‘Life would have been a lot simpler’: He thought adopting grandkids would save them. He spent years trying – AZCentral

Mary Jo Pitzl |Arizona Republic

Ever since his grandson James was 2, Richard Kendall knew he would have to be more than a grandfather.

His daughter, James mother, was spiraling out of control, doing drugs and getting in trouble with the law.

By the time James was 6, there were two more grandsonsand more problems with his daughter, Jamie. Child Protective Services, the precursor to DCS, had removed the boys from their mother and placed them with various relatives.

Richard wanted to keep them together. The most logical thing, he concluded, was to adopt the boys, now ages 10 to 15.

I told DCS and the judge, if these kids go back to her, within one year they will be dead, Richard says in summer 2018. They will literally be dead."

Policies and procedures won't cover the inaction of those decidingthe fate of his grandkids, he said,"because I will hang their asses one way or the other. They know, theyve been told, but they dont care.

He saw an urgent situation and wanted immediate action. But the system works at a more deliberate pace for the thousands of Arizona relatives seeking to care for children taken from their parents. In his late 60s, Richard was ready for the tough task of a second go-round at parenting. He never imagined how hard it would be to become that parent.

FEATURE DOCUMENTARY:'They Have Names,' a production from The Arizona Republic follow our Facebook page for upcoming shows.https://www.facebook.com/TheyHaveNamesDoc/

They Have Names - Richard Kendall

When Richards grandchildren were taken away from their mother, they came to live at his house. He began the process of trying to adopt his grandchildren. But getting the states support was an uphill fight, and the wheels of the court system seemed to grind to a halt.

When James was 2, Richard said he found the toddler wandering amongthe debris ofa drug party at Jamies home.

Alarmed, he called police and took James home with him. His next stop was the county courthouseto file a dependency petition.

I didnt know what that was, Richard said, but he filed one because an attorneyadvised him to. The petition is a request for the juvenile court to find a parent is unable to properly care for a child.

As a result, his daughter agreed to have James live with Richarduntil she straightened things out. After a few months, James went home to mom. She had a job, she was taking care of her place and things seemed normal.

But the wild parties eventuallyresumed, Richard said. He called police, CPS. He couldnt figure out why no one intervened.

He called his attorney and was reminded that parental rights are paramount.

The kidsby now, there were two more grandsons, each with a different father are getting lost in the process, Richard said.

Hoping to provide stability, Richard turned his house over to Jamie and the boys.

I thought, well if I give her a house to live in for a reasonable rent, at least you should get a head start and the boys would have a safe place because the neighborhood is safe, he said.

He bought a house nearby for himself and stopped by Jamies daily to check on the kids. He waswary of her parenting skills.

Im thinking, Ive got to get over there, I've got to make sure theyre alive, he recalled, So every day, seven days a week, Id go over there. Then I started taking the kids to school.

But his patience with arms-length oversight snapped when police raided Jamies house. She went to jail and the boys, initially, were again scattered among relatives.

In September 2016, Richard got custody of all three grandsons and they moved in with him. He became one of the 6,473 kinship placementsin Arizona at the time.

His disdain forhis daughter was high, but he could deal withit: He simply tuned her out. She was in jail, after all.

But it wasnt aseasy to dismiss his irritation withthe processto get legal custody of the boys.

Court hearings were postponed because DCS wasnt prepared. The case changed from reunification with mother to severance of parental rights and then back to reunification, he said.

By summer2018, Jamie had decided to not fight severance. However, from prison, two of the fathers (the third father was unknown) did decide to fight, which drew out the case.

One of the paternal grandmothers started pushing for access not only to her grandson, Ryder, but also to Kevin, the youngest grandson. She was not relatedto the younger boy, but she claimed a spiritual bond with him, Richard said, exasperated.

The developments dealta major setback to Richards adoption plans.

"If I had a job, I would lose it with all the time I have to spend at the state," Richard said.

The closurehe thought was so near, now seemed far off.

The kids, he said, are overlooked and left swinging in the breeze.

Its endless delays and follow-ups, he complained.

