- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Tennessee's embattled Department of Children's Services (DCS) seemed to borrow a page from Janet Reno's playbook last week when it snatched unwitting and helpless children from the jaws of safety. Its action was aided by a Tennessee appeals court that had recently ruled that ownership of the originating ovaries is all that is required for responsible parenting, and that abuse and the intention of murder are irrelevant.
Six years ago, three siblings aged 3 years, 2 years and 10 weeks, were placed in protective custody with state-approved foster parents Barry and Pamela Stokes. The children had been removed from the biological mother after she was stopped by police officers while walking on a bridge that does not allow pedestrians. She told the police that she intended to kill herself and take her children with her.
Yet on Sept. 12, without notice to the Stokes or the children to themselves, DCS entered their school and returned them to this same biological mother.
They were not only yanked abruptly from "Mommy" and "Daddy," but had to leave without the treasures that represent security to little ones teddy bears, blankies, favorite toys and outfits. Left behind also were prescribed medications. Two of the children have special needs, yet state officials did not inquire about the children's medical history or immediate physical needs.
In the aftermath of the bridge incident, the children's biological mother was diagnosed with "major depression recurrent, severe and with psychotic features." After terminating the parental rights of the biological father, DCS informed the Stokes that it would also pursue termination of the mother's rights.
The Stokes fell in love with the children immediately. But when they expressed interest in adopting all three, DCS informed the Stokes that they could not adopt because they were a foster family.
At their own expense, the Stokes sued in the Dickson County Chancery Court which found in their favor and ordered termination of the birth mother's parental rights and granted the Stokes a petition of adoption.
But although the birth mother had very limited contact with the children since planning to toss them off the bridge, she appealed this verdict and had it successfully overturned in the Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court then refused to hear the Stokes' appeal. Although the Stokes offered visitation to the biological mother after termination, she ignored these offers while her Legal Aid attorney pushed on with the case.
Presumably, the children are now living with their biological mother and her new husband. Allegations have been made in the past that two of the biological mother's male companions sexually and physically abused the children. After a visit in 1998, all three children stated that the middle child suffered a beating by the biological mother's husband. The child came home with marks. DCS refused to prosecute.
The biological mother has also ceased mandated psychiatric care and medication, and refuses to seek medical care for her diabetes, choosing instead to treat herself with borrowed medical equipment and insulin.
It would be easy enough just to marvel at the monumental indecency of this act. But this is not simply a case of moving the children from one loving home to a new potentially loving home. Three children too young to have legal voices of their own have been taken by the state's machinery from a stable environment where their physical, emotional and spiritual needs were being met and deposited directly onto the doorstep of danger.
"It is tragic when children are abused and neglected once. A second time by the very governmental agencies charged to protect them is unconscionable," states Conna Craig, president of Boston-based Institute for Children, an organization devoted to reshaping foster care and making adoption work. "I have been where these children are today waiting in a horrible limbo for someone to save me. In three decades, the child welfare system has become even more heartless."
Tennessee's DCS has been under attack in recent months in reviews by the state comptroller's office and the Child Welfare League of America. In May, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the state's foster children was filed. The suit alleges that the state has "a long-standing pattern and practice of illegal actions and deliberate indifference to the welfare of foster children."
Ironically, May was also designated "Foster Care Month" by Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist who stated that "without foster parents, these children would not have caring places to stay while family problems are being resolved."
Mr. Sundquist now has an urgent opportunity to live up to his rhetoric and issue an executive order returning the children to the only home they've ever really known at the very least until the biological mother can prove that she can provide them with a stable, responsible and loving environment.
Whether the biological mother is a victim of mental illness or just unfortunate life circumstances is irrelevant. The only question is: "What is best for these children?"
Clearly, the Court of Appeals did not decide this case bases solely on the welfare of the children. Instead, from the outset it spotted the biological mother 10 points over the foster parents because of an accident of nature. It is now up to the citizens of Tennessee and its governor to do the right thing for the physical safety and emotional well-being of these children.

Kerri Houston is director of the American Conservative Network, a state outreach project of The American Conservative Union Foundation, and is also an adopted child.

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