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[whitespace] Jennifer Celaya
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Total Recall: Alone in her son's old room, Jennifer Celaya clutches a framed picture of the now 3-year-old Adam, stripped from her by Child Protective Services more than two years ago.

Adorable & Adoptable

A spate of new laws and financial incentives has made it easier (and more profitable) for Child Protective Services to take ostensibly abused kids away from their parents. But has the new system for fast-tracking adoptions gone too far, too fast?

By Dara Colwell

IN ADAM CELAYA'S BEDROOM, THICK-WHEELED, plastic toy trucks with green decals sit piled in the corner, surrounded by stuffed Elmo and Tigger dolls of varying sizes. Stacked on an overstuffed bookshelf are several baby pictures: a bird's eye view of the newborn wrapped in hospital blankets, Adam at three months old, eyes wide but still unfocused, the toddler at his second Halloween, sloped across a giant pumpkin. On the nightstand facing the boy's bed stands a shrine where several muted brown and pink glass candles dedicated to Saint Anthony, protector of children, softly flicker. Their slight aroma fills the tiny room with an unspoken and solemn air. Sandwiched between the candles, is yet another photograph of Adam, an adorable and handsome 11-month-old boy, now with a full head of hair, who pouts shyly for the camera. His mother, Jennifer Celaya, turns a candle around to display the prayer on its back: "Oracion al sagrado corazon de Jesus," she mouths silently--prayer to the heart of Jesus. "It guides me through this," she says, breaking into a pragmatic tone. "It keeps hope."

Jennifer's son has been missing from this room and her life for more than two years. He was taken from her father's East San Jose home by strangers on a Wednesday in June as Jennifer and family members looked on in shock.

In the months that have passed, she has heard Adam is living with a family somewhere in Santa Clara County--probably Gilroy. She has heard that he is "doing well." But these scraps of information that trickle down to her via the authorities are of little comfort. Celaya, an attractive Latina with heavily lined almond-shaped eyes and a dogged determination beyond her 18 years, hasn't given up fighting for her son.

With dozens of photocopied newsletters doled out in court parking lots, hundreds of phone calls to county offices, and visits all over the valley, Jennifer has spent every spare moment trying to get Adam back.

But like many young Latina mothers, with few resources and no husband, Jennifer will probably fail. Like hundreds of children in Santa Clara County and beyond, Adam Celaya was taken by Child Protective Services and placed on the fast-track for permanent adoption under a new law designed to keep children from "languishing in the system." The new system offers substantial financial rewards to counties--a kind of bounty from the federal government. And Jennifer believes the system stole her son from her not because she was an unfit mother, but because she didn't have the financial resources to defend herself. Basically, she thinks, they stole Adam--repeatedly described as an "adorable" and "adoptable child"--because they could.

[line]

The Rules: Parents have a seven-day window for protest, but few know about it.

Poverty Profile: Who loses in a system plagued by high turnover and limited resources?

[line]

Fight Club

WHAT happened midday June 3, 1998, in a cramped cottage tucked behind a house skirting the driveway, was a typical feud for a family whose explosive rage, bickering and jealousy were well known within Child Protective Services. The San Jose Police Department responded to a family disturbance on North 13th street, at the home of Adam Celaya Sr., Jennifer's father and Adam's grandfather. The 911 call, placed by Jennifer, would forever change the 16-year-old's life and the life of her young son.

Jennifer and her oldest sister Michelle, whose volatile relationship was marked by bitter and unpredictable outbursts, both lived with their father after their mother, Frances Barragan, had kicked Michelle out of her home. "That was what her mom did, whenever she got mad at one of her kids," the social worker commented in the court report. The two girls, Michelle's two toddlers and Adam all shared the tiny bedroom at the front of the house.

The constant tension and fighting between the girls "over clothing, children or nothing at all," according to court records, had escalated that morning when an acquaintance, Sasha, entered the house. Encouraged by Michelle, who heatedly threatened to "kick [Jennifer's] ass," Sasha, who had bounced a check Jennifer deposited for her weeks earlier, joined in the bullying as Barragan watched, shouting obscenities from the adjoining room.

