The Family Court case that I reported on recently in Schenectady County involving a couple who lost their four children? The new judge hearing the case, Mark Powers, stuck his neck out yesterday by overruling the Department of Social Services and declaring that the parents could visit with their children for an hour a week between now and Jan. 24, when he scheduled a hearing to decide how matters will ultimately be settled.
“I’m taking a risk,” he said, noting that it’s still possible the parents will lose the children to adoption. “Please don’t draw false hopes; I don’t know where this is going.”
It was dramatic enough, considering that the parents, Tom and Heidi, haven’t seen their kids since last year, when another judge, Jo Anne Assini, terminated their rights, as it’s called, meaning legally ended their parenthood.
Her decision was recently overturned by the Appellate Division, which faulted her for not giving due consideration to the best interests of the children, which is supposed to be the guiding standard in these matters.
The Department of Social Services, which is charged with looking after the interests of children and also with trying to preserve families, remains adamant. Its lawyer, Ursula Hall, argued yesterday that “it would be extremely detrimental to the children to reintroduce their parents to them,” and afterwards, out in the waiting room, when I asked her if the department still aims to terminate Tom and Heidi’s parental rights, despite the reversal on appeal, she said, “That is our goal.”
The children have their own court-appointed attorney, who used to be called a law guardian, the old idea being that the attorney paternalistically guarded the children’s interests and the new idea being that he or she advocates on behalf of a young client the same as for an adult. If the client wants something, the attorney fights for it.
That was little on display yesterday, as the assigned attorney for these children, Karen Crandall, argued against a “rush to judgment on whether the children should have contact” with their parents and conceded only in passing that the children want to see their parents, which was obviously not a major consideration for her.
“Maybe we should get a professional opinion,” she said, and she urged that an e-mail from a counselor arguing against contact with the parents be provided to the court.
When the governor signed a law earlier this year requiring that a “law guardian” henceforth be known as an “attorney for the child,” I wondered how much effect it would have, and now I know.
Bruce Trachtenberg from the Conflict Defenders Office, representing the mother, did an aggressive job on her behalf and did not shrink from rebuking the Department of Social Services for what he called “working over the children” while they’re in foster care with a view to alienating them from their parents, who have a history of drug abuse.
One reader thought I was defending the parents, but no. I am deriding the Department of Social Services for using kids to punish their parents and I’m deriding Family Court for going along with that abuse of power.
“If the department spent as much time trying to reunite the parents with their children as it does throwing hurdles in front of them, these children would be home by now,” Trachtenberg said outside of court yesterday, and I can only agree.