Maine Couple Seeks Answers from DHHS After Losing Custody of Son
08/08/2011 Reported By: Jay Field
Two Bangor lawyers are calling for more openness in the child protective proceedings run by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The push for more transparency stems from a case in which a client of theirs---a woman struggling with severe mental illness---lost custody of her son.
In 2002, Eleanor Handler's life took a dark turn. She became severely depressed and entered a clinic in Boston to get treatment. Two years later, her illness flared again and she went back into the hospital. After one more hospitalization, in 2005, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services moved to take away her son on grounds that Handler was unwell and incompetent.
She got notice of what's called a jeopardy hearing, where the state gathers information about whether a child is at risk in their parents custody. Handler, who was still in throes of mental illness, was told by state officials that she could waive her right to the hearing.
"By agreeing to a jeopardy order, you're agreeing that your child is in jeopardy if the child is with you or your husband," says Joseph Baldacci, one of Handler's lawyers. "She consented to it, despite the fact that it's our opinion that she lacked the mental capacity to provide a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver."
Waiving the right to this kind of hearing has serious consequences. The information that's gathered can be used against you down the line when a final decision is made. Handler eventually lost custody of her son David.
Then, the family's ordeal got even worse, prompting the Handlers to post a video on the internet.
"David, I'm your mom Ellie. David, I'm your dad Russ. David is, David is, David is, David is the very best. Yes, yes, yes. We love you, we miss you, we're looking for you every day," Eleanor and Russ Handler say in the video, sitting on a piano bench holding photos of their now 11-year-old son. finddavidstuarthandler.com.
State and federal rules require that kids first be placed with relatives, if reunification with a parent isn't possible. David Handler's grandmother and some first cousins all tried, unsuccessfully, to get custody of the boy. Instead, David Handler was placed in foster care.
"We sought an ombudsmen's report that the Handler's themselves had requested in 2009, about whether the Department had violated federal and state policies concerning placing their child with kin," Baldacci says.
Baldacci says Eleanor Handler is doing better now. She and her husband want to find their son. But recently, the Handler's got some disturbing news: The U.S. Social Security Administration was trying to locate David Handler to pay out some money the boy was owed by the federal government. But the state of Maine told federal officials it had no record of the boy being in the foster care system.
"There are studies, empirical studies, that show, that the mental and emotional well being of a child is improved, when he is preserved some family connections, has some ties to the family that raised him," Baldacci says.
The state has refused to provide a copy of the ombudsmen's report to Baldacci. But the Handler's lawyer has submitted a Freedom of Access request to try to get a copy of the records.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services would not agree to an interview about the Handler case, citing client confidentiality rules.
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