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March 7, 2011 permalink
St Louis has found a real child protector — A judge who cut the rate of child removal to half the level of his predecessor. Social workers hate him, but children are a lot safer. One reason for the change: predecessor Thomas Frawley was a former foster parent. Black judge Jimmie Edwards grew up in poverty and watched the social services system destroying other black families. Any chance this kind of judging will come to British Columbia?
City judge's defense of troubled families offends many caseworkers
ST. LOUIS • To Judge Jimmie Edwards, the 800 St. Louis foster children technically in his legal guardianship are all "children" — be they babies with pacifiers or runaways with tattoos.
Sometimes he even calls them "my" children.
Edwards, 55, is only the second African-American to preside over a family court in St. Louis in 40 years. He grew up in the same segregated, poor neighborhoods as most of the city's foster children. And he's heartsick over the disproportionate number of minorities who have been removed from their families and put in foster care both locally and nationally. In Missouri, nearly 90 percent of the 9,100 children in foster care are black.
"Too often in this country we confuse neglect with poverty," he said last month in his office on the second floor of the city's Family Court building, which handles all cases involving city children in the care of the state Children's Division.
So if he's going to make long-term custody decisions regarding his foster children, he said, he's going to err on what's best for the child. And in most cases, he said, it's the hope that many will reunify with a parent and return to their natural family, even if those families currently are in profound disarray.
His philosophy is a dramatic departure for the court, one that's led to a sea change in terms of how to handle child protection cases. Since Edwards took the bench in 2007, the rate at which the Family Court permanently removes children from their parents has plummeted.
It's a situation that's frustrated foster care caseworkers.
Just last week in court, Edwards objected to a caseworker's worries that a physically abused mother would ever be able to properly care for her preteen child who had been put into foster care. The situation was complex because the boy also had become abusive to his mother. Both caseworker and judge agreed it was a bad situation, yet Edwards was insistent — despite the caseworker's doubts — that the child might someday belong with his mother.
In another hearing often talked about among caseworkers, he rejected evidence of neglect based on the fact a baby was sleeping in a dresser drawer. Edwards took issue: That's where he and his siblings had slept as babies, he said.
Edwards is well-regarded for his compassion toward city children in dire straits. People magazine recently interviewed him about his work to develop a school for juveniles in his delinquency court.
But his popularity is not shared among some area caseworkers and private adoption agencies. Most are not willing to speak publicly about Edwards because they deal directly with him in court. But mention his name, and they privately don't hold back their disappointment.
Criticism of Edwards is partly rooted in his vocal refusal to terminate parental rights in the great majority of foster care cases. The legal act, which can only be approved by a judge, strips a natural parent's rights to a child and frees the child for a potential adoption.
According to data compiled by the city court, Edwards approved 103 termination of parental rights requests last year related to the 800 city children in foster care — a rate of about 13 percent of all cases. In 2004, that rate was nearly double, under the previous supervision of Judge Thomas Frawley.
Bradley Harmon, head of the local union representing city Children's Division workers, said caseworkers tell him that it's nearly impossible to get the judge to sign off on severing parental rights, even when a child is placed in a pre-adoptive foster home and the family has indicated its desire to adopt.
Harmon said he and other caseworkers hope to reunite families and know that terminating parental rights should not be an easy process. But Harmon says fellow caseworkers tell him that Edwards unnecessarily prolongs stays in foster care and hurts the potential for adoptions by giving natural parents too many chances to set their lives straight.
Some think Edwards is skirting federal law by failing to regularly establish permanent custody solutions within the second year of foster care — a charge Edwards denies.
Edwards said he will consider severing parental rights only if a child has lived with a foster family for more than six months and that family has pledged to adopt.
When parents come to his court trying to kick a drug habit, he's more likely to focus on the one clean drug test than all the failed ones before and after it. He refuses to take into custody any baby who is born with marijuana or alcohol exposure, saying such cases would flood the system.
And he's big on second chances. One mother lost her kids to foster care nearly a decade ago because of addiction. When she cleaned up her life three years ago, Edwards returned the kids to her because they were not adoptable and doing miserably in foster care.
"The only person that I've been able to send these kids to that will accept these kids and that believes in them, is mom," he said.
The shift inside the St. Louis Family Court under Edwards is emblematic of what some have long called the pendulum of child protection. At times, critics say, the system works aggressively to remove children from parents. Then it swings the other way, focusing more on keeping even distressed families together.
Frawley, Edwards' predecessor, also was highly regarded by many for his child advocacy while he headed the same family court.
In 2004, during Frawley's tenure, the number of foster children in the city was more than double the current figure. On the heels of state legislation to better serve foster children, Frawley got state and national recognition for restructuring his court to more aggressively resolve cases and get the children out of the system, drastically reducing the number of children languishing in foster care.
Yet, unlike Edwards, Frawley aggressively terminated rights of many parents who did not turn their lives around in the 15-month period defined under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act.
