Success, from the man who grants it
Abilene, TX – Sometimes, Judge Paul Rotenberry gets to smile in his 326th District courtroom.
Taylor County’s family court judge has the dubious task of ordering separations between parents and children. Often, those separations are permanent due to any number of circumstances. But it’s not always the case.
There are some special times when parents do what the court orders, whether it be clean up a drug habit or attend violence prevention and anger management sessions or any number of remediation requirements. And Rotenberry grants the return of the child to the family, reuniting a familial unit that may not be perfect but is still the preferred situation.
It’s all about safety of the child, he said. That may mean something different to the court than it does in the realm of public opinion.
“Socioeconomic considerations don’t come into play, meaning we don’t compare quality of life in foster care as opposed to quality of life in a parent’s home,” Rotenberry said. “We’re not going to keep a child in care just because the parents are poor.
“There is a minimum threshold that the parent has to be able to provide for the needs of the child. So, if a parent can’t afford housing and doesn’t have a place for the child to live, I’m not going to send the child home. But I’m not going to keep a child in foster care just because they’re living in a three-bedroom house in a suburban neighborhood with a pool in the backyard, as opposed to sending them home with mom in not as nice of a neighborhood without some of the amenities.”
This is an issue for some foster families, he said, who see what they’re providing the child and what mom might be able to give. But the foster family often fails to understand the trauma a child or children suffer when they’ve been taken from their home in the first place.
So the court’s goal, always, is to protect the children, Rotenberry said, including from the pain of being separated from family. Reunification is always preferred if it’s in the best interest of the child.
METHAMPHETAMINE: A TRUE EPIDEMIC
Rotenberry’s cases more often than not have him facing down parents who have in some way either tested positive for methamphetamine in their system or been found in possession of the highly addictive drugs.
While this often leads to the removal of the child, due to the drug’s ability to get into the child’s system and compromise his or her safety, there’s also a redemption story ready to be told if the parent has what it takes to get on the straight and narrow.
Rotenberry said these situations often require the parent to complete some form of rehab stint, whether inpatient or outpatient in nature. There’s also drug testing involved, after a drug counselor determines if the drugs are present in the parent’s system to begin with.
Once a parent can demonstrate to the court an ability to follow a program and to be clean over multiple tests, Rotenberry said the court can reunite the family on a monitored basis. Essentially, Child Protective Services visits the parent on a set schedule to make sure the issues of the past aren’t coming up again.
“If that parent continues to test positive, the child’s not going to go home,” Rotenberry said. “But if we’re in a situation where a parent has been clean for a number of months, and we’ve got consistent drug testing and that’s shown in the parent has attended rehab of some sort and, maybe hasn’t completed all of the services the court required but they’re working on it, and we feel we can return the child to the home, we’ll do a monitored return.”
A drug problem, Rotenberry said, is typically just one part of the reason the child was removed from the household in the first place. There’s usually something else happening, too. And those issues need to be addressed also, before the youth is permitted to return home.
THE OTHER BIG ISSUE IS VIOLENCE
Violence of any kind can be harmful to a child’s upbringing, to a child’s maturity and to a child’s future, Rotenberry said. But domestic violence, committed by a parental figure against another role model, can be even more devastating.
When these cases present themselves in his courtroom, Rotenberry said, it almost always comes with a mandate the abusive individual complete some sort of batterer intervention program.
These can take six months to complete, meaning the process is lengthy.
“Just like with drugs, domestic violence is going to take some time to convince me it’s going to be safe to send the kids back home,” he said. “It’s far worse to return a child and then re-remove than it is to delay return.
“It’s really sad that we have this problem, especially to the extent that the problem exists in Taylor County. And without overstating the case, I really think that the quality of life that our children will enjoy is going to be impacted largely by how successful this generation (is at) dealing with this problem. Because the percentage of the population that’s impacted is only going to grow.”
HAPPY WITH A SIDE OF GUT PUNCH
It’s not their fault, Rotenberry said. The children didn’t do anything to deserve the treatment or dysfunction that landed them in the system in the first place.
None of them ever asked for a mother who keeps drugs in the house or a father figure who beats up on their mother figure, he said. So it hits him hard thinking about the cases he deals with.
And there are many cases, he said. But he forces himself to remember that the volume of the problem in Taylor County doesn’t take away from who these children are on their own.
“It’s gut-wrenching because we talk about numbers of cases, numbers of children, but each one of these numbers has a name,” he said. “And a future. And these children don’t deserve to have gone through what they have had to go through to be in the system. It’s not their fault.”
But he’s hopeful, he said, for a future that will be determined by those who are coming through the system. He must maintain his optimism, he said. When that’s gone, when he goes to work and has lost his hope in humanity, that’s when it’s time to end his tenure on the bench.
Here’s where the successes come in to his mind, he said. Those are the good days, the ones that reinvigorate him and his mission to protect the children walking through the doors of his courtroom. Whether it’s the drug rehab, an end of the abuse or any other improvement, the parent stepping up means love isn’t dead that day.
“If a parent has done what they need to do to be able to have their children come home,” he said, “and necessarily that means that the children have reached a place where they feel like they can trust their parents as well, then … the parents are essentially good parents. They love their children and they’ve done what they need to do.”