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CPS had good cause to remove children from their parents' homes in every case she's seen, Franzmeier says. But she doesn't believe CPS has done as good a job checking out all the options, namely relatives, when it comes to placing a child.
Vicki Camlin voices this more strongly. She doesn't believe CPS, as an institution and especially among its youngest caseworkers, is open at all to returning children to their families after parental rights have been terminated. "Once your rights have been terminated, it's over. People just assume the worst."
She points to Gonzales's experience as a case in point. "There were no reports on her ever before. Her husband got off scot-free. Why he wasn't called to bear some responsibility for this, I don't understand." She says that in the year she argued on Gonzales's behalf with CPS, there were several times when she didn't think they were going to be successful.
Judy Hay disputes this, saying that on the official record there is nothing written that CPS in any way ever opposed Gonzales's being reunited with her daughter. She says CPS understands that with new regulations making it easier to terminate parental rights, there is more of a possibility of reuniting a family after changes have been made. Actually, a single caseworker could never block a placement, she says, because the decision is something that involves a judge, attorneys and CPS.
Of course, single caseworkers can do a lot of good or a lot of damage, officially recorded or not.
Their first year back together hasn't been without its bumps for Samantha and her mom. Samantha had enormous mood swings at first, which Gonzales attributes to all the medicine her daughter was taking. That stopped after Samantha, who appears to be thriving, was weaned off all the psych medicines, her mom says.
DePelchin's Camlin is not at all comfortable about the amount of medication received by some of the children in the CPS system. "If these kids act out at all, then they medicate them. I've seen this in several families where the kids are on medication, and once they're returned to the family they don't need it anymore." Hay says that CPS relies on its doctors, and that by the time Samantha left CPS custody she was on some very low dosages.
Gonzales and her daughter have lived several places in the last year. For a while they were with Gonzales's husband ("That didn't work out. We're going to be friends now. He's filing for divorce"), for a while with Gonzales's mother and now in a tiny one-bedroom apartment of their own. Sixth-grader Samantha gets the bedroom, whose walls are covered with cartoon artwork sent to her by her father from prison. Her mother sleeps on a daybed in the front room. It is a neat, tidy, if somewhat spartan existence.
Gonzales sees her other children as often as she can, but these visits are governed by their new guardians, who make the decisions about when and for how long.
She has long-term goals: to keep improving in her job -- she made $17,000 last year, the most she's ever made in her life -- and she's saving money to buy their own house. "I got my priorities straight now."
Prison was awful. "You got somebody telling you what to do all the time. The work was hard. You don't get paid for it. Being away from my family was the hardest. I lost everything. I lost my kids. I'm still minus five. I messed up, and I'm paying the price."
She has a lot of guilt. "I felt like Samantha had to go to baby prison because of me. God knows I'm sorry." At the same time she is proud she didn't try to dodge responsibility for the wrong she did.
She comforts herself with the Bible's Jeremiah 31:17, which reads, "There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country."
DePelchin's push to reunite families runs directly counter to the protective urges most of us have to see that children are removed from danger. But if we can hope for change, if we can't conceive of people moving to the better, then we as a society may do more harm than good.
Feel comfortable about this? No. Build in every safeguard imaginable. But it's hard to argue with success stories, and if this isn't one, then there's a whole lot of really good actors involved here that Hollywood ought to be trying to get.
Meet Beatrice Gonzales today and it's hard to see the woman who did such a horrific act five years ago. Meet Samantha today and it's hard to see a child so filled with anger that she lashed out at everyone and had to be medicated to be controlled. The two dote on each other. They take care of each other. They pronounce themselves each other's best friend.
And when Beatrice Gonzales looks at her daughter, it is clear she thinks of all she has now. And, of course, all she has lost.
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