"Al Capone would blush at this state, he said. These lawyers are raking in money."

Although the case was a slam dunk in Richards mind, federal and state laws are cautious about taking away a parents rights.

Arizona law requires at least 15 months for parents to prove or disprove their ability to safely raise their child, said Colleen McNally, a former presiding judge of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court. Cutting off that relationship is not a decision to be rushed or taken lightly.

Its a final decision, McNally said. Once a parent loses the rights to their children, they lose them from all time, not just until the kids turn 18.

But the wait for that decision can be interminable forfamily members who have watched a parent struggle, tried to help and seen their efforts fail,said Karin Kline, a social worker with years of experience in the child-welfare system as well as academia. She currently works with the Family Involvement Center, which focuses on strengthening parent-child relations.

DCS comes in with a federally mandated responsibility to reunify the family except under certain circumstances, Klinesaid. With the state and the courts involved, its a waiting game all over again, she said.

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Many DCS cases take two years or more to resolve, driven by a requirement to try and keep families together.

If a case does getto the severance stage, it's likely parental rights will be terminated. For example, 96%of the severance motions filed with the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in the year ending June 2018were granted, according to the courts annual report. Those cases involved 1,339 children.

The constant themethroughout Richards years dealingwith the child-welfare system has beenhead-slapping bewilderment at how things work. Or dont work.

Early on, when the children were temporarily in his care, he was flooded with information on the various services to help with the boys expenses, from medical services to day care. But, he said, he hit dead ends. He was sent to the wrong department, or given a phone number that no longer worked.

I just want to know whats going on, he complained. Nobody is telling me anything. I'm left in the dark and I've got these three kids you aren't paying any money at all to cover any of the expenses for the kids.

Children in state custody are entitled to state coverage for medical, dental and behavioral-health needs.

But there are limits, as Richard learned.

He paid $7,000 for braces for James after, he said, the states Medicaid agency denied coverage because it determined James didnt need them for medical or psychological reasons.

What do they call it when a kid is too embarrassed to open his mouth?"he complained. That sure seemed like a psychological reason to him.

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As the boys grandfather, he qualified for the states kinship program. Kinship assistance is meager compared with what foster parents receive.In 2018, he got $45 a month for each child, compared with about $600 a month per child the state would have paid if the boys had been put in a foster home.

Try raising kids on $4 to $6 a day, he said. They know relatives like me will not turn the kids away, so they play on that, he said of state policymakers.

The bureaucracy drove him batty.

Its just like Keystone Cops, he said after a runaround trying to nail down the childrens benefits through the state Department of Economic Security. The place is utterly disorganized.

The child-welfare agency was so askew that in 2013, then-Gov. Jan Brewer scrapped the whole thing and asked lawmakers to create a new state agency.

But "new" didn't mean "easier." The Department of Child Safetyis a bureaucracy that deals withthe rules intended to documentaccountability, limitinghow quickly things can get done, Kline said.

"There's hoops to jump through and paperwork to do and a lot of bureaucratic processes to deal with," she said.

Add to that caseworker turnover,a constant at DCS. Cases stall in the hand-off from one manager to another. Files don't get updated. Court dates are missed. Public frustration can build quickly.

Richard counted four case managers during his dealings with DCS.

In addition, DCS doesn't control everything intended to help children. Services such as child care andfood stamps are handled by DES; medical and behavioral-health services come from AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid agency.

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Connecting the bureaucratic dots isbewildering to many parents, foster parents and kin caring for children.

The Family Involvement Center, where Kline works, has started a support program to connect parents who have been through the system with parents newly arriving.

Money tied to the federal Family First Prevention ServicesAct will help states create"kinship navigators" to guide family members such as Richard.

DCS offers guidance on its websiteto kinship families, from information on the financial support available to how to connect with other kinship families.

More than two years into her case, Jamie Kendall agreed to give up her parental rights.

She was clean, going to counseling, working the 12 steps. She had a job she loved, but it paid minimum wage. She had a one-bedroom apartment that she could only afford becauseshe shared it with a friend.

