Fighting a broken heart to keep a broken family together

A decade ago, every column I wrote about foster care yielded a torrent of phone calls, letters and messages from parents and social workers, carrying tales of heartless treatment, mindless judgments, unfair and unbending regulations.

The torrent slowed to a trickle over the years -- a sign of more enlightened leadership and fewer children in foster care?

Not if you listen to Candie Sampson, who wrote in response to my Saturday column on cuts to the county's child advocate system.

"Broken Heart -- Broken System -- Broken Children" the subject line in her e-mail read.

The broken heart is hers.

The broken system, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

And the broken children would be her sister's four kids.

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Sampson has an MBA, a university job, a construction-worker husband and a 1-year-old son. She spent part of her teen years in foster care. She and her sister didn't meet their father until they were adults and found him on Facebook.

Two years ago, DCFS took her sister's children away because of drug use and domestic violence, Sampson said. The children were placed with their father's mother, who died unexpectedly last month.

Sampson relayed the news to social workers, then brought the children to her two-bedroom Huntington Beach apartment.

She bought each child a bed from IKEA. "My husband assembled them that night," she said. Two days later, a social worker came by for an "assessment." Sampson opened her life to prying eyes.

"I informed social services that I want for the kids to remain with my family," she said. And I informed [the social worker] that my husband has a criminal background, due to an addiction in his past. … We completed all the paperwork, provided letters of character references and went to be fingerprinted in less than 24 hours."

Then she waited -- not very patiently, I might add -- through three weeks of "no one talking to me," she said.

She had no standing in the system; the children's stay was considered an "extended visitation" not a "placement," social workers said.

Her apartment wasn't big enough, with just two bedrooms for seven people. And her husband needed a "criminal clearance."

She began looking for a bigger place and pushing the children's social worker to seek a waiver that would clear her husband, who has not used drugs in six years, she said.

"I call her every day all day," Sampson told me. "I leave messages and do not get return calls. I have to keep calling and hope that she answers the phone."

Sampson had spent years as a paid advocate for disabled college students. In that world, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the students get services they need.

In this world of caseworkers and court orders, the squeaky wheel just gets extra scrutiny.

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Sampson got a Monday-morning call from a DCFS supervisor, who promised to keep her in the loop, she said. Then she refused to take Sampson's calls.

By Tuesday night, three of the kids were gone. The 5- and 7-year-olds were placed together, and the 4-year-old went to a separate home, she said. He was crying when he left; she had to coax him out of his hiding place under the bed.

"The social workers won't tell me where they are," Sampson said. They did tell her to have the 14-year-old ready on Thursday to go.

Confidentiality provisions won't let DCFS officials talk to me about the Sampson matter. Jackie Contreras, chief deputy director, would acknowledge only that rules about criminal records and housing requirements might have ruled them out as foster parents.

It's easy to imagine that Sampson's attitude may have rankled social workers. Who wants to deal every day with one pushy woman, when you have 40 other families with problems?

Was she dumped because she was tough to deal with? I asked Contreras.

"I'm not going to dismiss the human dynamics that occur in these kinds of situations, but that shouldn't happen," Contreras said.

Because DCFS policies favor family placements, more than half the children removed from their parents wind up living with relatives. Finger-pointing and personal feuds often come with the territory.

"These are very challenging cases. … We make an effort to listen to everybody, but it doesn't always happen," Contreras said.

If they listened to Sampson, I wonder what social workers heard: An overbearing woman willing to put kids at risk because she thinks she's above the rules? Or a loving aunt trying to cushion the pain of children who need security?

"I just wanted to keep the children from going to strangers," Sampson told me Tuesday afternoon, sobbing at all that was going wrong.

By Wednesday, things were looking better. She had found a three-bedroom apartment, with a convertible den for the fourth. And she connected with the children's lawyer; he might be willing to challenge the new placements in court.

"I'm angry, I'm upset, I'm hurt. But I'm not stopping," Sampson said. "These children are my family. I don't want them to think I'm giving up on them."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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