August 11,2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
Donald Williams, Jr. is suing the ironically named Arizona Department of Child Safety and several individual officers thereof for $25 million (AZ Central, 8/1/20). I hope he gets every penny of it. He won’t, but I still hope he does. Williams’ case is a lesson for anyone who wants to learn about the depredations of child welfare agencies. It provides a good look at what they do and the assumptions they make.
Williams lives in Sacramento, CA. Back in 2014, he had a brief relationship with a woman who soon moved to Arizona. She gave birth to their daughter, Melody, in 2014, but the child was taken from her at the hospital because she tested positive for illegal drugs. She’s not been a part of the case since.
Somehow Williams learned about the child and contacted DCS telling them he thought he might be Melody’s dad. That didn’t sit well with DCS officials who plainly thought they had (a) a child who should be in foster care and then adopted and (b) all the federal money that goes with both. Williams was an obstacle they hadn’t counted on.
So DCS embarked on a four-year campaign of sidelining Williams in his daughter’s life. First, she was placed in foster care and then the state began making it as difficult as it could for Williams to form a bond with his child. Williams is poor, so travelling back and forth between Sacramento and Phoenix was difficult for him. But he had regular phone and Skype calls with his little girl.
Moreover, DCS asked California authorities to investigate Williams’ parenting abilities. To their dismay, the investigation found him to be a devoted, loving and capable parent to his children.
Now, as DCS authorities well know, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Troxel v. Granville holds that the state has no interest in interfering in the parenting of children unless the parents have demonstrated unfitness. Clearly, Williams had done the opposite, but Arizona DCS was determined. They had a goal and they weren’t to be turned aside easily.
To complete Melody’s assignment to foster care and then her adoption, DCS had to somehow convince a juvenile court that Williams was unfit or had abandoned his child. Given that it was hard for him to travel to Arizona very often, DCS set up a schedule of visitation that he couldn’t keep. Then it went to court and told the judge he was unfit or had abandoned the child because he didn’t show up to visit with her often enough. One DCS official also gilded the lily by lying about Williams’ phone calls with Melody.
All that took over four years, during which time Melody was growing up with a foster mother, the only parent she’d ever known.
Four different juvenile court judges heard Williams’ case and eventually one of them granted a DCS motion to terminate his parental rights. Williams appealed and has recently prevailed. A unanimous state appeals panel ruled that, astonishingly enough, DCS had produced no evidence of parental unfitness and done everything in its power to deny Williams contact with his daughter. His “failure” to do so was then presented as evidence of unfitness.
It’s not easy for the party with the burden of proof to prevail in a lawsuit when it produces no evidence. So the fact that DCS did so in Williams’ case is remarkable. It simply filed certain conclusory pleadings, i.e. that assert without factual support the necessary elements of the case. DCS said Williams was unfit and that’s all it took for one juvenile court judge to rule in its favor. Amazing, but true.
The appellate court ruling was issued early this year, at which point, Williams finally took custody of his little girl who doubtless was utterly bewildered about why she was no longer living with her foster mother. He’s recently filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging deprivation of his constitutionally protected parental rights. Again, I hope he wins and wins big.
His case once again demonstrates what we see all too often with CPS agencies – the willingness to aggressively pursue termination of parents’ rights even when there is clearly no reason to do so. DCS knew that Williams was a good parent. Officials there also knew that forcing adoption on Melody, who’s never needed it, would mean the loss of one good adoptive parent. That in turn would mean another child who did need adoption might go without. But still they bent heaven and earth to deny to Melody her loving father. Truly a disgraceful chain of events and one that never should have taken place