Tag Archives: foster care

The truth might not set you free

John E. McCaul, Jr. is a violent career criminal who left his child dependent and neglected in 2005.  He went to prison shortly thereafter, and his biological daughter, Sonya, was raised for 8 years by a lovely family who adopted her.  When he cooperated with a murder investigation, he had his sentence reduced.  He argued a technicality on which his termination of parental rights were overturned.  The adoption was overturned as a result, but Sonya remained with her loving family, who were now ,once again, foster parents.  When he got out of federal prison in 2012, he tried to get his daughter back.  She was loved and cared for, and had a wonderful life with her parents and brother.  He knew that she didn’t want to come live with him, and he knew that taking her back would cause  Sonya serious psychological damage. Nevertheless, he sought her return and, in a crazy move, and without a best interest hearing, Judge A. Andrew Jackson of Dickson, TN turned Sonya over to him, suddenly, on January 29, 2014.

Because of the egregiousness of the case, volunteers created Bring Sonya Home to advocate for Sonya’s rights.   More than 20,000 people have joined Sonya’s Facebook page and over 16K have signed a petition to get her home. Her story has been featured on The View and CNN.

McCaul sued a number of Sonya’s supporters for defamation and tried to get a restraining order so that we couldn’t exercise our First Amendment rights to free speech.   The suit was tossed, and free speech is alive and well.

However much McCaul does not want the truth about him known, no one can be sued for defamation for speaking the truth.  By suing Sonya’s supporters, though, he opened himself up to questioning about whether our statements are true.

The request for admissions were provided to McCaul as part of discovery in the civil lawsuit he initiated.  He could object to any of the questions as irrelevant. He didn’t.  He could deny any of the statements.  He didn’t.  (That’s tricky, because if he denied a statement that’s supported by facts, even in the sealed Department of Children’s Services records, he’d be committing perjury).  That put McCaul in a no-win situation.  He simply didn’t respond.  He knew that if one doesn’t respond to admissions, they’re legally admitted to be true. That’s what happened.  These are now filed with the court and publicly available to anyone who wants a copy.

Put yourself in his place.  If someone accused you of violating the terms of your parole, and the accusation was false, wouldn’t you defend yourself? If someone accused you of disregarding your child’s feelings and best interest, wouldn’t you defend yourself?

Then again, doing nothing, even when his child had been judicially found dependent and neglected, is John’s modus operandi.

Here are his 302 Admissions.

Governor Haslam Drops the Ball

Seriously, Gov?  This is the best you can do?  The SAME canned response you’ve been sending all along?  You COULD look into DCS’ actions and coverup.  You COULD make sure that your employees are doing their jobs.  But this same canned response, over and over, is all you can manage?

From: <Bill.Haslam@tn.gov>

Date: June 24, 2014 at 9:43:39 AM CDT

To: <undisclosed recipient >

Subject: Responding to your message

Dear Friend:

Thank you for taking the time to write to Governor Haslam.  We have also seen the recent news reports about this custody dispute that has resulted in a girl being taken from her foster parents and placed with a biological father who is out of state.

It is our understanding that these circumstances are a result of several different court cases. The Governor does not have jurisdiction or control over the decisions of courts and is not able to intervene in this tragic situation. DCS is required to follow the guidance and direction of the courts. 
This case has stirred deep emotions on both sides, and we hope the most appropriate resolution for this child can be found as it works its way through the judicial process. Again, thank you for your message.

Best Regards,

Don Johnson
Deputy Director, Constituent Services

Did McCaul abandon Sonya, or not?

Yes, he did.  From a moral standpoint, he abandoned her.  But he also abandoned her from a legal standpoint.  It looks as if, for some reason, the court erred severely.

In 2009 Appellate Court, the issue of abandonment was discussed.  There are two important definitions of abandonment that could have applied.  One applies if a parent or guardian is incarcerated at the time of the attempted termination of parental rights (TPR).  In that case, the law directs us to look in the four months prior to incarceration.  Did the parent visit or support the child during those four months?

