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Laws allow kids to be taken away from their parents if they fail to pay debts

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The right of parents to raise children as they see fit - that's one of our most fundamental rights. So for courts to end a parent's rights to their child, to separate them forever, there has to be a serious reason, like severe abuse, neglect, abandonment. But NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro reviewed the laws in every state, and he found one reason that leads to troubling decisions which hurt families and children.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We found laws in at least 12 states that say it's OK to take kids away from their mothers and fathers forever if the parent didn't pay a little-known debt to government. That debt's become controversial. It's the bill that many parents get when their children go into foster care to reimburse government for some of the cost of that care. In most states, it's rare that parents lose their children because they've failed to pay. But in North Carolina, an NPR review of appeals court decisions over the last two years found failure to pay comes up a lot, which seems to contradict best practice and the latest law child welfare - that the No. 1 priority should be keeping those parents and their children together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: We went to the tiny rural town of Bear Grass, N.C. - population 93...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Here we go blue.

SHAPIRO: ...Where families show up at the high school football game on a Friday night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey. Get the ball. Get the ball.

SHAPIRO: In North Carolina, the failure to pay some of the cost of foster care came up in 30% of cases, where courts considered taking children from parents. Most of the time, it was included with more serious charges, like abuse or abandonment, when there seemed to be good reason to take children. But in a dozen cases, it was the only reason, often when the argument to take children away wasn't so clear at all.

We found stories across North Carolina. One woman, the victim of domestic violence, reported her abusive partner to police. Her kids went into foster care. She lost her children for failure to pay even though she speaks limited English and says no one told her. One man told us how he was penalized because when he was in prison, he failed to put aside some of the pennies an hour he made from a prison job. A lawyer told us of a girl who was 15 years old when she got pregnant. Later, her daughter was taken because she didn't pay the foster care bill even though both she and her child were in foster care themselves. And just a few miles from that football field, at the end of a dirt road in a well-kept trailer home, we met Brandon Cunningham and his wife, Sylvia.

SYLVIA CUNNINGHAM: Hey, honey.

SHAPIRO: The Cunninghams admit they were, for a while, pretty irresponsible parents. This is a story about how they turned their lives around because they wanted their kids back and the confusing and unforgiving child welfare system that kept their family apart.

BRANDON CUNNINGHAM: I was always blowing money. I'd come home on Fridays paycheck gone, you know, wake up broke Saturday.

S CUNNINGHAM: You know, we were so bad in the drugs then, and we weren't working and doing anything good with our lives.

SHAPIRO: It's a familiar story. Brandon hurt his back hauling buckets at the phosphate mine. Sylvia got injured lifting boxes at the drugstore. A doctor prescribed pain pills. They fell into addiction.

S CUNNINGHAM: We were at the worst point of our lives. They took the kids. We went straight to prison. I did nine months. He did almost six.

SHAPIRO: Their children were in foster care for about two years before the Cunninghams got serious about changing their lives. And this matters because it's important for kids to have a permanent place to live. When they've been in foster care for 15 months of the previous 22 months, federal law tells child welfare agencies to, in most cases, move to get them adopted. The Cunninghams were up against that time limit. A judge laid out a long series of steps they needed to take to get back their kids. They followed through, with parenting classes, therapy. They got jobs - multiple jobs. They showed up for visits with their kids. They got sober and submitted to frequent drug testing.

B CUNNINGHAM: Hair follicle after hair follicle after hair follicle after hair follicle - it was drug test.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, the court determined that yes, Brandon and Sylvia Cunningham had shown they could be safe parents, good enough to get their kids back. But here's where things started to get strange. The court returned three of their children but not the fourth.

B CUNNINGHAM: I don't understand how we could get three of our kids back and that one child is just gone.

SHAPIRO: One boy, who was 3 then and is now 7, stayed in foster care. Then he was made eligible for adoption. Sometimes a child with a significant disability will stay to get services. But that wasn't the case here.

S CUNNINGHAM: It's crazy.

B CUNNINGHAM: I don't understand it. It's...

S CUNNINGHAM: No one does.

B CUNNINGHAM: Nobody in this town - everybody who knows our story, I can show people the documents. And they read it, and they're dumbfounded by it.

SHAPIRO: Here's another thing that's hard to figure out - the reason the state Supreme Court used. It wasn't, in the end, whether the Cunninghams had stayed sober or acted quickly enough to become safe parents. It was because they failed to pay a debt. They failed to reimburse the state for part of the cost of their child's foster care. Across the country, impoverished parents get sent a bill when their children go into foster care. It's a little-known practice. An NPR investigation last year showed it's a policy that leads to bad outcomes because in the vast majority of cases, kids go into foster care not because they've been abused but for neglect. And neglect is often an issue of poverty. Parents are homeless or can't buy food. They're addicted. To get their kids back, parents need to stabilize their lives, and that takes money to rent a big enough apartment or buy a car to get to a job. The bill to reimburse the cost of foster care is often a big one, sometimes hundreds of dollars a month.

