Editorial

When family law courts decide on cases before them, they rely upon a single given standard: the best interests of the child.

It’s difficult to imagine, however, that this standard was given full consideration in the case of Amanda Underwood, whose excruciating ordeal at the hands of the Berkeley County Department of Health and Human Resources Office of Child Protective Services, is told in detail in this week’s Spirit by reporter Bryan Clark.

It will fall to a federal court to determine the merits of Underwood’s petition to have her parental rights restored. There remains, however, enough evidence to strongly suggest that she was deeply ill-served by the CPS office as a result of its failure on numerous instances to perform as responsibly as it should have.

Indeed, allegations that CPS case workers obtained the removal of Underwood’s children from her home absent any order from the court allowing it and absent any hearing ratifying it; that CPS failed to provide evidence during discovery that would have shown that Underwood completed drug and psychological evaluations, resulting in a ruling against her; that an abuse and neglect petition to terminate her parental rights that asserted a reasonable effort had been made to prevent the children’s seizure would not be filed until five days after the ruling to terminate, are all deeply troubling.

In fact there is compelling evidence, based on 23rd Circuit Judge John Yoder’s ruling, that CPS was complicit in fostering a climate of mistrust that ultimately sabotaged Underwood’s efforts to satisfy the court’s requirements and secure custody of her children. The mother even asserts in a complaint before federal court that one of the social workers assigned to her case initiated a campaign of retaliation against Underwood for her having the temerity to stand up to the case worker when CPS first appeared at her front door in 2009.

What is mind-boggling is that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect, or drug use, except in allegations contained in a number of anonymous — and ultimately unsubstantiated — phone calls made to CPS in 2009, but with respect to the one detail upon which CPS began to build its case against Underwood — that she had missed two scheduled vaccinations for one of her children — CPS neglected, for its part, to seek or offer assistance, resorting instead to the extreme action of seizing her children from her home.

How can this be argued to have been in the children’s best interest?

Can the DHHR reasonably defend its own case workers threatening Underwood with kidnapping when their own forced seizure of the children by these same case workers — absent any order from the court allowing it, absent any hearing ratifying it— appears to be nothing other than a kidnapping itself? Indeed, 23rd Circuit Judge John Yoder himself ruled that the removal of these children constituted a clear violation of Underwood’s due process rights.

And can DHHR seriously investigate an allegation that Underwood’s husband Travis Harrell once physically dragged one of her children across a yard — never proven — when the removal of all three of the children from their mother’s custody required just such an application of brute force against the children by these case workers?

And what of the accountability of others involved in the case? Why were court orders that would have returned custody to Underwood never filed? Why was an order releasing her from the requirements of drug screening never filed? Why was an order approved by Yoder for a home study never filed? Why was the home study never completed?

There is a tremendous need to improve this state’s family law system. If DHHR wants to take its role seriously, perhaps it should start with its allowance of anonymous complaints.

West Virginia family law courts, unlike those in some other jurisdictions, are closed to outside review, ostensibly to protect the rights of families. This is, of course, nonsense, and in the case of Underwood, this veil of secrecy has operated instead to ensure that the injuriousness by its courts and its courts’ officers entertain no scrutiny.

If West Virginia insists, however, on maintaining such secrecy, what harm does it do to require those who make accusations against others to submit to confidentiality agreements with DHHR, so their own motivations can likewise be reviewed?

What does it say about a judicial system that authorizes more seizures of children per capita than any other state in the nation and then tolerates boilerplate memorandums from its Supreme Court of Appeals such that it is unclear whether the high court’s justices had even seriously reviewed the cases before them at all?

What does it say about a judicial system that couldn’t duly recognize the ethical conflict in allowing court-appointed guardians ad litem to moonlight as adoption attorneys, hence allowing them to profit from the very outcome they argued before a court to obtain? One is forced to wonder how widespread such a practice remains despite a 2010 opinion barring it by the Public Defender Corporation, as well as advisory opinions by both Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely and the state Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

The state’s reliance upon federal money for its foster care program is equally disturbing. Had Underwood been lawyered up from the start, rather than attempting on her own to navigate the labyrinthine requirements of the court, it is unlikely that the “perverse incentive” that fuels the removal of children would have been employed. Underwood’s biggest crime, it seems, was being poor.

We’ll finish where we started — with the standard of the best interests of the child.

We see nothing to conclude that Underwood’s shortcomings as a parent were in any way equal to the response of the family law system against her. Indeed, she appears to have operated in good faith to make every effort to meet the court’s requirements to demonstrate herself a fit parent. The greatest harm done to this family, and to her children, appears to have been committed at the hands of the Berkeley County’s Office of Child Protective Services, which failed miserably in its efforts to be thorough and responsible.

