Thursday, October 28, 2004

Mom wants to adopt daughter she lost

Ex-addict's effort may be first after parental rights taken

By Sharon Coolidge
Enquirer staff writer

Peggy Fugate cherishes the drawing her daughter drew for her on a torn paper napkin seven years ago, on the last day they were together. The drawing shows Fugate in tears.
Peggy Fugate and her husband, Herb, in the living room of their Westwood home.

Crack-addicted Peggy Fugate, who had bounced in and out of prison, cuddled her 7-year-old daughter in her lap and whispered in her ear:

"I'll always be here for you. I promise I'll bring you home."

That day seven years ago was the last time Fugate, now 46, saw her daughter.

Hours later, a Hamilton County magistrate ruled she was an unfit mother and permanently severed her parental rights. Fugate didn't fight the termination, believing her daughter would be adopted into a clean, stable home - one Fugate was unable to provide.

That never happened. Instead her daughter, now 14, has been shuffled among foster homes.

And Fugate, who said she is now drug-free, married and working full time, is fighting to make good on her vow.

In a victory for Fugate, the First District Court of Appeals ruled this month that Fugate can ask a Hamilton County court judge for custody - not as her biological mother, but as a person wanting to adopt a child in foster care.

Had the girl been adopted, she would have new legal parents and Fugate would not be allowed to seek adoption.

Fugate is believed to be the first Ohio parent who had her parental rights terminated who then asked a court for her child back. Next week, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Sylvia Hendon is set to hear Fugate's arguments about why she deserves to adopt the girl.

"People can change. I've changed so much, I deserve a second chance," said Fugate, who lives in a tidy Westwood apartment with her husband, Herb. "She's been in foster care seven years. She needs a home. Let me give it to her."

A different life

Fugate's involvement with the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services dates to the mid-1990s, when her daughter was 6 years old.

Fugate was addicted to cocaine and had been in and out of jail, serving three separate prison sentences for theft. She was stealing to support her habit, she said.

The Department of Job and Family Services stepped in and said Fugate could not properly care for her children. The girl was temporarily placed in foster care.

The week after Fugate was released from her last prison stay, the magistrate terminated Fugate's parental rights. In the eyes of the law, that means she was no longer a mother to the girl. In such cases, the county becomes a child's legal guardian.

Children are not often removed from their homes; even more rarely are parental rights terminated, said Mark Reed, Hamilton County Juvenile Court administrator and a former dependency court magistrate.

"Sometimes you have to remove a child from a home, but you work with the family to reunify them," Reed said.

Usually the county will work with a family between six months and two years on a plan to rectify problems. Often the county intervenes because those children have been abused or neglected.

Between 1999 and 2003 in Hamilton County, an average of 148 children a year were permanently taken from their parents, according to Hamilton County Juvenile Court statistics.

While Fugate's daughter's records are not public, the recent appeals-court decision outlines the girl's history with the Department of Job and Family Services - including that she did not want to be adopted. She could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear if she wants to be adopted by her mother.

Taking children from their parents "is done with the hope and expectation that it will facilitate placement of the child in a permanent family environment," wrote Appeals Court Judge Mark Painter. "It is an attempt to avoid legal limbo and a revolving door of temporary homes.

"But that is exactly what (the girl) has experienced in her seven years in the custody of HCJFS," he wrote.

Fugate said she spent years struggling to kick her addiction and rebuild her life - which included losing custody of all of her eight children.

"I used to sit and wonder if she forgot me," Fugate said. "I wondered if she was living in a good home, if she had somebody to love her."

No real home

Her questions were answered last year when, by accident, Fugate discovered her daughter had never been adopted.

So she decided to try to adopt her herself.

But the battle has had more defeats than victories.

Fugate asked a Hamilton County juvenile court magistrate several times for custody of her daughter. Each time she was told no, because her parental rights had been terminated.

Then the case came before Judge Hendon, who reviewed Ohio law and sided with Fugate, saying a stranger can seek to adopt a child in foster care. And because Fugate had her parental rights terminated, she, too, is considered a stranger to her own daughter.

But the Department of Job and Family Services appealed. Their argument: Once parents give up parental rights, they have no legal relation to the child, the agency said.

But the appeals court agreed with Hendon, saying Fugate could at least ask for custody.

Painter wrote on behalf of the court: "We hold that she, like everyone else in the universe, has that right. Just because she might lose the case does not mean she may not enter the courthouse. ...

"Our court/justice/legal/moral system supposes people can change," the judge added. "Odds may not smile, but we have hope."

The agency has asked the First District Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision.

For now, the teen remains in a Butler County group home.

Nobody likes having children in foster care, Reed said.

"Job and Family Services doesn't, we don't; it's not an ideal situation," he said.

During the hearing before Hendon, Fugate must prove why bringing her daughter home would be in the girl's best interest.

Fugate has a good case, argues her attorney, Christopher Kapsal.

"I'm impressed with her determination to change her life around," Kapsal said. "I trust the court will look at those factors and measure the degree of change and determine whether she's a fit parent."

Fugate said she tries not to get her hopes up, but she's preparing for the possibility.

She's making a spare bedroom teen-friendly with a TV and stereo and blue and white flowered bedding.

"I want to make up for the seven years we were apart," Fugate said.


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