Father fights bureaucracy nightmare to reclaim daughter

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

Like other fathers, Vern Smith's face softened as he looked at the wallet-sized picture of his daughter. His voice lost the coarseness of an oil field roustabout when he spoke.

"She's the sweetest little girl," Smith said. "She laughs, she plays, she's smart.

As Lynn Reynolds, Smith's significant other, described the calming effect Smith's presence had on the child at the end of the day, Smith smiled.

"I put her on my chest and she's down," he bragged.

However, Smith and Reynolds are speaking from memory. The youngster doesn't live with them. Nor does she live with her mother. Instead, she is one of 133 Alaskan children in out-of-state foster placement. (See related story, page A-12.)

The jigsaw puzzle that illustrates the toddler's past and will eventually define her future is made of interlocking pieces shaped by interested individuals and agencies, including Smith and Reynolds, the child's mother, and the foster parents, former residents of the Kenai Peninsula who now live in Arizona. The paternal grandparents also are eager to be included in their granddaughter's future. (See related story, this page.)

Arranging the pieces are the demands and decisions of the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services.

Charles Winegarden, who represents the child's mother, Laura Briscall, recommended that his client refrain from commenting.

"What's the point?" Winegarden said. "Is it really important that Joe Blow walking down the street knows about this?"

The foster family's phone number in Arizona is unlisted, and representatives from DFYS are bound by confidentiality to refrain from speaking publicly on specific cases.

However, Smith and those who support him tell a nightmarish tale that, according to some, is not uncommon.

Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski, said he recently received some 50 telephone calls involving DFYS, a division of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

"They are heart-wrenching stories," Ward said. "Whenever you take a child away from parents, it is a very serious thing."

According to Smith, he and Briscall were married in May 1999. On Dec. 31, 1999, Smith completed his work shift on a Cook Inlet oil platform and returned to the home where he and his 12-year old son from a previous marriage lived with Briscall. Briscall was approximately six months pregnant at the time.

"She was inebriated and smoking pot," Smith said.

He and his son moved out the next day.

That same month, Smith said, he reported to DFYS that Briscall was pregnant and using drugs. However, DFYS told him the situation didn't warrant intervention. The following month, while Smith was at work, Briscall was airlifted to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where the couple's daughter was born two months premature with health problems. Tests indicated the infant had been exposed to marijuana prior to birth.

Seeking help, Smith contacted Ward and U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski. Ward advised Smith to contact the Alaska Ombudsman.

An April 26, 2000, letter to Smith from Associate Ombudsman Vernon Metcalfe stated that after receiving Smith's complaint against DFYS on April 20, Metcalfe contacted DFYS and was informed that Smith's allegations were "unsubstantiated." He advised Smith of grievance procedures, saying, "I am closing your complaint as premature."

However, prior to Metcalfe receiving Smith's letter, DFYS took emergency custody of the 2-month old baby after Briscall was treated for drug and alcohol consumption at Central Peninsula General Hospital. By the time Metcalfe wrote to Smith, the infant was already declared a child in need of aid and placed in foster care.

"What has been relayed to me is that once a child is under custody of the state, it requires a legal move to get the child out of custody," Ward said. "Therein lies the problem and the protection."

For Smith, it has been a snowballing problem of frightening and frustrating proportions.

In April 2001, Smith and Reynolds discovered that the foster family was working with DFYS to adopt Smith's daughter.

During one visit between Smith and his daughter, she stumbled and fell against his knee. When he and Reynolds returned the child to the foster parents at the appointed time, Reynolds explained the cause for the child's reddened cheek. The foster parents reported the situation to DFYS. According to Reynolds, DFYS social worker Margit Cox made a "report of harm" to the Alaska State Troopers on May 21; on June 24, troopers followed up by contacting Smith and Reynolds. Reynolds said the case was closed as unsubstantiated.