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2 Responses to Editorial

  1. she missed 2 scheduled vaccinations. thats pretty bad. there really is no excuse for that. i am a mom too. i have NEVER missed a vaccination appointment, id rather be late than not show.
    maybe the home was not as safe as she wants everyone to believe. according to the way the law is written an adult can do drugs around a child and as long as they dont pass out it is ok. so even if she wasnt abusing drugs she can have friends over who do and party constantly without it being illegal. is that in the best interest of the child to live in that kind of condition? its not illegal. but its not good either. i know a mother that has had a flea infested home for over 6 months, without even trying to fix the problem and she had a newborn at the time. terminix services are cheap, and so are the bombs from walmart…she refuses to do either or get rid of her pets..is that illegal-no. but it should be. the newborn has bug bites all over, as does everyone in the home. CPS wont investigate that.

    For every child that slips through the system one is saved. VERY RARELY does CPS just come in and take children away. There HAS to be more to this.

  2. Interesting, that there was only 1 comment to this article; contrary to popular beliefs among the mere mortals of our United States, many many cps workers DO LIE IN COURT, UNDER OATH, in order for children to be placed into, and kept within, the foster parent “organization,” in order for the state (claiming best interest of the child) to collect between 10 through 20 thousand a month (depending on the claim of the child’s disability), for each child placed in a foster home!

    Most times, the foster homes are worse for the children, as many foster parents hit, abuse, and/or neglect the children in their care!
    BUT THE GENERAL PUBLIC IS NOT PRIVY TO SUCH INFO!!

    How many people know that 99% of child abuse cases are held in FAMILY COURT? just because family court is more INFORMAL, and criminal court laws (ie, hearsay) DOES NOT APPLY! Also, the only person who testifies against the biological parents IS THE CPS WORKER, A PERSON WHO IS ASSIGNED TO THE CASE, WHO DOES NOT HAVE DIRECT EVIDENCE OF ABUSE! The cps worker will use sentences such as, “IT HAS BEEN REPORTED TO CPS that this child was abused and/or neglected,” instead of actual testimony of the person who made the report of abuse and/or neglect!!

    CPS employees and state prosecutors hold court in family court, away fromt he public eye, and no other persons are permitted into the family courtroom! WHAT DOES CPS WORKERS AND STATE PROSECUTORS HAVE TO HIDE?
    The fact that the allegations of abuse or neglect of the child[ren] are truly bogus, and this is why the case is held in FAMILY COURT, AS FAMILY COURT ALLOWS ‘HEARSAY’ EVIDENCE; if cps workers truly had a case of abuse and/or neglect against parents, then the state would CHARGE the parents with the CRIME OF ABUSE AND/OR NEGLECT, and have court proceedings in CRIMINAL COURT!! THE FACT THAT CPS WORKERS AND PROSECUTORS ACCUSE PARENTS OF CHILD ABUSE AND/OR NEGLECT IN FAMILY COURT, PROVES THAT THE STATE DOES NOT HAVE ANY EVIDENCE OF CHILD ABUSE OR NEGLECT!
    THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD is a loose term! As the prosecutors and cps HAVE NO INTENTIONS OF PROTECTING THE CHILDREN! CPS workers and state prosecutors PROTECT THE STATE, AND THE BEST INTEREST OF THE STATE!
    When children are placed into foster homes, the state collects up to $20 thousand bucks PER MONTH!!
    Incidentally, state prosecutors represent the state in cps cases, which are held in family court, which state prosecutors have no business, as family court is in civil court; state prosecutors belong in CRIMINAL COURT, AS THEY REPRESENT THE STATE. Also, CPS OFFICES have their own attorneys on staff, but they never see the inside of a court room, as they are only employed to give legal advice to cps workers and supervisors!
    ONE MORE THING: THE JUDGE, THE STATE PROSECUTOR, THE CPS WORKERS, AND THE PUBLIC DEFENDER ARE ALL ON STATE’S PAYROLL (EMPLOYED BY THE STATE), AND THEREFORE, IT IS A VIOLATION OF COURT RULES, AS WELL AS A CONFLICT OF INTEREST, TO HAVE ALL STATE EMPLOYEES ON BOTH SIDES, DEFENDANT AND PLAINTIFF.
    HOWEVER, removing children from loving parents and families is a big business to our states, under TITLE IV D (up to 20 thousand per month, per child), and the children’s foster parents only receive a portion of that money, about 1/4 of; the rest of the money is kept by the state; also, parents are then taken to court by the state’s welfare / social service office, for parents to be ordered by a judge to pay child support, which is usually more than 1/2 of the parent’s salaries/ income!
    In closing: in order for the general public to make legitimate comments on what goes on in the offices of cps, and, family court with cps cases, then the general public should demand to have these cases held in the public forum, instead of allowing cps and state prosecutors to be allowed to have these bogus family court, cps cases, continue, as 99% of the time, in 99% of cases, the parents ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TESTIFY!

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