Secrecy allows child custody abuse to flourish

Child custody & guardian ad litems

by John Groseclose

Decisions about child custody can have disastrous results

When a court appoints a guardian ad litem in a custody case, the responsibility can be more keenly felt than any other responsibilities.  Guardians ad litem are charged by the court with investigating and reporting on the best interests of children in child custody cases.

At times the  juvenile court system takes children from their parents.  These are referred to as dependencies.  The state alleges there is abuse, neglect or no parent that is fit to care for the children and removes children from the home.  The judge often appoints guardians ad litem, social workers, or a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to discuss the matter with a judge.  Although the court hearings are generally open to the public – the records are not.

The foster care system is similar in many states. As a guardian ad litem in Washington State, I found the  investigative reporting by the  SunHerald newspaper in Mississippi to be very interesting and disturbing.  The information that has come to light in the counties on the Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is heartbreaking.

As reported in the SunHerald newspaper, it is unclear exactly what led to so many children being wrongly removed from their homes. Foster care is very costly in terms of public payment for foster care. More important is the cost of human suffering when children are uprooted from the security of their homes.

Secrecy is a big culprit

It is clear from the reports that secrecy allowed these wrongful acts to flourish undetected. Parents and attorneys are barred from having copies of any of the documents on which the determination to remove children to foster care are based. Court hearings are both secret and unrecorded. In many instances attorneys representing the parents are barred from meaningful participation in hearings.

I am familiar with some of the safeguards in Washington and there appears to be less secrecy in our courts. There are, however, secrets.  You will not be surprised to learn that high profile lawsuits in Washington from time to time expose the Department of Social and Health Services.  People read those stories and want change.

Copies of reports denied parents

The Hancock County Sheriff’s Office is investigating forgery charges against two Department of Health Services employees in Mississippi. Once the investigation became public others came forward with complaints.  According to the article and author, secrecy, played a big part in allowing forgery to flourish.  Parents could not have copies of the reports they were required to sign.  Social workers used threats to get consent, according to the newspapers investigation.

In one case under investigation, a worker threatened a mother with the permanent removal of her children, if she did not sign the  report. Once the worker told her she would not get a copy, the mother secretly took quick photos of each page with her cell phone.

When she followed up on the case, DHS office workers showed her a report with handwritten additions not in the report she signed. The additions said that the mother had agreed to the removal of her children and confessed that she drank nail polish remover. She was able to get release of her children after a few weeks because she had proof. Other parents, lacking proof, have not gotten good results.

Practices in Washington State

If you encounter a social worker who asks you to sign a document, make sure they give you a copy.   A social worker may make a comment that you perceive as a threat.  Whether it is or not, it may not be wise to start an argument.  It may be helpful to ask the social worker for a 24 hour delay so that you can set up a consultation with a local attorney to be advised of your rights.  You also have the option of calling the Northwest Justice Project for some advice over the phone.