

But those parents in Westport and New Canaan don’t care for their children independently. They have maids and nannies and babysitters and private therapists and tutors and everything else money can buy. Poor people get none of that – and then are judged for the lack of it.  Just a little of that kind of help would have prevented these children from being taken in the first place, and could give the children a far better chance in life than anything
DCF has accomplished so far.

Even the state-selected psychologist conceded that what DCF wants to do now, separate the family forever, would do terrible harm to the oldest child.

Lisa Vincent, … asked the psychologist if he knew that the oldest daughter “cries and holds onto her mother at the end of every visit?” He said he didn’t, but saw the oldest two children bonded with their mother, and described anxiety in the girl.  Severing the girl’s bond with Fauquet would be “profoundly psychologically harmful” to the child, he confirmed in testimony.


An obsession with housing


Mental health is one part of the case against Fauquet and Stratzman, the other is an obsession with the family’s housing arrangements – an obsession that involves a little bit of actual help, and a lot more finger wagging:

The lawyer representing DCF harped on the issue, as if to say: Look at how irresponsible these parents are! We helped them get a housing voucher and they lost it because they didn’t pay the rent on time.

But there is more to the story.

The manager testified the couple initially was placed at Faire Harbour Landings apartments in New London through a program that required them to pay 30 percent of their income as rent. After a separate voucher program kicked in, the amount was supposed to rise to 40 percent, but it instead jumped from about $280 to $730 in one month, according to earlier testimony. The couple could not come up with the money.
DCF helped the couple with partial rent payments twice – in November 2014 and in May 2015. The program manager said Fauquet paid the rent every month she had the children, but did so when she got paid, so it was not on time. Late fees mounted and the couple was served with an eviction notice and legal fees by the landlord. In fall 2015, the program manager scrambled to find agencies who could help the couple save their voucher.
The housing program ultimately asked DCF to contribute $2,500 to $3,000 to retain the voucher arrangement, while the couple also made payments, the manager testified. The agency declined, she said. She further testified that "there was an insinuation that (Fauquet) should have been doing more." The couple lost the voucher.

The real moral of the story is not that the couple is irresponsible and somehow their children should be punished for it by being torn from them forever. What this story really tells us is what we already should know:  People make mistakes. But when you’re poor, there is no margin for error.

DCF has grown so vengeful that it even ignored an offer of help from another relative:

A different, close relative of the couple testified Friday that he offered to move into a new apartment with the parents and split the rent and help with child care, but the agency never contacted him.

Then, on the final day of the trial, Vincent said an anonymous donor arrived at the courthouse with a check for $12,000 for the couple to use to cover a year’s rent.  But so far even that hasn’t stopped the DCF revenge machine.


Bizarre double standards


And if all that isn’t enough to indicate this case really is about a child welfare agency out for revenge, consider the standards that Fauquet and Stratzman were expected to meet. 

A visit supervisor criticized Fauquet about what she deemed ongoing issues concerning keeping children safe.  But the testimony revealed that the visit supervisor has an unusual definition of safety:

[Vincent] asked: Is a 4-year-old eating a piece of cake without sitting at the table, or a small child climbing on a picnic table, or a child eating sweets before enough dinner a safety concern? The employee said it was.

That wasn’t Fauquet’s only transgression:
 Ryan Ziolkowski, the lawyer who represents four of Fauquet's children, questioned the parents' decision to regularly bring gifts to their children during visits. He asked the employee who supervises visits: "Doesn't that kind of distort the purpose of the visit?" She said she thought it did.

I suspect that had Fauquet not brought gifts, someone at DCF would have testified that this showed she didn’t really care about her children.  (The Day summed it all up perfectly in this editorial cartoon.)

Instead, caring too much about her children also was held against Fauquet:
 A social worker also testified on Tuesday that Fauquet became upset after she learned that her 3-year-old son was calling his foster parents mom and dad.
 Ziolkowski … described it as a parent having an "emotional breakdown" over a small thing.

