N.C. man has spent a decade fighting for custody of his daughter

WBTV Investigates: Government red tape is separating families
Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 4:54 PM EDT
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Greensboro, N.C. (WBTV) - On a cold January afternoon, Davlin Laland with his mother, Tanya Roberts, took his daughter to McDonald’s off Route 27 in New York to open Christmas presents. His daughter has an eye for design and art and Laland had bought her an easel.

To protect the privacy of Laland’s daughter we’re addressing her by the pseudonym, Harper.

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Laland and Roberts, who live in North Carolina, had grown accustomed to long drives to New York to visit Harper on court-appointed visits.

A decade prior Harper had been put into DSS custody when a New York judge had found that Harper’s mother had been negligent. At that time, seven-month-old Harper was sent to live with a foster family in New York.

When Laland petitioned DSS for custody of Harper, child welfare authorities in Long Island’s Suffolk County denied granting him custody. The child welfare staff said Laland needed to be evaluated again through a nationwide system known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, or ICPC.

The ICPC is a process that requires social workers in more than one state to work together to assess the safety of a child’s potential placement. But as WBTV previously reported, the system is mired in cumbersome bureaucracy and red tape and can take years to play out while children languish in state custody.

In Laland’s case, he’s been trying to get custody of Harper — who turned 11-years-old this month — for most of her life.

“She understands everything that’s going on, but she doesn’t understand why it’s taking so long,” said Laland.

Laland and Roberts have traveled countless times to New York for dozens of court dates and visits while they tried to navigate their way through a maze of paperwork and bureaucracy.

“Jumping through hoops, spending unnecessary money, spending money you don’t have,” said Laland.

“It’s become a lot.”

No allegations of abuse or negligence have ever been filed against Laland, yet he feels he was treated as though there was a presumption of guilt.

A Broken System and Constitutional Problem

The ICPC affects thousands of children annually, and the delays can have fatal consequences for families.

The system was created in the 1960s, a contract between all 50 states to address abuses in the foster care system.

But it was never meant to be applied to biological parents.

“The ICPC is not supposed to keep children from their own families,” said Chris Gottlieb, an attorney who runs a family law clinic at New York University School of Law.

“The real problem came when the bureaucrats, the government officials who were handling that system, tried to broaden it.”

In the early 2000s, the AAICPC – the organization that administers all the state level ICPCs – issued a regulation saying that if a child is in foster care, the ICPC should also apply to parents and that the state cannot release a child for an out-of-state placement without going through this process.

Data pertaining to out-of-state child placements is sparse. A study published by the American Bar Association in 2014 concluded that the ICPC needed to be “overhauled” due to systemic delays and a high denial rate; a rate driven by arbitrary reasons, such as “insufficient living space,” “parents would have to sleep on the couch to accommodate children,” or “financially fragile.”

“We’ve seen ICPC deny a parent custody because the parent didn’t have a car. That’s insane,” said Gottlieb.

“The idea that you would be assessing parents the way you would assess a foster parent – that’s a messed up system. You don’t have to go through paperwork and be approved to get your own kid.”

In North Carolina, data provided by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shows that, since 2016, 508 ICPC applications involving biological parents were denied.

Source: NC Department of Health and Human Services
Source: NC Department of Health and Human Services(wbtv)

Both Laland and his mom went through the ICPC process.

Roberts has run a daycare for more than six years. She said she had to jump through hoops to get the ICPC process started. At the behest of the case worker in North Carolina, she said, she purchased extra bunk beds and clothes and went through a foster care program course. She even bought a bigger home.

Harper is Roberts’ first grandchild, and this experience has broken her heart.

“Every time I see my granddaughter she says, ‘Nana, when am I coming home with you,’” said Roberts.

Perversely, by the time their ICPC applications were approved, a New York judge didn’t want to move Harper, citing that she had become attached to her foster mother.

“We see this happen a lot. Children are supposed to go to their parents as quickly as possible, but when it is delayed (through no fault of the parent), then the court says that the child’s attachment to the foster parent shouldn’t be disrupted,” said Gottlieb.

A Call For Reform

Gottlieb brought Laland’s case to the highest court in New York State on the grounds that it was unconstitutional for a state agency to declare a parent unfit to care for his or her child without any judicial finding of unfitness.

The New York Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the ICPC provision should not apply to non-custodial parents; biological parents who, like Laland, do not have custody.

Although most reform has come on this issue through state-by-state legislation, Congress could enact federal legislation, Gottlieb said.

As this bureaucratic legislation plays out Laland grieves over the loss of pivotal moments in his and his daughter’s life.

“I missed her graduating kindergarten, I missed picture day, things like that,” he said.

“But she knows who her dad is, and we talk a lot about the future. I ask her all the time about daddy-daughter dances,” Laland continued.

“I’ve never been to Disney World, and I want to take her.”

Five Things to Consider When Dealing with Interstate Placement of Children

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