As the argument spiraled out of control, Jennifer, who had been feeding Adam and still held him in her arms, was aware that he might be in danger. She suddenly set the baby, who she claims was eight inches from the kitchen floor, down to protect him. But, according to the police report and subsequent court documents, this is where accounts of the event greatly diverge. Barragan, who was noted by a nurse working closely with Jennifer since Adam's birth as being "inherently invested in her [Jennifer's] failure," stated to police that Jennifer lifted Adam "4 to 5 feet ... above her waist and threw him to the ground." Her bad-tempered daughter, she claimed, had become "enraged."

In the same report, Barragan stated that months earlier she had seen her daughter shove Adam so hard in his stroller that he had smashed into a wall. But according to court documents, "Michelle had been present [at the incident and] Ms. Barragan had not." After taking Barragan's statement, the reporting officer immediately contacted the child abuse unit.

"I did not drop my son. I did not drop my son on purpose," Celaya, in boxer shorts and a velvet T-shirt, cried to the responding officer, visibly upset. "How was I going to defend myself?"

Tense Past

JENNIFER herself was extremely familiar with Child Protective Services. She had been "protected" by them 17 times by the time she was 14--for neglect, physical and sexual abuse in the home where she grew up, battery and several suicide attempts by her mentally-ill mother, Frances, diagnosed as suffering from "a psychotic disorder with dissociative features." Jennifer's dense probation reports detailed a slew of chronic and uncontrollable behaviors: aggressive fighting, pushing and shoving, abusive language, gang involvement, possession of stolen goods. Between school age and high school, she repeatedly ran away from group homes where she was placed and lived, at times, on the streets.

Jennifer admits all of this readily, with great regret. She claims that after a final and drawn-out stint at a girls' ranch, she had emerged prepared to change her life. And once she became pregnant, her decision to turn away from her past was final.

Before Adam's birth, she had her tattoos removed; she entered a teen parenting program. Celaya's public health nurse, Jane Bernard, who visited weekly, wrote that Jennifer's "entire identity focused on being a good mother." But the reporting officer responding to the family disturbance in East San Jose that morning observed Jennifer differently. "The suspect (does) not appear to have any regard for her child's well-being," Officer Hough wrote, noting that Celaya held her son as if he were a "nuisance."

The police officer's observation in this case carried great weight. Celaya was cited for using excessive force in dropping Adam. Her son, then 13 months old, was placed in protective custody and admitted to the children's shelter that afternoon. According to the Little Hoover Commission Report, Restructuring Foster Care in California, these hours are crucial: deciding whether a case is indeed child abuse constitutes the most critical assessment period in the foster care process. For, "in the words of more than one program manager," the report reads, "'once you are in the system you are in for life.'"

However, the doctor's diagnosis of Adam at the children's shelter was that the child was uninjured. He was pronounced a "well-baby" on the report filed with Child Protective Services. "No bruises noted," the examiner wrote next to a sketch, which only detailed a rare bluish-gray birthmark, known as a Mongolian birthmark, on the child's posterior, which Adam had been born with, and nothing else.

As Adam's case weaved through a progression of juvenile dependency hearings, addressing his mother's past and future visitation rights, grandmother Frances Barragan sat side-by-side with her daughter. On one occasion, Barragan, a heavy-set woman who speaks quickly and breathlessly, was asked to leave the courtroom. She sat in the lobby. "They said there were conflicts every time I came around," she says. "I'm supposed to be a bad person."

Barragan later admitted to Jennifer that she had been wrong. But she insists the police report was a lie. "They [wrote] it in a different way," she says without hesitation. But it was too late--Adam had already entered the system. And the system, which had witnessed the previous generation of Celaya children loop through Child Protective Services with dizzying frequency, had already passed judgment on Jennifer's past.

"If Adam is to have any opportunity to avoid repeating his family's generational dysfunction and enmeshment," the court papers read, "he must be provided Court intervention."

xxx
In 1999, according to the state's Department of Social Services, Santa Clara County received $156,349 in federal adoption incentive funds. 'It's a bonus; it's a plus. But I don't think it drives our agency,' says Leroy Martin, director of the Department of Family and Children's Services.

