- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Claudia Peacock remembers what it's like growing up without having the same things other children had. The second oldest of eight children, she couldn't go to college because she had to work to help support her family.
"We had hand-me-downs for clothes," Mrs. Peacock, 52, said in a recent interview. "We didn't go to bed hungry, but I didn't know what a steak was. I didn't know what a vacation was. Going to the movies was a real treat."
So, years later in 1984, when she and her husband, Lin, saw an advertisement seeking foster parents in Arlington, Va., Mrs. Peacock didn't hesitate to answer that call.
"I really wanted to help those kids, to give them things they don't have at the time," explained Mrs. Peacock, who works with the U.S. Marshals Service. "I wanted to give something back to them."
For the next 15 years, the Peacocks did just that after joining the Arlington County Child and Family Services Division. They took in 47 children who needed a nurturing home or a bed to sleep in for a couple of nights. Some children stayed with the Peacocks for as long as 18 months before moving on. The Peacocks never complained. They also were never investigated for any wrongdoing.
But last spring, the Peacocks received a startling message from the county. They were told their services were no longer needed and their name would be removed indefinitely from the county's foster parent roster.
"It was just devastating," Mrs. Peacock remembered, as her eyes welled up with tears.
"We were just shocked," added Mr. Peacock, 50, an executive director of a national car dealership association. "But I guess that's what you get when you don't mindlessly follow what the county says to do."
The Peacocks, who have three children of their own, contend they were kicked out of the program because they spoke up against the system. They took the county to court after they disagreed with the handling of a foster child's case.
County officials said the Peacocks were suspended from the program pending a review of their case.
"The officials are reviewing their case so the partnership between the Peacocks and the county can be healed," Dick Bridges, a county spokesman, said yesterday.
"It would be useful to both parties if a satisfactory arrangement could be achieved in this case," he said.
Arlington County currently has 140 children in foster care and about 95 homes available to take care of them, Mr. Bridges said.
"We always need foster parents," he said.
The relationship between the Peacocks and the county's foster care division slowly became strained last January when the couple started questioning what they called the county's "sudden rush" to return a 2-year-old boy, who had lived with the couple for 18 months, to his biological mother. County regulations prohibit disclosing the names of children in foster care or their parents.
The boy was 3 months old when the Peacocks took him in at the county's request in July 1998, after the boy's mother failed to pick him up from his baby sitter for several days, according to documents filed in Arlington County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Social workers immediately informed the boy's mother that her son would be returned in three months if she hired a baby sitter on the county's tab to look after the infant so she could work. They also ordered her to attend parenting classes and gave her a year to complete them, court records indicate.
But after 12 months, the mother hadn't met the criteria set by the county she had missed several parenting classes and her visits with her son were inconsistent, making it difficult for the two to bond, court documents show. The mother saw her son only 10 times during a 12-month period, Mrs. Peacock said.
As a result, county officials, who hoped to reunite the mother and child by November 1999, extended that date to the following February, and suggested the mother visit her son more often and undergo additional counseling. In the meantime, the Peacocks were to continue caring for the boy.
Three months later, things began to change so quickly the Peacocks became worried about the boy's mental state. The toddler, who mostly saw his mother once a week, was now spending some nights at her house with her boyfriend and his two children.
"He went from a happy, secure little boy to not sleeping through the night," Mrs. Peacock said. "He became an absolute basket case. Every time he'd see his bags [being packed up], he would start crying and pulling at his hair."
The Peacocks said they repeatedly voiced their concerns to social workers, but got no response. "It became my perception that we had some kind of deadline to meet," Mrs. Peacock said. "It was as though we were messing up their goal."
All the Peacocks wanted was more time for the boy to become adjusted to his new home, and most importantly to bond with his mother, they said. "This was about [the boy] and his safety," Mrs. Peacock insisted. "We wanted him to be ready and for his mother to be ready… . We never thought he would be abused. All we wanted was for him to bond and feel comfortable and secure."
After begging social workers and their directors to give the boy more time to adjust, the Peacocks said they were left with no other choice but to file a petition in court to delay the boy's transfer of custody to his mother.
"We needed somebody who wasn't emotionally involved to hear our case," Mrs. Peacock said. "It wasn't a motion to terminate parental rights."
"We needed somebody who would listen," Mr. Peacock interjected.
After a three-day court hearing, Judge Esther L. Wiggins denied the Peacocks' request to delay the boy's transfer, a decision the Peacocks said they can live with knowing they had done all they could to help the boy.
"I could never live with myself if I never spoke up," Mrs. Peacock explained. "We take our commitment to these children very seriously and we look out for them. All we wanted was to bring attention to what would be in the best interest of this child."
The boy was reunited with his mother in April. The Peacocks have not had any contact with the child since that time.
The Peacocks said they met with county officials Nov. 21 to discuss the reasons why they took the county to court, and they said they were told they would hear back from the county after the holidays. As of yesterday, they had not received a response from the county.
But they are not giving up hope that one day they will get a chance to take care of another child.
"I'm just trying to fix a system that I think is broken," Mrs. Peacock added. "And I won't give up."


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