Monday, October 11, 2004
When the state takes a child
Nurses came in and out of the hospital room, with medicine and fresh bottles of infant formula. Tiffany had lost weight since her birth a month before. Her mother would feed her 3 ounces of formula, and Tiffany would spit it up.
"She couldn't keep nothing down," her mother, Uvonna "Vonnie" Dalton, would recall later.
Dalton was worried. And she was exhausted, depressed. She'd hardly slept, she'd say, since Tiffany was born. Dalton, 24, is mentally retarded and has a speech impediment. She was frustrated her baby was so sick. And she was frustrated with the hospital. She didn't like that, just as she'd get Tiffany down to sleep, nurses would come in and wake her and the baby to give Tiffany medicine or another feeding.
It wasn't easy, not for Tiffany, not for her mom, not for the hospital workers. Unfriendly words were passed. Dalton, nurses wrote in their reports, was uncooperative and yelled at them, barking "I know more about my baby than you do" and "I get tired of people repeating everything to me over and over."
Dalton asserted it was hospital workers who were uncivil. They "told me I was neglecting her and starving her. ... They was real rude to me."
On April 28, 2003, the Tazewell County Department of Social Services took Tiffany into custody. Dalton said the department did so by having a delegation of police officers and security guards instruct her to pack her belongings, vacate Tiffany's room and leave Clinch Valley Medical Center.
A doctor at the hospital wrote that the baby needed a stable, controlled situation such as foster care. Social workerssaid Dalton had refused services that might help her daughter get better. They said she had trouble controlling her anger.
A judge designated Tiffany as a "child in need of services." Tiffany, who'd started gaining weight at the hospital, was placed in a foster home.
Since then, Dalton's life has been in a tailspin. The disintegration of her marriage completed itself. She was frustrated in her attempts to get Tiffany back. This spring she lost custody of her older daughter, 3-year-old Brittany, after she and Brittany became homeless.
Her attorney, Hugh O'Donnell, maintains she is a conscientious mother victimized by the system. She has limitations and "she's an imperfect human being, as we all are," O'Donnell said, but she's capable of caring for her children. She was not to blame for Tiffany being sick, he said - records from an earlier hospital visit show the baby was suffering from severe reflux disease.
"Part of the problem is she has a speech impediment," O'Donnell said. "She gets upset when sometimes people don't understand her. They misinterpret her response. ... I don't see her as an angry person. I think she had legitimate concerns that nobody wanted to pay attention to."
Rex Tester, director of the Tazewell County Department of Social Services, said his agency couldn't comment on Dalton's case. "I can't even acknowledge that we have such a case," he said. Under the law, child welfare cases are confidential.
O'Donnell, who runs a nonprofit agency, Client Centered Legal Services of Southwest Virginia, has been fighting a battle in Virginia's coalfields against government attempts to terminate parents' rights. In a law publication article, he likens the process to a "demented obstacle course." The hurdles - requirements that parents get counseling, better housing and so on - are "subject to daily change, and may or may not have anything to do with the original problem which forced the runner onto the course. All along the way there are people screaming at the runner that he or she has no one but himself to blame for the situation."
After Tiffany was placed in foster care in the spring of 2003, Dalton was required to attend group and individual counseling and accept home behavioral health services that would give her hands-on parenting instruction.
In an interview earlier this year, Dalton said she didn't like all the scrutiny. "They ask personal business: 'How many times do you take a bath?' 'How many times do you change your clothes?'"
For a time, Dalton got to visit Tiffany once a week at the welfare department in Tazewell. The visits took place under the watch of social workers.
The agency reported that Dalton missed visits and was late for others. (Dalton said the only times she missed were because of snow.) Social workers said Dalton and her husband argued in front of their two crying children and that Dalton didn't seem to have her older child, Brittany, under control. The agency said she also refused to accept visits from home health services.
Dalton said she told the welfare department she didn't want a male home health worker, because she'd been raped as a teenager and was uncomfortable around men she didn't know.
The case dragged on. Not long before Tiffany's first birthday, O'Donnell said, officials indicated Dalton had made progress, but said the process of returning the baby needed to be gradual because it might be too traumatic a change for the baby if it was done all at once.
Then, this past April, Dalton left the home she'd been sharing with an older man and some of his family. She claimed she had been the victim of domestic violence. She and her older daughter had no place to live. Also, social workers said they feared Brittany could have taken some of Dalton's antidepressant medication, and that Dalton hadn't counted her pills to make sure Brittany hadn't gulped any.
A judge took custody of Brittany away from Dalton.
O'Donnell said nobody thought to refer Dalton to a battered women's shelter. In his view, the allegations about the medication don't hold water.
Tiffany is with a foster family and Brittany is with Brittany's father, and it appears things will stay that way for now, O'Donnell said. The whole thing, he said, is the result of an off-kilter sequence of events that would never have happened if her baby's illness hadn't prompted her to take the newborn to the hospital.
"The only thing I tried to do was to get help for my child," Dalton said this spring, a year after the hospital stay that went wrong. "It ain't a crime, you know."