Fast Trends

LEROY MARTIN, director of the Department of Family and Children's Services, doesn't sound like a dogmatic and overburdened county official. He speaks as casually as his simple gray suit, touching on 30 years experience working in social services.

Martin has seen political trends within the child welfare system come and go. But over the last few years, there has been a substantial cultural change. "The philosophy," he says, cutting to the core of the shift, "is to expedite adoption and increase permanency for children."

Where the emphasis was once on "reunification," with the natural parents if possible, Martin explains, the trend now is toward adoption. Rather than allowing children to languish for years in foster care--commonly referred to as "foster drift"--there has been a dramatic push to find permanent homes for children, especially young ones, who are referred to as "highly adoptable." This is how Adam has been repeatedly described by his social workers.

With the implementation of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) introduced by President Clinton and passed in 1997, child protection has become big business. The drive of the initiative--to offer states cash bonuses for each child that is adopted out of foster care--is further underscored by an ultimate goal to double adoptions by the year 2002.

"What California seeks to do," says Linda Riley, public information officer at California's Department of Social Services, "is reward counties that increase the number of adoptions."

In general, states earn $4,000 for each child adopted from foster care and an additional $2,000 for each "special needs" child. In order to be eligible for incentive payments, each state must increase its adoptions. If it doesn't, the state receives nothing.

What's more, incentive payments are only based on the number of adoptions that exceed the average of the previous three years. So, for example, if that number averages 500 adoptions and the current number is 600, the state receives incentive payments for 100 adoptions. Simply put, increased adoptions mean more money.

In 1999, according to the state's Department of Social Services, Santa Clara County received $156,349 in federal adoption incentive funds .

"It's a bonus, it's a plus," Martin says openly. "But I don't think it drives our agency." The drive, he says, is based on the need and the number of children, "whether the money is there or not."

Smaller Window

THE NEW federal legislation not only granted cash incentives, but it also shortened reunification times, allowing counties further options for terminating parental rights. Once Celaya was charged with failure to protect her son from a verbally abusive environment, she had--under the newly enacted law--six months to reunite with her child. Whereas the old reunification period was 18 months--a period frequently extended in the past-- parents now have one year to rehabilitate themselves or lose their child. If the child is under three, as was the case with Adam, that period has been shortened to six months. And yet another law, a policy referred to as concurrent planning, allows social workers to begin planning immediately for adoption--even as parents struggle to regain their children.

"Why more stringent laws?" asks Magdalena Carresco, adoption recruiter for the county's Social Services, rhetorically. "We were finding that these little ones were growing up in the system." According to federal data, children in California stay in foster care an average of 26 months.

In the past, gaps in the system left many children waiting for homes--but they also resulted in numerous horror stories when children were returned to their biological parents. There was the highly publicized case of Amanda Wallace, who in April 1993 put her 3-year-old son Joseph on a stool and wrapped an electrical cord around his neck. The Chicago mother then waved goodbye and kicked the stool out from under him. The judge had sent the young boy back to his psychotic mother, removing him from his foster home only months before. Or there was the death of 4-year-old Dustin Haaland, whose abused body was found January 12, 1998, in a shallow grave in a Fresno vineyard. Even though Dustin's father, Douglas Haaland Jr., had spent two and a half years in prison for beating his older son, the county's Child Protective Services had not made a house call for two years. Haaland's parents were later arrested on suspicion of murder.

Such harrowing tales serve to highlight an inherent problem within the child welfare system: that the very children it has been mandated to protect are often abused--whether they linger in foster care, live with relatives or return to abusive parents.

Carresco's boss, Social Services program manager Frances Munroe, has worked in the department for 20 years and says she is pleased with the current changes. "Adoption is no longer thought of as an afterthought," she says, explaining that longer rehabilitation periods tended to keep children lingering in the system. "Permanency is paramount. In the life of a child, time passes very swiftly. Children need to know who is going to be there," Munroe says.

