Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series about the state of foster care in East Texas.
Alex was adopted by her aunt, Amber Stanley, during a ceremony in Gregg County to mark National Adoption Day.
The Stanleys described completing the adoption as “a huge weight” lifted off their shoulders. When it was settled, the child decided to change her name to Alexandria “Alex” Daciana Stanley, taking her aunt’s last name and changing her first and middle name to mark a new chapter in her life.
A week after the November adoption ceremony, the two cuddled close on the couch in the living room of their Longview home.
“I’m very happy I’m here,” said Alex, 12.
Amber Stanley said Alex was at her grandmother’s house one day when the girl said she didn’t want to go home. The girl prayed and told God she did not want to ever go home, and Stanley said that is what happened.
Alex described her past as difficult . She avoids referring to her biological parents as mom and dad.
“At one point, she told my mom, her grammy, that she wished she had spoken up sooner and told about things sooner,” Amber Stanley said.
Alex was removed from her biological parents’ custody when she was 9 and placed with her grandmother. About six months later, her aunt took her in.
Foster care has several avenues, including kinship care and respite care, yet those close to the situation say there still are not enough options for all of the children in East Texas who are removed from their families.
Kinship care with Amber Stanley led to adoption for Alex .
The process of removing a child from a situation involves attorneys, judges, volunteers, caseworkers, representatives from the state and other players, and it can follow many paths. Removals are not as simple as a caseworker picking up a child because of alleged abuse.
A Child Protective Services case begins with a report.
Gregg County 307th District Court Judge Tim Womak said an anonymous report is usually taken by CPS, and an investigator is sent to check out the allegations.
If abuse or neglect is confirmed, a statement is drafted detailing the investigator’s findings. That affidavit is then presented to the assistant district attorney who handles child cases for review. Then, an emergency hearing is set with the judge during which the information is presented.
“If I agree, then I sign off on the order for the removal of the child,” Womack said.
An emergency removal is possible if there is a serious danger to a child in the home and the caregiver cannot keep the child safe.
“It’s all kinds of reasons,” Womack said. “Some of these kids have real neglect. A child is born positive for methamphetamine. (That’s) abuse.”
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services would then have conservatorship of the child, and the department seeks placement of the child in a foster care or kinship care arrangement. Kinship care involves extended family members taking over care for the child or children, according to the state.
Hearings continue throughout the process. The state, attorneys, children’s advocates and others work with the family to provide services. The children are appointed an attorney as are the parents.
Vicki Haynes is a Longview attorney who takes court appointments in Gregg and Upshur counties to represent children.
For the past eight years or so, Haynes has focused her practice more on representing children from birth to age 18 in the child welfare system.
“Removal cases always start out with the goal of family reunification,” said Haynes, who has been practicing family law for nearly 30 years.
After removal, a 14-day hearing is scheduled. At the hearing, the parents must decide if they will contest the removal.
“If the parents are contesting the removal, we have a full-blown hearing where evidence is presented by CPS and the parents,” Haynes said.
The judge then decides whether or not to return the child. Haynes said cases in which the judge decided to return the child or children to parents are rare.
“I have actually been involved in a handful of cases over the years, not many but a handful, where after the hearing there was not enough evidence and the court ordered CPS to give the kids back to their parents and dismiss the case,” Haynes said. “It’s pretty rare.”
Plans are put in place to enter the parents into counseling and classes to get needed help. The Department of Family and Protective Services provides resources such as counseling, substance abuse evaluations, anger management and parenting classes.
“We don’t want them to fail,” Womack said.
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) might also be assigned to the child.
Assistant Gregg County attorneys Matthew Smith and Brittany Mears handle child welfare cases and represent the state as legal representatives in court.
Smith said the two biggest reasons for child removal are drug and mental health issues.
“It’s rare for a case not to have one of those elements,” Smith said. “Methamphetamine is a huge problem nationwide. That’s not the only drug we deal with, but that tends to be the one that interferes with a person’s ability to parent faster than anything else. We see a lot of mental health care issues where a parent may not be able to just cope with the rigors of parenting.”
