KNOXVILLE, TN – A custody case here highlights a big problem with child welfare in Tennessee: collusion between Juvenile Court judges and the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and its foster system that takes kids from their families and abuses its power to keep them there.
The case also shows how outside contractors, who provide foster care for about half of the 8500 children DCS takes into custody every year, conspire to keep them from re-unifying with their parents.
Catrina and Chris Prokop are trying to get DCS to return Catrina’s 5-year-old boy, Zaylen. He has been in foster care since February 2020. The foster home provider is Childhelp, a large nonprofit that contracts with DCS for foster and adoption services in Knoxville. Childhelp operates in California, Arizona, Tennessee, and Virginia. It had state and local contracts worth $36 million in 2020.
Catrina grew up hard. She has been on her own since she was 16. She made some bad choices but she has made some good ones, too, particularly where her kids are concerned.
Chris grew up in a boys’ home in Oregon. “I got in trouble a little bit when I was a kid, learned ‘ok’, that’s not the way to go and got myself corrected and kind of made a little bit of myself. I am not without means,“ Prokop said.
DCS hates two things: people who have the resources to defend themselves in court and people who don’t lie.
“There is so much underhanded stuff going on. There is a group who are working together to steal our baby,” he said.
On November 28, 2019 Catrina gave birth to son Bentley, now 2. A drug screen showed he had methadone in his system. Mom was on methadone under doctor’s order to help her kick an addiction to pills. He advised her not to withdraw from it while she was pregnant because it could harm the baby.
“There was nothing in his system but methadone,” Catrina told the Tribune. Catrina had taken percoset and gabapentin for a blood clot in her leg and after some dental work while she was pregnant. However, she was tested and they were out of her system three months before Bentley was born. Since then she has slowly weaned off methadone and stopped taking it completely in January 2022. Accept for methadone, she has been clean for three years.
However, DCS has an addiction it can’t seem to kick. It likes to snatch babies. They took baby Bentley into custody from the hospital on December 1, 2019. (See https://tntribune.com/twas-the-night-before-christmas/)
“I didn’t even get to see him,” Catrina said. She had supervised visitation every two weeks for two hours with the boys. That lasted a few months. Then DCS gave Bentley to his dad, who has not let Catrina see him since June 2021. She has supervised visitation with Zaylen every week for an hour.
DCS brought a dependency and neglect case against Catrina. According to the Prokops, the case was a travesty. It involved perjury, denial of due process, false allegations of drug abuse, and false reports filed by Childhelp that were taken as gospel by the judge.
“I feel like when I walked in there I didn’t’ even have a chance,” Catrina said.
She said she was attacked and not listened to. “And the judge was pretty much arguing on behalf of DCS. She was biased,” she said.
“Apparently Bentley and Zaylen have a Mom who’s a drug user,” Magistrate Irene Joseph said. “That’s absolutely not true,” Catrina said. Magistrate Joseph found her guilty anyway.
“We are appealing because the state failed to prove its case,” said Brandon Potter, the Prokops’ lawyer.
“We had expert testimony from a leading fetal development doctor in the country and they didn’t’ want to listen to his reasoning. Dr. Emanuel Vlastos said the things she did in no way, shape, or form did any harm to the child. He’s not some ‘joe blow’ doctor we found in the corridor. He teaches in the medical school at the University of Missouri,” Potter said.
DCS has a playbook it pulls out in Juvenile Courtrooms all over Tennessee. It has many players on its team. Winning requires portraying Mom as drug addict to get legal custody of a child they have already wrongfully taken.
One of the players in this case is Childhelp, the DCS contract provider, who placed Zaylen in a foster home.
Erin Law works for Childhelp. She reported that during one of Catrina’s visits with Zaylen, Catrina went to the bathroom to take drugs. When she came out, Law’s supervisor accused her of taking a pill while she was in there. When Catrina left, she went straight to get a drug test that came back negative. That didn’t make it into Childhelp’s monthly report to DCS, so the judge never knew the test was negative. But the unfounded allegation did. Prokop offered to pay to polygraph all three of them to find out who was lying. Childhelp declined his offer.
Foster mom, Shana Leist, reported a black truck parked outside her home and followed her around. She said she had a photo with license plate number. “The photo never showed up,’” Prokop said. He owns a black truck but said he was in Missouri on business at the time of the alleged stalking.
“But it still ended up in the report that goes to the judge and all parties in the case get copies,” Prokop said.
According to Childhelp, during one of his visits, Chris peed all over the bathroom and in their opinion he needed a psychiatric evaluation.
