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Children of the State
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Cover Story

Teresa and David Rodriguez
Teresa and David Rodriguez’s four children (right), from the family album, remain in the hands of the state of Utah.

David and Teresa Rodriguez learned the consequences of bucking the system when, in 1998, the state of Utah seized all four of their children, ages 8 to 15, for a second and final time — ending a two-year battle to keep them off psychotropic drugs. The family has never been reunited.

Trapped in the System

Once in the system, virtually every family is chained to a mental health plan — in which children must undergo treatment and parents must admit guilt regardless of circumstances.

David and Teresa Rodriguez learned the consequences of bucking the system when, in 1998, the state of Utah seized all four of their children, ages 8 to 15, for a second and final time — ending a two-year battle.

The trouble began in 1996, when the parents took action to meet the educational needs of the children, starting with oldest son Erick, who was years behind grade average, and daughter Jetaime, who had severe learning problems. Jetaime also complained of molestation by a school official, which the parents reported to school authorities. David and Teresa obtained approval for homeschooling, to which they added younger siblings. Jessica, who showed signs of poor progress, and Christopher, who had been diagnosed autistic.

The parents said they requested that the Salt Lake City School District provide special education services, but were refused. They sought a competent mental and academic assessment of each child so that their needs could be met. That brought them to the state mental health system at Valley Mental Health and affiliated University Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake City. From that point, there was no turning back.

The assessments were completed and recommendations made. According to Teresa, psychiatric drugs were to be tried on Christopher until one “worked.” She was told she would have to monitor her son closely for manic attacks, heart trouble and other complications from the drugs. The boy was also to be placed in a special class although Teresa was told it was unequipped to deal with autistic children. Psychiatric plans involving drugs were also recommended for the other three children.

Failure to “Cooperate”

The Rodriguezes refused the plans, not wanting to place their children on dangerous psychotropic drugs. Instead, “we insisted on actual educational services they [the state] are required by law to provide, and which they also get federal funds to provide,” said David. The bottom line, they charge, is neither Valley Mental Health nor the public school system wanted to foot the bill for the children’s educational needs.

Discouraged, the Rodriguezes applied for Social Security benefits to send the children to private facilities, following a recommendation of one of the evaluating doctors.

Teresa said she and David were warned by workers on their case that if they failed to “cooperate,” Utah’s Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) would be called upon to take the children. They were accused of isolating and environmentally depriving their children — a charge aimed at their homeschooling, which commenced only after the older children were failing in public school. They were also accused of making their children mentally ill in order to receive money — although they received no benefits, and only considered asking for them after it was recommended by a state employee.

Law enforcement officers stormed the Rodriguez home in December 1996, taking the four terrified children into custody. According to Teresa, force was used on them, including pepper spray to compel 8-year-old Jessica to let go of her mother.

A judge found the seizure unwarranted and ordered the children released to their parents. The children, however, were not released, and the matter was put before another judge who overturned the ruling.

“We became prisoners of Utah,” said Teresa. “Unless we admitted to medical and educational neglect we were not guilty of, and agreed to a DCFS treatment plan, we wouldn’t get our kids back.” According to the Rodriguezes, their public defender threatened to quit if they refused to take the proffered course of action. Thus, while informing the court they were being forced to take action against their wishes, David and Teresa admitted guilt and were reunited with their children.

The Rodriguezes made plans to move to Arizona, where Teresa’s parents lived, and obtained court approval to leave Utah to buy a house. After exhausting most of their life savings, they re-started their life in Arizona in 1997.

“The kids were all in school and really doing well. They had a great home, and a wonderful life. There was nothing more important to us,” Teresa said.

“They Just Expect Us to Go on”

Michael Humiston
“It is a fantastic breach of due process of the law.” — Attorney Michael Humiston, referring to Utah state law which allows the state to terminate parental rights merely because parents have failed to comply with a “treatment plan.”

But back in Utah, the assessment was far from wonderful. The Rodriguezes said their public defender quit before filing for termination of Utah’s jurisdiction over their case, which they did not learn about for a month. The new defender refused to request such a termination, wanting the family back in Utah instead. A false report was lodged in the system that the Rodriguezes had fled Utah, and in October 1997 a warrant was issued to pick up the children. Teresa and David reported to local Arizona officials, and reportedly were promised that the order would not be honored.

