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When Lani and Sama Ete became 9-year-old Saul's guardians, they expected there might be a few rough patches as they settled in as a family.
What they didn't expect is that when Saul became a teenager and got into trouble, they would be shut out of the boy's life by the state. Now, the Etes are battling the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) in court over its decision to not return Saul to their care and say they were unaware that they had limited rights as guardians.
"We still want him home," said Lani Ete, but "they gave him every reason to love being outside our home."
But Tanya Albornoz, DCFS' foster care program administrator, said guardianship is no guarantee a child will be with a family forever. Guardianship gives parents more decision-making authority but leaves some rights of the biological parent intact.
"The goal of the division is to try to provide a safe permanent home to every child," Albornoz said. "A guardianship isn't optimal. An adoption or return [to a biological parent] is optimal."
When problems occur, as in Saul's case, the next steps are based on what's best for the child and community safety and older children like Saul are given some say in that process.
"There are cases where we do reunification and cases where we decide it's better to go in a different direction," Albornoz said. "There are all kinds of possibilities."
But the ultimate decision of how to proceed is up to the juvenile court judge overseeing a case, said Liz Sollis, spokeswoman for DCFS.
In fiscal 2009, the most recent data available, 338 children in foster care were placed in temporary or permanent guardianship of a relative or someone else. About 12 percent re-entered state custody within 12 months, according to DCFS.
Of those 36 children, five were subsequently reunited with the guardian, while 15 were reunited with a parent.
But the Etes may have limited grounds to argue their case, which will be in court next week.
A Utah Court of Appeals decision issued this week in an unrelated case reaffirmed that DCFS is not obligated, in situations like Saul's, to provide services aimed at reuniting children with families.
Saul, whose real name is being withheld to protect his identity, came to Utah as a refugee from Sierra Leone. At age 9, Saul landed in state custody after he was left to fend for himself by a man identified as either his father or his uncle.
"He only went to school for the meals because he was not being fed," Lani Ete said. "He was well-known in [his neighborhood] because he drifted from home to home, place to place."
That's when the Etes entered Saul's life. The Etes were foster-parent veterans in 2004 when the state found Saul had been neglected and placed him in their care. They got Saul involved in school, sports and other activities. He seemed to do well. In 2005, the Etes were named Saul's permanent guardians, while his male relative retained residual rights.
But in 2009, Saul started getting in trouble. After he was expelled from school, the Etes put him in a home school program and temporarily restricted his extracurricular activities.
"All he needed to do is pull himself together and we would put him back into sports," Lani Ete said.
But Saul's behavior got worse, she said. He refused to do schoolwork or comply with "a whole bunch of other things." He also began running away from home, typically seeking shelter at a juvenile center.
"I would pick him up, he'd shower, change, eat and take off again," Ete said. "This pattern went on for three weeks."
At home, his behavior worsened. He stole money from the Etes and clothes from a department store; he tossed a rock through the window of the family's car, and he began abusing substances.
Ete wanted Saul placed with Juvenile Justice Services because it was his delinquent behavior, not parental abuse or neglect, that landed him back in state custody. But DCFS intervened in March.
DCFS placed Saul in a new foster home, Ete said, but he ran away after six weeks. The state then put Saul in a group home, which offered a higher level of care. Ete said it also started "giving him everything he wanted sports, reconnecting with his dad," who hadn't made contact with Saul in years. Ete said Saul told caseworkers he would run away again if returned to their home.
Since then, there has been no effort to return him to the family or involve them in child and family team meetings, said Ete.
"They took custody of a child I felt could still be parented in our home," Ete said. "They didn't do anything to help stabilize him in our home."
Yet, the state initially tried to hold them responsible for Saul financially.
In March, 3rd District Judge Christine Decker ordered the Etes to pay $786 a month in child support for Saul's care. The Etes had to hire an attorney to fight the order. In September, Decker reversed herself, saying she had misread the law regarding the Etes' obligations as guardians.
"We want him back but because of how the case has gone, he is ungovernable," Ete said. "We love everything about him as a human being. We just don't love or appreciate any of the behaviors he's been exhibiting."
But Staci Ghneim, deputy director for DCFS, said that the division's statutory obligation is to provide reunification services to legal parents.
"If they have only a guardianship relationship, legally it is different," she said.
It's different, too, when abuse or neglect aren't the reasons for a child's removal.
The Utah Court of Appeals noted in an Oct. 15 decision in a Utah County custody case that state law says DCFS is not obligated to return a child removed from a home because of delinquent behavior or after committing an age-based crime. The court said reunification services are a "gratuity" provided to parents, not a constitutional right.
In that case, a family adopted a boy after serving as his foster parents. The boy subsequently molested another child in their home behavior the family then discovered was not a new problem.
The boy was placed in a juvenile facility, but the family wanted him to return to their home after he successfully completed treatment.
"They made a long-term commitment to this child," said Ronald D. Wilkinson, the family's attorney. "They cared for him. They wanted him to get the help he needed."
But after a caseworker told the family the boy did not want to return to their home information the family alleged was false the couple agreed to relinquish their rights. The boy was then placed in another home, but that arrangement failed, Wilkinson said.
"He is a hard-to-place child," he said, "but that is why you need the support of the state."
The family's complaint alleged DCFS breached its contractual duty and acted negligently in not seeking to return the boy to their home.
The court did not address the merits of the case, instead dismissing the appeal on other technicalities.
Situations similar to that of the Etes are not uncommon, Wilkinson said.
"I see three or four cases like that a year," he said. "You get the same thing with parents. The state looks for a place to deposit the children and moves on."