Let’s see how this applies to McCaul.  The petition to TPR was filed July 3, 2006.  By that time, McCaul had been in prison three months. The 2009 appellate court document only lists his imprisonment date as April, 2006.  To give him the benefit of the doubt, we’ll assume it was April 1, 2006.  What was happening for the four months prior (December, 2005 – March 2006)?  Was McCaul seeing Sonya or providing support?  No, he wasn’t.  And in April, 2006, he didn’t either.  So whatever day in April he went to prison, he did not provide support or contact Sonya for the previous four months.  There were two weeks during that period in which he was in jail (January, 2006) because he failed to appear in court.  Even if we give him an EXTRA two weeks – the last two weeks of November, 2005, he did not provide support nor did he visit.

The Hodgins were caring for her while she was in DCS custody.  Also during this period, the DSS hearing at which he could have simply showed up and claimed his child (or done so via attorney), in October, 2005, came and went without a word from McCaul.

It’s, thus, unclear to me why he did not meet that particular criteria for abandonment.  In fact, he met BOTH criteria for abandonment.

Here are the two criteria for abandonment.  The first is from the Tennessee Adoption Code (http://www.state.tn.us/tccy/tnchild/36/36-1-102.htm)

Abandonment Def

Here’s part (i), referred to above:

(i) For a period of four (4) consecutive months immediately preceding the filing of a proceeding or pleading to terminate the parental rights of the parent(s) or guardian(s) of the child who is the subject of the petition for termination of parental rights or adoption, that the parent(s) or guardian(s) either have willfully failed to visit or have willfully failed to support or have willfully failed to make reasonable payments toward the support of the child;


Correction:   The previous version of this entry stated: “He was out on bond for a firearm charge during this period – facing many years in prison.  If I were facing years in prison, and I cared AT ALL about my child, I would certainly be contacting her and supporting her.”  However, the  2009 appellate decision that says he was arrested in 10/2005 and out on bond was incorrect.  He was not arrested until 2006 on the federal charges.

The Child is the Center

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.  -Mohandas Gandhi

When I was a child, I had a good friend who had a difficult home life.  One night, she came over to my house and told my mom and me that her mom had physically abused her.  Mom checked her out, and she was physically OK, but she was definitely shaken and emotionally harmed.  Our moms were both single moms, and they relied on each other and both took care of each of us.  That night, my mom called the police to report her friend for child abuse.

It’s only as an adult that I realize how difficult it must have been for my mom to call the police and report her friend and neighbor, risking their friendship, Mom’s peace in the neighborhood, and my friendship with her daughter.

But my mom loved this child as if she were a daughter.  So, for her sake, she did the right thing and called the police.  Mom’s actions were courageous.  She put the child first, over herself and over the other adult in the situation.

That’s what it means to be child-centric.  It means putting the child first. I never would have thought I’d need to make an argument that we should put kids first.  Strangely, though, there are those who argue, though not explicitly, that adults’ needs should come before children.

A Case Study

The Sonya Hodgin case, recently in the media, is an example of child-centric vs. adult-centric reasoning in child welfare cases.  Sonya was with her foster-then-adoptive family for 8 years.  Suddenly, however, the courts turned her over to her biological father, John McCaul, Jr., a stranger to her.  (Read more about the case here).

A group of child welfare advocates who met during a previous high-profile case (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl), represent the child-centric view.  We don’t have “skin in the game.”  Most of us who are fighting to get Sonya home to her parents don’t even know the family (or didn’t, prior to the case).  We simply heard of the case and knew that Sonya must terrified to have been removed from her loving home and handed over to a man she didn’t remember.  Jessica Munday, a public relations firm owner who volunteered on Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, is once again volunteering her time to get Sonya home.  Two wonderful attorneys, Kendall Sykes and Arathi Nobles, also are donating an unbelievable amount of time to the case.  These are the people who care so much about children that they cannot sit by and watch while injustice harms children.  People who are willing to spend their time and money to help a child they don’t even know.

