Protective Justice: Advocates for children’s wellbeing

By Kara Lofton | July 20th, 2015

Carlita Sheldon, Sara Kiser, and Erin Fadeley

Carlita Sheldon ’06, Sara Kiser ’01, and Erin Fadeley ’01 are warmly supportive colleagues in the Child Protective Services of Harrisonburg, united in their efforts to help young people as well as their families. (Photo by Kara Lofton)

The day a child is removed from his or her home, the Child Protective Services workers generally go to the home in twos. The second person adds emotional and physical support for an action that is often seen as painfully unjust by both children and their parents.

Children’s justice is “keeping kids safe, which can mean taking them out of a cycle of victimization,” says Sara (Bishop) Kiser ’01. But “justice for us is going to be different than justice for the kids,” who usually want to stay with their parents no matter what, says co-worker Carlita Sheldon ’06. It’s not easy to break the cycles of violence, adds Erin Fadeley ’01. “Oftentimes parents have to hit rock bottom before they are willing to try to change.” And even then, change doesn’t always occur.

This was one of the hardest lessons the three women had to learn as family services specialists at Child Protective Services in Harrisonburg: that they have about a 1-in-10 chance of making a real difference in a person’s life. “You can’t save the world,” says Sheldon. But “as long as we can affect somebody’s life for the better, then we have to feel good about it.”

The women have now worked at CPS for an average of 11 years, a long time in a field that is known for its high turnover rates nationally. The difference at CPS in Harrisonburg, they say, is the people who work there. “I’m still here because of my co-workers, I couldn’t do this without them,” says Fadeley.

The three women exuded what Kiser called “realistic idealism,” which manifested itself in plenty of laughter and comfortable communication – it wasn’t unusual for them to finish one another’s sentences. “We joke we are a dysfunctional family, but I know that at the end of the day, every one of these people has my back,” says Sheldon.

‘Just being there’

Sheldon, who is bilingual, works mostly with poor Latino families, many of whom lack documentation. She says one of the hardest things for her is witnessing the deportations of parents who have children who are legal residents. When the parents are deported, the children often have to go into foster care until they age out of the system. As painful as that is, she finds satisfaction in the phone calls she receives from people she doesn’t know who got her number from someone she helped in the past. For her, it’s that one person, that one phone call, that makes her work worth it.

Fadeley says the perception of CPS workers is that they are only focused on the child, but in reality they spend a lot of their time with families, trying to rehabilitate parents. She says the majority of her cases involve drug abuse, which is present in every socioeconomic class, not just the poor or working poor.

“Much of my work is just being there with a client and being supportive,” she says. “We walk with people through whatever their situation is.” She says she had one male client addicted to methamphetamines, which can cause users to look gaunt, with sunken eyes and broken skin. Due to his addiction, she had to facilitate the removal of his child. Recently, she saw the man at an event she was attending for one of her own children. He came up to her, gave her a hug and told her he was clean. “Look at me,” he said proudly pointing to his now filled-out figure, “I’m fat!”

Kiser, who has been at CPS for 14 years, is now a family services supervisor. She says that in this line of work, hope can be a stretch, especially when CPS workers aren’t able to break the cycles of violence from one generation to the next. “A lot of the adults we work with have dealt with CPS as children,” she says. Now most of them are working minimum wage jobs that don’t come close to covering the needs of their families.

“Why wouldn’t they do drugs when every aspect of their lives feels like it is against them?” she says. Not only that, but “this is the story of everyone in their lives.” Very few people are able to break away from the harsh life they grew up in.

Heading to court

The alumnae working in CPS often have cases that ultimately involve family attorney Michael Beckler ’80.

Beckler can be called upon to represent either the parents or the children in a court case. The hardest ones, he says, are those dealing with termination of parental rights. When CPS removes a child from a home, they are placed in foster care and given a guardian ad litem like Beckler to advocate for the child’s rights when the case goes to court.

While the child is in foster care, CPS tries to rehabilitate the parents, many of whom have mental health or substance abuse problems. The parents have a year to reform. If they are unable to change their ways, the case goes to court and the parents’ rights to care for the child are terminated.

About 50% of the time, the guardian ad litem is able to recommend placing the child with another relative. The remainder of the time, the child either goes into foster care or is adopted. In custody cases of older children, the guardian ad litem explains the process to them and takes their preferences into consideration when possible.

“The kids often say, ‘I just want to go home with Mom and Dad,’” Beckler says, “but sometimes the child doesn’t know what is in their best interests – especially when going home means they would be put back into an abusive or neglectful situation. You have to care about children to do this work – that’s the bottom line.”

Juvenile probation

Another alumnus in the field of juvenile justice is Tom Brenneman ’92, a Harrisonburg-based probation worker and program coordinator in the Department of Juvenile Justice. He says he does his work with a “restorative justice emphasis” – meaning he tries to identify who has been harmed in a situation and what steps might be taken to heal that harm. Brenneman previously worked for the Fairfield Center in Harrisonburg, known for its expertise in restorative justice and conflict resolution.