That promise was shattered at 2 a.m. on March 6, 1998, when Arizona law enforcement officers, acting for the state of Utah, entered the Rodriguez home, seized the children and handed them over to Utah authorities. Teresa’s parents sought but were denied foster parent status for the children.

“I’d rather the judge had executed us that day than take our kids away. My kids are my life,” said Teresa. “They took my life, and they just expect us to go on.”

The family has never been reunited, except for brief, supervised visits by the parents. The four siblings were separated. According to the Rodriguezes, the children have told them of abuse and deprivation in their foster homes, and of being denied the right to practice their Catholic faith. The oldest daughter ran away and has not been heard from in months. The parents said they have been unable to attain any report on son Christopher for months and suspect he could be severely harmed or worse, dead.

The Rodriguezes are victims of a provision of Utah’s Child Welfare and Reform Act of 1994, which allows the DCFS to effectively terminate parental rights simply because the parents failed to comply with a mental health treatment plan. Under the act, there is no need to prove the children are in danger or that the parents are incapable.

Utah families other than the Rodriguezes say they were destroyed under similar circumstances. Attorney Michael Humiston filed a $500 million class-action suit in 1998 against Utah Attorney General Janet Graham and several other state officials, with five families as plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that the families were terrorized, “torn asunder” and “deprived of their fundamental rights without due process of law.” According to Humiston, the amount of damages sought in the lawsuit is equivalent to the amount of child welfare subsidies received by the state of Utah between 1994 and the time the suit was filed.

Double Standard

Legal action for restitution of abuses in the system is increasing as more families, family advocates and concerned professionals are able to make facts known and provide the necessary network of support. But authorities agree that preventive action is critical to stem the tide of children needlessly being forced into the system.

Studies cited by the Family Advocacy Center report that children are as much as 10 times more likely to be abused or neglected in foster care or state institutions than in their own homes.

Though CPS agencies and the child welfare system claim to operate in the best interest of the child, and many of their employees and workers earnestly do try to do so, evidence reveals an alarming double standard between what is considered acceptable child rearing when the child is in the home as opposed to when the child is in the custody of the state and placed in a group home, psychiatric institution or foster home.

A series of bills known as the “Children’s Bills” introduced in the state of Colorado in 1996 illustrate the problem. One of the bills sought to protect children by removing them from the home if it was even suspected that neglect or abuse might occur at some point in the future. However, this legislation also proposed that if those same children were placed in a psychiatric institution or other state facility and actually harmed or abused, the facility would be given 90 days to develop a plan to stop the abuse and 120 days to implement it.

Though the legislation failed, case histories and investigations suggest the child welfare system operates on this double standard. In each of the cases investigated by Freedom, ample evidence existed that the parents had not placed their child in danger. Needlessly removing the child from the home did.

Deaths of children in psychiatric institutions became a national issue during 1998 and 1999 after the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an international psychiatric watchdog group established in 1969 by the Church of Scientology and professor Dr. Thomas Szasz, began investigating lethal abuse of restraints and turning evidence over to media and authorities.

The Hartford Courant published a five-part investigative report in 1998 documenting deaths by restraints of 142 patients across the country in psychiatric hospitals, group homes and residential youth facilities. Ages could be confirmed in only 114 of the cases; of those, 26 percent were children — nearly double their percentage in mental health facilities. Further, the actual number of deaths in such facilities under the same circumstances, according to an independent study conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, is likely between 50 to 150 per year — or one to three deaths every week.

Spanking a child can land a parent with charges of abuse. However, in most of the cases reported by the Courant, little to nothing was done to the individuals and facilities responsible for actual deaths.

Reports of deaths and severe abuse of children in foster care have also been receiving increased attention.

In 1999, Colorado undertook reforms for the care of children in state custody after four children under the age of 2 1/2 died in foster care homes. In two of the cases, charges of child abuse were filed. In a third case, a foster mother’s boyfriend was charged with murder after he fractured a 14-month-old child’s skull. A state report noted that in one foster home, the children were abusing each other.

Abuses and dangers to children in the system have prompted investigations and demands for reform in California, Florida and other states.