Frawley followed the timelines rigidly. In 2004, he terminated the rights of 340 parents. A third of those cases had been opened just the year prior — a rate that dwarfs similar measures of Edwards' court.
Frawley — himself a foster and adoptive parent — was theoretically freeing many of those children for adoption through state and private case management agencies.
But Edwards said that when he took the bench in 2007, he faced a glut of those children still in foster care. Now they were teenagers and had lived in multiple foster homes and residential facilities. Most were not adoptable, he said. In fact, he said, he found many adolescents didn't want to be adopted. A considerable number had secretly reconnected with their natural families, he said.
"Before they age out of the system, they run away from the system," Edwards said. "And they run back to the very same person we've terminated the relationship from."
One of those children was Cortez Washington, now 19, who spent most of his life in foster care. His mother had lost her parental rights when he was a little boy. When Cortez was about 16 and living in a residential facility, his mother showed up at his basketball game. It was the first time he had seen her in 13 years. Cortez had no other permanent connections and hated living in a group home, so he began sneaking visits with her and eventually ran away to live in her St. Louis home.
"They said I'm not supposed to talk to her at all," he said of the Children's Division. "If it was up to them, they wouldn't have let me talk to her, but I did anyway."
Cortez said Edwards agreed to do something that would have been unimaginable a decade or so ago. He let the teen return to his mother.
Julie Reed of Epworth Children and Family Services said the judge probably has it right with his view of adolescent foster teens, many of whom are quietly maintaining relationships with their natural parents even though their state 'safety plans" prohibit it.
"Foster care was designed to protect young children, but it doesn't do a very good job for teens," she said.
Edwards insists he would never put a child at risk by reuniting them with a dangerous parent.
But he's tired of a system that's biased against families struggling through the ills of poverty. He's grateful to foster parents. And he has often heard the argument from caseworkers that foster and adoptive parents can give a child a better shot at college and a life out of poverty. But is that worth breaking up a family forever?
It's that kind of high-stakes question that makes many presiding judges eager to leave a family court assignment.
Edwards was scheduled to rotate out of the bench months ago. But he said his work is not finished with his school for young delinquents, nor his children.
To the dismay of his critics, he has extended his stay through 2012.
Source: St Louis Post-Dispatch
Meanwhile, some Brits are losing patience with the other kind of judge.
UPDATED: Protestors storm court and 'arrest' judge in chaotic scenes
HUNDREDS of anti-establishment protestors stormed a Wirral court today and "arrested" a judge.
In chaotic scenes, police rescued Judge Michael Peake from their clutches and escorted him safely from the building.
Protestors from the public gallery charged at Mr Peake to make a civil arrest chanting “arrest that judge”.
Police scrambled over court benches to control the near-riot and one protestor shouted “seal the court.”
Another sat in the judge’s chair at the head of the court and declared Mr Hayes as “released”.
Around 600 chanting demonstrators massed around the County Court in Birkenhead.
Deafening cheers and chants could be heard from the crowd outside and protestors used mobile phones to film arrests being made.
Roads were blockaded and dozens of police officers deployed to keep order.
A stand-off followed with several demonstrators staging a sit-down protest in front of police vehicles, refusing to let them pass.
Six arrests were made - two for assaulting officers.
The protestors were from the anti-establishment "British Constitution Group."
The demonstration was sparked when one of the prominent voices in the BCG, Wirral man Roger Hayes, faced a bankruptcy hearing for non-payment of council tax.
In 1997, Mr Hayes, a former member of UKIP, stood for election in Wallasey representing the Referendum Party against sitting Labour MP Angela Eagle. He polled 1,490 votes and finished fourth.
As he emerged from the court surrounded by his supporters, Mr Hayes said: "The judges are breaking the law in their own courts.
"I asked him (Mr Peake) if he was serving under his oath of office.
"I asked three times for him to confirm this and he refused.
"So I civilly arrested the judge and I called upon some people in the court to assist me in this.
"They were acting lawfully and the police should not have arrested them."
The hearing was abandoned and will need to be re-arranged at a date to be fixed.
Raymond Saintclair, who organised the Birkenhead protest, said: "Today was day-one.
"This is going to happen again and again and again.
"We have sent a message to this court as one nation and one voice until change comes."
The BCG's main aim is a rallying call for "lawful rebellion."
Leaflets handed out by the crowd said: "We, the British People have a right to govern ourselves.
"That right has been subjugated as a consequence of acts of treason having been committed by the collective political establishment, aided and abetted by corrupt segments of the judiciary, the police, the Church and the civil service."
A Merseyside Police spokesman said six men, whose ages range from 20 to 41, were arrested - two for assaulting officers and four for breach of peace and obstructing police.
They have been taken to police stations around Wirral where they will be questioned.
A statement from the force said: "Officers are committed to facilitating peaceful protests but will not tolerate criminal behaviour, disorder or anti-social behaviour during any demonstrations within Merseyside."
Source: Wirral Globe