Liz Shivell, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society in San Jose, on the other hand, believes differently. "They are speeding cases through the system," she says emphatically. "Even though juvenile dependency is about curing the problems that lead to dependency, it is without question the most punitive [system] around, with far fewer protections," she says. "I am shocked how many cases don't have reunification."

Adam

A recent photo of Jennifer Celaya's 3-year-old son, Adam.


Kids by Numbers

SINCE THE Adoptions and Safe Families Act was passed, adoptions in the county have more than doubled to 191 in the last two years, and the caseload has tripled, according to Michelle Swalley, spokesperson for the Department of Social Services. Of the 2,797 children currently in the county's foster care system, Swalley says, 300 are available for adoption in any given month.

While ASFA's intent--to address the plight of children stuck in long-term foster care and reduce their numbers-- has put more teeth into time frames and increased the actual number of adoptions, "unadoptable" children remain in foster care. The legislation's stated primary goal is to promote child safety and family reunification, but by reimbursing the states, the federal government has rewarded a growth in the size of the program--not the program's effective care or placement of children.

Instead, the most adoptable age group--infants and toddlers--has been jettisoned straight into the fast track, while older children still linger.

According to a 1992 investigative report by the Santa Clara County grand jury, which examined the practices of the local Department of Family and Children Services, the county's child welfare agency has an inconsistent track record. "It appears that there may be a tendency to jump to an unwarranted conclusion," the report reads. While the jury concluded that the majority of reports of child abuse were indeed valid, it cautioned that it "is not as confident of the department's ability to identify and dispose of these cases."

"Child Protective Services drops the ball on cases that desperately need it while intervening in those that don't," summarizes Liz Shivell at the Legal Aid Society, which represents indigent parents. Shivell has worked as a juvenile dependency attorney for 19 years. "The joke is, if the client isn't bleeding, forget it."

The changes in the law, while correcting some problems, have posed new questions that are difficult for many to answer. Even Gary Proctor, whose legal firm Juvenile Defenders represents parents in dependency court, hasn't reached a definitive conclusion. "This six month period of time is, in many instances, impossible for a parent to meet," Proctor acknowledges. "You have to ask yourself is the child's best interest served by having no chance of ever being reunited with [its] natural parent versus being in a permanent home in six months? Well," he says, pausing deliberately, "I don't have an answer for that."

Working Mother

THE NEXT SIX MONTHS were Jennifer's proving ground. In order for Celaya to reunite with Adam, she had to successfully follow a case plan supervised by her social worker. Celaya, who insisted she would do whatever it took to get her son back, readily complied. The 16-year-old balanced school, a part-time job at Target to pay for her rent, multiple parenting classes, psychological counseling, and random drug testing.

She began talking about her case and carrying with her a thick stack of documents bound by a weathered manila folder, which ripped as she added to its weight. The dog-eared documents were a chronological journal of her life with Adam: their cases in juvenile court, social workers' notes, hundreds of office-visit slips from Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, testament to her trips there with Adam for asthma, ear infections and anemia. There were glowing letters from Jane Bernard, the public health nurse who tracked Jennifer's parenting over the years, the most recent dated March 17, 2000.

"You know, Jennifer, that I think that you have had tremendous obstacles thrown in your path ... obstacles that would have totally discouraged many young, single mothers like you," Bernard wrote. "I rarely see someone your age, with a family as non-supportive as yours is, keep trying to reach their goals with the strength that you show everyday."

Patchy Evidence

AS CELAYA STRUGGLED to fulfill her responsibilities, several things happened to swing her fate. Almost two months into her case, Sallie Bearden was replaced by Cheryl Brown, the social worker who would follow Celaya's case through the next eight months. Brown strictly adhered to concurrent planning guidelines and actively encouraged Celaya's oldest sister Irene to adopt the child.

