Teen to Test New Parental-Rights Law A 15-year-old boy in Washington state will be the first minor to test a new law allowing adolescents to ask the courts to reinstate parental rights. The boy and two siblings were taken from their parents five years ago after alleged parental neglect.
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Teen to Test New Parental-Rights Law

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Teen to Test New Parental-Rights Law


Teen to Test New Parental-Rights Law

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Robert Smith.

In a few minutes, why Magic Johnson didn't get to party at Oprah's place. The celebrity battles over who to support in the 2008 presidential election.

BRAND: First though, when are parents not to fit to be parents? Each year, more than 100,000 neglected or abused children are taken from their parents. Now Washington State has decided to follow California's lead and allow children older than 12 to challenge those decisions and try to get their parents' rights back.

Now the story of the first child in Washington to try. From member station KPLU, Chana Joffe-Walt reports.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Teen fantasies. The FOX drama "The O.C." is full of them. Like here, driving a convertible down the California coast. Marissa, the cute one, finds out that Alex, the mature one, divorced her parents.

What could be cooler?

(Soundbite of TV show, "The O.C.")

Ms. MISCHA BARTON (Actor): (As Marissa Copper) So how did you do it?

Ms. OLIVIA WILDE (Actor): (As Alex Kelly) I petitioned the court. I had my parents sign the form. That was it.

Ms. BARTON: (As Marissa Copper) That was great. I wish I could do that.

JOFEE-WALT: That's the exact opposite of what 15-year-old Timothy Wolcott wishes he could do. He wants his parents back.

Mr. TIMOTHY WOLCOTT (Son): Well, actually, I'm putting in a petition for the courts to reinstate my parents' parental rights.

JOFEE-WALT: The state terminated the rights of Tim's parents five years ago. The story of how that happened is a long one, with many versions. State records can't be examined but the state did confirm they were concerned the Wolcott children had been neglected. There were dental problems, drug problems, a dad in jail, but ultimately there was one moment that brought this family to an end. A Saturday afternoon; after Mexican food and many margaritas, Elaine Wolcott piled her kids into the car. She was drunk. Tim was in the front seat.

Mr. T. WOLCOTT: We were coming down the hill. We didn't see the freeway, but so we went and then a van just hit us and we flew in mid-air heading towards upcoming traffic, and I was the only one conscious at that time, so I just grabbed the steering wheel and put us into the ditch.

JOFEE-WALT: The kids were then put in foster care. Tim and his twin Jesse ran from foster care back to their parents. Then a SWAT team picked them up and put them back in foster care. They ran, took drugs, and lived on the streets. The state found them. They ran back to their parents. You get the idea.

The twin sister was adopted. Jesse ended up in juvenile detention. He's still there, and Tim says all we wanted was to go home. Then he adds, but nobody asked me what I thought.

Mr. T. WOLCOTT: It's because I'm a little guy. I'm not up there with the big senators and stuff. I can't do nothing about it, but I know something bad is going on. I'm being held down and, like, set on fire and then nothing you can do about it. I'm sitting there hoping it's going to rain one day.

Professor MARTIN GUGGENHEIM (New York University): That's a moral sin.

JOFEE-WALT: Martin Guggenheim is a professor of law at New York University. He blames Tim's situation on something called the Adoption and Safe Families Act. The 1997 federal law was supposed to help foster kids who were stuck in the system get adopted. It mandated that states file to terminate parental rights when a kid was in foster care for the majority of a 22-month period. Guggenheim says that's had kids losing parents left and right, but not all were getting new families.

Prof. GUGGENHEIM: We've went a little too far too quickly, creating children who were no longer legally related to families of origin but in the process gained nothing in exchange.

JOFEE-WALT: Barbara Geiger with the Washington Children's Administration says the state does everything in its power to get kids into permanent families. When that's not possible, she says, we can at least ensure they're safe.

Ms. BARBARA GEIGER (Department of Social and Health Services): At that point, we've become involved for some reason because the child is considered to be at risk of substantial harm, or has already been harmed and we want to ensure that there's no further harm.

JOFEE-WALT: As for Tim, he says he wasn't looking for anyone to keep him safe or to adopt him. He was happy with the family he had. Now he's just waiting to get them back. He's officially still in foster care but he spends most of his time here - on the porch with his mom.

Mr. T. WOLCOTT: How was your day, mom?

Ms. ELAINE WOLCOTT (Mother): My day was good.

JOFEE-WALT: Tim's parents, Elaine and Robert Wolcott, have both gotten their act together. They've been sober for a few years. Tim's dad turns up the music and comes out to the porch to ask Tim about homework.

Mr. ROBERT WOLCOTT (Father): You get it once a week and...

Mr. T. WOLCOTT: I get it every Tuesday and then it has to be turned in by next Tuesday.

JOFEE-WALT: Tim hunches head down in front of his parents, and this non-family looks a lot like an incredibly normal family, except just one thing. As Tim turns to leave for the mall, he makes sure to mumble this to his mother.

Mr. T. WOLCOTT: All right. I love you, mom.

Ms. E. WOLCOTT: Be safe.

JOFEE-WALT: That's right. This 15-year-old never walks out the door without telling his mom he loves her.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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