You have read this story before. Too many times.
Somewhere in Florida, a child is in circumstances scary enough for the state to step in and take him away.
The parent — or parents — do what’s required to get the child back. They take classes. They get counseling. And even if afterward the red flags seem so bright and glaring you think you could have seen them from space, the state sends the child home. Because putting the family back together is the state’s goal.
Then we read another horrific story of a child dead at the hands of a parent who should never have been given the chance. Then everyone pores over records and points out mistakes and says things must change. Until the next horrific headline.
Jordan Belliveau was only 2. We saw his face in an Amber Alert and heard the story his 21-year-old mother Charisse Stinson told police: how she was walking with him at night and accepted a ride from a stranger because she had far to go and Jordan was heavy. How the man knocked her unconscious and she woke up and her son was gone.
Then they arrested her, saying she admitted she hit the child in a moment of frustration and later left his body in the woods behind a Largo baseball field.
And in some grim Monday morning quarterbacking that’s way too familiar, the signs seem so clear.
He was only three months old and living in a household that had allegations of a wide array of criminal activity before he landed in foster care. His parents had a documented history of domestic violence allegations against each other. The child himself was once treated for injuries to his lip after he got caught in a physical altercation between his parents and another woman.
Here is a particularly heartbreaking detail to this story: This kid had a chance.
For most of his short life, Jordan lived with foster parents who called the smiley child Mr. Chuckles. With them he learned to roll over and walk and talk. He looks happy in their photographs.
Jordan would still be safe with them, the couple wrote this week, but for a court order.
Five months ago, the boy’s court-appointed guardian ad litem told a magistrate he should not be returned to his mother. This had to do with whether she had been going to counseling — she said she was — but a separate report also noted the guardian was "always against the reunification."
For the record, a guardian ad litem is the single person in the system whose job is solely to represent the best interests of the child. Not the mother. Not the father. Not the state. Just the child.
Jordan was sent home anyway.
It must be a delicate balance, this idea of family reunification versus the worst thing that could happen. I don’t envy the people who make what could literally be life or death decisions. Same for caseworkers in our overburdened and underfunded child welfare system. If you are the cynical sort — children dying can do that — you might wonder about the motivation to get cases closed, over and done with — even borderline ones— when there are so many more waiting.
The Florida Department of Children and Families has promised a full and thorough review of what did and did not happen for Jordan. Forgive me if I feel like I already know what it will say, and what it won’t change.