What Becky Lost, Part 3: A Woman’s Pleas to Regain Custody of Children Fall on Deaf Ears

  • On her way to an appointment Rebecca Dunbar speaks with her son on Oct. 25, 2018 in White River Junction, Vt. With no car Dunbar sees him infrequently. Dunbar was trying to help him after he told her that a fellow student was bullying him on the school bus. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Rebecca Dunbar fills paperwork out in the office of economic services at the Vermont Agency of Human Resources in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 19, 2018. Dunbar was applying for fuel assistance at the Vermont state agency. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Dunbar on the phone at her apartment in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 19, 2018. Dunbar has recently moved into a new apartment in West Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • A family photograph of Rebecca Dunbar with her brother when she was a toddler. Jennifer Hauck

  • Rebecca Dunbar waits for the bus after shopping in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 10, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2019 11:33:02 PM
Modified: 1/7/2019 6:22:50 PM

White River Junction — In May 2000, Rebecca Dunbar, then 23, received a piece of mail from the White House, addressed to her newborn son and bearing the signatures of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“Welcome!” it read, offering a standard sentiment that ought to apply to everyone. “Your arrival is a cause for great celebration for those who love you. The future holds bright promise and opportunity for you!”

Dunbar had not really believed she would get to experience the joys of motherhood. Doctors had told her that being raped as a child made it unlikely she could conceive. But Dunbar’s son was followed by a daughter in 2002, and another daughter in 2004.

In March 2013, Dunbar got another letter from the federal government, this one addressed to her and very different in tone.

“This is in response to your email to President Barack Obama,” it read, “regarding your desire to regain custody of your children and obtain housing services. … I appreciate that this must be a very difficult time for you and your family.” It went on to note that the federal government lacks authority to intervene in family matters, and suggested she contact a list of local New Hampshire agencies, including the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

But Dunbar already had contacted the state agencies on the list, and she found them to be unhelpful. A primary reason was that DCYF staff were the ones who had taken custody of her three children against her will. The agency was petitioning the court to terminate her parental rights.

It’s a drastic step, taken only when the state is convinced that leaving children in the family home is dangerous to their well-being.

The prospect of losing one’s children is a nightmare for any parent. But for Dunbar, who herself was scarred from years of sexual assault she suffered while in the state’s custody, the sense of loss was heightened by an acute fear that the violence would be repeated again, with her own children the victims.

Dunbar, who fought the process for years, maintains that the state erred in taking her children from her. She hopes telling her story will prevent other families from being unnecessarily separated.

Struggling With Motherhood

When Dunbar, who went by Becky as a girl, was 6, she was first removed by DCYF from the home of her mother, Shirley Vysocky, an alcoholic.

“My mom used to hit me with spatulas and shoe horns. Left marks, welts on me,” she said.

Though Dunbar suffered deep mental and emotional trauma typical for survivors of childhood abuse — she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a borderline personality and anxiety or major depressive disorder, has a learning disability and reads at a second-grade level — she was determined not to carry her mother’s parenting failures over to the next generation.

“I didn't do that to my kids because I remember how it felt,” Dunbar said.

And so, while Dunbar was married to the children’s father, Harry Daisey, she “assured the children were seen regularly by a medical provider, took them to all of their appointments, and insured they received any prescribed medications and attended school,” Dunbar’s lawyer, Nancy Tierney, wrote during legal proceedings related to the custody of Dunbar’s children in 2013. None of those assertions were disputed by the state. Tierney, who did not return calls seeking comment, also cited DCYF as noting that Dunbar kept the home clean.

Still, there was serious cause for concern.

Between 2002 and 2010, there were 23 separate child protection reports filed, each one alleging that the children in the Dunbar household had been abused or neglected.

Like her mother, Dunbar struggled with substance abuse, and the adults in the household — including the parents, and, after a 2007 separation and divorce, the new romantic partners of the parents — got into violent conflicts with each other in ways that sometimes involved the children.

In 2011, while reviewing a DCYF request to terminate Dunbar’s parental rights, the court considered a summary of these unproven allegations, including that the adults had threatened the children with weapons such as a baseball bat and a steak knife, twisted the arm of a child, kicked in a door in a way that caused a child to bleed, threw a toy at a child hard enough to cause bruising, kicked a child in the genitals, fought with each other in front of the children and committed sexual assault in front of the children.

