Foster care controversy: Kids taken from home, judge outraged

The brother and sister taken from the foster parents, who were trying to adopt the kids. We blurred the pictures to protect the identities of the children.

PORTLAND, Ore. - The Oregon Department of Human services has removed two children from the Portland home of their foster parents, despite the fact child therapists and a judge have said it's the "worst thing" that could happen to the young brother and sister.

Brenda Lincoln and Willie Norman opened their home to the siblings, an 11 year old boy and his 10 year old sister, more than two years ago. And it's been a better life there for them: nothing but positive reviews from case workers and the children's biological mother and grandmother, who both support the couple.

But that all changed when Brenda and Willie applied to formally adopt the kids. The process was well under way when suddenly, in October, state child welfare workers for DHS removed the children from the home.

"We get really emotional when we talk about this because it wasn't really fair," Willie said. "It caught us off guard and caught the kids off guard."

DHS not only took the kids out of the place they've called home for two years – they're now planning to send the siblings to go live with strangers miles away from any friends. A foster home has been found for them in Eugene.

Brenda and Willie, the children's biological family and the court-appointed legal advocate for the 10-year-old girl, have been scrambling to stop the transfer. Even a judge hearing their appeal is asking why, after giving them permission to raise the kids for two years, DHS suddenly has a problem with Brenda and Willie’s care now.

Addressing the DHS representatives, Multnomah County Court Judge Susan Svetky said, "I don't think it's a secret how upset I am at this case. You have evaluations for their survival. They're telling you to move them is catastrophic to these kids."

The biological mother of the children and the kids' grandmother also support leaving them with Willie and Brenda.

"In their position, the words 'mom' and 'dad' are really sacred and I could see them calling (Brenda and Willie) 'mom' and 'dad,' that they were reaching out, they were trusting," said Joy Gambrel, the biological grandmother.

The judge's harsh words were aimed largely at DHS caseworker Karey Menagh.

"She came to the house and sat there right on the couch and said 'we're going to find you better parents,'" Brenda said. "I'm going 'wow.'"

DHS documents lay out the reasons the couple was disqualified from adopting the children, although they're puzzling since they contradict some of the agency's own findings.

Documents from 2010 show the agency knew Willie had a restraining order against him from a former spouse; however, the agency determined "there do not appear to be any current concerns that could pose a threat to a child in foster care."

Court records show that Willie got the restraining order dismissed and his record wiped clean.

Then, after two years of positive reviews, DHS suddenly changed its tune.

"Willie has a pattern of emotionally controlling behavior. Brenda has not used good judgment in assessing his ability to control his behavior," a DHS report said. “Willie has a criminal history of domestic violence that has reoccurred since living in her home."

Brenda responds by asking why it took two and a half years for DHS to change their opinion and report these concerns. Judge Svetky asked DHS why Willie’s background is an issue now, when it was not a problem when it was talked about in court six months ago.

"It's essentially old news," Svetky said. DHS did not explain itself.

The case has become so dysfunctional, DHS will not allow the court-appointed lawyer for the girl in this case to speak directly to case worker Menagh. DHS lawyer Dana Forman must be the go-between.

Judge Svetky said she's never heard of such a situation in her many years in juvenile law.

Forman said she couldn't discuss the case with KATU. In court this week, Forman admitted the agency made "mistakes" but did not elaborate what those mistakes were.

Agency spokesman Gene Evans wrote that "DHS cannot provide details or other information on child welfare cases."

Judge Svetky has not been shy in expressing her feelings.

"I can't remember a time where I have been so upset professionally and personally on how a case has been handled," she said.

She is frustrated the state Legislature did not give judges the power to order DHS to make things right. The biological mother still has a chance to get her kids back, but she faces a long road to do that.

"The timing of all this is concerning and suspicious,' Svetky said. "This whole thing is a disservice to these children."

The children are white; Brenda and Willie are black. The children's biological grandmother thinks race is a factor in the decision by DHS.

Willie would like to think that his skin color has nothing to do with this, but, he said, "if you look at all the documents that are out there, and the circumstances of how they removed the kids from our home, it could have. I can't say. I can't put my finger on it."