This holiday season was the greatest celebration ever when Jewel Stroman, 23, finally got her daughter back from DC Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA). It has been 15 long months since the mother and child have spent time together as a family.
“This was long overdue. It feels good to be able to raise my own child once again. It’s a joy I can’t express in simple terms,” said Stroman. Her struggles of trying to keep her family intact date back years ago when Stroman was a teen mom.
In 2005, Stroman approached the AFRO about the struggles she faced trying to get her son out of foster care. Her father, Bruce Smith, suffering from kidney failure, placed his daughter and three-month old grandson in the Montgomery County Child and Family Services.
“I was advised to do so by social services because they thought I was going to die,” said Smith. His chances for survival were very slim at the time with no apparent kidney donor. He was on the transplant list for four years.
“I thought it was the right decision at that time. I had no idea that it would haunt me for the rest of my life and prove detrimental for me as a grandparent,” Smith said.
Stroman was released by the system on her 18th birthday, but her son remained. She filed a lawsuit, went to trial and won. But the scrutiny of the system of the teen mom did not stop there.
Hoping that a change of venue would make a difference, in 2006, Stroman moved to southeast Washington, got her own apartment and a job.
In 2007, Stroman became pregnant with a second son. In that year, she and the baby’s father were involved in a domestic quarrel. Both Stroman and the child’s father were locked up overnight. Instead of the police contacting her father or next of kin, child protective services was called and her eldest son was taken away. She felt the system was punishing her for outsmarting it years ago. Her eldest child is up for adoption. Although Stroman’s father was capable to raise the child after he received a kidney transplant, both systems denied him the right because he placed him in foster care years ago.
“I’m good enough to have my grandson for weekends and summertime visits but not good enough to raise him as his blood relative,” said Smith.
Stroman felt hopeless. “It’s like the system can get away with whatever it wants and as a young mother, you have no rights. No reunification was ever offered,” said Stroman.
While Stroman fought vigorously, other events affected her life. Her son’s placement didn’t stop her from loving him. She filed a complaint against CFSA when her son broke his femur under the watch of a foster care parent.
“If I didn’t bring it up, CFSA wouldn’t have done anything about it. No one punished the system for allowing this to happen,” said Stroman.
After the second child was born Stroman worked in Virginia and asked her second son’s aunt to take care of the child during the week. One Friday, when she came to get her son, the aunt refused to give him up. The aunt filed for custody with CFSA testifying on the aunt’s behalf using the Montgomery County case and removal of the first child as reasons for kinship custody. The baby’s father signed over his rights to his aunt. However, neither the court nor CFSA contacted the mother about the hearing until it was over.
“If I knew that overnight care with a family member would result in complete loss of my child, I would have placed him in kiddycare that had night hours. People have no idea how the system can work against a young mother,” said Stroman. The court order gave supervised visitation to Stroman but it has not been enforced. “I haven’t seen him in four years. Whenever I bring it up to the judge, nothing is done. It’s like he was legally stolen from me,” Stroman said.
Court officials said it provides attorneys for all parents to ensure that their rights are protected. “Federal and DC law and court rules require that reasonable efforts be made to keep the family intact.” said Leah Gurowitz, public information officer for the DC Superior Court.
But Stroman said the court ignored her requests through the attorney. So she kept filing complaints and her own lawsuits.
But the drama didn’t stop there. In 2008, Stroman was sentenced to 90 days in jail for articulating a threat to the 31-year old mother of her third boyfriend who refused to return Stroman’s car so she could get to work. She lost her apartment. Although the charges were dropped after Stroman successfully completed the terms of her probation, the conviction has been used against her numerous times in court proceedings.
In 2009, Stroman was pregnant with her third child. In February, 2010, the father of her second child was killed. The father of the third child was convicted of carjacking and is currently serving long term prison sentence.
Stroman joined a transitional housing program. One of the caseworkers was caught using the personal identifiable information of the clients to obtain credit cards, loans and cashed the money orders paid for rent. When Stroman reported the caseworker to authorities and confronted the culprit, she was given a two-hour notice to vacate.
Police illegally evicted Stroman with her daughter in the rain. The next day Stroman filed a complaint in court and the judge ordered her return to the premises. Stroman’s daughter caught pneumonia from the incident and was hospitalized. It was this incident that led to CFSA removing her daughter from the home claiming that the mother was negligent for not taking the child to a pediatric developmental evaluation.
“CFSA removes children when they can’t be safe at home. In the vast majority of cases, the initial goal is reunification. To achieve that, parents must fulfill requirements of a case plan designed to reduce risk and increase safety. After a removal, parents have to meet requirements to get their children back,” said Mindy Good, public information officer for CFSA.
Stroman continued her quest to be a mother. At Stroman’s behest, the daughter was removed from two foster care families for extreme negligence. She filed four lawsuits and numerous complaints to the chief judge about illegal behavior of the family court judge who denied her legal rights for opportunities to reunify with her children.
To get custody of her daughter, Stroman was required to complete mental health evaluation, psychotherapy and anger management sessions, parenting classes, supervised visits, weekly urines, court proceedings, job placement program, maintain housing and attend bi-monthly meetings with caseworkers for reunification. The process was completed in February 2011 yet the daughter remained in the system until Dec. 16 of the same year.
Stroman’s complaints fell on deaf ears until recently. Stroman has received notification from the DC Superior Court family court monitor and CFSA citizens’ review board that they will examine her complaints.
“There’s no telling how many more mothers have been victimized by this system,” Stroman said.
Currently, there are over 4,000 children involved in court supervision and CFSA monitoring in the District. Stroman said, “It’s like this is a business of baby snatchers.”