Inside a DCYF hearing
Her baby was born addicted to cocaine and heroin, but the state gave her a chance to clean up her act before filing a petition accusing her of neglect, then another chance after she was arrested for DWI.
But when she was charged with a second DWI - this time with the baby in the back seat - the Division for Children, Youth and Families stepped in and filed a neglect petition.
Just before the confidential civil adjudicatory hearing behind closed doors in district court recently, the young mother decided against a trial and entered into a consent agreement instead. By doing so, she accepted the neglect finding, and now DCYF - and ultimately Circuit Judge Edward "Ned'' Gordon - will decide what is best for her baby.
Prompted to stand when addressing the judge, the mother answered in a subdued tone when Judge Gordon asked whether she accepted responsibility.
"Yes, your honor," she said.
It was only after Gordon made clear the consequences if the woman didn't change her ways in the next year - the court could order the baby into foster care or place the baby for adoption - that she showed emotion.
Her body suddenly stiffened. Tears came fast. She slumped slightly forward.
"You've got a lot at stake," Gordon told her. "Make sure you work at it."
The baby - all smiles and giggles - waited outside the courtroom with a relative who has physical custody.
For now, Gordon ordered the relative to continue with custody, and the mother will live at the same home. The mother cannot drive with her baby; she must go daily to a methadone clinic; and she must do whatever else DCYF requires.
Her name will be placed on the central child abuse registry for seven years, which could keep her from working in a school or day care.
At the hearing, the mother sat alone at one table, and DCYF's attorney sat at the other. Funding for attorneys to represent parents in abuse and neglect cases has been eliminated.
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer sat in the court gallery to represent the baby. DCYF will present a more detailed rehabilitation plan for mother and child at a court hearing next month. Gordon, with the mother's and the division's permission, allowed the Sunday News to report on the hearing as long as the participants were not identified. Such hearings, along with all other child abuse and neglect records and proceedings, are confidential by state law.
The division asked the mother to provide more information about the baby's father so it could seek child support, but she insisted she didn't know his whereabouts.
The young mother had no way of knowing that Judge Gordon's is one of two model courts in the state working on best practices to improve how abuse and neglect cases are handled. The other court is in Concord.
One change that will be adopted in southern New Hampshire this month after piloting in the North Country is encouraging children to participate in many of the hearings when it is appropriate, Gordon said.
A recurring complaint from adults who were in foster care as children is that they didn't have a voice.
"They say, 'I was placed in foster care, outside my home. A judge was making all these decisions about me and I never got to talk to the judge,'" Gordon said.
He often engages children to find out what they want, and he learns a great deal about the family dynamics by watching them in court.
Children get their ideas about the system from television, he said. "They think Judge Judy is deciding their future."
There are serious abuse and neglect cases in which the parents cannot be reunited with their children, and by law their parental rights can be terminated and the child adopted. In those cases, there may be criminal charges filed, as well.
"Even if their parents have hurt them or neglected them, they still love their parents dearly and want to have contact with them," Gordon said.
When Gordon was a state senator, DCYF was under fire, and he was one of its chief critics. He held public hearings in 1999 to air concerns about the division, which drew large crowds of angry people.
Since being appointed a judge, Gordon has watched DCYF embrace change. He doesn't hear those angry voices anymore, and he had high praise for DCYF Director Maggie Bishop for her work changing the system.
"I think DCYF is doing a good job," Gordon said.
While still a senator, Gordon helped pass legislation allowing DCYF to provide services to families without making a finding of abuse or neglect, bypassing the court system. The law is still on the books, although the program was not funded last year, he said.
Working to improve
Bishop said the division is actively trying to change how it works - to protect children but also work to keep the family together when possible or reunify as quickly as possible if the child is unsafe at home and must be placed in foster care temporarily.
Over the past seven or eight years, child protective agencies across the country have been acting on research that showed children raised in the child welfare system often didn't fare well, she said.
Now, the division tailors programs to fit the needs of a family, Bishop said, instead of trying to squeeze all families into a one-size-fits-all program.
At its peak, New Hampshire had 1,400 children in foster care. Today, there are 700, Bishop said.
"We have been listening to parents and kids as to how we can do it better," she said.
When the cases end up in court, the focus is on what is not working in a family, not on what is working, she said.
"We are really working to become part of the community, to work with families," Bishop said. "We do not want to be an organization they fear. We want to help families resolve challenges and only be as involved as long as we need to be."
Services could range from parenting classes and in-home therapy to assistance fixing a car to make sure children get to doctor appointments, Bishop said. The division can also link families to other services, such as help with housing or even finding work, she said.
"More and more we are working to become part of the solution," Bishop said.
Gordon chairs the ongoing best practices committee in New Hampshire, working with the division and other stakeholders to find ways to protect children while trying to avoid past practices that limited the children's potential for future success, such as extended stays in foster care.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges obtained federal grant money to pilot the best practices courts in New Hampshire and 28 other courts around the country. While the state receives no money, the council provides expertise and some technical support.
"We always presume we are going to reunify a family," Gordon said.
In serious abuse cases, he concedes, that is not always possible. "When there are circumstances in which the parents can't put their child's interest above their own, the termination of their parental rights might be appropriate," Gordon said.
Even when children are adopted - at least the older ones who understand what is going on - they still love their parents, he said.
"Even kids who ultimately have been abused, they still want to have a connection to their biological family," Gordon said.
"It's a basic human need."