FIJ Quarterly - Fall 2022 Edition

FOREWORD Securing and Restoring the Family Is in the Child's Best Interests Jey Rajaraman with Alexandra Travis and Iesha Hammons, Impacted Parents within the Child Welfare System

I grew up in foster care, and my rights to my mother were terminated. I never fully understood my mother’s case until I faced my own allegations, which in turn led to my children being taken from me. During my years in foster care, I was abused, and no one cared. I was told my mother picked drugs over me, but that was not true. I reconnected with mom in my twenties – we became inseparable until the day she died in 2018. In 2013, I was walking down a block in my old neighborhood when the father of my children’s sister started pushing and shoving me. Police were called to break up the fight, and we were both arrested, even though I was the victim. Five days after my arrest and release, my children, ages 2, 4, and 10, were taken by the State. The charges against me were dropped, but I still had to convince a judge and a caseworker that I was able to care for my children. I completed psychiatric evaluations, supervised visits, parenting classes, and more. It took nearly five years to get my kids back, a lifetime to a small child. I often wondered . . . did it need to be so hard? Did the child welfare system see a Black, poor mother and a victim of domestic violence and just assume I was an unfit parent? My kids still have nightmares to this day about being taken from me. I still jump up every time the doorbell rings. I believe that best interest would have been the DCPP never taking my children The separation, the court process, and the pain caused by it all was not in the best interest of The removal rate of children is devastatingly high — most of them being completely preventable. It is important to bring awareness of how having a parent ally and pre-prevention work can positively impact the outcomes for families. I had two child welfare agency cases. The first tragically ended in the removal and ultimate adoption of my two eldest children to strangers, and the second case was a triumphant and rare reunification! our children. It was the opposite. Alexandra’s Story Let’s start with the most common misconception: that substance abuse, poverty, or race must mean you are an abusive or

Living in poverty and struggling with securing stable housing and appropriate treatments has definitely been difficult for Jack and his mom. However, the alternative—the removal and separation of Jack from his mother—would likely be much more devastating and traumatic for both of them. In addition to losing her son to the system, “Jen” would no longer be able to access services and supports only available to families with children. Once Jack aged out of the system, he would need extensive supports and services. How would he be able to support himself without his mother and other family? Removing a child from his or her parents is one of the, if not most, traumatic events that can occur during childhood. Data, research, and the stories of those with lived experience, like Iesha and Alexandra, bear this out. Here are their thoughts on best interests from personal experience. Iesha’s Story In 2018, LSNJ introduced a new project in conjunction with the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP). Receiving client referrals directly from DCPP allowed us to quickly identify and assist with critical legal issues and help prevent the loss of housing, thereby preventing unnecessary removals and ultimately keeping families together. I am proud to be LSNJ’s first “parent ally.” In this role, I work with LSNJ’s Family Representation Project to help prevent unnecessary child removals. I have assisted in over 20 of these prevention cases. In this role, I speak with parents and families and use my perspective and experience to provide support. As someone who experienced the child welfare system as both a child and a mother, I believe I possess a unique perspective that has driven my passion for helping other struggling parents.

What I Know as a Family Defender

The child welfare system needs to commit to the basic and simple principle that securing and supporting families is in the child’s best interest. Family disruption should be avoided and only exercised under the most egregious circumstances. When I worked at Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), I represented a mom named “Jen.” She struggled with drug addiction and housing instability. Her 17-year-old son, Jack, was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. During the day, they moved from park to park. In the evenings, they sought help from friends and family for a place to sleep. Jack lived with his mother his whole life. Although they lived in extreme poverty, Jack consistently attended school while in his mother’s care. They received food stamps and were able to get food and other forms of assistance from friends and family. They were best friends who held onto each tightly. At the time that I represented “Jen,” the agency was seeking to remove Jack from her rather than provide financial support for her to secure shelter so that they could remain together. A child like Jack is difficult to place in a long- term foster placement. If he was removed, it was likely he would either move from foster home to foster home or be placed in an out- of-state residential treatment center. The latter would make regular visitation with his mother and kin virtually impossible. He would likely age out of the system. The alternative to the agency plan predicated on removal was to support Jen and Jack as a family unit, place them together in a shelter or hotel, and assist them with housing and welfare benefits.

Iesha Hammons

Alexandra Travis and Jey Rajaraman

6 | FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022

FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022 | 7

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