by Jamerika Haynes-Lewis
At the age of 50, Shrounda Selivanoff saw herself doing many things. Recently, she became the director of public policy for Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW). This is in addition to her work as a community advocate for children and families. However, raising a newborn was not a part of her plan. “I’m committed to my grandchild. I’m committed for life,” Shrounda says proudly. “I’m his grandmother.”
For the last four years, Shrounda has raised her grandson while his parents have navigated their own struggles. The child’s mother’s parental rights have been terminated. His father (Shrounda’s son) still retains his parental rights, but depending on developments in the case, those rights may soon be terminated. Shrounda’s grandson makes up one of the 10,068 cases in Washington State’s foster care system. Of those children, 2,167 are waiting for for adoptive families. However, Shrounda says she doesn’t want adoption to be the only option for her grandson and his parents.
“In my case, guardianship is not supported or recommended by the department; therefore adoption is our only option,” Shrounda says. “I’m an advocate for choice.”
House Bill 1747: “Keeping Families Together” would encourage guardianships over termination of parental rights when possible. This proposed legislation comes from the Keeping Families Together Coalition (KFTC), spearheaded by the CHSW. According to the Keeping Families Together: HB 1747 one-pager written by CHSW, Black and Brown families are especially vulnerable — in Washington, Indigenous children are 2.7 times more likely and Black children are 2.4 times more likely than white children to experience the termination of both parents’ rights. This bill would help to reduce racial bias and inequities in the child welfare system. The one-pager also calls for the following proposed legislation:
- Ensure relatives remain prioritized for placement and permanency throughout the duration of a child welfare proceeding.
- Require the State to prove that guardianship is insufficient to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the child before a court terminates parental rights.
- Clarify that relatives of dependent children who enter guardianships pursuant to the new Uniform Guardianship Act (RCW 11.130) qualify for the Relative Guardianship Assistance Program.
As I listen to Shrounda’s story and learn more about the bill, I think of my own experience as a foster child in the system. My world completely changed at 5 when I stepped into my first foster home. Though I had relatives and other people that could have served as guardians, this option was not considered. Instead, adoption was the only choice. This event led me to moving from the Eastside of Tacoma to becoming one of few Black children in Poulsbo, Washington. Away from my family and community connections, I suffered immensely from racism and an identity crisis. And I had to experience this alone, on my own.
I’m brought to the present as Shrounda explains that the bill wouldn’t erase or downplay the circumstances of a dependency case. Rather, it would acknowledge the sanctity of family. She says with placement disruption, getting a child to a family member can reduce trauma and disconnect from their culture and community.
“There’s a history in our country of keeping paperwork. We erase parents on birth certificates. I’m disturbed by this,” Shrounda says. “Everyone has a mom and a dad. Children’s parents may have made mistakes. That doesn’t mean they didn’t birth this child.”
Later, I’m introduced to Tara Urs who serves as special counsel for the King County Department of Public Defense (KCDPD). She’s also a member of the KFTC. She explains her history working in child welfare in New York City.
“Just walking into the courthouse in New York City, the racism in the system is apparent,” Tara says. “The overwhelming majority of cases involve Black and Brown families.”
Tara says her career has led her working towards fighting the discrimination that is so rampant in systems purportedly dedicated to child welfare. As a lawyer, she stresses how it’s important for attorneys to act to advance the goals of those most impacted by systems.
“When the coalition started, it was during the ‘summer of racial reckoning,’ after the murder of George Floyd,” Tara says. “We wanted this group to address the structural racism in our systems, especially in child welfare.”
Racism and white supremacy show up in child welfare in how indigent and families of color are perceived: undeserving, living off the system, not caring about their children, and the thinking that “white is right.” Saviorism occurs when some believe impoverished families shouldn’t have children or raise them. This ideology impacts how families are treated and whether they will receive supports — including financial supports — needed to stabilize their family. This vital community support is what leads to children coming back home to their families, which is also known as reunification.
Like Shrounda, Tara emphasizes that it’s not always possible for a child to return home. However, decisions made without considering the humanity of the person can miss the mark.
“When parents lose their rights, they feel so much shame,” Tara says. “It’s easy to demonize these parents. My clients love their children. And like any other parent, they would give them the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
As I sit and listen to Tara, she brings up a beautiful analogy to explain what parental rights signify: “I explain to parents that parental rights are like a bundle of pencils. Each pencil represents a right. One pencil allows you to make medical decisions. Another allows you to decide who can spend time with your child.”
She goes on to explain how adoption removes the entire bundle of pencils from the parent and gives it to someone else. This includes the pencil that represents the birthright. “Adoption completely erases the history of child and parent,” Tara says. “With HB 1747, most of the pencils would be given to someone else in order to care for and make decisions about the child.” She continues, “However, the parent is left with the pencil of knowing they are still that child’s parent.”
As I consider Tara’s analogy, it completely makes sense to me why HB 1747 should be passed. A parent whose rights are terminated will never have the right to parent or see their child. Guardianship would allow someone to parent and/or see their child again one day. Most importantly, their relationship with their child would still be recognized in the community. It is this acknowledgement that allows someone to feel whole and that they have not completely failed. That there is still hope. And that hope is critical to the survival of families.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Jamerika Haynes-Lewis is a journalist and alum of the Murrow College at Washington State University. She serves as a copy editor for the South Seattle Emerald and is USA Ambassador Ms. 2021. Her platform is “A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care.” You can learn more about her at www.cleverjam.com.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com
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