‘People can change’: Families celebrate reunion after foster care

Nina Caso is seen with her daughter, Isabella.

Nina Caso is seen with her daughter, Isabella.

Close to 9,000 children were in foster care in Washington state last year, but the majority of these kids will eventually return home. Today, as part of Family Reunification Day, families are celebrating their reunions after overcoming obstacles that range from drug abuse to struggles with parenting skills.

Born addicted to heroin

Talking to a professionally-dressed Nina Caso, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, her life was in total crisis. She hit rock bottom, and lost custody of her 2-year-old daughter.

“Her name is Isabella. She is a happy little baby, and she’s very smart—she’s ahead of her time, the doctor says. So that’s good, considering her circumstances,” Caso said.

Almost more striking than the circumstances, though, is Caso’s honesty in everything she talks about, including her daughter’s earliest days.

“She was born addicted to heroin, so she was removed at birth and was detoxed off of—they had her on a morphine drip, so that she could detox and be comfortable at the same time,” she said.

'When she was taken was when it really hit me’

Now 28, Caso began using drugs at 13, and eventually got hooked on heroin. She tried to get clean; she was in and out of rehab eight times before she gave birth.

“When she was taken was when it really hit me. And that’s when she was 3 days old,” she said. “That was when I knew I was ready to change.”

Caso went to Yakima for a detox program. While there, she says she did everything she was told because she didn’t know how to live anymore. She was sick, devastated, and ashamed. Her family didn’t trust her.

'It shows people can change’

After a month in the program, Caso’s daughter joined her. Caso opted into family treatment court because she wanted the accountability. And today, she’s two years clean.

“It shows people can change, and no matter where you came from, what your story is, you can get help, and you can be a parent to your child,” Caso said.

Today, Caso is working three jobs in social services. She is also going to school to earn her chemical dependency certification so she can help other women rejoin their families.

According to the Department of Social and Health Services, 70 percent of children who go into foster care are able to return home.

Transgender Rights: What Happens to Custody When Mommy Becomes Daddy?

Transgender Rights What Happens to Custody When Mommy Becomes Daddy

Transgender Rights What Happens to Custody When Mommy Becomes Daddy

A new joint publication between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) provides information to transgender parents whose spouses may use information about their transition against them in order for cases of child custody to be handled fairly. "Protecting the Rights of Transgender Parents and their Children: A Guide for Parents and Lawyers" compiles a number of situations a transgender parent may face when attempting to gain custody of their children, and includes case law and sample testimonies so the person may fight for fair and honest treatment even when their ex-spouse tries to demonize them for their gender identity.

Since custody agreements try to satisfy the "best interest of the child," the transgender parent is often placed in a bad light because of their transition. Some courts have seen through transphobia: the 1973 case Christian v. Randall found that "the record contain[ed] no evidence that the environment of the [transgender parent's] home ... endangered the children's physical health or impaired their emotional development." In all actuality, it should be as simple as this. Regardless of the transgender parent's initial gender identification, the fact that they went from being "Mommy" to "Daddy" should be irrelevant to their parenting ability. However, cases like Cisek v. Cisek (1982) ruled in favor of the cisgender parent (one whose gender identity and genitals "match," like a person identifying as a woman who has a vagina) because the "impact of [the parent's planned] gender reassignment surgery on the children is unknown." This should be a no-brainer: the child was not in contact with the parent's genitals before, and what is inside their parent's underwear will not influence their parenting skills one way or another. But this case and others like it have terminated parenting rights of the transgender parent simply because they were transgender.