How, you ask, could anyone NOT advocate that children are first?  Let’s look at some of their arguments.

A Parent Deserves to Raise his Child, Even if He’s not Fit

John McCaul, Jr. is a violent career criminal.  He may now be reformed and on the right path.  I certainly hope so, for Sonya’s sake.  Some people say that he’s paid his debt to society and should be given a chance to raise his daughter.   Therein lies the difference between a child-centric and an adult-centric view.  The adult-centric view focuses on the father’s needs – his wanting to raise his child.  The child-centric view, however, focuses on Sonya’s needs.  She lived with the Hodgins 8 years.  In every way, they are her parents.  Some of McCaul’s supporters argued, even after she had been with him only a few days, that she doesn’t miss her parents, doesn’t want to come home, and finally feels to be with the family who provided half of her DNA.  They even said she didn’t miss her horse!

1 thriving

Doesn't miss her horse

Doesn’t miss her horse

Biology is Best, and Time-Share Parenting

In an adult-centric view, biology is king.  It’s true that our biological imperative, for our own needs or for the survival of our people, is to pass along our DNA.  The adult-centric McCaul supporters, however, call biological parents “real” parents, which assumes that parents who foster for a long time, or who adopt, are not “real”.

The “Biology is Best” apologists believe that adoption is generally traumatic.  They believe that, even for a child with no biological mother and whose father has been in jail most of her life, the biological father deserves to raise her.

3 Adoptive Parents aren't Real4 Constituitional Right4 Constitutional Right

They also believe that relatives should take care of children.  And, generally, I agree.  If there are loving, stable relatives who can and will take care of a child as soon as that child is in need, I think that’s the best option.  (In Sonya’s case, her paternal grandmother was studied for placement, but DSS declined, keeping Sonya with the Hodgins).  That being said, stability is essential for kids.  If relatives can’t or won’t take care of the child immediately, the child needs care.  If a loving, stable family steps up to care for a child in need for 15 of the past 22 months, and the biological parent can’t or won’t step up, s/he should lose her rights.  

I was surprised in Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl how many of these same supporters thought it was just fine for the biological father to decide he didn’t want to take responsibility for 13 months (9 during the pregnancy and 4 thereafter) but come back for her later.   But biology was most important to the adult-centric supporters.  In their view, however long he waited, the biological father had a right to raise his daughter.  How many other children would be left in the cold if potential adoptive parents knew a biological parent could take the child at any time, harming that child and devastating those parents?  You cannot be a time-share parent.  Parenting is 24-7.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to reunify children with their biological parents when parents are ill.  If parents have a problem, and they make diligent and consistent efforts to solve that problem quickly so the child doesn’t have yet another secure attachment severed, they should have that opportunity. I just don’t think that applies in the case of parents who are not ill but who willfully abandon that child.   A life of crime is not an illness; it’s a choice.

A Child’s View Just Isn’t That Important

While McCaul was in prison, the Hodgins were caring for Sonya.  Yet the other side calls them “child thie[ves]”  and says an ex-felon would be better than the “thieves” to raise Sonya. There’s no regard for the idea that Sonya loves the Hodgins; they raised her for 8 years, and, regardless of what their legal relationship is, from her point of view, they are her parents.

5 Child Thief

In fact, they say “If I were in John[sic] shoes…I would fight you to the death, come hell or high water before I would lay down and let you take my child.”  This is followed by “John has the God given right to raise his child, and he is!”  Many of us would go to the ends of the earth for our children.  Sometimes that means making painful decisions to give our child the best life possible.   In McCaul’s case, that would have meant considering Sonya’s future when he was considering continuing his life of crime.  John could have prioritized his infant, and gotten a respectable job.  Instead, he chose the vocation of robbing people at gunpoint.

God Given Right

Child-centric Sonya supporters argue that she has a right to be with her parents, who raised her for 8 years, and who call her an adoptive child.  The adult-centric camp says she was never adopted, since a voided adoption is like an adoption that never happened.  Adult-centric McCaul supporters are more concerned with a legal definition of adoption.  Child-centric Sonya supporters are more concerned with how she would experience life – 8 years with the same family, having been adopted and celebrating that adoption! We support the child’s rights over the rights of any other party.