But virtually none of the allegations were directed at Dunbar.

Of all 23 reports, Dunbar was accused of having hit a child only once — in 2010, when the report alleged that, subsequent to being choked by Wayne Beede, one of her boyfriends, she struck her 10-year-old son in the face. Dunbar said she intended a light swat at her son as a reprimand, and that a ring she was wearing accidentally scratched his eye as he turned his head. Dunbar also was accused of being violent with other adults in front of the children and of disparaging Daisey and his new romantic partner.

But documentation suggests that, within this violent atmosphere, Dunbar made efforts to protect her children, sometimes by threatening violence against adults herself.

In 2008, her ex-husband reported to a Lebanon police officer that she had called him and told him that, if he hurt the kids, “she would beat him in the head with a lead pipe,” (which Dunbar denies).

Later that year, she filed a child protection report herself, alleging that one of her daughters had unexplained injuries and that both daughters were afraid of another adult in the household.

Though she had a slowly dawning realization of the need to take the concerns of state social workers seriously, Dunbar still struggled to walk the line so that she could protect her children from other adults without getting violent herself.

Dunbar refused to let relatives see her children for months at a stretch, to enforce a zero-tolerance policy of threats or physical violence against them. Once, Dunbar smashed a woman’s head into the dashboard of a vehicle because, she says, she suspected the woman of abusing her kids.

Another time, she discovered that an adult, while baby-sitting, had hit one of her children. She called the police. It wasn’t easy.

“That time she put her hands on my kid, I wanted to rip her (expletive) face right off, I did, so bad,” she said. “And I couldn’t do it because if I did it, where would that would have left my kids? In a bad predicament.”

In 2010, a friend of Dunbar named Lisa McGuckin wrote a letter of support to the court in which she described Dunbar as “a very emotional person, especially when it comes to her three children,” and that “she is also very protective of them.”

There were also good times. Dunbar took the kids trick-or-treating on Halloween. The family went to the lakefront in Laconia, N.H., and Santa’s Village in Jefferson. Their uncle and Dunbar’s older brother, Paul Vysocky, took them hunting and fishing when he was out of prison.

Vysocky said his sister was a good mother.

“She always treated the kids good,” he said. “She’s got a bad temper, but she always put food on the table. She’d get mad but she didn’t put a finger on them. She swore a little. I never seen her lay a hand on them.”

Loss of Rights

When Dunbar and Daisey divorced in 2007, the children were placed with Dunbar; at some point, Dunbar signed custody of the children over to Daisey. Her lawyer said the reasons Dunbar did this “remain unclear,” while Dunbar said she was tricked into giving Daisey primary custody of the children.

“My children are my world,” she said. “If anything is signed by my name, it’s because I didn’t realize what I was signing.”

After the 2007 divorce and the loss of primary custody, with only limited access to her children, Dunbar’s life continued to be chaotic. She wasn’t in stable living quarters, and she dated men who seemed nice at first but most eventually proved violent toward her.

In July 2010, a judge granted an interim order under which DCYF took custody of Dunbar’s children from her ex-husband, and placed them in the St. Charles Children’s Home in Rochester, N.H. At the time, DCYF developed a case plan that described a path by which the children would be reunited with Dunbar.

Moira K. O’Neill, director of the newly created Office of the Child Advocate for New Hampshire, said state law requires there to be a 12-month reunification effort before the termination of a parent’s rights is made permanent.

Some parents who seek to reunify with their children find the experience devastating, while others find it redeeming, O’Neill said.

“Is that a good or bad approach? Depends on the child and the parent and the available resources. … It’s complicated,” she said.

In Dunbar’s case, the plan “identified objectives and changes” needed before the children could be returned. “These included a need for positive mental health, need for sobriety, need to provide a safe and secure home environment, need to establish a strong parent/child bond, and a need to learn positive and effective parenting skills,” according to a background summary of an order issued by New Hampshire Lancaster Family Court Judge David King in 2013.

Dunbar, faced with the very real possibility of seeing her children disappear into the same system that had profoundly damaged her, said she began restructuring her life.

She went to the Clara Martin Center to receive mental health and anger management counseling. She got sober, passing a series of random drug tests. She took parenting classes. She visited with her children and acted appropriately, according to uncontested details in a court filing by her attorney. And she made efforts to move away from Beede and into her own apartment.

