We’ve all heard it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes when a mother is also a child, it takes the village, government resources, treatment facilities, therapists, probation officers and medication to raise a child. Danny’s mother was 14 years old when he was born, and lived with her mother and uncle. You would think it a privilege to have an uncle willing to take in his sister, her 14-year-old daughter and his nephew.
Unfortunately, this uncle wielded power and control with his fists, and no one, especially baby Danny*, could find refuge in this home. Danny’s mother, unable to protect herself or her son from this abuse, was soon brought to the attention of Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Even with services provided by the department, Danny’s mother was too young and ill-equipped to cope with all the necessities of raising an infant. She eventually lost her parental rights.
The purpose of termination of parental rights is to allow children to become eligible for adoption; to give them a chance of finding a truly permanent home. While this happens for most children, no one can guarantee adoption for every child. And so it was for Danny, eight years and 12 placements later, a match still had not been found. One can imagine the feelings of abandonment that would follow so many homes and so many years. Feeling unstable, unwanted and struggling from high anxiety, Danny began to suffer from mental illnesses. Soon he was in a treatment center under a medication regiment.
His behavior spiraled downward. On one occasion, while in a group home, in a moment of frustration he threw a bowl of cereal during breakfast. This incident, among others, landed him in juvenile detention.
Having spent eight years in state custody Danny’s case was identified by the Cold Case Project as needing review. This multi-year effort, conducted by the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children, aims to review more than 200 cases per year of children who appear to be “stuck in foster care.”
Danny’s social worker, Todd Morrison, was a wonderful partner for the review and while brainstorming new permanency ideas for this child, remembered Danny’s response to a question about what makes him happy. Danny, Todd said, was happy when he spoke with his family, when he spoke to his mother.
Although her parental rights had been terminated by the juvenile court, Danny’s mother still reached out to him through phone calls, cards and letters. Her situation had changed since the time of the termination and she wanted Danny to know she loved him. Danny’s mother had grown up and matured. She was employed as a hair stylist and was more stable. She was even caring for her daughter, Danny’s little sister.
Reuniting Danny with his mother began to emerge as a possible permanency plan for Danny. When approached with the idea, Danny’s mother was apprehensive. Danny's mental health diagnoses and prescribed psychotropic medications seemed daunting. Nevertheless, with careful expert attention, Danny was weaned off most of his medications and through family and individual counseling his mental health needs and his mother’s concerns were addressed.
With the approval of the court and coordination through DFCS, visitations were started between Danny and his mother. She no longer had to communicate with him through written words and in the darkness of a telephone call, she could now talk with him in person.
Now, she could touch him, see him and hug him. Danny who had previously been described as having a “flat affect” began to smile all the time, his tantrums and frustration lessened. He had someone touching him with the affection he desperately needed and missed.
Over time, the new plan for Danny worked. DFCS, together with Danny’s child attorney, wanting to solidify what was in place, made a motion to the court asking to vacate the previous order of termination of parental rights (TPR), and that new motion was granted.
Some people were very nervous about this motion, citing it as a dangerous precedent, a move to weaken TPRs. But we need “tools in our toolbox” to fix cases that may be broken. There are cases with unique sets of facts that need to be reviewed and tested for new solutions. A lonely child facing a permanency plan of aging out as a legal orphan needs our best and brightest to think creatively about his future.
Danny got that gift from the professionals working his case: his village.
Danny is not his real name, but his story is real. This teen was part of a statewide review called the Cold Case Project. The Cold Case Project is being conducted in full partnership and transparency with the Division of Family and Children Services . The project is made possible by the Casey Family Program funds.