The publication goes on to advise transgender parents about how to come out to their children, potentially involving the other parent if possible. A therapist may be contacted so the child can come to terms with the parent's transition as easily as possible. Lambda Legal, a civil rights legal organization that represents LGBT people, says that children are much less likely to react negatively to a parent's transition than adults are because they have fewer preconceived notions about what gender identification is. The ACLU/NCTE publication suggests having those who have worked closely with the child during the coming out process testify at the custody hearing, as they will be able to give the most accurate testimony of the child's well-being. If the child is old enough, they can also meet with the judge in private and discuss their feelings about the situation. The transgender parent's treating physician may also testify to the fact that the parent is undergoing the transition between genders. Additionally, it is very important that if any suspicion of mistreatment due to the parent being transgendered arises, they may call in an expert on the subject to deliver a "Transgender 101" testimony discussing the idea of gender identity and why one may want to transition.

Several laws are highlighted, including the court's inability to restrict the transgender parent's custody when it lacks evidence that the parent would be harmful, that keeping the child from the transgender parent due to social prejudice against transgender people is unlawful, and that the court cannot require a parent to conceal their gender identity unless it is shown that it would harm the child for them to know. These all work in the best interests of the child for one universal reason: Without proof or testimony of harm, neither the child nor the parent would benefit from being separated from one another. If evidence of potential harm does exist, then the court can take appropriate steps toward treating the transgender parent as one harboring an unsafe environment, not necessarily because of their gender identity or transition process.

The issues that transgender parents face simply for being transgender transcend the court system. Even when custody is not an issue, the transgender person's partner or ex-partner may become overwhelmed with prejudices and personal issues faced by the person who is coming to terms with their gender identity or transition. This publication is an excellent resource for not only those who are transgender parents, but for those looking to learn more about what it means to be transgender or how to treat transgender people (hint: the same as anyone else, with certain cautions). The ACLU and NCTE have done a great service to both those for whom LGBT equality is a staple of their careers and for transgender people in need of advice from competent sources.

A version of this column originally appeared in policymic.com.

State child welfare officials hope to launch new program to prevent children from entering foster care

12157144-large[1]SALEM-- Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is proposing a new program to lower the number of children in foster care.

Kitzhaber's proposed budget for the next biennium includes $ 23.6 million for "differential response," a program that would allow less serious child welfare cases to be dealt with through programs with community organizations or other services. The goal is to allow more children to remain with their relatives and families.

"Differential response is fundamentally redesigning our initial response system to realize that not all families need interventions," Kitzhaber said at a Tuesday press conference. "By supplying families with services that are designed to help them with parenting skills and keeping the child, we can reduce the number of harmful and unnecessary foster care placements.".

In 2011, 4,398 children entered foster care in Oregon, a 7 percent decrease from 2010, according to the state Department of Human Services. Numbers for 2012 aren't yet available.

Today, state officials investigate child abuse and neglect complaints to determine if "fault" can be found, a system based on law enforcement.

Under the new program, a safety assessment would be conducted to determine if a family would benefit from a different type of response. More serious cases of physical and sexual abuse would still be investigated under the traditional method.

Most children placed in foster care are victims of neglect, not abuse, said Stacey Ayers, child protective services program manager at Human Services. Nearly 86 percent of incidents the agency dealt with in 2011 related to threat of harm and neglect.

If a child lacks proper supervision at home, it might be because the family is poor, Ayers said. A community program could help with child care.

The state recently hired Stacy Lake as the differential response manager. The program's official launch date depends on its budget.

The proposal is part of a $ 109.7 million increase Kitzhaber has proposed for child welfare programs. Legislators must still approve a budget and could change that figure.

The $ 23.6 million would also pay for increased staffing levels in child welfare programs.

State workers must respond within 24 hours to cases involving an immediate threat to a child, but can wait up to five days in less time-sensitive cases, such as when a suspected abuser has been jailed. Current staffing levels mean written reports, paperwork and other tasks aren't getting completed as quickly, said Gene Evans, spokesman for Human Services.

The state received 74,342 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in 2011, an increase of 3.5 percent from the previous year. Still, the number of children entering foster care decreased.

"We've come a long way, and we should celebrate that," said Erinn Kelley-Siel, the director of the agency. "At the same time, we have to acknowledge too many children are still being hurt and too many families are still left behind.".