As the caravan of people marching toward America approaches, filled with children who will soon be “separated from their parents” for processing, get ready for a press assault with pictures of crying children and anguished reporting on the cruelty of it all. Yet, American parents grieve silently the loss of their children to out-of-control or inept child protective government agencies every single day. As I reported a few months ago, Michael Chambers, though cleared of any wrongdoing by a judge, is still without his daughter. Tens of thousands of American parents are in the same situation, but while the network news media trip over themselves to find stories of separation and trauma of Honduran children whose parents break our immigration laws, they are completely silent in the face of these American stories.
There are enough families suffering abuse at the hands of state “family” agencies like CPS to write a column a day for the next century. It is an epidemic. Alyssa Leite is a 27-year-old mom of three who no longer has her parental rights, thanks to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). Her story is tragic. Leite had twin girls in March 2016. They were healthy girls until she took them for a routine well visit, where they each received four vaccines. They were two and a half months old. The next day she noticed that one girl’s foot was turning purple. “I called the doctor and they made me an appointment to have her looked at,” Leite told PJM. “But in the morning, she was unresponsive. I tried CPR, I called 911 and my house was swarmed with police and detectives and emergency services.”
Responders tried to revive baby Alliyah and took her to the hospital, where all attempts to save her failed.
Leite told PJM she was in a daze, grief-stricken, and confused. “When we were at the hospital the police turned my other daughter and son over to DCF to be evaluated. I wanted to go check on them but I was told I wasn’t allowed,” reported Leite. “The detective who had been at my house told me to just do everything DCF told me and it would be okay.”
He was so very wrong. Leite was given the opportunity to hold her deceased baby to say goodbye. “During that time, the DCF agent, Jessica Arrugio, came into the room saying, ‘I don’t have time for this, we have to go,’ forcing me to leave my child and go with her for an interview. I think I yelled at her because I just lost my baby and she was threatening to take my other children,” said Leite. She left her baby and went with the DCF agent for the interview. Leite was never charged with any crime, either that night or later, but Arrugio demanded that she sign a paper allowing her remaining children to go into foster care the same day she just lost her baby.
“She told me I would never see my children again if I did not sign it,” says Leite.
This is a common complaint that parents report about DCF agents overstepping their authority. Pam Wright of Wolf Rising, an organization that helps parents recover their children from state agencies, told PJM, “The fact that the social worker threatened that shows that they assume they have judge-like power.” A termination of parental rights is “considered so serious that they automatically get the parent assigned counsel — usually reserved for criminal cases,” she said.
Many parents report social workers overstating their authority but have no recourse against them. “Something is very wrong with a social worker who assumes she’s got the authority to carry out one of the most serious civil rulings in the country,” continued Wright. “No one should force a signature. That’s called duress. But if you scare someone enough, they will sign.” Leite was not only in a state of shock from just losing her baby, but she was completely terrified at the prospect of losing the other two, so she signed it.
“I had to tell my son he was going to a sleepover. He screamed and cried and wanted to come home,” said Leite. The children went to her parents’ house for the night, but they didn’t stay there. DCF placed them in a foster home, where her son reported abuse. “He had bruises on him and the baby had a diaper rash that was so raw and red,” she said. “My son asked me if I know what happens to bad boys, so I asked him and he said, ‘bad boys don’t get dinner and [the foster mom] flicks me til I cry and then she laughs at me.'” He also informed his mother that the foster parent was screaming obscenities at him and his baby sister. Leite tried to get the DCF agent to move the children out of that home, but the agent did not seem concerned and did not move the children immediately.
When social services takes a child, they provide the parents with a “service plan,” which Leite received. “I met all the requirements. But when I was finished they gave me a new caseworker who just came up with a new plan! I finished the second one and they said my children could come home to me in December of 2016.” Leite provided PJM with DFS documentation confirming this. “The Department proposed the goal of Permanency through Reunification with a projected date of 12/17 which was supported by everyone except the foster parents….the Department feels Ms. Leite is ready to parent her children with supports in place.”