AYSHA SCHOMBURG: We know that when families have additional bill, children stay in foster care longer, which is not what we want.

SHAPIRO: That's Aysha Schomburg, who is the Biden administration official in charge of foster care policy and funding.

TANGULER GRAY: The goal is to increase the opportunity for economic stability and mobility and not adding challenges.

SHAPIRO: And that's Tanguler Gray, the top federal official for child support enforcement. A few months ago, after NPR's reporting, Schomburg and Gray put out new guidance and recommended to states that they stop charging and collecting money from poor families when their kids go into foster care. North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services told us it was moving to comply with the new direction from the federal government. Officials in Martin County, where the Cunninghams live, did not respond to our requests. I told the two federal officials about several families I had met in North Carolina.

SCHOMBURG: I don't know the specifics of the Cunninghams' case.

SHAPIRO: That's Schomburg from the federal Children's Bureau.

SCHOMBURG: But just going back - right? - to the whole purpose of this guidance and the importance of reuniting children with their parents and understanding - right? - the devastation that a child support bill can cause.

SHAPIRO: Child support is a term for that bill to make parents pay for the cost of foster care. The practice of charging parents, and only poor parents, is a leftover from another time; from a federal law still on the books from nearly 40 years ago, when Washington wanted people who got welfare to share responsibility and pay some of the cost of that assistance. Last year, every state returned money to the feds - almost $96 million collected from parents. But now reuniting children with their parents is considered the best practice. And in 2018, Congress passed a law to make that the top priority, which raises the question - if the federal government is now telling states to quit sending a bill for foster care, then why do parents lose their children when they don't pay?

BENJAMIN KULL: How can you say this is right?

SHAPIRO: Attorney Benjamin Kull represents Brandon Cunningham and other parents.

KULL: Your child is never coming home because you failed to give the government money even though the government never asked you to pay a dime.

SHAPIRO: That's another hard-to-explain thing about these cases in North Carolina. I can't tell you how much the Cunninghams owed for their son's foster care because county officials never gave them a bill, never told them to pay.

KULL: In Brandon's case, it was clear and undisputed the government never even once mentioned child support, never asked for a dime.

SHAPIRO: Without being told to pay or how to pay or how much to pay, the Cunninghams say they had no way to pay. The Cunninghams appealed the decision to take their son and put him up for adoption. Last year, North Carolina State Supreme Court issued its ruling. It went against the Cunninghams. The court said it doesn't matter whether the Cunninghams were told to pay or not because parents should know they have an obligation to pay for the care of their children. Sydney Batch is a member of the North Carolina State Senate.

SYDNEY BATCH: And so we're telling parents and children that we're going to sever a relationship and a bond permanently because someone didn't have enough money to pay child support. That is absolutely wrong, and I think it's immoral.

SHAPIRO: Batch is also a Raleigh family law attorney. She sees clients, ones who live from paycheck to paycheck, struggle. Do they pay that bill for their child's foster care or on better, stable housing?

BATCH: Which is oftentimes and almost always a requirement to regain custody of your children. Then they end up paying child support, but they don't have a house for their children to come back to.

SHAPIRO: Batch says the law already has plenty of other grounds for, if necessary, ending a parent's rights to their child - because there's horrible abuse or the parents didn't get sober or didn't follow the steps laid out by a judge to get their child back. Batch says it's time for her colleagues in the state legislature to change the law that uses failure to pay for foster care as a reason.

BATCH: It's a tax on the poor, and it is a permanent, irrevocable penalty because you happen to be poor in North Carolina and are not able to pay your bills, so therefore you lose custody of your children.

B CUNNINGHAM: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A truck?

B CUNNINGHAM: It's a truck. What is that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pea.

SHAPIRO: Today, Brandon and Sylvia Cunningham live in that trailer with their three children who came home - two older teens and a 2-year-old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible).

B CUNNINGHAM: It's a cow. What a cow do?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Moo.

B CUNNINGHAM: Moo.

SHAPIRO: It's a Saturday morning. Brandon makes good money now. He works at a company that cuts lumber for fence posts. He builds decks on the side. He stays at home on the weekends when Sylvia works two jobs at restaurants. But they know how people saw them and how some still see them.

B CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, putting us down or talked to us like we were trash.

S CUNNINGHAM: As long as we had been addicts and our history, we would never be productive citizens. We would never stay sober. Even if we did it for a while, we would relapse and be drug addicts again.

SHAPIRO: And they're wrong.

S CUNNINGHAM: They're wrong. Once you get clean and you see how great life can be, you don't ever want to go back to that and be that person again. You never wanted to be that person to start with.

SHAPIRO: The Cunninghams try to make sense of what happened to their family. Their house is filled with pictures of their kids and many of the son who is gone. This trailer echoes with memories of bad times. Now they save their money and watch it grow in a brokerage account. They've got their eyes on a new house, a brick rambler not far away. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.