By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
Parents dont need a license to have a child. They dont even need a clean criminal record or proof that they can support them. Parents can even get their child back after he or she is forcibly removed from their home.
This is the policy of the United States court system and Child Welfare Services.
And thats not fair, say Crescent Citys Manuel and Kathleen Vargas.
After four years of acting as parents to their 4-year-old great-grandson, the boy was taken out of the Vargas home last month and was returned to his birth mother Martha Romanose-Jones.
Now, they say, their great-grandson is depressed and is showing signs of neglect. He was taken out of their home and placed with his mother, who is serving weekends in jail for welfare fraud.
Hes not even talking anymore. Hes not the same little boy. I just dont know what to do, Manuel Vargas said.
Despite assurances from Child Welfare Services, this boy is falling through the cracks, Manuel Vargas said, since Superior Court Judge William Follett made the decision to remove the boy from the Vargas home.
Were the only ones in a position to fight for him and to fight for all these other grandparents that kids are being taken away from by Follett and Child Welfare Services, said Manuel Vargas a couple of days after his great-grandson was returned to his mother.
Follett defended the placement at a hearing in Del Norte County Superior Court July 13, responding to questions from Manuel Vargas.
I dont think, there is any question at all that the mom has had many failures in the past, Follett said. But the court has made a determination that mom is on her way back to rehabilitation. And we feel we can safely return (the child) to his mother.
Were keeping a close watch on her. All right? We intend to do that for quite some time, Follett told the Vargas family.
Follett said decisions in cases like this one are always difficult, but the court must follow state directives.
State law says parents have to be reunited with their child whenever possible, said Follett.
But with only 10 social workers in Del Norte County and 150 cases divided among them, Manuel Vargas said hes worried the state isnt watching as closely as they should be.
Program Manager of CWS, Rosalie Leaberra, agreed that generally, theres too much to do and too little time to do it.
The state did a study on social worker case loads, recently and showed in order to do the best work, there really ought to be twice as many social workers. But, we dont have the money to pay them, Leaberra said.
A lack of research and time spent on his case is what Vargas claims may ruin his grandsons life.
We dont drink or go around or do drugs and we try to do the best we can and thats what upset us, Manuel Vargas said.
In the fight for their grandson, the Vargases collected letters from their grandsons doctor, teachers and others attesting to how well the Vargases cared for the boy.
They are loving, caring grandparents who want only the best for (the boy)... I have always been very impressed by the care given to (him) by his grandparents, wrote Dr. Douglas Hoffman.
In the same letter, Hoffman said the boys mother wasnt as attentive as he would have liked, and didnt attend meetings to discuss an ear surgery the boy needed.
Early on, we tried to get (the boys) mother to attend these appointments, and in particular I wanted her to be present for his pre-operative evaluation on Sept. 2, 1999 so that I could explain the indications, risks and benefits of surgery. She did not attend that office visit.
They also have letters from teachers and other witnesses saying the boys mother never attended parent-teacher conferences or otherwise inquired to how his schooling was going.
Other signed letters attest to violent episodes involving Jones, her neighbors and her son. Jones could not be reached for comment.
But, according to Vargas, Child Welfare Services officials did not look at the letters, nor did judge Follett.
Susan Wilson, the social worker on the case, said she could not comment on specific cases. Program Director Leaberra also said she could not comment on what or whom was investigated in the case of the Jones boy.
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Leaberra did say, however, the ultimate decision of which home a child is placed in lies with the court.
We have to do a real thorough check of all the people involved and present as complete a picture as we can to the court, she said.
As Follett said, the ultimate goal of the court is to place a child with its birth parent. And toward that goal, Leaberra said CWS and the court work together to help parents get on their feet.
We make up a case plan. Say, they need to keep their home cleaner or go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And while that is happening, we have monitored visits with the child and parent to make sure things are improving, Leaberra said.
Ultimately, the judge decides, she added.
No matter what a judge decides, choosing which home and which caretaker a child should be placed with is difficult, according to Follett.
The law assumes the best place for a child is with the parent unless proven otherwise, Follett said.
Manuel and Kathleen Vargas said they feel they have tried to make that case, but no one will look at the evidence.
What frustrates the Vargases more is that they say Follett based his decision solely on Child Welfare Services investigation which was woefully incomplete.
Follett said there are often difficulties.
Theres a lot of problems with the system. Social workers are overworked, understaffed and there is a high burn-out rate, he said.
Theres a lot of times where I would do things differently, but you have to follow the guidelines of the law, he added.
The Vargas case is scheduled for a review by Follett on Aug. 24.