A year into sobriety, a judge rules that the goal should be to reunite Sarah Womack and her daughter, but the process is painfully slow.
By Brittany Hailer
Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.
Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!
Explore another voice in this series:
Sarah Womack was standing in an ice cream shop with her daughter Lola when an unknown number popped up on her phone. She answered. It was Sarah’s attorney calling about if she would maintain her parental rights to Lola.
Sarah had won, against all odds.
Whether or not Sarah would retain her parental rights was the subject of a January hearing. She got the victorious call at 3:30 p.m. March 7. The judge decided the goal for Sarah and Lola would be what’s called reunification. Almost four months later and Lola still isn’t living with her mother. The 4-year-old is only visiting Sarah’s home in Dormont. Sarah has a second baby on the way, a girl who is due this month. She worries if she doesn’t get Lola home soon, she won’t have time to establish a family unit before the new baby Lucy arrives.
In February, PublicSource first ran Sarah’s story about her addiction recovery and how her struggles put her in a position where she has to fight for Lola. Children Youth and Family [CYF] took physical custody of Lola in September 2015 and placed her with her paternal great aunt and uncle.
Text in italics are Sarah's words.
"We never want to go in and remove anybody's child,” said Jackie Hoover, assistant deputy director of CYF. “Our first mission is to preserve families. We do whatever we can to keep that family intact. And only when it can't be, we look for family and kin next."
Sarah is in recovery, but her mistakes while in active addiction destroyed the trust of Lola’s foster parents and the system. She’s been clean for a year, but the stigma remains.
In July 2016, Sarah went on Suboxone after being prescribed pain medication and abusing it. Suboxone is a drug used to treat addiction, often to narcotic pain relievers. She says she lied on a form at a clinic in order to be moved up on the list. She indicated that she had been abusing heroin as opposed to prescription opiates. She figured it would make her case look more urgent. Otherwise, she’d have to wait. And, Sarah says, waiting would mean a relapse.
Sarah is referring to the medical privacy laws that should have kept the form in her confidential file. But there it was out in the open as CYF presented it to the presiding judge during Sarah’s parental rights termination hearing. CYF could not comment on the specifics of Sarah’s case due to confidentiality.
But this piece of paper put Sarah’s quest for a reunification ruling in jeopardy. CYF presented to the court that Sarah self-reported heroin use. Sarah maintained that she lied in order to get help.
Attorney Kiersten Frankowski was appointed to represent Sarah through the Juvenile Court Project.
For Sarah’s case, Frankowski researched past custody cases where the presiding judge had ruled in favor of reunification. In one of these cases, a psychiatrist assessed the relationship between mother and child. The mother hadn’t been clean for very long and continued to relapse, Sarah recalls. But the psychiatrist in that case told the judge a permanent separation could cause long-term psychological damage to the child. A psychiatrist vouched that Lola could similarly suffer if she lost contact with her mother.
Sarah says her lawyer prepared her for the worst, telling her that it’s rare for the state to lose an involuntary termination hearing.
The March ruling in favor of the track toward reunification was never meant to provide instant gratification. It’s a process. Sarah would see Lola three days a week, three hours at a time, with supervision. But she felt ready to take the next step. She put in a request to get extended and overnight visits. The review hearing was scheduled for May 9.
After overnights are approved, the next step is full reunification. That’s what Sarah expected to happen.
The Friday before the May 9 review hearing, Sarah was sitting on her front porch of her home. She’s been planting a lot this spring: sunflowers, pepper plants, herbs for her garden. The mailman came and handed Sarah a summary from CYF. It is the summary they submit to the court before a hearing. This is protocol; Sarah receives a summary of her case before every hearing so she knows what they are reporting: updates on Lola, physical and mental evaluations of mother and child, comments on whether Sarah is attending appointments, etc.
Sarah panicked and, although it was Friday and only four days before the hearing, she got to work. She immediately called her doctor and therapist.
Sarah requests an emergency meeting between her CYF caseworker and her therapist. Monday morning, the day before the hearing, they meet. Sarah’s therapist tells the CYF worker that she never reported this to CYF and if she had, it would have violated HIPAA regulations and her practice’s policy. Sarah gets her therapist to put this in writing.
Sarah’s doctor also wrote her CYF caseworker a letter. He, too, denied ever reporting that Sarah used heroin in July 2016.
Why does it matter whether she was abusing heroin or opiates, the latter of which she had admitted to? Why does the case rest so heavily on this distinction?
This is Sarah’s take.
Sarah manages to gather these materials before her hearing on Tuesday.
She arrives at the courthouse and learns CYF is motioning for another goal change. They’ve found a loophole — subsidized permanent legal custodianship — and their reasoning is Sarah’s alleged heroin use in 2016. Sarah was blindsided by this new strategy.
Subsidized permanent legal custodianship would mean Sarah wouldn’t lose her parental rights, but Lola would not live with her.
The judge allowed CYF to state its case.
Sarah described sitting in the courtroom and listening to these allegations, again. She had to compose herself, and for the second time this year, stand up and articulate exactly why she should be able to keep her daughter.
Sarah told the court she had called an emergency meeting. She held up a letter from her gynecologist. She held up a letter from her therapist. She told the court the summary she received disturbed her so much that she came prepared; she had to prove it wasn’t true.
After she presents her evidence to the court, Sarah recalls the judge saying she has gone “above and beyond” all requirements.
The reunification goal with Lola stays.
The judge decides that he will keep the visits status quo, with the ability to increase time and move to unsupervised visits upon agreement of all parties. Since then, Sarah has submitted requests for increased supervised time with Lola, to CYF, the county solicitor and KidsVoice, which represents children in the child-welfare system. The requests have not been approved.
"Even if you've done well and reached goals, it might be detrimental if the child is moved again," Hoover said of child-welfare cases in general.
Until all parties agree, Sarah’s current visitation schedule with Lola will stay the same. A judge may eventually be asked to make the ruling if a consensus can’t be met.
Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.