1. Opinion

Column: Protecting kids, not reuniting families, should be Florida's top priority

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Published Sep. 11, 2018

Your headline on Sept. 7, "Guardian Fought Return," says it all.

Five months before 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau's body was found last week in the woods in Largo, the guardian ad litem advocating for the child's best interests told a magistrate that Jordan should not be returned to his mother.

Besides the despicable parents there is only one other guilty party— the magistrate who disagreed with the guardian ad litem's recommendation. The magistrate examined the evidence and was charged with erring on the "best interests of the child"—not the agency charged with saving the taxpayers money, the caseworkers who are mandated to reunite families; and surely not the guardian ad litem, who argued vociferously for his safety. Her motives were pure, and she was not beholden to anything.

Jordan had a loving foster family eager to adopt him, and he would have been entitled to a modest subsidy, Medicaid and tuition at a Florida university. With this chance, he could have become a happy, productive member of our community. But there was no immediate cost to sending him home.

Even if he had not been murdered, the arc of his life would have been dismal. For every child who dies after being returned to their abusive parent, there are surely 100 who are suffering daily from abuse and neglect. Calls to "Change the system!" well up after each tragedy. But child welfare specialists already have superb tools to predict which families will never be safe.

From what is public knowledge, Jordan's parents would have scored dismally. If Jordan had survived his bleak environment, he would have forever been a fixture in our courts, jails, and mental health system. His mother is pregnant and will give birth in prison.

Courts are swayed by misguided notions of the sanctity of "family," political rhetoric and limited budgets. We tend to blame the low-paid and overworked frontline workers. They are charged with making recommendations that involved family reunification because it is the cheapest alternative. The statistics—and federal and state laws—show the wisdom of erring in the best interest of the child.

I was a guardian ad litem in Citrus Country for 25 years and wrote "I Speak for This Child: True Stories of a Child Advocate," which is used in recruiting and training guardians. My husband and I have also produced more than 50 films on the topic of foster care, adoption, family group conferencing, substance abuse and families for child-welfare professionals, state attorneys general, legislators, and family court judges. Philip Courter served as chairman of the Standing Committee for Children and Families in District 13 for 10 years. We have been foster parents and we adopted a daughter, age 12, from the Children's Home of Tampa after she spent more than nine years suffering through 14 placements, many abusive.

During three decades of advocating for abused children, I have watched children like Jordan's mother, who was a foster child herself, grow up rootless, uneducated and engaged in substance abuse. The children who did not find safe and permanent homes have gone to jail, been homeless, had many children who ended up in the system, or died tragically from violence or drugs. Jordan's mother probably will spend the rest of her life costing the state far more than it would have to protect her—or her child.

Jordan is not an exception! He is a pawn to the policy of reunifying children at all costs. Recently, several foster children I've cared about have been returned by the court to terrifying environments. One toddler, who had several sexually transmitted diseases, was returned to her mother, who allowed men to have sex with her in exchange for drugs. Another, found filthy and starving in a crack house beside his comatose mother and addled father, was returned to the father, who took a few classes and moved to a cleaner space but had no idea how to care for him. And one was taken from pre-adoptive parents against the advice of many professionals and murdered by a psychotic relative in an unsuitable home.

In each case, a judge was swayed by the exigencies of an agency and the verbiage of a parent's counsel. The court disregarded the voice of reason, the voice for the child: The guardian ad litem. We know the cure. It's time to man up and protect children first.

Gay Courter is a former guardian ad litem and foster parent. She is the author of several works of non-fiction and travel articles, and an Emmy-award winning film producer. She lives in Crystal River.