“The number of children in State care is nearly half of what it was seven and a half years ago. We are focused on family reunification,” said James Beougher, director of the Office of Child and Family Services at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on MPBN’s Maine Watch. The Family Services director said that seven years ago 3,000 children were in the State’s care; now it’s down to 1,370.
In 2004 sweeping changes began to transform Maine’s Child and Family Services. According to Beougher, 30 percent fewer children are in foster care, because new priorities and new support programs for parents and caregivers are in place. A major change has been that the State now mandates kinship care.
“Kids are safer and get permanency more quickly with relatives,” said Beougher. “Everyone that I ask how many days would you want your grandchild, niece or nephew to be in a foster home if you were ready to care for them? Everyone I’ve spoken to says zero.”
But in 2005 when DHHS Child and Family Services got involved with the welfare of David Handler, these changes were far from the norm for DHHS workers. The caseworkers in charge of the Handler case were still apparently operating with procedures they had been accustom to for 25 years. These DHHS caseworkers essentially kidnapped a young boy by ignoring official kinship procedures — adding more turmoil and heartbreak to David’s life.
“Empirical evidence exists underpinning that suggesting the children in kinship placements suffer far less of mental and emotional problems than of children not placed with kin,” said Joseph Baldacci, attorney for the Handlers.
David Handler’s grandmother applied for kinship care in 2005. And his first cousin also filed with DHHS for guardianship months prior to the Termination of Parental Rights hearing in the fall of 2007. These family members’ applications and petitions for kinship care of David Handler were categorically denied in favor of foster-care family placement.
Mrs. Marjorie Brickman Kern —
The first relative to offer to open her home to David was his grandmother, Marjorie Brickman Kern, Russell Handler’s mother. She had an established bond with her grandson, as he had spent vacations at her home and even had his own room there.
According to the DHHS logs, on May 24, 2007, “a woman called and identified herself as the paternal grandmother of David H.” The woman indicated she wanted to speak to the caseworker, “about taking custody of David. She lives in New York and can be contacted at the number above.”
On May 29, 2007, Marjorie Kern contacted the guardian ad litem (GAL) Wayne Doane, informing him of her intentions. By the end of June of 2007, Russell Handler met with Claudia Kjer, the caseworker. DHHS logs officially state that Russell informed Kjer that his mother, Mrs. Kern, wanted to take custody of David.
Mrs. Kern, traveled to Maine from New York twice to make her case to be considered for kinship placement but found DHHS unreceptive. She was informed that in order to participate in the case she would need a lawyer. So, Mrs. Kern arranged to meet with caseworker Kjer. Abruptly, Kjer told Mrs. Kern that she was too old to raise a child. Ms. Kern, who is in her 70s, has a has a masters in education, had taught children David’s age at the United Nations International School in New York City, and is a vibrant senior. She responded to Kjer’s comment that she is a capable and independent woman. Mrs. Kern is also financially well off, so David’s material and educational needs would always be taken care of.
DHHS failed to abide by the law and meet its obligation, which would have started with a home-study background check being performed to determine Mrs. Kern’s suitability as a guardian. DHHS procedures then require the caseworker to complete a kinship assessment. There was no follow up investigation or home-study even requested by the department, and no completed kinship assessment.
The Boscoffs —
Cathy Boscoff of Great Neck, New York, is the first cousin of Russell Handler; her husband, Abbey, is a forensic accountant. Cathy works as a realtor. The couple successfully raised four children who are productive citizens.
“The State of Maine DHHS failed to follow up with or even look into the option of placing this minor child in our home,” said Abbey and Cathy Boscoff in their affidavit read out in court. “We believe that it is in his best interests to be placed with us … We are asking the Court for placement to provide and maintain a loving, healthy relationship and to secure his best moral and psychological interests.”
In November 2008, the Boscoff’s petitioned the Court to arrange a testimonial hearing with “limited discovery” to prove that DHHS made completely inadequate efforts to even consider a kinship placement.
But all Rosemary Fowles, assistant to the attorney general stated was, “The petitioners’ motion appears to be an attempt to delay an adoption of a child or to allow the parents whose rights have been terminated to learn the location of the child and as such is frivolous.”
“Frivolous,” describes the future of a child’s life according to Fowles, the same term used by David’s GAL Wayne Doane, referring to the petitions for guardianship of David.
Doane also stated in a letter that from March 3, 2006, David went through three foster-home placements — the last when the termination of parental rights took place on October 15, 2007. The “child was placed in pre-adoptive foster home,” wrote Doane.
Fowles confirmed that, “the permanent plan of adoption has been in place since the termination was granted …”
Since March 3, 2006, there had been three different foster home placements for David, while two kinship family homes had been made available. His grandmother had filed to be a guardian as far back as 2005. Clearly DHHS favored a foster home placement to kinship care in the Handler case. Why?
As far back as 2000, DHHS policies state that relative placements “must be actively and assertively pursued.” And that a kinship care study “is to be completed in all cases.”
2007 DHHS policies state that a “fit and willing relative” is a satisfactory permanent plan for a child in State custody. Furthermore that relative could be an alternative plan to Termination of Parental Rights and adoption.
According to official Court procedure, “At the permanency hearing, caseworkers need to be prepared to offer the Court an explanation and documentation as to why or why not kinship care is the permanent plan for the child.” There is no evidence that such an explanation was ever offered to the Lower Court by DHHS caseworkers.
The department did not meet its minimum statutory obligations to promote kinship placement.
• By never completing a home-study guardianship assessment, the State deliberately ignored the paternal grandmother’s Pre-Termination of Parental Rights request for placement.
• The State carried on with an adoption while there were motions pending.
• DHHS had two valid kinship options and never did anything to consider them as required by law. The department’s failure constitutes a due process violation.
• The record indicates DHHS did not conduct a search to find relative placements.
The State ombudsman has done a review of the Department of Health and Human Services’ actions and apparently has found that DHHS violated its own rules and regulations concerning kinship placement.
Being torn apart first from his father and then from his mother must have been terrifying for David. If he had been placed with a relative, there would have been continuity in his life, giving him some security. Instead, he had to adjust to three different foster-care families — three, in a year and a half.
Director Beougher, in the MPBN interview, said that DHHS now tries to see the world through they eyes of the children who need their help.
“Now we ask the child if they can’t be with mom or dad where do they feel they would be safe? They know better than we — where they would be safe,” said Beougher. “They almost always answer that they feel safest with a relative.”
According to Beougher, DHHS now holds family team meetings, with the child’s family and relatives all at the table to help the reunification process.
According to a report on Kinship in 2011 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation Maine has over 11,000 children who are being raised by a grandparent or another relative. Out of 1,700 children in foster care 30 percent have been placed with relatives, an increase from only five years ago which was less than 10 percent.
Where’s the justice for David, his grandmother, the Boscoffs, or the Handlers? Their family is still broken a part.
If DHHS officials uphold the new reunification policies and apply them to the Handler case, it’s not too late to turn around this miscarriage of justice.