Adoptions are usually private affairs, sealed forever in court documents and known only to the families involved. But recently, one decision by Idaho's child welfare service exploded into the public sphere. A foster mom in Rathdrum in north Idaho says the state made a terrible mistake when it took her foster daughter away after four years in her home. Correspondent Jessica Robinson brings us this glimpse into the life-changing decisions the state has to make about children – where often there are no easy answers.
Andrea Butler sits in the dining room of her home in a quiet subdivision in Rathdrum, Idaho. She pulls up a video on her laptop. A little girl with sandy brown hair and big sparkling eyes appears on the screen.
This is Dee. Hearing her sing around the house used to be no big deal. Now, videos like these are closest Butler has to having Dee back.
Butler first met Dee in 2009. Butler is a fifth grade teacher. She had just qualified as a foster parent. Dee was 9 months old and her biological mother was using drugs. When the state asked Butler to take the child in, Butler knew the placement was temporary.
Butler: “Every court hearing that came around, I had her bags half-way packed and was preparing myself – OK, this is it, this is it. And it was never it.”
Months, then years passed by. Butler pulls up a video of Dee learning to ride a trike.
Butler experienced Dee's first steps, first words ...
Butler: “First solid foods, first birthday, first haircut.”
There was another first: one that Butler can't pinpoint exactly. The first time Dee called her “mom.”
Butler: “When she started doing that, it kind of started to sink in that this is not just a foster home nay more. That yeah, I am, I am your mom.”
Someone you might not expect agrees with Andrea Butler -- Dee’s biological mother, Elizabeth Gamez.
Gamez: “The bond that they had was – it was frickin' crazy. It made me sad that I didn't have that, but at least she had it with someone else. You know?”
Gamez says she saw this growing bond during her regular visitations with Dee. Meanwhile, Gamez says the state was pressuring her to terminate her parental rights and finally she did. She assumed Butler would adopt her daughter. But it wasn't going to be that simple.
The state removed Dee from Butler's home in March.
Butler: “The following week I got two supervised hours in a room at the Department of Health and Welfare with her. It was excruciating. Where your child is begging you to come home with you. And you have to say, 'No I'm sorry, you can't.'”
The state, you see, had another plan. Someone else wanted to take Dee home – relatives. An aunt and uncle who lived just miles away. They had already met Dee when she was just a newborn.
Tavares: “Imagine losing that connection with your niece -- someone who lived with you, someone who lived in her house.”
That’s Dee’s aunt Marla Tavares. She’s a social worker in Post Falls, Idaho. When the state first took Dee into custody a years ago, Tavares says child service workers did approach her.
Tavares: “They did ask if I would be willing to be a permanent placement if we got to that point. And I agreed that we could do that.”
Jessica: “And that was back in 2009?
Tavares: “That was in 2009.”
At that time, Tavares did not want to get in the middle of a fight between Dee’s biological mother and the state as a foster parent. Then in 2012, Tavares learned that Dee's biological mother had given up her rights.
Tavares: “So I stood up in court and said, 'This is my niece' and I was willing to adopt her.”
The state agreed. But after two years, Dee is still transitioning into the Tavares home.
If this process seems drawn out – well, it is.
Shanahan: “Last year we did 331 adoptions and I don't think we had anything that compared to this.”
Tom Shanahan is a spokesman for the the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Shanahan: “There were court delays, there were delays from our agency, there was delays from the adoptive family and there were delays caused by the foster parent. So we all share responsibility there.”
But Shanahan says, in other ways, the state's decision was pretty straight forward. And here's why. Idaho, like Oregon, Washington and most states, gives relatives priority for placement of foster kids. That’s a dramatic shift from a few decades ago.
Shanahan: “What we've learned over the years is that relative placement ends with the best outcomes for the child. They have fewer mental health, they have fewer behavior problems, there's generally a broader support from the extended family for the child.”
Laws that favor relatives have been credited with reducing the number of times foster children are bounced from home to home, and with shrinking the overall number of kids in foster care in the last decade.
One of the first laws to recognize the role of biological family in maintaining a child's identity was the Indian Child Welfare Act – and oddly, that law came up in Dee's case. Dee is part Alaskan native. A judge ruled the federal law didn't apply in these circumstances. But Tavares says family identity – tribal or otherwise – is something Dee would miss out on in another home.
“We have pictures of my oldest granddaughter that she is convinced are pictures of her. So she sees these pictures and says, 'Is that me? Tell me who that is,” says Tavares. “This is a little girl who is searching for her identity.”
But Andrea Butler says Dee lost the only identity she had for most of her 5 years when the state removed her from Butler's home.
“These are big scars they're creating for this little girl. And it's not too late to fix it,” says Butler.
Butler, her friends and family have launched a social media campaign called Bringing Dee Home and have staged public demonstrations to try to put pressure on the state officials to reverse their decision. Local news stories have highlighted the criminal history of Dee's biological extended family, though the state says the Tavareses passed background checks.
Tavares acknowledges the move has been hard on Dee. But she says her family is helping Dee work through the difficult transition. The publicity around the case, she says, hasn’t helped.
Tavares adds, there’s another reason for Dee to be part of her family. Dee is not the only child Elizabeth Gamez put up for adoption. After Dee, she had another child, a boy. Tavares and her husband adopted him around the same time they asked to adopt Dee.
Tavares: “I didn't want her to wonder why we adopted her brother and not her, but we were here. I didn't want her to think she wasn't wanted, she wasn't loved.”
Dee is now transitioning into the Tavares' home from a second foster home. It's part of the state's court-approved plan. Tavares says Dee has started calling her “grandma” sometimes – and on occasion, “mom.”
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