During the Christmas season, messages of hope echo through churches, favorite Christmas movies and in the hearts of all who celebrate the season. And hope is exactly what people in Sandpoint are holding onto right now. For the last few months there has been a sadness hanging over this small community.
Grieving the loss of one of its youngest members, residents have come together to support a 2-year-old boy’s foster family during a time of anguish and heartbreak. Joey (not his real name) did not die. Instead he was taken by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and placed with a family in Kootenai County – a family with whom Joey had never lived but who the agency named as Joey’s adoptive family.
Joey came to live with Anna and Lacey Blackford when he was nine days old. Over the next 23 months, he captured the hearts of his new family and all with whom he came in contact. But in the matter of a few hours he was torn from their arms, leaving a family and community devastated.
Anna and Lacey Blackford were in shock. After all, during the court hearing which terminated the parental rights of the birth parents, the Blackfords were asked if they intended to adopt Joey and they confirmed what everyone already knew – Joey was part of their family and they had every intention of making that permanent.
So when a selection committee made up of Health and Welfare employees awarded custody to a foster family in Post Falls, the Blackfords were stunned.
“We had plans with our caseworker to meet for our celebration,” said Anna Blackford. “But instead got a call from her telling us that they decided on a different family. She told me she couldn’t even come over because she couldn’t face our family. She was devastated because she was sure he would be with us.”
The Blackfords contacted their attorney to see what their rights were. But Idaho does not have a Foster Parent Bill of Rights.
“There was nothing said about us not being good parents,” said Anna. “In fact we were told (by Health and Welfare) that we were great parents to him.”
But when word got out that they were contesting the placement, they received a call from Health and Welfare and were told that instead of turning Joey over in 30 days, they were picking Joey up within a few hours.
Anna pleaded successfully to be allowed to take Joey to Coeur d’Alene to meet the adoptive family. But she only had three hours in which to do it and she was told she could not bring her kids.
“We took him (Joey) to the CdA office, met the other family, told them everything we could think of in an hour, put him in their car and walked away while he was crying and screaming for us. This was absolutely the hardest thing we have ever had to do,” said Anna.
And although they were promised that they would receive updates on Joey and that their children would be able to see Joey to say their goodbyes, the department has not come through on those promises.
Told they were unable to appeal the decision, the Blackfords chose to appeal to the court system to see if it would overrule the committee and award permanent placement to the Blackfords. But at the hearing on Dec. 7, Judge Debra Heise ruled that the Blackfords did not have legal standing to contest the decision of Idaho Health and Welfare.
“Foster parents in Idaho have no rights to ‘their’ children. They have no rights to adopt, no rights to question what is in their best interest and no rights to fight for what is right,” writes Anna Blackford on the Save Joey Facebook page which has over 800 followers.
The Blackfords’ attorney filed an appeal under the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act on Nov. 24. The Department of Health and Welfare has 30 days to respond.
“Thirty days would be Christmas Eve,” said Anna.
Anna said that since word of their loss has spread, her phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from fellow foster parents eager to share their stories and show their appreciation for standing up to the system. Anna says people are not always willing to fight out of fear of losing their foster care license or fear of losing the children who are currently placed in their homes.
Determined to make sure this never happens to another family, Anna and Lacey Blackford have had meetings with state Sen. Shawn Keough exploring what they can do to change the laws in Idaho.
“It isn’t just us,” said Anna. “It’s way bigger than that. I cannot do it alone.”
But even if the most recent appeal does not succeed, the Blackfords are not done fighting.
“We will continue our fight to bring Joey home,” said Anna.
And while they await a response from the Department of Health and Welfare regarding their latest request, perhaps the Blackfords can take comfort from one of the posts on the Save Joey Facebook page.
“This fight over one baby is in the same month that we celebrate the birth of another baby. The angels that watched over one are watching over the other.”
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