7 Voided = Never

A Child’s Voice Just Isn’t that Important

After Stephen Konig, a child-centric Sonya supporter made the argument that Sonya should be consulted, an adult-centric McCaul supporter said of this nine year old child that the courts can’t grant Sonya what she wants, and that “if adults are doing their job, they are making choices based on the best interest of everyone, including a child.”[v] (bold added.) On first reading, that seems reasonable.  A child-centric supporter would say almost the same thing, except that the sentence would change “everyone” to the “the child.”  The sentence should end there.    “The best interest of the child” should be the sole consideration.

8 Child Opinion

One thing that would happen in the best interest of a child in any court case with a child who’s capable of stating her opinions and ideas, is that parties involved would talk to the child!  No one suggests that a nine year old should make the absolute decision about where she should live.  But she should be consulted!  The question need not be, “Sonya, where do you want to live?”   Good parents treat their kids with respect, including asking their opinions. These are life-altering decisions, and the child should be consulted.  That’s being child-centric.

When Sonya was turned over to McCaul, she was crying.  The police were present.  There are guidelines for transitioning a child from one family to another, which involves gradual contact with the new family, with the known family present at first.  None of those guidelines were followed.   In fact, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services put nine year-old Sonya in a hotel room with McCaul!  Remember, she didn’t know him.  The court was adult-centric in its decision to suddenly order Sonya’s turnover.   For whatever reason, they valued McCaul’s right to parent, but didn’t value Sonya’s civil rights even slightly. 


If we neglect and abuse children, our society is doomed.  Kids have so much potential.  We must help them have loving, stable families so they can reach that potential.  Any consideration of the adults in the situation have to be subordinate to the rights of the child.

I’ll end with this quote from John Simmons, who makes a child-centric statement.  “I am not “for” international adoption. I am not against it. I am “for” children having loving parents and being in homes where they have a support network.”[vi]

Bonnie Cleaveland, PhD, Psychologist



Suddenly, a new family

Two recent high-profile cases have caught the attention of child welfare activists.  One of the primary reasons for the substantial media attention to both cases has been the sudden nature of the transitions.  It’s obvious even to non-professionals that a child shouldn’t be plucked from one family and dropped into another without time and procedures for adjustment. Let’s try something.

If you didn’t know anything about children and their development, but you had to be in charge of a child’s transition from a foster family the child has been with and loves to another family that child didn’t know, how would you do it?

  1. Right after the judge’s decision, have the police come to a meeting with both families.  Despite the child’s protests of not knowing the new family, and wanting to stay with his or her family, turn the child over within a few hours.


  1. Make the transition over weeks or months.  Start with phone calls, then visits in neutral locations with both families present, letting the child express his or her feelings and having a mental health consultant present.  Allow both families to be present in the child’s life.

If you answered B, you have common sense!  I don’t really think we need much research to understand that B is the only reasonable answer.  And, in fact, this is probably the way that most transitions from foster care work.

“Once the child attaches to a caregiver and that caregiver has become the psychological parent, it is crucial that the transition from the caregiver’s home be as emotionally protective as possible. Poorly executed or improperly timed transitions may adversely impact a child’s healthy development as well as the child’s continuing capacity to attach to others.”[1]

Obviously, if a child is in a psychologically or physically dangerous situation, an immediate transfer is necessary. In the recent cases, though, a child was transferred from one loving family to another, under court order, without any transition time.  The abrupt transition puts children at serious risk of mental health problems, including Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The cases

In 2011, when she was two years old, VC was transferred to her biological father from the family who had raised her since birth.  (For more information, see http://tallasthesky.com/?cat=12).  The transfer occurred soon after a court hearing, with little warning and no transition ordered by the court.  In the second case, 9 year-old Sonya Hodgin, who had been with her foster and adoptive family about 8 years, was turned over with two hours notice to her biological father, with whom she had had no relationship.  Police were present, and Sonya was begging not to let him take her.

