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Stories from the Field
Lyon was holding the phone about 10 inches from her ear as I rounded the corner of her cubicle. The voice coming from the phone was so loud that I could hear every word. I slowed down, making faces at Lyon as we listened. It was an earful of that blustery defensiveness so common to poor females. This bluster involves lots of victim-claiming and lots of near-threats. Some of these ladies seem to think they can just bully their way through a bureaucracy, and they keep doing it because it’s true—they often can. You get what you take in this life.
Lyon and I had started CPS pretty much at the same time. She was in the Training Cohort ahead of me. She was also on my team, and we were both new in these careers, so we gravitated toward each other trying to hold each other up. Lyon was wacky, and we got along like gravy and heart disease.
The woman on the phone, Stella Smith-Larson, was a white 43-year-old mother of 13 children and the most famous client in recent CPS history in this county’s mandated Child Welfare agency. Lyon had caught her most recent five reports, all of which were happening simultaneously. Three of them were called in by persons known to the family, and two of them were called in by providers. We see this happen a lot when children are at very high risk. As the people close to the family become more aware of a caregiver’s behaviors or a family’s circumstances, alarms are raised and a buckshot of reports come blasting through the hotline. In a well-organized system, all of these reports will come to one case manager, in this case, Lyon Merceant-Koons.
Some people should never be parents. Stella was one of them, and she is the perfect example of how dysfunctional mandated Child Welfare systems are when there is cause for intervention. Stella had a history involving multiple cases on her and 10 of her 13 kids. Most of these cases were short lived, except for the most recent one, which had closed four months earlier after five years. Before that, we had let her run roughshod over 15 case managers who, scared of her, closed each case as early as they could.
These were the cases they needed to take their time with, to really get involved with. But the painful truth of mandated Child Welfare systems today is that most of the intentional and careless abusers are let off light because of their behaviors during a case. If they can yell their way to the finish line quicker, they will. They learn advocacy skills from their service providers before they learn parenting skills. Shocker that some never get to the parenting part.
There is a word for the reaction these case managers give to such parents: cowardice. Meanwhile, the Jayla’s of the world will be stuck in this shithole system forever because they don’t know how to fight. Decent parents suffer because social workers find them far easier to deal with than the Stellas of the world. Ain’t that some shit?
Anyway, that lengthy case came because Stella had lost a child—an infant—when her home burned down. She had tested positive for cocaine in the ensuing CPS Assessment. As the sole caregiver of her children, she had a duty to protect the children by providing them with safe, sober supervision. What this means in laywomen’s terms is that the state found she was unable to function enough to get her 10 children out of the house. Also, her drug use had caused the fire. She’d allowed a friend to cook crack in her kitchen, and that had started the fire.
Finally, the system decided to take Stella seriously and endure her empty threats. It only cost a dead baby.
Stella had three more babies after all of this. She’d also regained custody of her 10-year-old son. One of these new babies was the focus of one of the reports that Lyon had caught, the one with validity. None of these children had come into care while her case was open, which was weird. Usually when a case was opened and a mother had an additional child, the system was chomping at the bit to take custody of it. But not these new children. That was the tell that let anyone paying proper attention know that the system was still afraid of Stella and the workers were still acting with cowardice on her case.
These three children were stairstep children, just like her other 10. Born right after each other, they were a cluster of Irish Twins in one family. When Lyon arrived on the scene, Stella had an 18-month-old, a 9-month-old, and a newborn. The 9-month-old was the focus of the report. Her left arm was not functioning, and she always kept it close to her body. It looked withered compared to the other arm. Listen to this Keystone Cops story of how many people with degrees missed what had happened to this baby.
While the case was still open, the Permanency Case Manager noticed the problem with the child’s arm. She called in First Steps, an organization designed to help families with children under 3 who have some difficulty functioning in one or more areas. The Case Manager from First Steps missed the problem. They gave the child physical therapy, which did not help. So that’s two case managers who missed what was happening, over four months. The baby had been to the doctor multiple times, and the doctor missed what was happening to this baby. That’s three opportunities to figure out what happened and three failed professionals. Shame on y’all. Just shame, shame, shame.
The problem? The child’s arm had been broken in a spiral twist four months before. It had broken in two places and no licensed health care professional ever thought to get an x-ray. That would have shown it clearly. But even in the emergency room, after Lyon had made her take the baby to see what the problem was, Stella was blustering away, trying to scare everyone away from her and her children. I came in to help Lyon at the hospital because she was drowning in this case, and she looked ready to call it quits.
Stella tried to scare me away too. We were talking in the emergency room, waiting for the x-ray that would finally show all these professionals what was happening. I was trying to be engaging with her to see what could be done to keep the family together. Then she started telling me the story of how the SWAT team had to be called on her the first time she went to court on the last case. She made reference to having a gun on her at the time. Her voice was level, and the threat was intentional. If you take my babies, we’re doing that again.
