On November 7, 2003, Elayne Smith gave birth to a son in Santa Rosa's Community Hospital. She had just graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with honours in English. She was a single mother with a history of mental illness, which she was managing well with the use of medication. She wanted the child, and her extended family was ready and willing to help her. Yet her baby was taken from her by an agency designed to protect children.
Elayne's baby was with her in her room on November 11 when a nurse came in and offered to watch the baby while she took a shower. When she came out, a law enforcement officer was standing in the room. The baby was gone. She was told that the Child Protective Services (CPS) had removed the baby. She was given no reason, but was assured that 'reconciliation' procedures would begin immediately so that she could get her baby back.
CPS is a state agency under the Department of Health and Human Services; its mandate is to investigate complaints against neglectful and abusive parents and forcibly remove children when deemed necessary. Most of these children end up in foster care (temporary adoption, for which the State pays), the inherent instability of which creates the risk of abuse. In California, CPS is, therefore, required to make every attempt to reconcile with families so that kids can go home.
Elayne had suffered from mental illness during her childhood and was eventually diagnosed as bipolar. Bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) causes unusual shifts in a person's mood, energy and ability to function. However, this is a treatable condition, and bipolar people can lead full and productive lives. Lithium, a standard treatment for bipolar disorder, had worked for Elayne - well enough to get her through college at one of the country's top universities. And Ruta Nonacs, MD, PhD, says that lithium - one of the least toxic psychotropic drugs - can also be taken during breast-feeding.
Nonacs, in fact, advises that patients should continue to take the drug because post-partum depression coupled with exhaustion from interrupted sleep puts mental health patients at risk. Bipolar patients are also, in fact, encouraged to have help, especially at night, so that they may be rested and more likely to remain stable during the turbulent hormonal adjustment that occurs after giving birth.
Elayne had that support. Her aunt, Helen Austin (name changed), a former midwife and mother of five, had stuck by her throughout her life. One of Helen's daughters had moved back home in order to help with the baby. Elayne had a best friend who was also supportive.
But the removal of the baby completely threw Elayne. She lay down on the bathroom floor and sobbed uncontrollably. Later, the paperwork and deadlines required by CPS created more pressure. Finally, the refusal of scheduled visitation rights over the Thanksgiving weekend, based on the flimsy excuse that there were not enough CPS workers available to supervise (legally, a worker need not be in attendance so long as a friend or relative is present), threw Elayne into a total spin.
She made threatening calls to her CPS worker, and when the case for reunification with the baby went to court, she was forced to plead guilty by reason of insanity. Although she has never been violent, she is now incarcerated in the state's mental hospital for the criminally insane in Napa, California.
The baby has been adopted. If Elayne did anything in the hospital to alert nurses that she might not be a responsible mother, no one knows what that was. No allegations were made in court other than charges by a weepy CPS worker that she felt her life was in danger - and that occurred weeks after the baby was removed.
If Elayne's were an isolated case, an anomaly in an otherwise well lubricated and just system, it would be a personal tragedy. But charges against CPS for removing children without cause are rampant, and the Internet is full of websites dedicated to this issue. Books have also been written. One retired CPS investigator, Alan L Schwartz, wrote in 'Protecting Children from Child Protective Services', that at least 30 per cent of CPS removals are unfair.
Parents charge that CPS has become motivated to take children by a federal law passed in 1997, which provides monetary bonuses to states for each child adopted. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, enacted by former President Clinton, has a provision where the federal government pays the state government up to US$ 4,000 per 'normal' child and up to US$ 6,000 per 'special needs' child for each adoption, according to the web site www.fightcps.com. The group's banner reads: "Adoption isn't what it used to be; US government agents are stealing children for adoption now."
Fightcps.com has recently petitioned Oprah Winfrey to investigate CPS abuses on her popular television show. Nearly 3,000 signatures were collected. The accompanying letter to Oprah states: "Because the funding incentives are on the side of family destruction, too many parents are finding themselves targets of false or trivial accusations of child abuse or neglect. The definition of what constitutes child abuse or neglect has expanded significantly since this system came into being - now almost any family problem can be misconstrued in a way that can cause family destruction through the juvenile legal system."
Under President George W Bush, Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, has promoted adoption as a great virtue - a policy that fits neatly with the administration's anti-abortion stance. No friend to single mothers, Thompson was also responsible for Wisconsin's welfare revision - entitled Wisconsin Works - which has since been used by other states as a model for replacing family welfare programmes with work.
Although her medication was working, Elayne's history of mental illness undoubtedly worked against her.
Her situation may have been impacted by dangerous legislation emanating from President Bush's new Freedom Commission on Mental Health, formed in 2002. The commission, which calls for mandatory testing of children as young as preschoolers for symptoms of mental illness, also proposes to test parents and teachers, wrote B K Eastman, executive director of the National Education Consortium, in an article in Chronicles Magazine in 2004.
This new 'freedom' seems geared to categorise and condemn children with unusual or erratic behaviour to a life as mental patients heavily treated with sophisticated new psychotropic drugs, some of them so new that their effects have not yet been documented. By creating records on all the 'mentally ill', this universal, mandatory testing would create a database that could conceivably be used for eugenics - to eliminate the genes that presumably are involved in mental illness.
Much more research needs to be done to find out what happened in Elayne's case, and what these tax-supported children's agencies are really up to. But one thing is clear. Something is rotten in the adoption racket.