Zaylen’s therapist, who works for Childhelp, testified against the Prokops in the trial. She didn’t say much about Zaylen, except that he was anxious, had trouble sleeping, and wasn’t ready for a trial home visit with the Prokops. Chris Prokop said she talked a lot about what bad people they were.
Chris reached out to the foster parents, Shana and David Leist, but they were not interested in meeting them “I wanted them to see we are good people,’ Chris said. For his part Zaylen calls Mrs. Leist “Mommy” now. He reported to Catrina that “Mommy” told him Trina didn’t take care of him and doesn’t love him. Zaylen now calls Catrina “Trina”.
DCS is required to have regular family planning meetings with the goal to either return the child to its family or seek termination of parental rights so the child can be adopted. A Childhelp caseworker was present at those meetings about Zaylen.
When DCS takes a child it draws draw up a permanency plan with the goal of reunification. But the longer the case drags on, at some point DCS will put termination of parental rights on the table. That’s what happened in this case.
”It was just one delay after another,” Prokop said. He said COVID shutdown the courthouse for months and when the case finally got in front of the Magistrate, she delayed it for another 2½ months to give DCS time to refute Mom’s expert medical witness.
After Magistrate Joseph found Catrina guilty anyway, it took a month to get transcripts to prepare an appeal. “When we filed a notice of appeal. It took 3½ months for them to get the case from one desk to another desk in Chancery Court,’ Prokop said. It’s hard to say if that was incompetence or designed inefficiency, or both. But the longer a case drags on, the more likely DCS will sue for termination of parental rights.
Every year since 2015, DCS has had more than 1,000 kids waiting to be adopted. In 2019, it had 1743, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
If you want to adopt a child, you can go through an agency or you can apply with DCS. DCS foster families sometimes adopt their foster children. But dealing with DCS can be a tricky business.
DCS routinely plays birth families and foster families against each other. They encourage competition between them. DCS acts like some high school kid who sets up fistfights after school. They don’t care who wins. DCS takes its share of the pot and moves on to the next case. There’s always another case.
When kids are about to be returned to their birth family, DCS tells the fosters. That happened to Angela Moyo Jr. In that case, the foster parents immediately filed a termination petition in Circuit Court and stopped the placement. All this adversarial backstabbing and manipulation has a price tag. It’s pricey to go through court proceedings no matter which side you are on. DCS controls the action and kids can wind up as hostages or collateral damage. (See https://tntribune.com/dcs-trolls-black-babies-for-cash/)
The Prokops told DCS they were going to file an appeal on January 13, 2022. The fosters got wind of it, probably through Childhelp who heard it from DCS. On January 12, Shana and David Leist filed two petitions in Chancery Court to terminate parental rights (TPR) and to stop DCS from pulling Zaylen from their home and placing him elsewhere, including returning Zaylen to his birth Mother.
On Tuesday January 26, lawyers met outside court and struck a deal. Shana and David Leist withdrew their petition to restrain DCS from taking Zaylen but the TPR petition is still pending in Knox County Chancery Court. This is an example of how DCS maintains control of child welfare cases while pretending to be acting in the child’s best interest.
According to Prokop, the Leist’s TPR petition copied and pasted a lot of hearsay and unsubstantiated evidence from DCS’s Dependency and Neglect petition. A Chancery Court judge may insist they prove those allegations.
TPR cases have priority under Tennessee law. As soon as the fosters filed their TPR petition, the custody battle stopped. Even if the Chancery court denies the TPR, the foster parents can appeal, and while that plays out nothing happens. The longer the case drags on, the longer the separation, and the more alienation the child and its birth mother suffer.
“I’ve had termination that took 6,7,8,9,10 months, a year,” Potter said. But he said three to four months would be a realistic time frame before he would expect to argue the Prokops’ appeal.
At some point, however, the bond between child and Mom can be permanently severed. The Prokops think that is exactly what the opposing players are trying to do.
“During my visits with Zaylen, I could just feel their hostility. I was uncomfortable going to visit him because I didn’t know what they might do,” Catrina said.
As a party in the case, Childhelp not only testified falsely against the birth family, but also did everything they could to delay family therapy and trial home visits. They said Zaylen wasn’t ready. A weekend with the Prokops might well be in Zaylen’s best interest but it’s not in Childhelp’s interest. Why should they cooperate with family reunification?
Call it collusion, conspiracy, or a kangaroo court. In the Juvenile Court case, DCS, the magistrate, the Guardian ad Litem, Childhelp, and the foster parents were in cahoots. The Prokops had an expert witness and their lawyer on the other side. The Prokops lost. The longer the case remains unresolved the biggest loser will be 5-year old Zaylen. Nobody knows how long that will take.