"They were just suspicious of me from the beginning"

When Victor Rodgers heard that his baby had been born, he headed to the hospital.

Even though he and the child’s mother weren’t together anymore, he planned on being an involved dad.

It was February 2009 — five weeks before her due date — but his ex’s new boyfriend had beaten her so badly that doctors had to deliver the baby. That’s how the Iowa Department of Human Services got involved.

Rodgers wanted to take his daughter home with him, but the DHS worker said he would have to go through the agency. She placed the baby with a foster family.

It took three months for DHS to confirm Rodgers’ paternity. Again, he asked to take his daughter home. Instead, the agency allowed him to visit her. Twice a week. With supervision.

Even though Rodgers had no history of child abuse or neglect, DHS would make him jump through more than two years’ worth of hoops to prove he was good enough to keep her.

He’s not alone. A recent third-party analysis of Linn County DHS, conducted by the non-profit Center for the Study of Social Policy, cited a concerning, widespread confusion between child safety and the potential risk of future harm among Cedar Rapids child welfare workers. The confusion was further compounded by “stigma, labeling and negative inferences drawn based on a family’s history.”

The analysis noted a “culture of caution” that leads to excessive intervention, coercion and monitoring of families, particularly black families. It found “the child protection system and its partners intervened with some African-American families in extensive ways with no clear reason or rationale.”

As Rodgers, now 48, tells it: “They were just suspicious of me from the beginning.”

Over the next few months, DHS records show, Rodgers worked his way up from supervised to unsupervised visits, meeting every personal and parenting goal the agency laid out for him. In October 2009, he even had his girlfriend, Molly, who had an extensive history with DHS, move out of his apartment because his caseworker told him to.

Rodgers agreed to take his daughter, Karee, to a safe place and call police, if Molly or Karee’s mother showed up at his apartment. By December 2009, he was consistently having weekend-long visits with his child. Social workers would drop in unannounced twice a day just to monitor his care. Things were going fine.

By Jan. 13, 2010, DHS gave him full-time custody of Karee on a trial basis — the last step toward reunification.

That month, when Molly showed up at Rodgers’ place, he took Karee to his cousin’s house, in accordance with the safety plan.

Yet when police arrived, Molly told them she lived there, and it was Rodgers who was forced to leave. When he returned later that night, Molly stabbed him in the shoulder. The next day, a DHS worker showed up at Rodgers’ home with police, demanding Karee.

Rodgers refused to hand over the child without a court order. Instead, police stunned him with a Taser and took Karee. DHS moved him back to fully supervised visits.

Still, caseworkers were positive about his progress, noting that Rodgers had maintained stable housing, employment and school throughout the case. He had everything needed to care for Karee and was showing good parenting skills.

“Victor has been able to do what DHS wanted done and progress to getting Karee home,” a February 2010 note reads. “Victor is very conscientious in moving forward in his life for himself and Karee.

“Victor did a lot of things right in the incident with Molly in attempts to keep Karee safe, including removing her from the situation,” the caseworker wrote. “She was kept safe.”

Perplexingly, though, just a few lines later: “Victor needs to be able to show he can protect Karee.”

Rodgers had planned on moving back to Illinois to be close to his sister once he got custody of Karee. He never got the chance.

On May 10, 2010, police again found Molly at Rodgers’ apartment. The state filed a petition to terminate Rodgers’ rights.

Rodgers continued to visit his daughter, under supervision. The worker’s notes are poignant: “Victor was very appropriate.” ... “Victor was calm and relaxed during the visit, but did seem to be sad when this worker took Karee to his vehicle and drove off.” ... “Karee never wanted her dad to let go of her.” ... “Karee was very content sleeping in her dad’s arms for the majority of the visit.”

At Rodgers’ termination hearing that August, the social worker testified she didn’t believe Rodgers ever would harm his child. She was just worried he wouldn’t be able to keep her safe.

On Nov. 16, 2010, Rodgers’ parental rights were terminated. He appealed. He lost.

Karee would later be adopted by an unrelated family.

“Still to this day, I don’t have an allegation of child abuse or child neglect or anything,” he said. “I’m a good parent. They said I did a great job.”

That wasn’t good enough for a system that demands parents not only prove they’ve kept their children safe but judges their fitness to parent and rights to their children based on a theoretical future harm.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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