We’ve all heard the saying “innocent until proven guilty,” but when it comes to child neglect and abuse cases, it appears to be the opposite.
Even after Wisconsin parents say they’ve done everything the state has asked them to do, it can take months or even years for them to be reunited with their children.
Two years after Luis Velazquez was found “not guilty” of child neglect, he’s still fighting to get his daughter back from protective custody.
Most court cases rely on facts, but cases involving children can rely on the opinions of a judge and CPS caseworkers.
“They (CPS workers) come to your door, take your kid and then make up allegations to keep your child,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez is a single father. His story goes back to May 2014.
The father was celebrating his birthday with a few friends when he claims somebody stole his wallet and cell phone.
He called police, but the tables turned when Velazquez said he was taken to jail on an outstanding traffic warrant after police ran his name.
“They locked me up and took my daughter from me,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez says he took care of the ticket and was released from jail, but was later charged with neglecting his daughter.
In a letter from the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare Velazquez, the department said his daughter was “maltreated” and “exposed to potentially dangerous situations because Velazquez appeared drunk at the time of his arrest.
The report also states Velazquez’ home was not safe for his daughter because there was rotting food, broken windows and alcohol spilled on the floor.
Velazquez denied all of the allegations and decided to fight the case.
“Of course I fought that,” he said. “They were saying all these terrible things I was doing.”
A jury found Velazquez “not guilty” in September 2014.
"I thought I would get my daughter back right away but I was wrong,” he said.
Even after a criminal case is resolved, there can still be a civil case in children’s court and that judge can require a parent to complete a series of programs before returning the child.
Even after completing those programs, there’s not guarantees the parent will be given their child back.
A source inside Milwaukee’s Children’s Court says it’s a case-by-case basis with no defined rules, just a judge’s discretion.
Although Chief Judge Maxine White is not presiding over Velazquez’ case, we reached out to her twice for an explanation on the general process of returning children to her parents.
Judge White had “no comment."
Documents provided by Velazquez show he successfully passed drug screenings, a drug and alcohol class, along with an anger management course.
These courses were required to be completed in order for the judge to consider returning the child to Velazquez.
Velazquez says he’s done everything that’s required, though admits he may not have the best attitude during court hearings and feels the system his giving him the “runaround”.
“I’m not just going to sit back and idle and let them take my daughter,” he said. “I’m going to fight.”
His daughter remains in protective custody and has now been in the system long enough to where she’s now eligible for adoption.
Valezquez’ case gained the attention of Amada Morales, a former visitation caseworker who is now an advocate for families fighting to get their children back.
"I left my job (as a visitation worker) voluntarily because I was disgusted with the process,” Morales said.
Morales says she’s witnessed families who have been cleared of wrongdoing struggle to get their parental rights reinstated and is currently working with nearly two dozen families who are in similar situations.
“CPS will say that there primary goal is to reunify but the message you're sending to us when they place a child in an adoptive home is that their intention is not to reunify the child,” Morales argued.
We asked Morales whether she thinks the child welfare system in Wisconsin is a failure.
“It’s definitely a failure,” she said after pausing for a second. “Something has to change.”
The Bureau of Milwaukee Child Protective Services deferred all comments to the State’s Department of Children and Families.
Spokesperson Joe Scialfa said he couldn’t comment on Velazquez’ case, but did send us the following statement via email:
“The decision to remove a child from their home is taken very seriously. A child is only removed from their home if it is determined that there is a present or impending danger to the child and that a plan to provide services and support cannot be established that would ensure the child’s safety. Criminal courts and family courts have different responsibilities. Decisions made by Child Protective Services (CPS) workers, the county’s District Attorney’s Office, and the judges in Family Court utilize different standards and procedures than criminal court. The initial decision to remove a child is made by Child Protective Services and must be reviewed and approved by a judge in Family Court. When making the safety determination, CPS must show sufficient evidence of why the child is determined to be unsafe and a judge must approve the safety determination. A decision to place a child in out-of-home care is determined by a safety assessment that is based upon the criteria set forth in the Child Protective Services Safety Intervention Standards issued by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. After the initial decision is made to remove a child, the District Attorney’s Office must determine if a child is in need of protective services. If it is determined that the child is in need of protective services (CHIPS), the District Attorney’s office will file a CHPS petition in Family Court. Both state and federal law mandates that all reasonable efforts must be taken to keep a family intact. To ensure that reasonable efforts are being made, the CHPS petition must be reviewed and approved by a judge in Family Court. During the court proceedings, it must be determined what is in the long term best interest of the child. It may be determined that reunification with the parents be set as the long term goal. In these circumstances, a plan is drafted that sets forth specific criteria that must be met by the parent/parents in order for the child to be returned to their care. The judge presiding over the case is regularly given updates on the progress that the parent/parents are making in meeting the requirements set forth in the plan. Ultimately it is that judge who makes the determination of whether or not a child can be safely returned home. Once a determination is made that the child is unsafe and removed from their home, the child cannot be returned home unless the home is determined to be safe and that the parents have exhibited the protective capacity to ensure the child’s safety in the future. Again, the judge presiding over the case in Family Court is ultimately responsible for ruling whether or not the parent has met the criteria established in the reunification plan and if a child can be safely returned home. Throughout the entire Family Court proceedings the safety of the child is the paramount consideration. When placing a child in out-of-home care, CPS agencies are required to establish a permanency plan. Often there will be two concurrent permanency plans established by the courts, one working towards reunification and one working towards adoption. This is done to ensure that children are not forced to grow up without the safety and security that a permanent home offers and to meet requirements in federal law (Adoption and Safe Families Act) that if a child remains in out-of-home care 15 of the most recent 22 months, an alternate permanent home be located. One of these alternate options for permanency is adoption. Yet again, the presiding judge will ultimately determine whether it is in the best interest of the child is to terminate parental rights and find an adoptive home for the child.”
Scalfia deferred further comment to the judges who handle cases involving children.
We reached out to the judge handling Velazquez’ case twice, but she never returned our telephone calls.
Our multiple calls to Deputy District Attorney Libby Miller were not returned.
Circuit Court Judge Christopher Foley couldn’t talk case specifics with us, but reiterated there’s no law in Wisconsin requiring a judge to return a child to a parent even after successful completion of required programs.
“The judge has to make a determination on what’s in the best interest of the child,” he said.
TMJ4 News began looking into Velazquez' case in April 2016.
On April 25, we started reaching out to various state agencies for a better understanding of how the child welfare system works.
A spokesperson for Milwaukee's Children's Court declined to go on-camera and deferred our questions to Deputy District Attorney Libby Miller.
TMJ4 placed at least three phone calls to Miller since Monday and left two voice mails for comment. As of Friday, Miller has not returned our calls.
Because Velazquez' civil case in children's court is still pending, we are not naming the judge presiding over the case at this point in time. However, TMJ4 did leave at least two voice mails for the judge seeking comment.
We requested a copy of the initial case report when West Allis police responded to Velazquez' home to take a report about his stolen phone and wallet. We are still awaiting a copy of that request.
We asked the Division of Children and Families to disclose what, if any courses Mr. Velazquez has failed to complete. The department declined to comment citing "confidentiality" rules.