Sunday, June 24, 2007

Another effort to silence an advocate

Several weeks ago, I wrote about Robin Scoins, a parent from Arizona whose children were needlessly taken away. After getting the children back, she formed the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute. The organization has no paid staff, and no budget, Ms. Scoins runs the group herself and uses her own meager funds. At times she could be reached by phone or by e-mail but not both because she can’t afford to pay for both.

But in an act that virtually defines bullying, a state legislator who strongly opposes Ms. Scoins’ views, Rep. Pete Hershberger, sought to silence Ms. Scoins by demanding that she register as a lobbyist. He sent an intimidating letter to the state Attorney General demanding an investigation.

The result: Ms. Scoins still can speak out, but only as a private citizen. If she invokes the name of her organization, which is how she sought to speak out for others who have asked her to speak on their behalf because they are afraid to come forward, she risks fines and prosecution.

And through it all, almost every newspaper in the state, which will drop everything to crusade for the First Amendment when it’s their privileges at stake, remained silent. There were no editorials on Scoins’ behalf, and only one daily, the Arizona Daily Star wrote about it (the stories were by a reporter in the paper’s Capitol bureau, not the reporter who covers child welfare) – after the story appeared in the Phoenix alternative weekly, New Times.

Now, there’s another effort to silence an advocate for families, this time in Texas. Texas is in the midst of its second foster-care panic in less than a decade. Every day brings another horror story, the most recent: Hundreds of children forced to sleep in offices because there is no place else to put them; just the kind of crisis predicted by NCCPR when we released our Texas report more than two years ago.

About the only thing Texas has going for it is that at least court hearings in that state are open. Unless, it seems, you’re an advocate for families and the judge doesn’t like you.

And that brings me to the story of Johana Scot and the Parent Guidance Center in Conroe, Texas, not far from Houston.

Ms. Scot did not lose a child to the system. In fact, her introduction to the system was as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). There is no more sacred cow in child welfare, which is too bad since the most comprehensive study of CASA ever done, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that pretty much the only thing CASA accomplishes is to prolong foster care and reduce the chances children will be placed with relatives, while doing nothing to improve child safety. One of the few clear-eyed looks at the program is this story from the excellent trade journal, Youth Today.

Ms. Scot saw the harm that CASA was doing, got fed up, and formed the Parent Guidance Center to provide real help to families caught up in the child welfare system. This organization has a real staff and budget, although both are very small. But like Robin Scoins, Johana Scot apparently has made some powerful enemies.

Because last week, Ms. Scot was thrown out of court in Montgomery County, Texas, during a hearing concerning whether the children of two impoverished parents she’d been helping would be placed with their uncle.

Scot had not shouted at the judge or other participants. She had caused no disturbance at all. She was sitting, silent, in the courtroom, there only to offer moral support to the parents, when Judge Joseph Ann Ottis invited lawyers for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the children’s law guardian to move to have Scot expelled, because, the judge said, she was not allowed to do it on her own. The law guardian promptly made the request and the judge promptly granted it.

Ms. Scot explains that it all happened after a closed-door meeting between the judge, the DFPS lawyer, the CASA and the children’s law guardian. The parents have no lawyer, so no one representing the parents was at the meeting. After the meeting, the parents were questioned about why they had changed their minds about surrendering rights to their children forever. The reason was simple: Originally, the parents thought that if they agreed to the surrender, the uncle would get the children. In fact, there was no guarantee the four children would not be consigned to the Texas foster care system.

It was Johana Scot who had warned them about this.

That appears to be the only reason she was expelled – leaving the parents entirely on their own to face the power of DFPS, the law guardian, and the judge.

And Judge Ottis went further. She forbade other parties involved in the suit including CPS caseworkers, CPS program directors, CASA advocates, and attorneys, from so much as speaking to Ms. Scot.

“It is unfortunate that I have been forced to retain my own legal counsel because of the inflammatory, statements and insinuations that were made about me during a volatile questioning of my indigent clients who were unrepresented by legal counsel themselves,” Ms Scot said. “Had they been represented, I feel confident an attorney would have objected to the unwarranted line of questioning about their family advocate. Apparently, the court wanted on record who had given these parents accurate information about relinquishment of parental rights.

“Parent Guidance Center believes that families involved with CPS deserve accurate information about the child welfare process. Without knowing all the options, outcomes, and possibilities, both positive and negative in their cases, CPS clients cannot appropriately make a life changing decision, such as relinquishment of parental rights.”

Hardly a radical proposition – but apparently more than a Texas judge could handle.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, when some CASAs were thrown out of a courtroom in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threw a fit. The newspaper was right; I even gave them a quote. So, how did Houston media respond when a former CASA who takes a less popular position was thrown out of a courtroom? So far, with silence. A couple of good reporters elsewhere in the state have shown some interest, but because they’re far from Houston, it’s not likely they’ll be able to do a story. And those who are able, seem to have no interest; even though if a judge can throw an advocate out today, odds are she can throw a reporter out tomorrow.