Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Grandparents Lose in Child Dependency Case

On September 11, 2007, a Philadelphia County Family Court Judge denied the request of two aged grandparents seeking custody of their 5-year old grandson, who was raised from birth by them, but who was taken from them for placement in foster care.

The case had received significant attention and garnered much sympathy throughout last summer, as reported in news articles:

But, on September 11, 2007, according to the article "Judge won't reunite boy, grandparents", by Joseph A. Slobodzian, published on September 12, 2007, by The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Family Court Judge Ann Butchart ruled that young Steven should remain in foster care until his father was again able to care for him at home."

Steven Brasovankin, the 5-year-old taken under court order from his elderly Northeast Philadelphia grandparents in June, will not be returning to his grandparents' home, a Family Court judge ruled yesterday.

The decision was a disappointment for the boy's grandparents, Morris Brasovankin, 89, and his wife, Mildred, 86, who had regularly cared for their grandson since his birth and hoped to have that situation formalized until their son, Steven, 54, could again care for the boy. * * *

Still, the Brasovankins were permitted to continue their supervised, one-hour weekly visits with their grandson, and a spokesman for Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty said the chance for a family reunification had improved. * * *

"The court's goal remains reunification with the family," Jubelirer added. "But for the time being, the child will remain in foster care."

Reporter Diane Prokop noted, in her article regarding the decision, that "Steven’s case focuses on dependency and not custody, citing a statement issued by Philadelphia Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin M. Dougherty:

"This case is a dependency matter, involving allegations of abuse or neglect of a minor child.

In Dependency Court, the judge makes decisions regarding the physical and psychological well-being of minors whose parents cannot presently care for them," Dougherty said in the statement.

"Dependency cases focus on the child and his or her parent(s). Dependency cases require the court to balance the rights of the minor child with the rights and actions of the biological parent(s) and legal guardians," he said.

"Under Pennsylvania law, grandparents are typically afforded more rights in custody cases than in dependency cases."

An article posted by Lancaster Online, entitled "Judge To Decide Where Boy, 5, Is To Live", stimulated many comments by readers on Talkback Lancaster.

Perhaps such media attention and such emotional comments flowed because the situation of a grandparent offering custodial care for grandchildren is so common in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere.

GrandsPlace notes in a Pennsylvania State Fact Sheet that "[a]cross the country, more than six million children -- approximately 1 in 12 children -- are living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives." It further notes:
In Pennsylvania, public and private agencies and grassroots coalitions of grandparents and other relative caregivers have begun working together to expand the services available to kinship caregivers who are caring for children outside of the foster care system.

Several of the major kinship care programs and supports are listed below. Additional support groups can be found through the AARP Grandparent Information Center Database. Call 1-800-424-3410, e-mail information requests to, or search AARP’s online kinship care support group database.

The Pennsylvania Department of Aging provides guidance online for elders who have accepted such loving service, by way of its advisory entitled "Pennsylvania Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: A Six-Part Fact Sheet Series".

Or perhaps the outpouring of interest and feelings reflect the heart-wrenching, long-term effects of a separation that upsets a previously-established caregiving arrangement.

In the case of little Steven Brasovankin, no one can talk about it publicly now, according to the Inquirer article:

The elderly couple did not respond to questions after the two-hour closed-door hearing, and their attorney, Marc D. Collazzo, said the judge imposed a gag order on all the parties. * * *

[The case] status would be reviewed at a future, unscheduled hearing. * * *

[Photo Credit: Clem Murray, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff, from July 18, 2007 Article]

Update: 11/15/07:

Legislation pending in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives might change the outcome of the case described above. See: "
Bills Proposed for Grandparents' Child Custody" (11/15/07).

Update: 03/29/08:

Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky wrote an article published on January 14, 2008, entitled "His fight for grandson made him a hero". He noted that "Morris Brasovankin died last weekend."
It's safe to say that he would have lived out his last days in peaceful obscurity had he not reluctantly thrown himself into the national spotlight last summer.

Out of love. And desperation.

In the process, he -- and his wife, Mildred -- became heroes to so many families, it's hard to think of his battle as anything but a victory, even if he didn't live to get what he wanted so fiercely: The privilege of raising his grandson, even in his ninth decade of life.

Morris was 89 when he passed away on Friday from medical complications following an aneurysm. His family sat shiva for him yesterday at the Brasovankins' cozy stone twin in Oxford Circle. I was invited to attend by his niece, though some of his family felt my visit was an intrusion.

But Mildred, who is 86, liked the idea of someone writing something nice about her husband. * * *

The column ended with these comments:
The judge held that the Brasovankins' home was no place for Steven to live.

They were allowed one hour of supervised time with Steven each week. Just one hour, after having had Steven all to themselves for months.

Since Family Court Judge Ann Butchart has issued a gag order on this case, it's impossible to know why she reduced Mildred and Morris to being spectators in Steven's life.

But the cruelty of the ruling crushed Morris, said Mildred.

"He wanted very much to live," she said. "He wanted to keep fighting. He was heroic. He was not going to accept someone else telling him he was too old to do what was right."

Some people in this much-talked about case agreed with the court, and thought that Steven should not be placed with such elderly grandparents.

"They haven't much time," the thinking goes. "Why subject Steven to another, inevitable loss and its upheaval?"

By the same token, given the Brasovankins' numbered days, why not allow Steven as much time as possible with the people who were so constant in his life?

"What I'll always remember about Morris is how hard he fought," said the Bransovankins' attorney Marc Collazzo, who attended Morris' graveside funeral yesterday at Montefiore Cemetery. "This case got so much bigger than him and Mildred. They never meant it to. They just wanted Steven back."
Update: 10/16/08:

On October 7, 2008, President Bush signed into law the new federal "Fostering Connections to Success and Improved Adoptions Act of 2008" (formerly H.R. 6893), as
Public Law No. 110-351.

For background and details,
see: PA EE&F Law Blog posting "Grandparents WIN in Child Dependency Enactment" (10/16/08).