Who Guards the Guardians? 

Child Protective Services is one of Montana’s most secretive and powerful agencies. Now, Missoula groups are trying to break its code of silence.

The stark photos of Elian Gonzalez being taken by federal agents had a particular resonance with one teenage girl in Missoula last week. As she looked at the contrasting photos of the boy crying as he was being rushed from the home of his Miami relatives and then smiling and hugging his father, her comments gave a unique perspective to the issue.

“He belongs with his father. No one should have kept them apart,” the girl believes. “No one should be torn away from their family.”

This teenager knows what she is talking about. A few years ago, the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS, then known as the Department of Family Services) came to her school and swept her and her sisters away from her family. They were apart for three and a half months. She remembers it vividly. The scars run deep. They will always hurt.

It is her story—and that of her mother and many others—that forms the basis of a new campaign by Montana Peoples’ Action (MPA): to force reforms in how CPS takes action with Montana families.

Janet Robideau, organizer of the MPA subgroup Indian Peoples’ Action (IPA), is spearheading the drive to force more accountability from CPS. “I am absolutely appalled that an organization funded by our tax dollars wields this much power,” Robideau says. “What we’re looking at is who these people are accountable to.”

Together, IPA and MPA have started forming a campaign for the 2001 legislative session. The focus will be legislation to require oversight and responsibility from Child Protective Services, something that is lacking now, according to Robideau.

“Everything to do with CPS is conducted in secret, supposedly to protect the children,” Robideau says. “But it prevents the parents from being able to know what they are accused of, who accused them. They can’t respond. They have no rights.”

But Art Dreiling, regional director of Child Protective Services, believes the secrecy is a vital factor in his department’s work. “To me, family confidentiality is the big issue,” Dreiling says. “We usually have quite a history with a family. Does that have too be an open book for the whole community?”

One Mother’s Story

In some cases, it might be better that way, according to people who have been involved with the system. In the case of the three sisters, they were taken from school because of allegations of criminal activity by their then-stepfather. As a result, their mother, who is an education worker, was told she was a neglectful parent who was not capable of protecting her own children.

“They were missing. They didn’t come home from school. I was frantic,” remembers Marsha, who asked that her real name be kept confidential. “Finally a school official told me that CPS took the children and that they said I had been notified. That wasn’t true. I didn’t hear from CPS until several hours later. They told me my husband was in trouble with the law and the children had been taken for their own safety.”

Marsha hired an attorney that evening. The next morning they were at the CPS office. Because she was there with a lawyer, CPS officials refused to meet and talk with her.

“One of them asked me, ‘How can you afford an attorney?’ and told me I was not being cooperative,” Marsha remembers. “Well, I couldn’t afford an attorney, but I worked it off in trade. I did what I had to do.”

The investigation of Marsha and her husband—and the taking of the children—was completely legal under CPS regulations. CPS was not required to provide any information to them about the case. Marsha was not allowed to see the children (ages 5, 8 and 12) for two weeks. Marsha was allowed one brief telephone conversation with her oldest daughter, who cried and asked why she wasn’t cooperating with CPS so they could come home.

“They told the children my husband was still in the home and that wasn’t true,” Marsha says. “He moved out right after they took the children. They told the children I wouldn’t cooperate when they refused to talk to me because I had an attorney with me. They were lying to the children. Every time they talked to me they made me feel like an unfit mother who could not take care of my children.”

In order to be allowed one-hour supervised visits with the children, Marsha was required to undergo evaluation with a psychologist selected by CPS. When the evaluation recommended that Marsha was a fit parent and the children should be returned to her, CPS told the court they were not “convinced.”

“I just really felt they had total power,” she says. “They withheld information. They would never say what they wanted me to do. They kept coming up with more requirements. They would never answer any questions.”

The CPS investigation, which is said to be confidential for the children’s sake, didn’t stay that way in Marsha’s case. CPS interviewed co-workers and her supervisors were made aware of the allegations against her. Her job was in jeopardy.

“I have a real cynical view of what they do and how they do it,” Marsha recalls. “I never felt any CPS worker listened to me or believed what I said. “They don’t let you face an accuser. They carry all the authority and the rules. It makes you paranoid.”

Marsha was in court more than six times for hearings. She was evaluated and interviewed. Finally she was allowed three-hour supervised visits with the children in a park. She recalls the day things finally came to crisis level.

When she met her daughters, the 8-year-old was in tears. She had been beaten up by another, older child at the foster care home where they were now living. When Marsha confronted the caseworker about the incident, the woman’s reaction shocked her. “She told me my daughter ‘embellished’ the incident and that was to be expected considering ‘what you’ve put your kids through.’ She was saying the girls were lying and it was my fault,” she remembers.

Later that evening she got a frantic call from her oldest daughter. The younger girl had been attacked again. Her older sister intervened and hit the boy. Her hand was badly hurt but the caregivers would not let her have medical attention.

