Breaking the Silence: Caught in the Crosshairs
Delays in child protective cases often leave children in limbo.
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Children of Domestic Violence Survivors
Five years ago, Hera McLeod left her abusive husband.
She and her child, Prince McLeod, thought that was the end of the story; however, her husband Joquain Rams took Hera McLeod to the Fairfax County Family Court in Virginia to fight for visitation.
McLeod said she felt no one was on her side, "there's nothing worse than just not being able to protect your child."
Rams was eventually granted unsupervised visitation with Prince. Just twelve days after this decision was made, Rams drowned his son in a sink. He was 15 months old. Last year, Rams was found guilty of capital murder.
McLeod said she blames the family court system for her son's death. "His parental rights trumped the rights of my son to be safe. That was really shocking to me because I had always believed that family court was about the best interest of the child, but what I learned is that it's really just about the best interest of the parents."
She argues these problems in family court aren't just limited to Virginia. Abigail Kramer, a journalist with the Center for New York City Affairs, agrees. In 2016, she wrote a report about the New York City Family Court, and she found a lot of problems.
"Bottomline, it's a deeply under-resourced system that is absolutely rife with dysfunction and delay," Kramer said. "Cases take much longer to move through the court than they should. There's an incredible amount of absurdity."
Kramer said because of the rampant delays, children in child protective cases sometimes have to wait for as long as two years to find out which parent they're living with. If they have no suitable family member or guardian to take them in, that time is usually spent in foster care.
"It's the saddest place in the world. It's the place where all of people's worst problems land," Kramer said.
Melinda Romeo, a social worker for Lawyers for Children, said there's a lot of things that have to go into a decision of whether a child can see their parent.
"First off, does the child even want visits," Romeo said. "I think this is one of the most important things. If the visitation is even an option, if the child feels okay to see them. However, it can go into various safety reasons, including the child's age."
Joan Crawford, the deputy executive director for Family Services in New York, said delays within the family court system are there for a reason. Crawford said to reach the best decision possible for both the child and the parent, each case needs to be carefully examined.
"The hope is to really transition the family as quickly as possible to unsupervised visits," Crawford said. "So, we really monitor those visits. We provide reports to the courts to make sure things are going well between the parent and child, and to make sure the child isn't at risk for the parent. We provide updates to family court, and ultimately family court makes the decision whether those visits should be unsupervised."
Chris Gottlieb, the head of the NYU Family Defense Clinic, said New York City Family Court is not only under-resourced, but it's also unfair.
"There's a really striking racial disproportionality between whose families the government decides to get involved with," Gottlieb said. "So, children's services is much more likely to investigate families of color."
Gottlieb said sometimes true abuse can be extremely subjective, especially in cases of neglect. "Neglect usually is related to poverty, so oftentimes children are considered to be neglected if their housing is inadequate or the parent doesn't have sufficient child care. Things that really have to do with the parent not having enough money," Gottlieb said.
Gottlieb said most parents who go through family court are truly looking out for their child's best interest. She argues it's extremely damaging for a child to be separated from their family, especially if they don't have to be. "We all know as imperfect as our families are, they're central to our well-being and our sense of connectedness. There are few things that are as traumatic as being separated from your family as a child."
Gottlieb argues that stories like Hera McLeod's happen, but they are few and far between. But, Abigail Kramer with the Center for New York City Affairs contends the family court system hasn't changed in the last fifteen years in a significant way, and problems will continue to permeate the system unless a big shift happens.
The NYC Family Court declined WFUV's request for an interview.
#BreakingTheSilence is a WFUV Special Report on Domestic Violence.
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