Now, there are clearly exceptions to a gradual transition, and the best interest of each child should be taken into account each time.  This means that Child Protective Services workers, attorneys, judges, guardians at litem, and attorneys ad litum should understand a child’s situation. These are children’s emotional lives at stake.  The transition should never be dramatic just because the court battle has dragged out.

When a babysitter comes over, you give him or her instructions on what to do.  When’s bedtime, the child’s routines, what the child is allowed and not allowed to do, what allergies s/he has, information about special needs or medical conditions.  Think how much more information should pass between parents in a permanent transition situation.  Parenting coordination has been developed as a discipline to help high-conflict parents implement their parenting plans.[2]  Professionals are available to help with transitions, and they should be consulted.

Healthy Transitions

Let’s look at what’s standard practice and what the research says about how children should be transitioned.

A simple factsheet from www.childwelfare.gov provides some information for foster families transitioning to adoptive family.[3]  Even a child remaining within the same home, but making the transition from foster care to adoption, needs help with the transition.  The factsheet recommends helping a child understand her life history and path forward, and giving her implicit and explicit permission to love both families.

Henry (2005) outlines a model for transitions from foster to adoptive care, which could serve as a model cases like VC’s case and Sonya’s case. Her model lists five steps.  First, a child should be given notification of a move over a period of weeks.  Second, a visit should occur in the existing home for two to three hours with both families present.  Next, two to three visits within 1-3 days of each other should occur with the newer family outside the home.  After that, 3+ four- to six- hour visits at the new home should occur within a week.  Finally, 4-6 overnight visits in a period of two weeks complete the transition period.  Of course, the child’s individual circumstances, adjustment to the transition and development level should be taken in to account.  Had Henry’s (2005) guidelines been followed, both children would have had much less stress in the transition and less risk of psychological harm.

Children who don’t have a stable family life have enough stress without dramatic transitions.  Our court system, and our child protection agencies, need to do better for children.

[1] Advokids: A Legal Resource for California Foster Children and Their Advocates.  http://advokids.org/resources/childhood-mental-health/transitions/

[2] Greenberg, E. (2010, January).  Fine Tuning the Brainding of Parenting Coordination.  Family Court Review 48(1), 206-2011.

[3] Children’s Bureau (2012).  Helping Your Foster Child Transition to Your Adopted Child. www.childwelfare.gov.

Why we Fight

I’m proud to serve with a dedicated group of volunteers working for child welfare.  We came together because of the Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl case, and we’re fighting together again to Bring Sonya Home.  We don’t have a name, or a charter, or a meeting place.   We do have members with very different talents – we’re designers, photographers, child welfare advocates, attorneys, PR professionals, stay at home moms, and psychologists….   We’re white and brown and all colors in between—and biological parents, adoptive parents, and non-parents.  We’re liberals and conservatives.  We’re Christian, Buddhist, atheist, Hindu, Jewish, and we’re all over the country. It’s a group that may not be put together for any other cause, but fighting for these two little girls has bonded us.

Our group grew organically out of a case that outraged people across the country, and even throughout the world.   It grew primarily through Facebook.   And many of us, though strangers before the battles, have found wonderful friends who share our values.

Our first case

In Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl, a child whose biological mother hand-picked an adoptive couple after the biological father refused to support the child, but four months later, changed his mind.  He took the child when she was two.  The case ascended all the way to the Supreme Court of the US, which returned her to her adoptive parents when she was four.

The second case

Our second case started three months after the happy resolution of the first case.  Nine year-old Sonya Hodgin of Dickson, TN had a pretty rough first year of her life, being passed around to various caregivers.  She settled, though, with Kim and David Hodgin, and was with them for eight years.  Her parents adopted her while her biological father was in prison; his rights were automatically terminated because he was serving a 15 year prison sentence.  However, when he testified in a murder investigation and his sentence was reduced to 7.5 years, the adoption was reversed and, after he got out of prison (and a few years after that) the courts ordered the nine year old Sonya turned over to him, though she had never spent any time with him since she was an infant.

