Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
Carollynn Smith protests outside the Oregon Department of Human Services building on North Vancouver Avenue. Claims abusive policies and racism
A grandmother's protest is helping raise awareness about the need for reform in Oregon's child-protection system.
For well over a month now, Carollynn Smith, 60, has held a weekly three-hour vigil in front of the Oregon Department of Human Services building on North Vancouver Avenue and Alberta Street to dispute the state custody of two of her grandchildren.
Since she already cares for five grandchildren, Smith can't see how DHS justifies revoking custody of her two youngest, Clynn Black and Koffee Owens.
The human-services agency claims that Smith's age and modestly-sized house prevents her from caring for so many children in a hygienic and nurturing manner.
She refuses to worry about her protest turning DHS officials against her case, and she becomes particularly resolute when people question her public expression on this issue.
She asks, "Did God wake me up this morning to fight for my grandchildren and ask me if I had a permit? I don't think so."
While she awaited word from a DHS inquiry into her house's size, cleanliness and general suitability for children, a nonprofit radio station criticized the department's practices.
"It looks like all the other houses in the neighborhood, so I was shocked that they would pick on her," says Yvette Maranowski, a volunteer reporter for KBOO.
Foster-care advocates have warned for years that diminishing funds for DHS services might lead to systematic problems.
"The foster care system is only as good as the people who choose to be a part of it," wrote Don Darland, president of the Oregon Foster Parent Association.
Smith's protest comes at a time when two-year-old Stephanie Kuntupis is requiring brain surgery at Legacy Emanuel Hospital after sustaining injuries while in the state-sponsored system. "I get the impression that if my wife were white, we would have reunification," says the father, Steven Kuntupis.
These cases also mark the recent release of DHS's annual "Status of Children in Oregon's Child Protection System" report, citing 2006 as the 10-year high in the state's child-abuse rate.
The report showed that Oregon's system for preventing abuse is far from perfect.
For example, foster families abuse children at a higher rate than the general population, although these cases account for a small percentage of overall violence toward children. DHS claims that African and Native American families are about three times as likely to have children who are victims of abuse or neglect.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski was inspired to sign five bills on the day DHS released the report, including parental notification in cases of child abuse under foster care. He also made relatives the preferred caregivers, required permanency plans prior to petitioning for the termination of a parent's rights and increased legislative reporting.
Claiming that increased reporting between government agencies is not enough, Smith calls for an independent investigation of DHS practices.
"They investigate us, so why not investigate them?" she asks.
In monitored meetings with her grandson in the DHS building, Smith noticed perplexing changes and forgetfulness in him. She only suspects that he is on mood-altering medications, but she thinks the entire agency's attitude towards chemically affected behavior is questionable.
"They put all our kids on Ritalin and then wonder why they're drug addicts," she says.
Her case inspired KBOO to take the critique of Oregon's social-services system a step further.
"The state uses taxpayer dollars to break up families by putting our children in the ill-reputed foster-care system instead of putting those same resources to help support loving families" Maranowski reported. "This method of child abduction is disproportionately practiced against people of color, the poor and mothers who are raising children by themselves."
No one joined Smith in picketing the building on a recent Thursday, but several people walked by with words of support. Wishing to remain anonymous, two men said that they were also fighting for their children.
Seeing that parents affected by DHS practices would have to organize away from its building, Smith started her own organization called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, which will meet in northeast Portland's Woodlawn Park for a picnic July 21.