“I called 9-1-1 and a policeman went and took my daughter to the hospital. Her hand was broken and they were not going to help her,” Marsha says. “That was the deciding point.”

Marsha had been working with a Missoula-area support group of parents with similar CPS problems. She went public, talking to every state, county and municipal official she could reach. She let it be known she was willing to talk about her case.

“I was at a political rally at 8 p.m. one evening. I told two local legislators I had been contacted by a producer from ‘60 Minutes’ and the program was coming to Missoula to look at the situation,” Marsha recalls. “At 8 a.m. the next morning, I got a call from the CPS caseworker who said she had to see me right then. Twenty minutes later I was in her office and she told me they had ‘concluded’ the investigation and there was ‘no cause’ for our continued separation. I was being given my children back. By 9:18, I had the girls again.”

What Marsha did not have was any explanation. When she asked about the investigation, she was told to “just be happy” it was over and that she had the children back. She was told all charges had been dropped but when she sought documentation to prove that, it wasn’t so. It took two more trips to court to get all charges expunged.

“Never an apology. Never an explanation. Never the truth in anything that happened,” Marsha says. “It’s these things that have made me an activist in this cause. It’s changed our lives. It’s impacted my ability to do my job. We were all in counseling together for more than two years. Over and over they told me I was a bad parent. The constant theme was ‘Well, you’re trying but you don’t have the ability to care for and protect your children.’ And I’m fortunate. I got my children back.”

Today, Marsha works with other people who are involved with CPS now and she is helping MPA’s committee to create oversight legislation to limit CPS’s powers.

“Each time I meet troubled parents, I ask them if they feel like they are worth nothing. They always ask how I know that and I tell them I was there. I was made to feel that way too,” Marsha says. “No one should be made to feel that way.”

But Dreiling says he is “very comfortable” with the legal aspects of the way CPS handles cases. Under recent federal guidelines, there are citizens’ review boards in place in both Ravalli and Missoula counties that review the cases of any child who is in foster care for more than six months. The citizens’ boards make recommendations to the presiding judge in each case, according to Dreiling.

“My feeling in this is that I never have any problem with review as long as it doesn’t cause more effort and heartache for the family,” he says.

Going Behind Closed Doors

Robideau, Marsha and others have been collecting information, interviewing parents and working with people who have had their children taken away since early 1998. They have accumulated reams of information, much of it cases of personal observation. The stories fill them with anger and frustration. But they also make them determined to continue with the fight.

Robideau refers to a recent trip she took to Billings. While there, she was called to a Native American home. A 7-year-old girl was living with her grandmother because the child’s mother had an alcohol problem. The child and her grandmother were very close. The little girl didn’t come home from school one day. The frantic grandmother spent the afternoon trying to find the little girl. Finally, with the help of a Title IX school worker who was an IPA member, the grandmother went to the police. About 9 p.m. that night, she discovered the child had been taken by CPS.

“The principal had called CPS because he said the child was being neglected and not cared for properly,” Robideau remembers. “When we investigated, we found that the child’s clothing was sometimes mismatched—stripes and spots, that sort of thing. This was a low-income family and they didn’t have a lot. I went to the home. It was sparse but spotless. The grandmother washed the little girl’s clothes by hand. She was taken away because her socks didn’t match. The principal had no conception of the Native American extended family.”

Because the grandmother didn’t have legal custody and the mother wasn’t capable of caring for the little girl, CPS refused to return the child to the grandmother. The little girl is still in foster care and her grandmother never sees her, Robideau says.

“This is so wrong,” she says.

In another recent case, Robideau accompanied a woman to a CPS interview in Missoula. CPS had the woman’s 18-month-old daughter in custody because of the woman’s alcoholism.

“The woman is doing well in a 12-step program. She’s dealing with the problem. This woman is educated, has a degree, works—but she was afraid to face them [CPS] alone,” Robideau says. “I found out why.”

At the interview, the woman sat on one side of a conference table. On the other side was a CPS counselor, a CPS attorney, the toddler’s foster mother and the woman’s own attorney. Robideau sat quietly in the back of the room, observing.

“They interrogated her. It was a grilling,” Robideau recalls. “The issue was a recent visit of the baby to her mother’s home. She’s gotten into a bottle of pancake syrup and spilled it on herself and the foster mother had not left a change of clothes for the little girl. Mom had hand-washed the baby’s shirt and tried to get the syrup out her hair, but those efforts weren’t enough for the foster mother. She said ‘every time’ the baby visited her mother she came home dirty and that she didn’t believe the mother watched her properly.”

All four women questioned the mother. Robideau watched as the woman went from sitting up straight and making eye contact to slumped down in her chair in tears under the barrage of criticism.

“Finally I couldn’t take it and I spoke up,” Robideau remembers. “I said what they were doing was appalling and it was total mistreatment of another human being. I said the Indian community would be up in arms if they knew how people were being treated in these so-called conferences.”

