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(WOMENSENEWS)--Yvette Hutchins was on the verge of gaining permanent custody of her niece and nephew when something went terribly wrong.
Johnnie Mae Hutchins, her younger sister and the mother of the children, appeared in the Milwaukee court and accused Hutchins' 11-year-old son of raping one of his younger cousins.
The hearing was halted and confusion ensued, said Hutchins in an interview in her home in Milwaukee. The children's court-appointed guardian began to ask her questions and so did the caseworkers.
"Everyone wanted to know what was going on," said Hutchins, a daycare worker in her 30s. The judge stopped the process and set another court date. Police went to find Hutchins' son at school. After questioning the 11-year-old, the police placed him under arrest and took the fifth grader to a detention center.
"My son became a criminal in the eyes of the law," said Hutchins.
Hutchins went to the detention center and found her son crying. "I was out of my mind," she said.
Hutchins' mother and sister showed up at her house later that day, but she refused to let them inside. The teacher who had witnessed her son's removal called on the phone, but Hutchins was in no condition to speak with anyone.
"I felt like I had no control over the situation," Hutchins said.
Women around the country are struggling with that out-of-control feeling when it comes to navigating Child Protective Services and fending off the loss of relatives' children to foster care.
In some parts of the country, advocacy groups can help a woman in Hutchins' situation. The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, for instance, provides families with a lawyer, social workers and something Hutchins never had and desperately needed; a family advocate. One of the first of its kind, the center is designed to not only assist women in situations similar to that of Hutchins, but to prevent children from entering years of foster care service or being part of the system at all.
But all too often this kind of help is lacking.
Just ask Sandra Killet.
She is executive director of Child Welfare Organizing Project, located in East Harlem, N.Y. She is also a parent who has been on the frontlines battling the child welfare maze.
Killet came into contact with the New York City Administration for Children's Services while seeking help for her oldest son, then 12 years old, who was becoming increasingly difficult to parent. At that initial meeting, the agency began an investigation about a scratch on her son's arm. That incident amounted to nothing and the case was closed.
But one day after an incident in which her son ran away to his father's home and was later returned, a conversation with her son about why he ran away turned brutal when he physically assaulted her. Her 911 call for help led to her arrest and an investigation by New York's child services agency.
Her son was placed in foster care. Eventually her son was permanently placed with his father who had made an anonymous call accusing her of abusing their son.
From 2005 to 2007 Killet went back and forth between criminal court and family court. The criminal court case never ended with any result but her family court case was eventually expunged.
"There's a point of insanity, 'what is this?' 'why is this?'" Killet said about her experience. "Who would know or connect with that but someone else who's been through it?"
In Milwaukee, Hutchins--after losing her petition for permanent custody of her niece and nephew to the foster parents--tried to maintain contact through Child Protective Services with supervised visits. But at a certain point the city stopped paying to supervise the visits and would not allow Hutchins to see the children without the supervisors. She has lost contact with her niece and nephew.
In Philadelphia, Carolyn Hill is trying to avoid a similar outcome.
Hill's two nieces were removed from her home in April 2012. Before then, the Department of Human Services sought out Hill to help provide a home and care for the children--one was 5 months, the other was 1 year and 6 months--when the parents' rights were terminated in April and July of 2011.
A year later, as Hill petitioned for adoption, the children were removed. A psychological evaluation performed by public authorities found Hill's ability to parent wanting. She was found to have poor cognitive skills, mental health issues and no General Equivalency Diploma (GED).
Every Mother is a Working Mother, an advocacy group in Philadelphia, points out that 60 percent of people in Philadelphia don't have GEDs. They say the decision against Hill is race- and class-based since most of the group lacking GEDs are people of color.
The group doesn't think Hill's parenting skills should be assessed on a GED credential.
Neither does Hill. That's why she's gathered advocates, friends, family and her church to help her fight the decision.
In appealing the decision against her care-taking abilities, Hill argues that she has never been able to speak on her own behalf, a violation of her state and federal right as the only caregiver.
Hill said she has not been able to defend her skills as a parent so this evidence was never entered into any of the court proceedings, while the Department of Human Services makes decisions for the children.
A few months ago Hill's most recent appeal was heard in a court-filled room of her supporters. Every Mother is A Working Mother recently reported that her appeal was denied.
Hutchins' Son Returns
In Milwaukee, it took Hutchins three months to get her son back.
After the rape and molestation charges by her sister, Johnnie Mae Hutchins, her son was initially placed under house arrest in the home of another of Hutchins' sisters, where he was forbidden to have contact with any younger children. That arrangement did not last, however, and he wound up being sent to a "wraparound" residential program where he received therapy and structured activities while waiting for the family crisis to resolve and the court to decide his fate.
During drawn-out court hearings, the charges against Hutchins' son were reduced to molestation from rape. After three months he went home to his mother.
"When he returned he was changed," said Hutchins. "He no longer liked being around young children."
Hutchins continued to struggle for custodial rights to the two children of her sister, who court investigators at one point found to be a deficient parent. But she failed when the children's foster parents won permanent custody.
What happened between Hutchins' son and his cousins? In Hutchins' view, he was victimized by family members who were jealous and angry of her control of her sister's children. She believes her mother has subjected her own son to physical abuse in the past.
One element of the family's acrimony were the public funds that go to caretakers through a program called Kinder Care, which is designed to help families keep their young ones out of foster care.
When Hutchins' sister made the rape and molestation charges against her son, Hutchins' mother was trying to get a granddaughter to come live with her in her home in Mississippi. Hutchins had allowed that in the past and had sent her mother some public assistance money to help her care for the child. But this time, Hutchins was resisting the idea.
Could the mother have set the other sister up to make wild accusations against Hutchins' son with ideas that the court would switch child care control to her? Or was Hutchins' son really not behaving well towards his younger cousins?
Those questions can't be answered, but what is clear is Hutchins' sense of being set completely adrift by the system, with no help or guidance.
New York City's Administration for Children's Services and Milwaukee's Child Protective Services did not respond to requests for comment.
After Hutchins reclaimed her son, she still wanted to keep her niece and nephew out of foster care. The decision about the permanent placement of the children went to a trial by jury. After determining that the children's mother was not competent to take care of them, the jury decided to have the children permanently placed with their foster mother, who was now interested in adoption.
"I felt angry that the children were going to be taken because a family member gets angry," Hutchins said, referring to the time hospital staffers saw her sister Johnnie Mae mistreat her infant son, which drew the family into the fraught, legal crisis that followed. "I'm guilty by association with Johnnie Mae," she added.
Anna Limontas-Salisbury is a reporter and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. This story is part of a series on Child Protective Services and low-income women made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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