Homeless Couple on the Lam to Keep Child Out of Foster Care

Sometimes foster care is the only way to keep children safe. All we know, however — and we can know a lot — tells us it should be a last resort.

Yet a mother — let’s call her Carey — had to flee her home state to avoid losing her two-year-old to the child protective services agency, though her child suffered neither abuse nor neglect, she told me. And I’ve every reason to believe her.

Her story is in some ways not unique, but in other ways it is — as, of course, is everybody’s story. I’m going to try to tease out what’s not unique from the fabric of particulars she shared.

Carey, her toddler and her fiance — let’s call him Mike — never had a home of their own. They’d been living with her mother, but had to leave because she was moving to a place where she couldn’t house them. This is a fine — and hardly unique — instance of how unstable doubled-up situations usually are.

Carey and Mike decided to live in a tent at a campground because that was so much cheaper than staying in a motel. They thought they could save enough to cover the upfront costs of renting. And perhaps they could have, since he was working.

The campground had running water, bathrooms with showers and electricity (for an extra fee). The family had enough food, thanks to a combination of food stamps and Mike’s wages. Carey was around to care for her child 24/7.

Well, someone reported them to CPS, which sent out a caseworker, as it should have. The caseworker told the couple they’d have to move to housing within two weeks. The agency — or some other source — would pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.

The couple couldn’t find an affordable place within such a tight deadline. So they decided that Carey and the child would move in with Mike’s dad, while Mike stayed at the campground. This, they thought, would placate the caseworker while giving them more time to find an apartment. It didn’t. The caseworker insisted they all had to stay together and move to housing PDQ.

Another avenue opened up long about this time. Carey had applied for a federal Housing Choice voucher and learned she’d been approved.

A new deadline then — 60 days to sign a lease. But the couple couldn’t find a landlord who’d rent to them. The problem, Carey says, is that Mike has a criminal record — not for a recent offense, however, nor one that would clearly flag him as likely to harm other tenants or property.

But private landlords can generally screen out applicants with criminal records so long as they don’t target those protected by civil rights laws. Such data as we have indicate that many do.

Carey asked for an extension of the lease-up deadline. The housing authority’s protocol apparently included this option. But CPS wouldn’t let the couple continue the search while still caring for the child.

So to keep her, the family left the state for a place far away, where they could stay with Carey’s sister. “I was pushed out of my hometown,” Carey says. And the family’s situation is more precarious now.

Mark’s out of a job — and without a car because the one he had broke down en route. He’s got a work history, of course, but also a criminal record. And we know that’s a common screen-out factor.

Meanwhile, the caseworker was bound and determined to find the family. S/he issued threats through relatives — an Amber alert, an arrest warrant.

Carey feels unjustly hounded. “We are a good family in a bad situation,” she says. “My daughter is my life.” She’d be “traumatized to be taken from her mom and dad.” Children often are, the research tells us.

I couldn’t get the CPS side of the story, of course, but what Carey says seems credible. Surely CPS would have taken custody of the child forthwith if there were even inklings of imminent harm.

I’d like to think this story is a one-of-a-kind thing. Some singularly single-minded caseworker more intent on getting his/her way than on the child’s welfare.

Perhaps, though the risk of losing a child to foster care because of inadequate housing isn’t. So I think it’s worth asking what should have happened. We can look at this from two angles — finding housing and family protection.

From the first, someone — perhaps at the housing authority or the agency that administers homeless services — could have helped the couple find a low-cost apartment a landlord would rent to them. This might include actually talking with landlords or engaging faith-based organizations and other nonprofits to do that.

As part of its push to rapidly re-house more homeless families, the D.C. government has hired “navigators” to, among other things, negotiate with landlords so they’ll rent to those with poor credit and rental histories. Seem to me that criminal histories could be subject to negotiations of this sort too.

On a broader and more affirmative front, the local or state government could have prohibited landlords from discriminating on the basis of criminal records unless they could justify exclusions in particular cases.

Eighteen states, the District of Columbia and many more local governments have already taken this approach to give people with criminal records a fairer chance of employment. So far as I can tell, only one city has done the same for housing.

If any such help or legal protection were available to Carey and Mike, they obviously didn’t know it. Which brings me to the other angle. The couple should have had a lawyer — or a supervised budding lawyer.