Preparing for Memorial Day weekend, Reynolds shopped for groceries before picking up the child for a planned visit. The foster mother reported to DFYS that there had been beer in the vehicle, which resulted in an order to the foster parents not to give the child to Smith or Reynolds if alcohol was present.

A treatment plan designed by DFYS created an incredible hurdle of counseling sessions and evaluations for Smith, his 12-year-old son and Reynolds. Reynolds' June calendar reflects as many as three appointments a day.

In Smith's copy of a report written by Ronald Howes, clinical psychologist and director of the Central Peninsula Counseling Service, Howes wrote that he was "troubled that this family is in so much therapy."

The upside of the counseling and evaluations have been support for Smith's reunification with his daughter.

"I have found nothing in the record, or in my own clinical observations that compels me to believe (Smith) is a violent person or that he should be deprived of his rights as a parent to his daughter. To the contrary, if the mental health and well being of his son ... is a measure of his parenting ability, reunification of this family should proceed."

Howes concluded that the current treatment program was "improper" and urged reunification of Smith and his young child.

Howes also commented on the difference between his assessment and that of social worker Cox.

"From the beginning of my assessment of Mr. Smith, I have been struck with the disparity between Ms. Cox's assessment and my own," he wrote.

A report by Terrya Edler, family support manager at the Kenai Peninsula Community Care Center, stated that reunification of the family unit was the goal. She recommended increased visitation between Smith and his daughter to maintain the parent and child relationship.

When Smith and Reynolds heard that the foster family was moving to Arizona, they were initially filled with hope.

"We'd done everything we were supposed to do and thought certainly they'd place the baby back with her father," Reynolds said.

However, the decision was made for the child to relocate with her foster family at an Aug. 2 hearing.

"I've never seen anything else like this happen," said Ken Cole, Smith's attorney. "We were given verbal notice that they planned to remove the child from the state, and so we filed to get it set for a hearing as quickly as possible. The hearing ran a full three hours, but all we got through was the state's witnesses. I wasn't given an opportunity to present any evidence."

Cole said because of his objections another hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 7.

"The child was taken out of the state within a day or two of the hearing, but the order wasn't signed for a week or two." Cole said. "That should not have happened."

A 90-minute supervised visit between Smith and his daughter was approved by DFYS on the day the child left Alaska. Reynolds was to be included.

"I was with her 27 minutes and (Cox) told me to pack it up and kiss her goodbye," Smith said. "She said that was it. It was over. Lynn didn't even get to see her. It was awful."

Weeks later, Smith and Reynolds received certified letters informing them that the little girl was with her foster family in Tucson, Ariz. On Aug. 21, they received certified letters from DFYS giving them a phone number in Arizona and telling them that phone cards were available from DFYS.

On Aug. 28, Cole gave Smith and Reynolds a copy of a fax he received from Cox that listed three visitations with the child scheduled in Kenai on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. No explanation was given for the toddler's presence in Kenai or the length of time she will be in the area.

"Vern and Lynn are exceptional parents," Cole said. "They were making two and three appointments a day for over a month to see different professionals, but it was like no matter what they did, it was not good enough for DFYS. It's really odd at the amount of things (DFYS) has gone through to keep the child away from her parents."

Ward also expressed support.

"I believe what Vern is saying," he added. "I have talked to the officials about this particular case. I don't necessarily think their side is correct; however, they have certainly dug their feet in."

Smith also contacted Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

"My staff has been involved in trying to help answer some of his questions as far as what's happening, why, and so on," Chenault said. "We've looked into his case, posed some more questions, and we've got back some responses. Whether they're the responses we want or not, or the correct responses, we're still trying to determine."

The counseling sessions have stopped; however, Smith and Reynolds are still required to continue random drug and alcohol testing.

Smith said his faith in DFYS is shattered. Some things, however, remain unchanged. His and Reynolds' home is filled with the child's toys. Her bed is still in place.

"We're not taking it down," Reynolds said.

"I've raised one child and have been told I did a very good job," Smith said. "I'm not giving up on my daughter. She's my baby, and I'm her father."

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