After the child of a 14-year-old rape victim was reportedly taken by the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR), questions have been raised regarding multiple complaints leveled against the agency in Shelby County.
According to Kenneth Paschal, president of the Alabama Family Rights Association, his organization has received numerous inquiries regarding this ongoing juvenile court case in Shelby County Alabama.
“It is safe to say there are at least 50 complaints regarding actions of the court system in Shelby County,” Paschal explained, referring to other incidents that have occurred. “Some examples are ex parte communications, custodial determinations made prior to hearing the facts of a case, judicial bullying [and] creating unnecessary financial burdens for parents.”
On June 15, according to the eyewitness account of Terri LaPoint, the child identified as “Braelon,” was taken from his mother without a court order or warrant just after the two-day-old infant had finished breastfeeding. The grandparents of the infant, who are the legal guardians of the mother, were planning on caring for the child upon his release from the hospital.
According to LaPoint’s account on the blog Medicalkidnap.com, “The mother’s plans were to go home with her custodial grandparents, who had approval from the state to take care of her and her siblings.
“Despite numerous attempts by the family to learn what DHR’s concerns were, all they were told was ‘policy’ and ‘protocol’ and that things needed to be ‘assessed,’” LaPoint wrote. “We asked for a copy of the protocols to which they referred, but none was given or cited.
“No reason was ever given for what happened after that. The family was accused of being non-compliant, simply because they wanted answers — answers which remained elusive. They were compliant with everything that was asked. When the [the victim’s family] simply wanted to know why they couldn’t go home, [a DHR official] called law enforcement.”
At that point several Alabaster Police officers, a DHR official and a Shelby Baptist Medical Center administrator came and took custody of the child, without an explanation given to the mother or grandparents; according to LaPoint’s account, the DHR officials and the officers did not have a warrant or a court order saying they could take the child. She recorded the incident with her phone.
DHR representatives did not return calls seeking a comment on the allegations. The same is true for the Alabaster Police Department and the Shelby County Family Court system.
In the most recent development, a lawyer representing the family has successfully filed a petition to halt the circumcision of the child, according to the Facebook page called SAVE Braelon’s Family.
Paschal said that, unfortunately, situations like this are not uncommon. “Complaints are coming in from average citizens, and most share with ALFRA they have lost confidence in the judiciary. Judicial integrity is fundamental to preserving our system of justice, and the lack of it deserves more attention from all citizens, particularly our legislators,” Paschal said.
Speaking over the phone on Friday, LaPoint explained that she has since been in contact with the 14-year-old mother. The child has been returned to her. However, DHR has removed the mother from her grandparents’ home in Shelby County and she and the child are now in Cullman, at a DHR-approved group home, despite the grandparents having already been approved as legal guardians.
“They’ve done everything the system has asked them to do but they are still taking their family apart,” LaPoint said, adding that the 14-year-old mother has been separated from her twin brother. “[The mother] is only allowed two 30-minute phone calls a day and she has to speak to them on speaker phone with someone listening.”
An unchartered grey area
Another situation involving DHR in Shelby County also points to a lack of transparency within the agency regarding the placement of children, specifically with the process of adoption.
A woman named Jessica, 34, who requested that she not be fully identified because her family is considering filing a lawsuit, said that DHR also disrupted her family’s life.
Due to a medical condition which could lead to complications during childbirth, Jessica and her husband decided to adopt. After years of trying to adopt a child in the state with her husband, they had finally gotten approval to bring a 5-year-old girl home with them.
After a weekend-long trial period, Jessica said that they were able to “put pen to paper” and filed the appropriate documents in order to take custody of the child — although, legally there is a 90-day period during which the family must wait to formally adopt. On April 22, 2016, the girl officially moved in with Jessica’s family.
“She met our family,” Jessica said. “She instantly connected with us. She started referring to herself as a member of our family. We didn’t push that on her or anything because of the training we had during the process of adoption,” Jessica explained.
“She had structure and she was thriving. It was just a perfect situation for her in my opinion,” Jessica said.
Due to requests from the previous foster family, DHR ordered Jessica’s family to let the girl speak with them on a weekly basis. “We did as we were instructed, and she was able to speak with her foster parent,” Jessica said. “However, the call to [them] turned into multiple calls from immediate and extended family members of the foster parent. These interactions seemed to affect our daughter negatively. Her reactions — crying, accidents, and insecurity — were documented and given to state and county DHR workers throughout the process.”
Three weeks later, on May 13, DHR unexpectedly showed up at Jessica’s residence, took custody of the girl and told the family she would be returning to her previous foster family.
“They just showed up and told us they were taking her,” Jessica said. “All they told us was that the commissioner had signed off on it and they had made some errors. They wouldn’t tell us what errors were made and our attorney has not been able to get answers either.”
Jessica said she was told by DHR that an instance like this has never happened and therefore there is no legal precedent. “They said we were a wonderful family and there were plenty of other wonderful children out there for us,” Jessica said. “They specifically told us a situation like this has never happened in our state and it was not about the well-being of the child. It was a just a vague ‘error.’”
Jessica and her family are left to wonder: “If it’s not about the wellbeing of the child — which is what they said to us — then what is it about?” As of the time of this writing, the girl remains with the foster family in Marengo County.
What can be done?
Paschal said that it is not enough to complain to lawmakers about such situations. Recently, Gov. Robert Bentley appointed a nine-member committee to oversee discrepancies within DHR.
“Constituents should not only complain to lawmakers, but help provide suggestions for solutions to these problems,” Paschal said. “That is why many parents lobby our legislators to change child custody laws and accepted practices from restricting children to four to six days a month with one of their fit parents to a rebuttable presumption that children have equal or approximately equal parenting time with both parents.”
According to an ALFRA representative, “Approximately 40,000 Alabama children are annually subjected to being court ordered to only seeing and spending time with one of their parents four to six days a month (48–56 hours a month).”
State Representative Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia), who chairs the committee tasked with overseeing DHR, did not return multiple calls for this story.
As the ultimate fate of the children mentioned in this story — and others — remains unclear, Paschal believes there is a systemic problem with DHR in Alabama that needs to be addressed.
“The only way to prevent an injustice from occurring is through prevention,” Paschal said. “By observing the conduct of the same judicial officials in court cases which are not sealed, information can be more easily gathered, reported, and presented to effect policy change and hold officials accountable to the law.”