More than ten years ago, Pat’s daughter dropped off her infant son at her parent’s house, said goodbye, and disappeared for nine months. The more Pat cared for her grandson, the more she learned about the circumstances of his birth and her own daughter’s issues with substance abuse. Her daughter came in and out of the child’s life but left him in her parents’ care permanently shortly before his third birthday. As her grandson grew, he experienced a range of developmental problems and learning disabilities. After seeing a series of specialists, he was diagnosed with the affects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, including ADHD.
Pat didn’t have any contact with the foster care system until several years later. Despite her community involvement, her past experience as a foster parent, and seven years as a member of the board of directors for her county’s Department of Social Services, she was not told that her daughter had given birth to another son. When she got a call several months later from the doctor asking why the baby had not been brought in for a six-month checkup, she learned the whole story.
Her daughter had given birth to a child who was addicted to cocaine. Even though she lived only ten minutes away from the hospital where he was born, CPS failed to notify the Owens that he had been placed in foster care. The baby was adopted four months later, before Pat had even found out he was in foster care. “To this day I am haunted by the fact that my grandson lay at death’s door just minutes away from our house, and we could not be there for him.”
Subsequent investigation into court proceedings for her second grandson showed large gaps in what the child welfare agency was supposed to do in terms of a diligent search for relatives and what they actually did. Without an understanding of the court system or the money to hire legal counsel, Pat and her husband were unable to reverse the adoption. “Ultimately the director and assistant director of DSS were fired,” said Pat, “but that didn’t change the fact that my grandson lost his brother.”
Pat is still raising her oldest grandson, who is now 13-years-old and thriving at home and at school. Despite the loss of her husband earlier last year, Pat has spent the last decade advocating for better communication between the foster care system and relatives, the need for better legal protection and representation for relatives in the dependency court system, and more comprehensive prevention and treatment services for families who are dealing with the impact of drug and alcohol abuse.
Pat’s advocacy led to the successful implementation of a law in Maryland requiring notification of relatives when a child is placed in foster care. Through her work as President of Grandfamilies of America, a national grassroots advocacy coalition which she co-founded, she works to help other grandparents and family members raising children advocate for policies and services to help the children in their care.