Robideau identified herself to the inquisitors as the chairman of the board of the Missoula Indian Peoples’ Center and a member of IPA/MPA. “There was an immediate and total change of attitude,” Robideau says. “The temperament level went down. They quit talking to her and started talking to me, trying to explain their viewpoint. The meeting was quickly over. At the end the mother asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ She soon found out.”

Once-a-week visits with the baby ended after that conference, Robideau says. It was four months before the woman was allowed to see her child again—after the completion of a CPS-ordered parenting class. “During that entire time, the counselors have been at her to terminate her parental rights, telling her she is not a good parent and the best thing is for her to give the baby up,” Robideau says. “Two weeks ago she told me they have convinced her to sign custody over to the state. I asked if that was what she wanted to do and she answered, ‘No, but they say it is the only thing I can do.’ This isn’t right.”

Robideau believes it’s things like this in the system that must be changed. Protection of children—all children—is vital, but so is the protection of the constitutional rights of parents, she says. One of her biggest concerns is the fear and perceived retaliation that parents report from CPS.

“The atmosphere of fear is overwhelming. Parents question the system and then are denied visits with their children. They have no rights once they are in the CPS system,” Robideau says. “They have no ability to receive answers to any questions. They are punished if they even ask questions. No agency should have that kind of power.”

Families in Pain

CPS’s interaction with parents has been a cause for concern for a long time, Robideau says. In 1992 Ken Haugen of Missoula formed a group called Parents in Pain, whose members had lost custody of their children to CPS. The group has since been absorbed into other community action groups but now Haugen is working with Robideau and the others to promote legislation for overseeing CPS.

Haugen, a retired postal worker, never had children taken from him by CPS, but he watched a CPS case destroy his brother and his brother’s family. Children were taken from that home based on allegations by a vengeful former spouse. Eventually both Haugen’s brother and his wife attempted suicide. The children did poorly in foster care. A family was destroyed and nothing was ever substantiated from the original complaints. No charges were pressed. There was no follow-up investigation.

“That was where I got started,” Haugen says. “This agency is above the law. Judges and law enforcement need to be educated that CPS caseworkers are not always as expert as they appear. They can have their own agendas and no one can ever tell if they do.”

Haugen has a loose-leaf notebook full of stories of families in pain. One child was taken from a family because of allegations of sexual abuse. Those allegations were never substantiated but while the child was in foster care, he was sexually abused by a caregiver. The child is reunited with his parents now but will be in counseling for years to come.

“Often the people who have to deal with CPS are low-income and minorities,” Haugen says. “The parents have no money, no education, no resources. They have to do as they are told. CPS controls everything. If parents question the system, they are retaliated against. CPS says that isn’t so but the parents tell a very different story.”

In one recent case, Robideau was asked to help a woman who said her twice-weekly visits with her children were cut to once a month when she complained about a CPS caseworker.

“We went through the process—from the caseworker to the supervisor to the director in Missoula to a Helena supervisor,” Robideau says. “Finally we met with Hank Hudson, state CPS director. He listened to her complaints and said, ‘Oh, I don’t believe that’ and referred us back to the director in Missoula. Back at the local office, we never got any explanation. The woman just gave up. She said she couldn’t fight them if she ever wanted to get her children back.”

In a recent interview, Hudson recalled meeting with a group of parents in Missoula several years ago. He stated he had never been subjected to such open anger and hostility. He had expected polite discussion. It was Haugen’s support group that met with Hudson. Haugen says he doesn’t believe the behavior Hudson expected is possible. “Parents who have had their children taken from them are not going to be calm and polite,” he says. “It didn’t happen at the meeting Hudson talked about. It will never happen. This is an emotionally charged issue.”

Haugen said the legislation his group is writing calls for accountability by CPS to someone outside the agency. “They have to answer to someone,” Haugen says. “Perhaps an independent peer council can be established or a supervisory board. They have to be able to prove they are at least following their own policy manual and that they are answerable for their actions.”

Dreiling says he is not aware of IPA/MPA’s political activism or their plans for additional legislative oversight. He says he does not feel peer review would be workable or recommendable, however. “I’m not familiar with their plans,” Dreiling says. “I’m not sure what peer review would be to the department. The things we go to court on are confidential. I’m not sure how you could review that.”

MPA is already meeting with current legislators and legislative candidates to gather support for their bills in the coming legislative session. They will be asking for candidates to take stands on the issues they believe are important.

“There are about 300 members in the Indian Peoples’ Action group and about 6,000 in Montana Peoples’ Action,” Robideau says. “MPA is affiliated with labor organizations with more than 50,000 members across the state. We’ll carry our messages to them and that is a voting force legislators need to pay attention to. The problems are here and need to be addressed. We’re here and we’re working on it.”

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