December came and went and the only change was yet another caseworker and yet another service plan. Leite went through seven different caseworkers. “Every time I got a new caseworker, they would read that one of my children died at two and a half months and they would automatically not believe me.”
Leite’s therapy notes say she completed all programs with no problems. The hospital declared that Aliyah died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) but even that proof did not get her children back. “DCF just changed the reason they were holding my children. They claimed it was a domestic violence issue after I was cleared of the death.”
DCF claimed that Leite’s “abusive relationship” with the father of her children was a problem. But when the children were removed from her care, the man in question was in prison and had no contact with her or her children. “They just kept looking for excuses to keep them away from me,” said Leite. “I was never able to speak for myself in court. Neither of my court-appointed lawyers worked to get my children back. They kept telling me to do whatever DCF said, and so I did.”
DCF soon changed their story again, being very vague about why they were recommending adoption over reunification after claiming that Leite was ready to parent. “The Department will continue to work with the Leite/Sol family towards their desired goal of reunification, however, the Department’s permanency goal for the children remains adoption at this time,” reads the agency documentation.
The end result was that Leite signed away her parental rights. “They threatened me again. They said if I fought them I would lose and never see my children again. But if I gave up my parental rights voluntarily and let the children be adopted by my sister, I would be allowed to see them three times a year.”
Only, that wasn’t true. She signed the termination papers and hasn’t seen her children since. “My sister won’t speak to me at all. I know she’s being paid by the state to keep my children,” she said.
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families does offer adoption subsidies. “Adoption subsidy is available for many children in the Department’s custody. Eligibility is based on the child’s special needs both now and in the future,” reads the state’s “family resource” information on their website. Many of the funds come from federal programs based on the number of children in state care. The more children they have, the more money they get.
PJM reached out to Massachusetts DCF for specifics on how much money is offered in subsidies. A spokesman for DCF said she would send the information but never did. The website does detail the payments foster parents receive. Foster parents are paid anywhere from $695 to $824 per month per child, not including other payments they are eligible for to cover daycare costs, mileage reimbursement, WIC benefits, therapy costs, and paid vacation time. It is also true that the more children in the foster care system, the more federal funds the state agency receives. There is no incentive to keep families together.
It appears that DCF lied to Leite about promised visitation. “When I called them to ask when I would get my visits I was told that my case was closed and they no longer have anything to do with it.”
Wright is trying to help Leite get her children back. “Written and case law are clear that a person has a right to parent without the state’s interference. There is something called ‘acting in a manner contrary to his/her constitutionally protected right to parent.’ It’s a line most lawyers put in paperwork for termination of parental rights A judge is supposed to decide that. There is supposed to be evidence of harm or neglect. When we have social workers deciding, and lazy judges rubber-stamping the social workers, justice has failed.”
CPS is supposed to work diligently to return children to the care of their biological parents except in extreme circumstances. Studies show that children do better even in less than ideal situations, even in troubled homes, than in foster care. It’s no secret that many families involved with CPS suffer with dysfunctional relationships and problems, but that isn’t a legal reason to revoke parental rights. In Leite’s case, CPS did not seem to have a valid reason for ever removing her children into protective care in the first place. “I’ve never been arrested or charged with any crime and I don’t do drugs,” says Leite. “I don’t know why they did this to me, and I just want my babies back.”
Leite’s son is suffering during the prolonged separation. “My son is five now and he says he’s going to kill himself. The last time I spoke with him he said he wanted to die.” Leite has started a GoFundMe page to help raise funds to hire a decent lawyer who will advocate for her. Poor people have fewer options than the wealthy when it comes to family court. If you can’t afford at least $10,000 for defense, you get whoever the state assigns and more often than not, state lawyers are paid by the same system that profits off removing children from biological parents.
Leite’s children and countless American children are suffering untold emotional trauma because they are wrongly separated from imperfect parents every day who love them. Where’s their Time magazine cover?