They would, of course, have needed free services like those provided by legal aid societies, other nonprofits, law school clinics and attorneys in private practice who volunteer through a pro bono program.

Carey believes that she and Mike could have found a landlord to rent to them if they’d just been given more time. Knowing a fair number of lawyers, I’m quite confident that one could, at the very least, have gotten the caseworker to back off — or the agency to pull him/her off.

Expert legal help might also have made the housing search less challenging because Mike could perhaps have gotten his criminal record expunged, i.e., sealed from disclosure to landlords, as well as others.

So the story Carey told me could have ended very differently. One can only hope that the sequel better rewards the love, determination and resourcefulness that led to her and Mike’s exile.

 

 

8 Responses to Homeless Couple on the Lam to Keep Child Out of Foster Care

  1. Carey says:

    Thank you…
    while we lost everything we have now a home and new-found employment and for some reason CPS has not contacted us even though our family now has state assistance through our new state …
    Our daughter is doing good. Its a slow process regaining all that was lost …
    But we lost nothing as long as we have each other … Thank you for your time in writing our story ..
    P.s people really don’t understand the unjust power those people have until its happened with their family…

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    The post said I hoped for a better next chapter. It seems that’s unfolding, thanks to your love for each other and a lot of true grit. I’m hopeful the recovery process will continue. Your story has been widely circulated via social media. So I believe others are cheering for you too.

  3. Carey says:

    With love and understanding from our family and the hard work put in I’m sure our family will succeed.. I’ve always been told where there’s is a will there’s a way. This is our family there is no other way.. So as of now and forever I am a proud mother of my two year old daughter who in fact is the smartest two year old I know!
    And just because our lives are hard doesn’t mean were not happy even in a difficult situation..
    I thank you for tacking out your time and publishing my story for I feel that what happened was unjustifiable… I mean people live in outdoor Alaska right whats camping for a month in the summer… We still had full time employment, Section 8!! food, running water ect. This was a nice camp ground.. So much worse cases then ours when a real child might be need of help… sad really …
    I cant thank you enough for our system needs readjusting.

  4. CPSdoc says:

    You said –

    “Knowing a fair number of lawyers, I’m quite confident that one could, at the very least, have gotten the caseworker to back off — or the agency to pull him/her off.”

    The Agency NEVER backs off. They will come at a family multiple times, wear them down, and almost eventually get control of the child.

    Most lawyers tell their clients to ‘plead’ which leaves the parents with a substantiation charge. Most parents cave because many, if not all social workers hinge the ‘right’ to visitation with their child upon ‘admitting’ the parents’ problems.

    We wish this family well but unless they manage to get money in the bank, enough to get a GREAT lawyer (few fight CPS, maybe a handful in every state), the next time they find them, they may not be so lucky.

    It is an abomination that the USA has criminalized poverty so the corporations running Child Protective Services can make a profit. Yes, this is privatization as a ‘heads in beds’ phenomena.

  5. Carey says:

    CPS has not contacted us in two months both states know where we are… I believe we have a good fighting chance if for some reason they do want to come looking let em we have nothing to hide the only allegation against us was the fact we were homeless. I do thank if it was utmost importance they would of been knocking at our door by now..

  6. CPSdoc says:

    Carey, we’ve been learning about CPS for 3 years now, and what we find is unbelievable to the UnAware. Did you know the CAPTA legislation gave income levels for targeting families? The poor. Over a certain amount and the state won’t reimburse them for their ‘costs’.

    Speaking as somebody immersed in this subject, they never ever give up. Two months is nothing. Please be careful. Please learn all you can. Never sign anything without a lawyer. And always carry a camera.

    CPSdoc

  7. Carey says:

    Thanks for the advice..

  8. Jen says:

    Carey, if CPSdoc sounds like they’re being overcautious and negative, it’s because they’ve seen way too many cases on the bad side of the coin. Because, all too often, it works the way (s)he is cautioning that it can. One of the biggest problems that someone who is dealing with CPS and their abuse of power is the people that have never been through it, the ones who say, “If CPS is in their lives, there MUST be a reason.” Most people don’t see a reason to go shovel cow dung all day, but pay them to do it, and their view changes.

    Use the internet. View the increasing tales that are coming to light recently. Educate and arm yourself, and I wish you the best of luck. As a mother of six myself, I know how important your daughter is to you, as mine are my world also.

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