The cost of separation

As lawmakers make it easier to terminate parental rights, a mother tells her story

Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash

Tara van Wormer battled her dependence on opioid medications for years. As she worked toward her recovery, she had another struggle on her hands as well: keeping her children.

Three years ago, van Wormer proved to the court that she had successfully beaten her drug addiction and could successfully parent her children. 

But it was often an uphill battle. “I’ve turned my life around,” van Wormer says, “and it was very, very hard.” 

Making and breaking families

Over the last three months, Wisconsin legislators have been debating bills to reshape state laws that have the power to break up some families and create new ones. There have been two public hearings and a contentious Assembly floor session over the measures.

But stories of parents like Tara van Wormer and their children have been virtually absent from the debate. 

The bills, including measures that cover adoption and foster care, grew out of an Assembly task force on adoption commissioned last spring. They were introduced as a package to make Wisconsin “more adoption friendly” in the words of the lawmakers supporting them.

In short order, Gov. Tony Evers signed the least-controversial bill after it sailed through the state Assembly and the state Senate: Act 92, which expands who is eligible for financial assistance for adopting children with special needs. 

Several other bills passed the Assembly Jan. 15 after extensive debate, some on divided roll-call votes. They have yet to be scheduled in the Senate.

The proposals share a common goal: In order to make it easier for children to be adopted, they would make it easier to terminate the parental rights of mothers and fathers suspected of abuse or neglect.

“This legislation is critical to helping children in out-of-home care in our state to reach permanence and stability,” state Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield) testified at an Oct. 29 Assembly public hearing on one group of bills. 

His Senate colleague, Andre Jacque (R-DePere), said in a Dec. 4 Senate hearing that speeding up the process of terminating parental rights would promote adoption, a practice in which “Wisconsin significantly lags not only our surrounding states, but the rest of the nation…”

But these same proposals have alarmed some lawyers, particularly those who represent the poor. Native American tribes have also come out in opposition, pointing to a legacy of Native American children being taken from their communities by adoption, erasing their cultural heritage. 

Child-welfare experts say that, whenever it is possible to do so safely, courts and agencies working with troubled families should make it their first aim to keep families together, providing them the support they need to help them succeed. Child-welfare agencies proclaim that to be their main objective.

Supporters of the legislation say their bills don’t change that goal. But critics contend they conflict with it.

Included are measures that would:

  • Eliminate the right to jury trials for some termination of parental rights (TPR) proceedings. 
  • Expand the grounds for involuntary TPR to include the birth of a “drug-affected” child, the imprisonment of a parent for “a substantial period” of the child’s life, or the placement of a child outside the home for 15 of the previous 22 months.
  • Declare that there’s no automatic presumption that it is in the best interest of a child in need of protective services to be placed with a relative, and adding a provision that kinship placement requires a finding that it’s in the child’s best interest.
  • Allow authorities to make a TPR proceeding part of an existing CHIPs case instead of starting a new case.

“The common thread is that overall, the bills reduce due process for birth parents and [would likely] increase the number of children in the foster care system,” Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the state public defender’s office, tells the Wisconsin Examiner.

‘Irreparable damage’

The involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR) is among the most consequential actions that the courts can take in response to allegations of child abuse or neglect.

It can also be toxic, says University of Michigan law professor Vivek Sankaran, director of the UM law school’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic and Child Welfare Appellate Clinic.

Vivek Sankaran
Vivek Sankaran (Photo courtesy of Vivek Sankaran)

“The social science is clear on the impact of separating kids from their parents. It does irreparable damage,” Sankaran tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “It inflicts significant trauma on kids.” 

Children who are separated from their parents experience anxiety and lose sleep, but they also experience long-term effects on their emotional and cognitive development. 

“Many of the studies that have come out with the border crisis have documented this,” Sankaran says. Sometimes separation is necessary. “There are certainly situations where kids must be removed from their parents for their safety,” he says — but even then, it can inflict trauma. 

