by Jamerika Haynes-Lewis
At 50, Shrounda Selivanoff saw herself doing a lot of things. Most recently, she became director of public policy for the Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW). This is in addition to his work as a community advocate for children and families. However, raising a newborn was not part of her plan. “I am attached to my grandson. I am committed for life,” says Shrounda proudly. “I am his grandmother.”
For the past four years, Shrounda has raised her grandson while her parents have gone through 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 how the case develops, those rights may soon be terminated. Shrounda’s grandson is one of 10,068 cases in Washington state’s foster care system. Among these children, 2,167 are waiting 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,” says Shrounda. “I am an advocate of choice.”
House Bill 1747: “Keeping Families Together” would encourage guardianships rather than termination of parental rights where possible. This bill comes from the Keeping Families Together Coalition (KFTC), led by the CHSW. According to Keeping Families Together: HB 1747 from a page written by CHSW, black and brown families are particularly 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 termination of rights of both parents. This bill would help reduce racial bias and inequities in the child welfare system. The one-page document also calls for the following bill:
- Ensure that parents remain a priority for placement and permanency throughout the duration of child protection proceedings.
- Require the state to prove that guardianship is insufficient to protect the health, safety and well-being of the child before a court terminates parental rights.
- Specify that relatives of dependent children who enter into guardianship under the new Uniform Guardianship Act (RCW 11.130) be eligible for the Parental Guardianship Assistance Program.
As I listen to Shrounda’s story and learn more about the bill, I think about my own experience as an adopted child in the system. My world completely changed at age 5 when I entered my first foster home. Although I had parents and other people who could have acted as guardians, this option was not considered. Instead, adoption was the only choice. This event caused me to leave the Eastside of Tacoma to become one of the few black children in Poulsbo, Washington. Far from my family and my community ties, I suffered greatly from racism and an identity crisis. And I had to live it alone, by myself.
I am brought to the present as Shrounda explains that the bill would not erase or minimize the circumstances of an addiction case. On the contrary, it would recognize the sanctity of the family. She says that when there is a disruption in placement, placing a child in the care of a family member can reduce trauma and disconnect from their culture and community.
“There is a history in our country of keeping paperwork. We erase parents on birth certificates. I am troubled by this,” Shrounda says. “Everyone has a mom and a dad. The children’s parents may have made mistakes. That doesn’t mean they didn’t give birth to that child.
Later, I am introduced to Tara Urs who is a Special Advisor for the King County Department of Public Defense (KCDPD). She is also a member of the KFTC. She explains her history of working in child protection in New York.
“Just walking into the New York courthouse, the racism in the system is evident,” Tara says. “The overwhelming majority of cases involve black and brown families.”
Tara says her career has led her to fight against the discrimination so prevalent in systems supposedly dedicated to child protection. As a lawyer, she emphasizes how important it is for lawyers to act to advance the goals of those most affected by the systems.
“When the coalition started, it was during the ‘summer of racial reckoning,’ after the murder of George Floyd,” Tara explains. “We wanted this group to address structural racism in our systems, particularly in the area of child protection.”
Racism and white supremacy manifest themselves in child welfare in the way indigents and families of color are viewed: undeserving, living off the system, not caring about their children, and thinking “white people have raison “. Saviorism occurs when some believe that poor families should not have children or raise them. This ideology impacts how families are treated and whether they will receive the supports – including financial supports – needed to stabilize their families. This vital community support is what brings children home to their families, which is also known as reunification.
Like Shrounda, Tara points out that it is not always possible for a child to return home. However, decisions made without considering the person’s humanity can miss the mark.
“When parents lose their rights, they feel so ashamed,” 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 nice analogy to explain what parental rights mean: “I explain to parents that parental rights are like a bundle of pencils. Each pencil represents a right. A pencil allows you to make medical decisions. Another lets you decide who can spend time with your child.
She goes on to explain how adoption takes away the parent’s entire pack of crayons and gives it to someone else. This includes the pencil that represents the birthright. “Adoption completely erases the history of the child and the parent,” Tara says. “With HB 1747, most pencils would be given to someone else to care for the child and make decisions.” She continues: “However, the parent is left with the pencil of knowing that they are still the parent of that child.”
As I consider Tara’s analogy, it makes perfect sense to me why HB 1747 should be adopted. 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. More importantly, their relationship with their child would always be recognized in the community. It is this acknowledgment that allows someone to feel whole and that they have not completely failed. That there is still hope. And this hope is essential to the survival of families.
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Jamerika Haynes-Lewis is a journalist and alumnus of Murrow College at Washington State University. She is the Managing Editor for the South Seattle Emerald and is the US Ambassador, Ms. 2021. Her platform is “A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care.” You can find out more about her at www.cleverjam.com.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com
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