Jennifer also tested positive for methamphetamine use five times in a three-month period under a relatively new drug-testing method called the PharmChem patch. Child Protective Services is the only county agency to employ the method, which has been increasingly condemned by critics as unreliable due to its high rate of false-positives. [See related article]. While Brown mentions, in the court papers terminating Celaya's rights to regain her son, her concerns over the mother's "continued positive drug tests," Celaya says she never learned of the results until her trial and there was no mechanism to challenge the results.

Celaya adamantly denies she took drugs. Several months after the trial, when Celaya demanded copies of her tests, Brown noted in her work log that she could "possibly" obtain copies. Celaya says she never received any.

At the same time, Adam began displaying aggressive behavior at his day care. The child began kicking and biting other day-care children as well as using swear words. His day-care provider said Adam seemed to be acting out the emotional distress, uncertainty and conflicting family loyalties his placement had created. This, to Brown, who wrote that Adam was "presenting as a very disturbed child," was a big concern. Coupled with Jennifer's positive drug tests, Brown reached only one conclusion at the child's six-month hearing in January, 1999: Jennifer should not be reunited with her son.

As it turns out, there was one last chance for Jennifer, but no one told her about it. There is a little-known seven-day window of appeal for parents who have lost reunification rights. And even workers within the juvenile dependency court clerk's office are poorly informed about it. (See related story)

Until May of 1999, Adam remained in his aunt Irene's care. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Adam began acting up again in daycare. As the social worker looked into why his aggressive behavior had resurfaced, she discovered that Jennifer had been allowed unauthorized contact with the child. Irene, swamped by responsibilities for her own children, had allowed Jennifer to take Adam to medical appointments and even arrange for child care. Jennifer denied the charges of unauthorized contact. But Brown pieced it together in a way that made sense to her: she believed that the child's increasing exposure to his family members, whose verbal abuse marked their interaction, was putting the child at risk. Adam was again placed into protective custody. The next step was foster placement. Within weeks of foster placement, the new family expressed an interest in adopting Adam.

A few weeks later, in June, Jennifer lost custody of her son.

Last Visit

ADAM CELAYA SENIOR sits in his living room, surrounded by golf trophies he has collected over the years. His firstborn and only grandson's baby golf clubs, made especially for the little boy, lean against the wall. The 72-year-old man, who says he is full-blooded Pomo Indian, looks as tall and sturdy as a telephone pole. He is not much for words. When he speaks of his grandson, his words come even more slowly, enveloped in a shroud of both pride and pain.

The last time Celaya and his daughter saw Adam was in April. Celaya took the boy his golf clubs and the two hit several balls in an observation room in the social services agency. The visit was not supposed to happen. Since Jennifer lost her parental rights last year, Child Protective Services has tried to wean the young mother off visits that further enable her to bond with her son. Adam was now on his way to adoption and the visits were proving too difficult and emotional for everyone involved. But someone in the agency had authorized the visit.

For Adam, seeing his grandson this last time proved incredibly painful. "It was bad at the end," he says, shaking his head. The words barely make their way out of his mouth before the otherwise stoic-looking man becomes incapacitated, trembling with grief. He slides his fingers under his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose, but the tears come anyway. Celaya is speechless for several minutes.

But Jennifer, who was repeatedly dragged into the system by a dysfunctional mother who rejected her, remains outwardly calm. She says she has cried too many times and the loss of her son, due to the new shift toward quick adoption, has underscored a cruel irony in her life. She points to a faded and marked family portrait from the '80s of what appears to be a happy clan. Jennifer, a toddler, sits with her two older sisters, who are wearing matching shirts and ponytails, as their parents smile self-consciously.

"Why didn't they adopt me at that age?" she asks angrily. At that point, the girls had been referred to Child Protective Services several times for neglect, sexual molestation and lack of supervision. "I turned my life around for my son," she says.

Jennifer then pulls out dozens of photographs taken during her last visit with Adam. In nearly each photograph, Adam Sr. and Jennifer cling to the child, their moist eyes red with sorrow. Little Adam holds his hands to his eyes, as his mouth quivers into a pout. "That's child abuse right there," Adam says, wiping his eyes and pointing to his grandson, "when a baby cries that much."

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From the July 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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