Adoptions are usually private affairs, sealed forever in court documents and known only to the families involved. But recently, one decision by Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare exploded into the public sphere.
Andrea Butler, a foster mom in Rathdrum, Idaho, says the state made a terrible mistake when it took her foster daughter away after four years in her home.
Butler, a fifth-grade teacher, first met Dee, a little girl with sandy brown hair and big sparkling eyes, in 2009. Butler had just qualified as a foster parent. Dee was nine months old and her biological mother was using drugs.
When the state asked Butler to take the child in, Butler knew the placement was temporary.
“Every court hearing that came around, I had her bags half-way packed and was preparing myself, 'OK, this is it, this is it,'" Butler said. "And it was never it.”
Months, then years, passed by. Butler experienced Dee's first steps, first words, first birthday, and first haircut.
There was another first. One that Butler can't pinpoint exactly. The first time Dee called her “mom.”
“When she started doing that, it kind of started to sink in that this is not just a foster home anymore," she said. "That yeah, I am, I am your mom.”
A growing bond
Someone you might not expect agrees with Butler: Dee’s biological mother, Elizabeth Gamez.
“The bond that they had was -- it was frickin' crazy," Gamez said. "It made me sad that I didn't have that, but at least she had it with someone else, you know?”
Gamez said she saw this growing bond during her regular visitations with Dee. Meanwhile, Gamez said the state was pressuring her to terminate her parental rights. And finally she did. She assumed Butler would adopt her daughter. But it wasn't going to be that simple.
The state removed Dee from Butler's home in March.
“The following week I got two supervised hours in a room at the Department of Health and Welfare with her. It was excruciating," Butler said. "Where your child is begging you to come home with you. And you have to say, 'No I'm sorry, you can't.'”
'This is my niece'
The state had another plan. An aunt and uncle, who lived just miles away, wanted to take Dee home. They had already met Dee when she was just a newborn.
Marla Tavares, Dee's aunt and a social worker in Post Falls, Idaho, said, “Imagine losing that connection with your niece -- someone who lived with you, someone who lived in her house,”
When the state first took Dee into custody a years ago, Tavares said child service workers did approach her.
“They did ask if I would be willing to be a permanent placement if we got to that point," Tavares said. "And I agreed that we could do that.”
That was in 2009. At that time, Tavares did not want to get in the middle of a fight between Dee’s biological mother and the state as a foster parent. Then in 2012, Tavares learned that Dee's biological mother had given up her rights.
“So I stood up in court and said, 'This is my niece' and I was willing to adopt her,” Tavares said.
The state agreed. But after two years, Dee is still transitioning into the Tavares home.
A straightforward decision?
“Last year we did 331 adoptions and I don't think we had anything that compared to this,” said Tom Shanahan, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
“There were court delays, there were delays from our agency, there were delays from the adoptive family and there were delays caused by the foster parent," he said. "So we all share responsibility there.”
But Shanahan said, in other ways, the state's decision was pretty straight forward. Idaho, like Oregon, Washington and most other states, gives relatives priority for placement of foster kids. That’s a dramatic shift from a few decades ago.
“What we've learned over the years is that relative placement ends with the best outcomes for the child," Shanahan said. "They have fewer mental health problems, they have fewer behavior problems, there's generally a broader support from the extended family for the child.”
Laws that favor relatives have been credited with reducing the number of times foster children are bounced from home to home and with shrinking the overall number of kids in foster care in the last decade.
Seeking an identity
One of the first laws to recognize the role of biological family in maintaining a child's identity was the Indian Child Welfare Act -- a law that came up in Dee's case. Dee is part Alaskan native. A judge ruled the federal law didn't apply in these circumstances, but Tavares said family identity -- tribal or otherwise -- is something Dee would miss out on in another home.
“We have pictures of my oldest granddaughter that she is convinced are pictures of her. So she sees these pictures and says, 'Is that me? Tell me who that is,'” Tavares said. “This is a little girl who is searching for her identity.”
But Andrea Butler said Dee lost the only identity she had for most of her five years when the state removed her from Butler's home.
“These are big scars they're creating for this little girl," Butler said. "And it's not too late to fix it.”
Butler, her friends and family have launched a social media campaign called Bringing Dee Home and have staged public demonstrations to try to put pressure on the state officials to reverse their decision. Local news stories have highlighted the criminal history of Dee's biological extended family, though the state said the Tavareses passed background checks.
Tavares acknowledged the move has been hard on Dee. But she said her family is helping Dee work through the difficult transition. The publicity around the case, she said, hasn’t helped.
Tavares added that there’s another reason for Dee to be part of her family. Dee is not the only child Elizabeth Gamez put up for adoption. After Dee, she had another child, a boy. Tavares and her husband adopted him around the same time they asked to adopt Dee.
“I didn't want her to wonder why we adopted her brother and not her, but we were here," Tavares said. "I didn't want her to think she wasn't wanted, she wasn't loved.”
Dee is now transitioning into the Tavares' home from a second foster home. It's part of the state's court-approved plan. Tavares says Dee has started calling her “grandma” sometimes – and on occasion, “mom.”