It's the middle of the night, and you're awakened by a phone call.
A social worker on the other end hurriedly explains to you that you have a newly born niece. A baby girl! Your brother calls on the other line, frantic. He's panicking, having just found out that he unexpectedly has another child in the world.
You sit up in bed, your heart racing. In the next room, your own children sleep soundly as you find out the news: Your infant niece has been placed in foster care. Immediately you are determined: she is one of your own. You know that she needs to be with her family, her people. The next day is a frenzy of activity: calling your brother's home state, arranging for flights, trying to get information on court dates, paperwork, and social workers' contact information. You work late into the night trying to untangle the confusing mess of red tape so that you can get your niece home with her family. You can't wait to hold her in your arms.
Little do you know, it will be four long years before you will have even a glimmer of hope that this baby will be back where she belongs.
When a child is placed in foster care, the first goal is ALWAYS to determine if there is a biological relative who will be able to care for the child. This is known as kinship care. If a healthy and safe relative can be found to care for the child, that will always be a better option for them than remaining in foster care.
This story is complex, and heartbreaking. This is a story of a family being disrespected and devalued by the foster care system. This is a story of a beautiful baby girl being unlawfully removed from her family. This is a story of an auntie fighting tooth and nail to be able to care for her beloved niece. Nearly 4 years after she was taken into foster care, Emily's family is still fighting for her to be back where she belongs.
They are fighting an uphill legal battle, and they need our help. It is my hope that as you read my interview with ShaVonnda, you will picture yourself in her shoes, fighting for a missing piece of your own family.
How long did it take for you to be notified that your infant niece had been taken into foster care?
My Brother actually called me immediately after he had received the call to notify me about the situation; he was so surprised. This was around the end of February 2016. She was still a newborn born on 2/18/2016.
At the time that Emily came into foster care, how did you and your family members feel? What was it like for you to not have contact with her and not know where she was or how she was doing?
Initially it was confusing because we weren’t even aware of her birth, and had my brother been aware of the pregnancy he’d been at the hospital, as he’s been at the birth of each of his children. We felt that we needed to get her out of the system immediately, and were willing to do whatever it took for that to happen. The no contact situation really was a huge clue that something was wrong in the case. In foster care, you hope for some sort of family placement because that is usually the best interest for the child. So when they began to turn my brother away, and stopped visitation for the children, and refused to initiate a relationship with me, it hurt like crazy. I felt like we were going to lose her for no reason at all. Mental anxiety set in for me about the wellbeing of my brother and his family. Imagine not being able to check on your child or relative, but being told that the child is sick constantly. We felt she needed us.
*I cannot even imagine the fear and desperation ShaVonnda and her brother felt when the foster family did not immediately establish regular contact with them. I know I personally would have been SO angry, frightened, and heartbroken to miss out on the fragile beginnings of my infant relative's life. Foster parents, when you refuse to fight for frequent contact with the child's family, YOU are choosing to be the cause of that pain and fear.
Did the foster parents caring for Emily make an effort to get in contact with you or other family members? What actions could they have taken to help you and other family members stay in touch with her?
In short, no. Most people say it’s not the foster parents fault, but in our case they played a huge role. They never initiated any contact. I emailed them and shared our situation and worry about DCS (Department of Children's Services) and they never responded. Turns out, they sent the email to the caseworker and chose to ignore our plea. For them it was about getting a child. When DSS finally allowed us one ten minute FaceTime visit a week the foster parents response was that they weren’t going to force it on her. I felt that they could have made it a family thing. Our first visit went so well and lasted the entire ten minutes. That never happened again. At future FaceTime visits I would notice Emily responding off camera after about 1 minute and then all of a sudden we’d have to cancel. They never once allowed us to reschedule due to family emergencies. Once I called about changing to the following hour because the exterminator showed up later and I had my five children myself. They never responded. I decided to do the visit anyway and to my surprise they answered the call (only because I called on time.) They told me Emily was too busy with life to have any other time than the ten minutes a week allowed.
Then we learned that they never even referenced us as who we are. They did not call her father Dad, because they felt they were her dads, they did not call me Aunt, nor call her siblings as so. We were “family in California”, a grouped situation with no realistic identity to who we were. The foster family asked that we have no further contact following the termination of parental rights hearing because it was interfering with their interests. They never had reason or grounds to do so. We were even told that we had too much family and my brother and I were never allowed to do a group visit with he, myself and our children. Had the foster parents simply followed the law none of this would have been an issue. We’ve never posed a threat, or had any history of child abuse, neglect, or any reason to keep Emily away from us as a family. If the foster parents had focused on the welfare of the child instead of the welfare of themselves then that could have made all the difference￼. They knew Emily bonded well with us but ignored it. Honestly I believe they feared it. They even had police escorts at court as if we were intimidating them at each hearing. As if my brother and I were planning an attack?! It was bewildering actually, considering that we were the ones who felt bullied.
Were there things that the foster parents did to avoid/discourage contact with you guys and bonding between you and Emily?
They withheld all contact until the ICPC (out of state placement) was initiated for me in California, which was a whole 2 years later. The foster parents actually called my brother in December of 2016 and explained that they felt like Emily was family to them now and that he should terminate his rights so that they could move forward with her. That was extremely alarming to my brother. They also requested that DCS stop my brother's visit at a local place because they didn’t like the other kids making too much noise (Emily’s sisters and brothers). DCS withheld all his visitations after that and when they did initiate contact again, due to outcry from myself all the way from California, they then used that same time to try to say he abandoned her. I wasn't even cleared to have a phone number until a year and a half after initial contact, and was told that I couldn’t speak about the fact around the case at all. I could only ask how she was, but I was not allowed to question the foster parents' intentions.
ShaVonnda and Emily's story will be continued. While waiting for Part 2, please consider donating to help Emily's family cover the legal fees needed to plead their case in court. You can donate through go fund me OR through cash app.
And because I am lucky enough to have friendships with so many talented and incredible businesswomen, of course there's a chance to win a prize if you donate.
If you'd like to be entered to win, send me a screenshot via email or direct message of your donation. ANY amount qualifies you to be entered! You can win one of two awesome prizes:
A pair of beautiful handcrafted earrings of your choice from the Common Good Clay fall collection:
A shirt or sweatshirt of your choice from the @hashtagfostercare advocacy collection (a $50 value!)
I'm so excited to see how much support we can rally for this family.
Let's bring Emily home.