While acknowledging the positive changes Dunbar made, a lawyer for DCYF argued that she was unfit to be a mother for two reasons.

First, he said, Dunbar’s mental disabilities were incompatible with motherhood.

Dunbar “suffers from a mental deficiency or mental illness which renders her unable to provide proper parental care and protection,” according to the 2013 court order that terminated her rights.

Two New Hampshire psychologists examined Dunbar and said her low IQ was “suggesting a diagnosis of learning disorder,” and that she suffered from “severe major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder and PTSD.”

Dunbar acknowledges she has “trouble understanding big words,” but says she can read, albeit slowly. But, she said, she is more than capable of administering medication and all of the other tasks associated with being a good mother.

“They claim that because I have learning disabilities I can’t teach my kids,” she said. “Isn’t that what the teachers get paid for?”

Tierney, Dunbar’s lawyer in the case, pointed to flaws and discrepancies in the testing, including that the tools were not designed for someone with Dunbar’s capabilities. But her primary argument was that Dunbar’s learning disabilities, such as they were, should not have disqualified her as a parent.

During the trial, one of the two psychologists “admitted parents with anxiety, major depressive disorder, PTSD and/or borderline personality could and do parent their children,” Tierney argued.

Tierney also accused the state of failing to make reasonable efforts to help Dunbar access services, such as behavioral therapy, that might have helped her improve. The two psychologists testifying in the case disagreed about Dunbar’s suitability for such counseling.

“Rebecca required the assistance of DCYF in referring her to someone who, given her reading and cognition issues, could teach her the tools to process the information necessary to successfully parent her children,” Tierney wrote. “... It is clear, the Division, while professing great affection for Rebecca, failed her in the one thing that matters most.”

O’Neill, who has no direct knowledge of Dunbar’s case, said that, in general, there should be considerations given to a parent with a cognitive disability.

“Was there something we as a community could have done to accommodate that disability? Did we seek alternative arrangements like co-parenting or parent mentoring?” O’Neill asked. “Does she have a voluntary mediated agreement that allows her to be a part of her children’s lives while a primary parent does the heavy lifting?”

Accommodating the disability of a parent while at the same time doing what’s best for the child can be a difficult balance, O’Neill said.

The second reason DCYF cited for arguing that Dunbar should not be reunited with her children had to do with Beede, her boyfriend at the time. They said that by staying with Beede, known to be an abuser, she was unable to provide a safe living environment for the children.

O’Neill said the threat posed by an abusive man in the home is real.

“Beyond the exposure to chronic violence, the most common perpetrator of abuse-related fatalities is the man in the house, the mother’s boyfriend,” she said. “Do we leave the child in that toxic and potentially deadly environment to honor parental rights? I have never met anyone who woke up one morning and decided they would kill a child that day. Generally, there are overwhelming circumstances that tax limited coping and problem-solving capacities. A person who relies upon violence to solve relationship problems is not likely to be patient with a fussy baby or sullen teenager.”

The court found that DCYF made a persuasive argument that the cohabitation of Beede and Dunbar represented noncompliance on Dunbar’s part.

Dunbar and Tierney disagreed, arguing that DCYF itself was at least partially responsible: It had failed to connect Dunbar with the resources she needed to separate from Beede and live independently. Because Dunbar was on criminal probation in Vermont for an assault charge, she wasn’t allowed to move to New Hampshire. DCYF didn’t make any efforts to connect Dunbar with domestic violence centers or housing, Tierney argued.

“Was looking to DCYF to do the job they are paid to do — review her old records, develop an achievable case plan that meets her abilities and her children’s needs, and help her find and obtain the services needed to successfully complete the plan — too much to expect?” Tierney wrote.

N.H. Supreme Court

Dunbar appealed the court’s decision, and her case was reviewed by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s action in July 2013.

The Supreme Court’s decision again cited Dunbar’s status as a victim of domestic abuse as a key reason to keep her children away from her.

“She continued to live with the person who had recently abused her, (and) the record reflects that she continued to live with that person throughout the course of the abuse and neglect case,” wrote the court, adding that he had “assaulted her at least twice causing her to lose several teeth.”