“We have to view removal like a toxic medicine, like chemotherapy” — which even as it battles cancer can ravage the body during the treatment process. “We need to reframe what it is we do and really think about this intervention and removal as a last resort.”

Writing in the online news site The Chronicle of Social Change, Jerry Milner and David Kelly of the U.S. Children’s Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services, point out that allegations of neglect — nearly two-thirds of the cases in which children are removed from their homes — are typically skewed toward families living in poverty.

“Poverty is a risk factor for neglect, but poverty does not equate to neglect,” Milner and Kelly write. “The presence of poverty alone does not mean a child is unsafe, unloved or that a parent lacks the capacity to care for his or her child.”

Yet, in the child welfare field, they add, “We remain stuck as a system and society that focuses on the harmful aftereffects, often casting blame on vulnerable families for their very vulnerability.”

For three decades, Richard Wexler, founder and executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, has campaigned for sharply reducing the use of foster care and family separation in child welfare cases. 

“Every time we take a swing at so-called ‘bad mothers,’ the blow lands on children,” Wexler says. Making it easier to take children from their parents so they can be adopted “turns the child welfare system into the ultimate middle-class entitlement.” 

Pain and addiction

A 2003 car crash that injured Tara van Wormer long before her two youngest children were born planted seeds for the events that years later almost took them from her forever. 

Injuries from that collision left her in severe pain. Her doctor prescribed opioid painkillers, and she became addicted over time.

Tara-van-Wormer
Tara van Wormer (Photo courtesy of Tara van Wormer)

By 2014, van Wormer had four children: a daughter age 14; a son about 10 years old; and two younger boys — a 9-month-old infant and a kindergartener. 

She was still on the painkiller Oxycontin, and also prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety controlled drug. Her driver’s license had been suspended. She readily admits she shouldn’t have been driving — but she had to get to work, she says. 

Police pulled her over. Charged with driving without a license and operating under the influence, she was jailed. The arrest also triggered a child welfare investigation culminating in a hearing to terminate her parental rights. “They didn’t think I was going to get out of jail,” she recalls.

The TPR proceeding focused on the two youngest children, who were placed in foster care. Van Wormer’s oldest son was living with his father and not part of the case. Her teenage daughter was represented by her own attorney. “She fought to stay with me, and because she was older, they let her,” van Wormer says.

In Drug Court the judge ordered outpatient treatment. Van Wormer went, but despite her participation, she had been unable to beat her addiction. Back in court in October 2016, a judge gave her a choice: go to an inpatient treatment facility or go to prison for a year.

She enrolled in the inpatient facility, where at last she succeeded in quitting her opioid addiction for good.

In Family Court, van Wormer says, she was told that she would have one more chance to avoid losing her children. Given 30 days to adhere strictly to a list of rules — be on time for every meeting with therapists, social workers, the court; stay completely drug-free; and more — she made it through without falling back. In April 2017, the family court judge praised her success and ended the TPR proceeding, returning van Wormer’s children to her.

“What people need to understand about an addiction is, [treatment is] not an overnight thing, it is not a year thing sometimes,” van Wormer says. “And I think I was on pain meds for 12 years. You have to try different things. Not everything works for the same person.”

Separation’s toll

Van Wormer’s children have been back with her for nearly two years. With her family back together, she got reunification assistance, in which a social worker visited regularly and helped her and her children navigate a return to normal life.

That only lasted one year, however. “I think it needs to be two years, not one,” she says. “These kids need a lot more help than what they think, and so do the families.”

She still sees the emotional scars they carry from three years apart except for visitation.

“I have a lot of problems with my younger two,” van Wormer says. “When they were taken away, they were traumatized.” She says she gets calls “constantly” from school when her sons act out. 

“And it’s not because they’re with me,” she adds. “They don’t get that way at home. But they’re just, I don’t know, so angry inside, and it’s from what happened to them.” 

Authorities, she says, “don’t realize what it does to these kids when you take them away.”