She had encountered the wrong Case Manager this time. I asked her directly if that was a threat. She responded by looking up and raising her voice. We stood face to face with each other, and I made it clear it I was not backing down from protecting these fragile babies. Eyeball to eyeball I told her no threats could deter me from my mission to see her children were safe, and shamed her for not wanting the same thing. Witnessing the change within her as I stood my ground was incredible. She dissolved into a weeping mess of submission, at least temporarily. Finally, we could get somewhere.
Here we see how this system acts differently with difficult clients than it does with compliant clients. If any other parent had been in this situation, their babies would have been removed right there from the hospital based on the x-ray results. But because Stella was a blustering, angry parent with history with the system, the system used kid gloves with her. This cowardly systems did what it should have done with every single case they had unless the police got involved—they asked the court politely could they please take these children away from this mom. Jayla never got that. Sabio’s mom never got that. They were young and compliant. This mom was old and violent. That’s the difference. And that’s another clue that these mandated Child Welfare Systems are ripe for abolition. They don’t even function according to their own design.
What happened next was crazy. I’m pretty sure the Director for DCS, Peggy Serbey, and the judge in the case, Judge Marylin Moores, had an ex parte meeting over this case. The judge came into the DCS office for a meeting the morning the case was heard. This was highly unusual, and I never saw it happen again in my ten years in this field. I would love to know what those two talked about. Oh, to be a fly on that wall.
The court hearing was also wild. Lyon had called in sick (who could blame her) and I picked up the case for court since I had been at the hospital. I arrived in court to find that Stella had shown up, but without her babies. The babies’ father was there as well. He was a poor Black man about 15 years younger than Stella, with long braids and a slight voice. Stella was her loud, blustering self as we waited.
In the court, Judge Moores gave a performance the likes of which I had never seen before. It was demoralizing to everyone in that court room. No facts in the case were mentioned. Instead, the Judge asked Stella if she knew how babies were made. Stella admitted she did. The Judge kept on with this line of questioning and finally got to how to prevent pregnancy permanently and then zeroed down on Stella. “Don’t you think it’s time you took care of that, Ms. Smith-Larson?”
Head bowed, Stella said, “Yes ma’am.” I had never seen her so humbled.
Then the court ordered the children to be removed. Stella fled the court room before I could ask her where the children were. The Judge came off the bench and talked more with Peggy Serbey, who was sitting right behind me. I left to go visit the home to see if the children were there.
I called the police on the way. As soon as I gave the address, I started getting push back. “Call us when you get there,” they whined. EVERY SYSTEM in this town was afraid of this woman! WTF? Was I the only one fearless enough to go in and retrieve these babies? That appeared to be the case, and it got worse as the event progressed.
I arrived at the home to find Stella standing in the middle of a light cast from a streetlamp at dusk. Her arms were raised over her head and blood was dripping from one hand. She held a knife with the other hand. When she saw me, the knife came clattering down to the street. She was crying. The police pulled up a few minutes later. They refused to deal with her, and refused to enter the home. Stella was all blustery show here, and had no intention of hurting herself.
The babies were inside the home. I went in with Stella to ready them. I packed them up in car seats and hoped for the best as I took them one by one to place them in my car. I asked after the 10-year-old. Stella said, “He’s down in the basement.” She quickly grabbed a knife from atop a door frame and held it in her hand as she opened the door. “Go on,” she said, inviting me down some stairs.
I asked the police to assist me in looking for this 10-year-old, and they refused. I chose my personal safety and declined to go down. We found out later he wasn’t even down there. Stella had texted him from court and he had fled from school. Police picked him up within an hour and brought him to our office.
I can’t tell you how this case ended as I don’t know. But I can tell you that our mandated Child Welfare systems routinely act like this with difficult parents and caregivers. They can’t get away from them fast enough. Children fall through cracks, babies die, and the system with no heart and no courage continues to operate without interference. Who will check them? Who will correct them? Who will force them to act in accordance with their own missions and stated values? Certainly not their leadership, and that’s where the buck should always stop.
It took me ten years of earnestly trying to reach these people in leadership before I gave up and decided the system is better dismantled than corrected. It’s awful and we can do better. We must do better. Whether you know it or not, this system is the one that feeds all other systems—criminal, prison, mental health, addiction resources, homeless resources, domestic violence, etc. Most of the people in need in our society either came from this system, or needed this system and it failed them.
We will never cure our social ills until we face that fact that every single child must be protected, and we are all responsible for making sure that happens. We can’t quarantine this work in the systems we pay to hide it in. It doesn’t work like that. We all must engage and do our part. When we do that, we will finally see a better society without these expensive, ineffective systems.