By then, Dunbar had moved into her own apartment and was on her way to ending the relationship altogether. (The price of breaking it off, as described in an earlier Valley Newsstory in this series, was a punch in the face.)

But the Supreme Court said it did not find the lower court’s position, that DCYF had made enough of an effort to assist Dunbar, to be “unreasonable.”

And because it found that Dunbar’s status as a victim of domestic abuse made her unable to provide a safe home for her children, the Supreme Court did not deem it necessary to rule on whether Dunbar had the mental capacity to be a mother.

One argument that Tierney did not make in the courtroom was that at least some of the emotional scars that undermined Dunbar’s parenting skills were the fault of DCYF itself.

There is a large body of evidence demonstrating the link between childhood sexual assault and impaired brain development. For example, researchers from Harvard Medical School scanned the brains of dozens of women who had been abused, and those who had not. In a study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences in 2014, they found that different brain structures develop at different stages of childhood, meaning that each individual structure is particularly vulnerable to abuse during a certain age range.

If abused from ages 9 to 10, a person is likely to have an underdeveloped corpus callosum, which can create learning challenges and emotional grounding problems, among other effects. A person abused from 11 to 13 can have a diminished hippocampus, which makes it more difficult to store memories and retain knowledge. A person abused from 14 to 16 can have a stunted frontal cortex, which can create irritability and affect memory, judgment, impulse control and social behavior.

While in the custody of DCYF as a child, Dunbar was assaulted repeatedly at all of those ages.

Dunbar said that the state’s records of her time as child ward of the state would prove the abuse. Though the state is legally required to maintain those records, as reported in an earlier story in this series, a spokesman for DCYF said the records were accidentally destroyed last year, due to a “human error.”

A Cruel Calculus

When is it OK for the state to come between mother and child?

Both Dunbar and O’Neill agree that safety is the paramount concern.

“I could see if a child is being beaten,” Dunbar said.

O’Neill said it is unacceptable for the state to take a child from one abusive living situation only to place him or her into another.

However, she said, the calculus to keep kids safe is tricky, and that parental rights can sometimes muddy the equation, with the child’s best interest sometimes undermined by an effort to reunite the family.

“Parental rights still far outweigh children’s rights. Part of that has to do with the understanding of psychological maltreatment and its long-term effects on a child’s development and lifelong health. Our current practice is not responsive enough to adverse childhood experiences and their disabling effects. On that the science is crystal clear,” O’Neill said. “The reunification process — although well-intended — can be very damaging. And we are seeing delayed permanency thanks to the effort to dig deep for biological relations, who are sometimes strangers.”

Almost without exception, O’Neill said, children — and adults — want to have a relationship with their biological parents.

“We have to find a balance between keeping children safe and keeping important ties intact,” she said.

But family advocates in Vermont say that in that regard, authorities have become far too aggressive in reporting and investigating allegations of abuse and neglect — between 2006 and 2016, the number of reports increased by about 50 percent, to more than 20,000, while the actual number of substantiated claims remained static, at roughly 700, according to a November report from the Vermont Parent Representation Center, a Burlington-based nonprofit.

The same report found that the number of children in the custody of the Vermont Department for Children and Families rose from 1,022 in 2009 to 1,302 in 2016 — a 30 percent increase. Vermont has terminated the parental rights of those with children 3 and younger more than any other state in the nation, except for Oklahoma.

“In any other field (medicine, public health, or public safety, for example), Vermonters would not long tolerate yearly increases in the rates of illness, disability, or death generation after generation without seriously questioning causation and the effectiveness of the interventions employed,” wrote the report’s authors. “However, in the arena of child protection and family services, our repetitive cycles appear to be the norm rather than the exception. … Although Vermont routinely implements pilot projects and new initiatives, at its core the child protection system has remained immune to meaningful change, leaving both families, and those whose job it is to serve them, engaged in endless cycles of frustration and failure.”

System Under Strain

More biological parents are finding themselves in Dunbar’s situation.

“The court is reporting a 67 percent increase in termination of parental rights,” O’Neill said. “So, yes, losing children is on the rise.”

Not surprisingly, the foster care system is under tremendous strain, with studies showing there are more kids in foster care in recent years, and fewer foster parents.

O’Neill said she is confident that most of New Hampshire’s foster parents “do a stunning job” despite the “diabolical challenge” of the role.

