A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Torn between a mandate to keep families together, if at all possible, and a goal to provide the best possible care for all children, stakeholders in the territory’s foster care programs can find themselves in an emotional balancing contest with no winners.
Like the Biblical King Solomon, they are too often asked to decide: Who should keep the child?
Mauritzer Gumbs was drawn into the dilemma a few years ago when she had a life-altering experience, a kidney transplant.
“Since I was given life, I decided I want to give back,” Gumbs said in a recent interview with the Source. One way to do that was to become a foster parent for children who had been placed under the protection of the Department of Human Services. Gumbs fostered several children, most for short times. But one is a special case.
“My daughter, she’s 11 years old,” Gumbs said. “I had her from 4 years old. She came straight from Nana Baby Home.”
Nana Baby Home contracts with DHS to provide care for children, ages birth to 12 years, in a group home setting. It operates 24 hours a day and many of the children arrive without advance notice because of emergency situations. If they are not returned to families, they are generally placed in foster care in private homes within a year or two, though each case is unique.
“We are normally the first door” for children coming into the foster care system, said Rita Robles, the daughter of the home’s director, Beulah Wilson, and niece of its founder, the late Louise Larcheveaux-Ali.
Foster care is always temporary – officially. And it’s entered into with the understanding that the child is part of someone else’s family.
But it’s not unusual, especially after several years in a private home, for such distinctions to blur.
Gumbs said the girl she calls her daughter goes with her to family events, weddings, parties, even reunions. “She’s a part of our family.”
Like a number of other foster parents, Gumbs wants to adopt her foster daughter, but she can’t unless the girl’s biological mother allows it or unless a judge determines the biological mother is not capable of caring for the girl.
A court date is coming up and Gumbs is more than a little apprehensive.
If the judge decides the girl should go back to her birth mother, Gumbs says, “I just have to let her go, but I know I do my best. I just have to let her go and hope that her mother will care for her like I do.”
Gesturing toward her heart, she adds, “They tell you always have a little space for letting go.”
That advice was well known to a Human Services administrator who took two little girls into her home, but she wasn’t able to heed it.
“I did get attached,” said Leneice Smith, tears welling in her eyes. It’s been a couple of years since she had to relinquish the girls to their birth mother, and she still keeps up with them through the grapevine. “One’s going to the ninth grade, and one to seventh,” she said.
But she cannot visit them or contact them. “I still wanted to be a part of their lives, but Mom didn’t want me to,” she explained.
Department regulations do not allow workers in the foster care division to become foster parents, but other staff, such as Smith, are able to so.
There are a number of reasons Human Services may take custody of a child. It may be an emergency situation such as the hospitalization of the custodial parent. Or it may be at the request of the parent who finds he or she cannot care for the child, at least temporarily, or it may be a case of child abuse or neglect.
In all cases, the goal is to help stabilize the situation and then if possible to reunite the child and the parent.
In cases of neglect or abuse, Human Services offers counseling and training in parenting skills. Social workers may even have to teach parents basic skills, such as housekeeping and shopping. Of course, it’s up to the parents to take advantage of the services and to make improvements. Unless and until they do, the child remains in “the system.”
Wenceslas Smith, who has fostered an estimated 100 children over the course of 22 years, says the problem is that children are left in limbo, waiting for their home situation to improve – or for their parents to allow them to be adopted.
“The parents can’t take of them but they don’t want to give them up,” Smith said. “They aren’t thinking of the child … It doesn’t work for the children. It makes them unstable.”
A new law has given some would-be adoptive parents hope.
Passed in June of 2011, the law provides for a petition to the court on behalf of a child who has been in foster care for 18 months.
The biological parent must prove he or she has made a real effort to reunite with the child by then, including resolving any issues that caused the child to be placed in foster care, according to Manuel James, president of the Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.
He said his own foster daughter is 10 years old. “I’ve had her since she was 6 weeks old.”
He wants to adopt the girl but her birth mother won’t allow it – a situation he views as unfair. “She can’t leave a child in the system forever,” he said.
The child’s little brother is also stuck in the system and Alix Lauture, vice president of the Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, has been his foster father since he was a baby. He’s 7 now, and Lauture wants to adopt him. He says he thinks of the boy as his son.
“I’m a regular parent (only) waiting for paperwork,” Lauture said.
But on the other side, the system is working to protect parental rights and to reunite families.
In the Biblical tale, Solomon decreed the disputed baby should be cut in two and divided between the two women who each claimed it as her own. It was the woman who relinquished her claim to save the child who turned out to be the “real” mother.