And when it comes to safety, once again, the standards are far lower for DCF. The agency actually sent Dylan to visits in a taxi – all by himself. (Recall how a doctor’s concern about how Fauquet was transporting a child started this nightmare in the first place.) DCF did that after previous DCF failures nearly got the boy killed – and still before he’d even turned two years old.

But a lawyer who was supposed to represent Dylan’s interests stood up for the agency:

Priscilla Hammond, the child's lawyer,* later said the child was in an approved car seat and DCF often uses that particular livery service to transport children to visits, although the arrangement was probably not a good idea.

So to review.  In the Kafkaesque world of DCF: Shipping a child who had not even turned two-years-old around town in a taxi all by himself: Safe.  Giving a child a piece of cake when he’s not sitting at a table: Unsafe.

Stratzman got the same treatment.  Under questioning, a social worker involved with his visits to the children admitted that he appeared concerned about the children, showed them affection and was attentive to them.  But the worker complained that during the visits Stratzman seemed tired.

At the time, Stratzman’s lawyer pointed out, Stratzman was working a second shift job – and a third shift job.


Fauquet’s obstacle course


DCF also harped on the fact that Fauquet sometimes missed appointments for therapy. This helps explain how that might have happened:

[Fauquet] walked to the mental health appointments at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital when she was living in New London, she said. She later walked to the office of a separate mental health provider at Change Inc. in New London. She then took a bus or a taxi to the Change Inc. Groton office, she said. She walks, rides the bus or takes a cab to the grocery store, depending on which one she's going to.

That’s not all she did:

The agency didn’t offer parenting education, but she found a 52-hour course online and took it, she said. …
Fauquet described the mental health services she went to. She started with individual therapy at one center, then moved to an outpatient program at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital after the psychologist working with DCF recommended a different kind of therapy, she said.
She missed appointments but completed the program, she testified. … DCF wanted her to take medication, she said. She didn’t think she needed it, but she went to United Community and Family Services, asked to see a therapist and tried several different medications, she said. One therapist said she didn’t need it and she ultimately stopped taking it, she said.

She is just as diligent about the children:

Fauquet kept a journal related to her children, which her lawyer presented to the court on Wednesday. She started it at the beginning of the case, writing more often after her 3-year-old son was injured in foster care. Fauquet wrote about the children’s visits, her meetings with DCF, her conversations with the children’s foster parents and their appointments with doctors and other providers, she said.
She kept her appointments in the journal, her work schedule, her notes from parenting classes and a meal plan, safety plan and fire safety plan for her children in case they came home, she said. She wrote love letters to her children, she testified. She identified a stack of letter-sized spiral bound notebooks, and turned them over to the court.
Fauquet also kept a portfolio of documents related to the children, she testified. The portfolio contains the children's birth certificates, medical records, notifications from doctors, notes from foster parents, pay stubs and her various service trainings for work, she said.

All of this is on top of what she has to do just to keep her job:

She described for the court her more than three-hour daily commute to work as a certified nursing assistant. She leaves the house at 11:40 a.m., takes one bus from Groton to New London, takes another bus to Norwich, and then walks 30 to 40 minutes from the nearest bus stop to work. She works from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. The bus is unavailable when her shift ends, so she has to find an alternative.


Who has the better track record?


So, who is really more likely to make better decisions about raising these children? A mother who’s made her share of mistakes, but who also has persevered under circumstances that would break many people with far more resources – or the state agency that nearly got one of her children killed, then sent that same child - a toddler - around town alone in a taxi, placed still others in substandard foster care and bounced all of them from home to home to home?

For the final word on that, let’s return to Lisa Vincent:
 Vincent posed this question to the [state-selected] psychologist: If the two parents remained together through the near death of one of their children, the loss of their housing, homelessness and a deteriorating relationship with DCF, wouldn’t that give him confidence they could withstand the stressors of daily life?
The psychologist said he couldn’t say without direct clinical evidence.

*-The judge imposed strict limits on the use of names during the trial, and the stories themselves don’t say which child was sent to visits, alone, in a taxi, But the Office of Child Advocate report identifies the child as Dylan.