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Doubting Fathers in the Child Welfare System

by Rosalio Chavoya


In July 2018, Rosalio Chavoya shared his experiences with the child welfare and criminal justice systems as a guest speaker at Pact Family Camp West. The perspective of the father is often ignored or neglected when talking about foster care and adoption; we are grateful to Rosalio for sharing his own perspective and that of the many men he has met who are struggling to retain the right to parent their children.

Imagine you are a father in the Juvenile Dependency Court, trying to establish paternity—even if you are the only father who has shown up—because you want to step up and continue a relationship with your child. You show up and the court and even your own attorney asks:

WERE YOU THE ONLY ONE SHE WAS WITH? Umm, how am I supposed to answer that!? Of course, I was! Or was she???

WERE YOU THERE AT THE CHILD’S BIRTH? Yes, but what if I wasn’t?


DID YOU SIGN THE VDOP? What is that?




These are actual questions that are asked of every father at their first appearance at court when their children have been removed. It seems from Day One, fathers are questioned and doubted way more than mothers.

Now let’s imagine being asked all these questions while you are in custody in the criminal justice system, waiting in the holding cells. Not knowing who else is at court. You are thinking maybe someone else is saying they are the father. In hindsight, even worse, maybe the mother is saying there may have been other potential fathers.

To add to this confusing process you’re struggling to understand, now it’s up to the judge to determine if you are an Alleged Father, Biological Father, Natural Father or Presumed Father! And guess what? Presumed is what a father must be determined to be in order to receive Reunification services. I don’t know about you, but Presumed does not sound assuring to me.

Now in my case, I was in custody for 13 months, all but two weeks of it while our Child Welfare case was being processed. My wife fully engaged in the effort to have our four children returned to her care shortly after my detention hearing. She was pregnant with our fifth child. Our children were returned to her care after about eight months, and at the twelve-month review the Department recommended that the case be closed, with sole legal and physical custody granted to the mother (my wife) and visitations only to the father (me). They had no regard for keeping our family unit intact or for the fact that I was scheduled to come home in one month. However, knowing what was best for our family, my wife requested that our case remain open for six more months. Because of her advocacy, today we are all living together as a family.

Allow me to thank God and my wife for knowing what was best for us. But let’s think for a second about those parents who are not an intact couple, where one parent is not concerned about the other parent’s lack of inclusion. Or those fathers who are incarcerated and their inclusion is not considered as important as closing the case! You can see how easy it is for a father who wants be a parent to his children to lose his parental rights.

Now let’s look at the type of case when a mother and child test positive for drug exposure at birth and are eligible to go to a Mother-Infant Program. In order to prove that he is a fit parent, the father has to first attend meetings, get a sponsor, enroll in parenting classes, therapy, etc. The father cannot get any visits during that time, depriving him of his bonding time and favoring the mother. Given the same support and resources as the mother, the father would have been just as capable of safely caring for the child.

Specifically, I recall one particular case (though there are many) where a single father stepped up to engage in his case plan and then the mother went missing. When this father’s case came in, he went to detox, went to a residential program, joined a Dependency Wellness Treatment Court. He couch-surfed for a while then went into a therapeutic housing unit.

This man had a social worker whose English was very difficult to understand, and the social worker had a great relationship with the foster parents (former social workers), who wanted to continue caring for his three children. The mother of the children passed away. The father’s mother, who he was living with, also passed.

He maintained his sobriety, his sponsor, his visits, but did not have housing to accommodate himself and a 17-year-old and 14-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. He returned to being a forklift mechanic and would come straight to court all oiled up from work. His long work hours made it impossible for him to attend therapy, and then grief and loss counseling. By the time his counseling referrals went through he was working to achieve housing. So the department felt he was not capable of taking care of his kids by himself because of missing therapy, working long hours, and not having big enough housing. They asked, “Who is going to take the kids to school, who is going to feed and watch the kids while you work?” The kids even pleaded and cried to the courts to return to their father. After 24 months had passed, services (parenting classes, drug and alcohol classes, et cetera) were terminated! Three weeks later, a 388 petition was filed and the return of the children was finally the result. But did it have to go this far just because he was a single father?

Rosalio Chavoya is a Mentor Father for parents who are either incarcerated or rehabilitating to reunify with their children who have been put in the foster system. Chavoya himself was in and out of jail for roughly 21 years. His last stint in 2007 began a series of events he calls “a blessing, in disguise.” His wife got caught by child services for being under the influence of drugs; his children were removed from their home. Both Chavoya and his wife resolved to reunify with their kids for good. For Chavoya, this experience launched a career helping other fathers in the same situation navigate a confusing and often hostile system.

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