Part of what Smith and Mears do is try to steer the parents toward resources to help them and allow the department to return the children to a safe and stable environment.
“We do not want your children,” Smith said. “We want to keep them safe and return them.”
They said there are times when criminal charges can overlap with a removal.
At 60 days from a child’s removal, the court reviews the child’s status, and the plan is made to either return the child to the parents or to seek a permanent placement. The court at 180 days from removal evaluates compliance with its orders, visits the permanency plan and determines whether or not the current placement should be changed or to return the child.
“If the parents are working their services and doing well, the goal remains family unification,” Haynes said. “If someone is not working their services and there are still problems, that is usually when CPS announces to the court that we’re changing our goal to termination of parental rights or adoption.”
Arranging visitation for parents can be difficult if children are placed in homes far away or in group homes in places such as Houston or San Antonio.
If the situation with the parents is going well, the court might allow a monitored return, which could lead to children being returned and the case’s dismissal.
“That’s the best possible scenario in this type of event,” Haynes said. “They don’t happen as often as we would like.”
The state requires permanency within 12 months, although a six-month extension can be granted in some circumstances, Womack said. Court closures resulted in some of those extensions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was really a tough time for kiddos,” Haynes said of the pandemic. “We’re still trying to figure out how it impacted the children. And it’s going to be tough on those kids for a while. It makes me sad.”
There are several types of foster care licensing: traditional foster care, kinship care and respite care. Respite care is a temporary placement often to give foster parents a break. All are needed, according to Debbie Sceroler, Buckner senior director of domestic foster care and adoption.
According to the state, the goal of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is to reunite children with their families. If returns are not possible, the goal then becomes adoption. The end goal is permanency.
“We need families who will serve children by fostering and providing a safe and nurturing home environment temporarily until permanency can be found for those children,” Sceroler said. “Whether that permanency is that they are able to be reunited with their own families of origin, or if that permanency looks like adoption by relatives or option by non relatives. But we need families who will temporarily serve children and provide that loving, nurturing care that all children deserve and desperately need.”
According to advocates in East Texas, there are children in the area who still are awaiting placement.
Haynes said the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child is true.
“It’s nice when we have a village,” she said. “We don’t always have one.”
During Haynes’ time as an attorney, she said she has seen some improvements in the child welfare system in East Texas.
“Years ago, we just didn’t have hardly any foster homes in East Texas,” she said. “We were shipping kids off to Houston and Dallas and West Texas. We just were not able to keep them close.”
Haynes worked to talk to agencies providing licensing to foster parents about how they could better recruit.
“We really went out and pounded the pavement,” she said. “It has improved somewhat but we’re still running short.”
Amber Stanley said she took custody of Alex and her younger sister in 2019. She did so because they needed a person younger than their grandmother to care for them, she said.
“It was a big step for me,” Amber Stanley said, noting that she was not married at the time and in her late 20s with none of her own children. “It was a learning experience.”
“I had a dog,” Stanley said with a laugh. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, this is going to be so much different.’ I can’t just leave food and water out, you know.”
Deciding to take her niece in kinship care and then becoming a foster parent meant very quickly getting involved in parenting.
Both of Alex’s sisters have been placed with their biological fathers. They get to see each other at least once per month.
“All the kids had gone through a lot,” Amber Stanley said. “Alex is the oldest, so she experienced more and dealt with a lot of trauma. She’s come a long way, but there are still things we are working through.”
Amber Stalney said she knew the end goal was adoption.
“She needed that closure, just needed the ‘I belong to someone, and they want me,’ ” she said.
Stanley went through Buckner to get licensed to be a foster parent in 2019. She believed she needed more training, especially in dealing with children who have experienced trauma, in order to be a good caregiver to Alex and her siblings.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Wow, that was really just a big decision for you,’ but it … wasn’t even a decision,” Amber Stanley said. “It was more of this is what is needed and this is what I’m going to do.”
Adoption day was emotional for the whole family.
“When the judge hit that gavel, she turned to me and put her arms around me and just started sobbing,” Amber Stanley said. “I knew at that point I’d made the right decision. This was going to be the best for both of us.”