However, O’Neill said, “because the majority of foster parents are not abusive doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine closely what happened to people like Becky.”

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services says there are about 1,200 children in the foster care system, and only about 700 foster homes to care for them.

O’Neill called it a “severe shortage.”

“That shortage puts children at greater risk,” she said. “Maybe bad people see an opportunity, and a stressed system takes shortcuts to recruit help.”

But there’s no clear answer for how to help this new generation of vulnerable children.

Residential institutions don’t seem to be the trending answer, with several shuttering their doors in recent years.

The Tobey School in Concord, and the Kolburne School in western Massachusetts, both of which housed a young Rebecca, shut down in 2009 and 2012, respectively, while the St. Charles Children’s Home that Dunbar’s children were sent to was converted into a day school in 2013.

Most of the remaining homes “are already at capacity,” according to information on the Health and Human Services website.

And even in recent years, children have paid the ultimate price while in state custody. Last summer, DCYF paid $475,000 to settle part of one lawsuit, and $6.75 million in another. Both cases involved the death of young children in foster care. One of those children had been placed into a foster home by Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield in 2014; Dunbar’s children were housed at Spaulding off and on during the same time period.

“They say they’re there for families. They’re not there for families,” Dunbar said. “Technically, they’re supposed to be there keeping families together to work on it.”

O’Neill said that the state system, no matter how deeply flawed, must be improved, rather than rejected.

“It is my belief that we as a community or society or state have an obligation to make certain children are safe and situated to grow to their full potential,” she said. “That means we need a state agency and authority to intervene when necessary.”

And there are planned and recently implemented changes that have the potential to help make things safer for foster children. The Office of the Child Advocate, headed by O’Neill, was created in 2018 to help identify and resolve failures, both in individual cases and on a systemwide basis.

New Hampshire lawmakers last year also approved funding to reduce the caseload at DCYF from as many as 60 per worker to 30, according to Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover. The bill also established a home visiting services initiative, child care services initiative and parental assistance programs — all designed to reduce the pressure to break families apart.

There was nothing like that in place in the 1990s, the era in which Dunbar was sexually abused.

But those on the front lines, like Abby Tassel, director of WISE, say a far more dramatic change is needed — sufficient in-family support services; a justice system that protects victims of domestic violence throughout the judicial process; individual support for struggling parents; more effective substance abuse interventions; and training for the thousands of caseworkers who, even while trying to help, fail to build a trusting relationship with vulnerable people who have been traumatized, sometimes suffering from PTSD.

People like Dunbar.

Unwritten Future

Though Dunbar’s experiences have been horrifying, her story is not that unusual in her social circle.

“I’ve been through the same thing,” said Tiffany Kangas, a 41-year-old White River Junction resident and a lifelong friend of Dunbar who also has lost custody of her children.

Stephanie Plante, 39, of Newbury, Vt., says she, like Dunbar, was sexually assaulted as a child, spent time in foster care, and lost custody of her own children to the state (in her case, the Vermont DCF).

Plante, who struggled with substance abuse, also made efforts to comply with DCF directives to get her children back.

“I was so scared of DCF because my other kids, everything I did to get them back and they wouldn’t give them back no matter what I did. Years of being clean and they didn’t care,” she said.

Plante alleges that some of her children have been abused while in state custody.

O’Neill said giving the state the power to intervene is just one step to protect children.

“The next step is harder,” she said. “We need to learn from mistakes to ensure the best, most responsive, respectful and effective agency possible.”

Though Dunbar has in many ways risen above her roots, she remains ill-suited to work within the state services that are meant to support her. She said she has given up violence.

“I’ve kept my hands to myself for the last four, four- and-a-half years,” she said.

But her fight with the world is never-ending. She has lost her childhood, her sense of safety, and, finally, her children. There is more yet to lose.

In recent months, she had a hard time getting medical care for an injured leg because she was kicked out of her doctor’s office after arguing with a member of the staff. She was having problems finding a new apartment, but just moved to West Lebanon from White River Junction last week. She gained limited monthly supervised visitation rights with her oldest child, who now is 18, but she said the visits have not been as frequent, or as long, as they are supposed to be under the arrangement.

Dunbar, who was raised by the state, fears for the future of her family.

Her three children still are in the system that broke her. Their fates are undetermined.

Her grandchildren have yet to be born.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com.

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