"I was still not in a place where I felt that my children would be better off with me," she said.

Things were better for them at her dad's home in Peoria: a bigger house, a good neighborhood, friends nearby they've known their entire lives.

But more than six months after letting go, she was stilltorn about the decision. She worries her father can't give the boys the emotional support they need.

She talks a lot about emotional support. She didn't have a lot of it when she was growing up, the only child of a marriage that ended in divorce when Jamie was just a kid. She remembers the weekly hand-off from one parent to the other; their meeting place a Circle K parking lot in the northwest Valley.

Mental-health issues dogged hermother. She had 23 suicide attempts by the time Jamie was 18.

"I spent a lot of time following ambulances with her in it," Jamie recalled of her mother, who has since died.

"I didn't really have a role model for a mother who was emotionally available," she said. "And it caused a lot of issues within myself."

She battled drug addiction, off and on, for 15 years. Along the way, she had three sons. She spent a year in prison, and had stints in jail.

Her father exaggerates the conditions in which she was raising the boys, Jamie said. She insists she never left them alone. And she now questions why, with his daily appearances at her home to check on the boys, he never did anything to help her.

But there is no opportunityto discuss this: The two barely talk.

There's also no communication between herand her oldest son, who carries her name.

"James, I completely understand his anger and his hurt," she said.

When she got clean in 2011, she promised her boy, then 7, that she would never leave him again. But she did. She was arrested and he and his brothers were taken away from her.

"I caused that and I take full responsibility for that," she said, holding back tears."All I can do is do better."

Today, she says, she is doing better. She works as a peer-support specialist for addicts trying to kick their habit. It's a way of giving back, of sharing lessons from the road she took.

Like her father, she has little good to say about the system.

"Everything that I have done I have done on my own," she said, explaining she checked herself into treatment centers and sought behavioral-health aid. "They have not given me one referral."

But there was an upside, if you can call it that: Having her children removed motivated her to get clean. She doesn't think it would have happened unless DCS had intervened.

'They Have Names': documentary on child protective services in Arizona

Five families. One year of heartbreak and hope. Our award-winning documentary team looks inside life in Arizona's child-welfare system.

In late November 2018, Richard and James walked into the Maricopa CountyJuvenile Court in downtown Phoenix. Both wore tiesand button-down shirts.

It was adoption day.

Judge Lisa Flores beamed from the bench,welcoming James and the man he calls "Pops." This proceeding was the final stop on a legal journey that took more than two years. For Richard, it was the culmination of 12 years of worry and hassle about his grandson.

After James formally consented to being adopted, Flores leaned forward. She had presided over thecase and seen the strain that had torn the family apart. She congratulated Richard and James for the adoption, but added that she hopedthis could move the family toward healing.

Outside the courtroom, Richard rolled his eyes. He still had two other grandsons to worry about. A case was on track to give him permanent guardianship of the two, but disputes remained, primarily with Ryder'sgrandmother. The judge had ordered mediation to iron things out, but with the holidaysnothing was happening.

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Early in the new year, a new chapter opened. Flores awarded permanent guardianship to Richard. This gave him the authority to make legal decisions for the boys, but maintainedJamie's parental rights.

Visitation was worked out: Jamie got two hours a week to visit with her boys; it was later extended to four hours. Richard and the warring grandmother worked out vacation and travel schedules for Ryder, who has bonded with his paternal grandmother.

Life settled into a routine. Richard decided to stop working as a substitute teacher so he could behome when the boys returned from school.

The boys' grades and school-attendance records improved. Richard took the kids to Pinetop to see snow for the first time. He took James flying. They had summer vacations in Oceanside, San Diego and at Knott's Berry Farm.

It's important, he said, to give the kids wide experiences so they can decide what they want to do with their lives.

His own background is full of diverse roles: from digging ditches as a teenager to working on an auto-assembly line at a Chrysler plant to serving as a domestic servant to a wealthy couple in Michigan.

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'Life would have been a lot simpler': He thought adopting grandkids would save them. He spent years trying - AZCentral

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