Our work

I can’t speak for everyone in the group – again, we have no stated mission or any sort of organization, but I think the unifying principle is that we want children’s rights to be considered above any adult’s right in every single custody, foster or adoption case.  We’re child-centric.  When a transition from a stable, loving home is necessary, the child’s mental health should be considered every time, and a gradual, sensitive transition should occur.


Interestingly, as our group of volunteers came together on these two cases, a core, but smaller, group of activists formed on the opposing side of the issue, advocating for the fathers in both cases. The internet has been a major force for organization on each side.  Facebook seems to have been absolutely essential in our communications, allowing us to work in unison. Petitions on Change.org ensue.  Our messages have spread quickly through our social networks, and the populace gets to decide how it feels about each case.

As a group, we write to politicians and bureaucrats. Although political systems are often corrupt, there is still influence in numbers, and politicians listen when their voters speak. It’s the beauty of the intersection of the democratic system with Facebook.  We can disagree, and do it in a civil manner, using facts to bolster our opinions.

In Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl, our activism literally changed case law, and made it more likely that Native American children will be treated not as property of the tribe but as people who deserve their rights to be considered first. We hope that our activism in the Sonya Hodgin case will, similarly, encourage the courts to always consider the best interest of the child first in every case, every time.

Bonnie Cleaveland

Charleston, SC

Nine year old girl sent to live with violent felon

A nine-year old Tennessee girl, Sonya Hodgin, needs our help. Sonya lived with her father in Nebraska.  However, her father, John McCaul, owned a gentleman’s club and was rarely home.  Sonya had a caregiver who, when she had a family emergency, took Sonya to Tennessee.  She had McCaul’s permission to do so.  It was only after several months, when they hadn’t returned, that McCaul wanted his baby back.  Sonya was cared for by David and Kim Hodgin much of that time, though Sonya didn’t live with them.  The Hodgins reported the caregiver’s parents to the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) because the house was unsafe for children. DCS took custody of Sonya and placed her with the Hodgins.
Meanwhile, Sonya’s biological father, a violent career criminal, was in prison in Nebraska, sentenced to 15 years for three counts of felony robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon.  In Tennessee, when a child is under the age of 8 and a parent is sentenced to 10 or more years in jail, parental rights are automatically terminated ((TN Adoption Code Chapter 36-1-113 (6)).  The Hodgins adopted Sonya while he was in prison, when she was 4 years old. However, when her biological father cooperated with a murder investigation, his sentence was reduced from 15 years to 7.5 years. Still, his rights had been already terminated and the adoption was complete.
In 2009, the court overturned the adoption.  The reason the termination was invalidated by the appellate court is that the parties had agreed to try the case on one issue: abandonment.  Abandonment is a different ground than being incarcerated for more than 10 years under TN law.  The trial court had declined to terminate on the grounds of abandonment and terminated under the grounds that the biological father was serving more than 15 years.  On appeal, the biological father argued that he wasn’t given notice to defend on grounds other than abandonment, and, had he known, he would have brought up his sentence reduction.
Through all of these appeals, Sonya stayed with the Hodgins, while custody remained with CPS.
Sonya was with the Hodgins until January 29, 2014.  With police intervention, Sonya, with only a few hours notice, was turned over to her biological father, a “violent career criminal” who was essentially a stranger to her.  They spent a night in a motel, then returned to Nebraska, where she remains today.
Can you imagine how scary it’d be to be Sonya – 9 years old, and turned over to stay in a motel room with a man you’d only spoken to once?  And then taken from your life with your family to live across the country with strangers?
What happens to all the other children in foster care who might get adopted, but whose foster parents think the biological parent might be able to overturn the adoption?  Do we, as a society, really want children in stable, loving homes – who’ve been there most of their lives, turned over to violent career criminals?
Please, go to www.bringsonyahome.com and sign the petition to bring this sweet girl back to her family!