Emotional and Physical Abuse

A prevalent danger is that many facilities for children in state custody or foster homes try to placate children with heavy psychotropic drugs, often just to make them easier to manage.

“When taken from the home, a child suffers trauma and begins misbehaving in the foster home,” said Suzanne Shell from the Family Advocacy Center. “Social services does not recognize this and says it is from the trauma suffered at home. So when the child gets out of control, they put him on drugs,” worsening the situation.

Children under the influence of psychiatric drugs have suffered drug-induced psychosis, hallucinations, abnormal heart activity, uncontrollable tremors, liver problems and other “complications,” including death.

Judges in Los Angeles County were so concerned about the wholesale drugging of children in the system that they implemented a program which requires each psychiatric diagnosis and prescription be reviewed by the county psychiatrist before court approval. It does not, however, appear to have helped. A 1997 Los Angeles grand jury reported that an audit of 158 cases found that in nearly half of the cases the children were drugged without the required legal consent.

An in-depth investigation conducted by The Los Angeles Times in May 1998 found that thousands of children in state foster or group homes were being administered powerful psychiatric drugs, mostly for the purpose of making the kids easier to manage. In Los Angeles County alone, dependency court judges approved requests to medicate 4,500 children in one year.

The Los Angeles County’s child protective system came under renewed scrutiny and criticism in January 2000 in a report issued by the LA County Board of Supervisors-appointed Foster Care Task Force. The task force, formed after an alarming increase in deaths of children in foster care between May and August 1999, charged that safeguards are lacking and that children in foster care have no greater protection than other children in the community.

Laws which provide for automatic termination of parental rights generally assume parents are guilty until proven innocent, and place the burden on parents to prove they are fit to raise their children – as opposed to the state to prove that they are not.
The problem is not unique to Southern California. In Florida, between 1997 and early 2000, child abuse investigators found evidence of abuse or neglect of at least 55 children in state-licensed psychiatric treatment centers, with many of the victims being in foster care – removed from their homes for purported abuse, only to suffer real abuse at the hands of those charged with their safety and well-being.

Even with legal consent for drugging, however, the problems are far from alleviated. Any psychiatrist, whether government-appointed or not, by nature of his training and profession is likely to lean toward prescribing children drugs — a tendency which is increasingly coming under scrutiny as unproven and highly dangerous. The very problem of overdrugging in the system stems from psychiatrists, thus any review or oversight by psychiatrists to curb the problem is unlikely to produce much result.

Information on the full extent of drugging and abuse in custody care is murky due to a lack of reporting rigor. The Federal Child Abuse and Prevention Act of 1974 was amended in 1996 to include, among other things, a provision requiring annual reports by states on certain categories of events that happen to children in custody, including abuses and deaths.

“The improvement was only on paper,” said sociologist James Roger Brown. “What I have found in trying to collect the reports that are supposed to be produced, is that no one has actually produced any of them.”

Suzanne Shell added, “When a child is abused in a foster home or in an institution while in state custody, the state investigates itself. That is something we cannot tolerate.”

Restoration of Rights

Family advocates are presenting evidence to state and federal representatives and urging that a congressional investigation be called toward the end of revamping the laws governing child protective agencies and child welfare.

High on the list for reform are state codes which provide for automatic termination of parental rights. These generally assume parents are guilty until proven innocent, and place the burden on parents to prove they are fit to raise their children — as opposed to the state to prove that they are not.

“It is a fantastic breach of due process of the law,” said attorney Michael Humiston, who refers to Utah law which allows the state Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to terminate parental rights merely because parents have failed to comply with a DCFS “treatment plan.” The state neither has to prove a child is in danger from the parents, nor show the parents are incapable. “When children are removed from homes, parents are often effectively charged with child abuse,” he said. “Yet they are given none of the due process protections given to other persons accused of crimes.”

Further, state employees involved in removing children from homes and caring for them once in state custody enjoy immunity from prosecution. Eliminating such immunity is a key step in righting the wrongs, according to Shell and Brown.

“Each individual worker has to be held accountable for what they do to the children and the family — for their action or for the lack of action they take that is harmful,” Shell said.

Until such reforms are widely adopted, the rights of countless more families like the Chaplins, Castillos and Rodriguezes will disintegrate in a system being abused by those who do not have the best interests of children at heart.
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