ENUMCLAW, Wash. - From day one Doug and AnneMarie Stuth of Enumclaw adored the new baby in their home.
"It was a very exciting time. She was the center of our world," AnneMarie Stuth said.
But the Stuths aren't the baby girl's parents; they're her grandparents. Their troubled teenage daughter had her at 16. Then she relied on her parents to help raise the baby.
"I was the first one to hold my granddaughter and I was the first one to kiss her," Doug Stuth said. "So yeah, we have a tight bond."
State laws on placing children with relatives
When the baby was 9 months old, things unraveled. The teen mom moved out of her parents' home along with the baby. While living away from the Stuths, the baby lost weight. A doctor's appointment led to a call to Child Protective Services. The doctor reported the teenage mother let her child get dangerously thin.
"It's like your whole world comes crashing down," AnneMarie Stuth said.
Enumclaw police put the child in protective custody with the Stuths right away.
The grandparents raised the child for months and received glowing reports. One officer of the court wrote: "She's fortunate to have her grandparents as a safety net."
"Our granddaughter always came first," Doug Stuth said. "She's a little baby. She needs someone to protect her and take care of her and that's what we did."
Reuniting the baby with her mother was the goal. Caseworkers placed the two in transitional housing for young moms. That didn't work. The teenager got kicked out of the programs and lost her daughter again.
This time instead of going back to grandma and grandpa, social workers put the baby in foster care. There was a court order saying the Stuths weren't a placement option. State workers and the child's court advocate had submitted negative reports about them to a judge, saying living with the grandparents wouldn't be good for the baby.
The Stuths were devastated. The child's daycare providers gave them heartbreaking reports.
"(They tell me) that she cries for me," Doug Stuth said. "You have no idea (how hard it is)."
Why didn't the baby go back to the grandparents? Most people would think there must be something very wrong with them, such as reports of abuse or neglect. Perhaps they have criminal records, drug problems, or a history of unemployment? None of those things are true.
So we dug a little deeper. The King 5 Investigators looked at hundreds of documents written by people making decisions on the case.
A court-appointed advocate for the baby wrote the Stuths were selfish, hyper-critical, and were derailing their daughter's parenting efforts. One example cited over and over in legal papers: They gave the child a pacifier, or binky, which was against the young mom's wishes.
"You would not believe how many times that darn binky was brought up in court and in paperwork over the stupid binky!" AnneMarie Stuth said.
A social worker also wrote the grandparents refused to financially support their daughter. But we have copies of dozens of cancelled checks which show the Stuths were giving their daughter money.
They were also accused of being unwilling to drive the child for visits with the mom. But mileage reimbursement records show the state was paying the grandparents for driving hundreds of miles a month so the child could see her mother.
"I've never seen people so hell bent on destroying one family," AnneMarie said.
Washington law is clear: If a child can't be with parents, relatives must be considered before foster care.
"The department (DSHS) is making greater efforts, absolutely," State Family and Children Ombudsman Mary Meinig said.
Meinig's office investigates dozens of child custody complaints from relatives every year. She says DSHS is doing better at placing kids with relatives, but that state workers are not always following the law.
"When you have children who are not at risk and they are bonded to their relative, you want them there," Meinig said. "You don't want them re-traumatized by removing from relatives."
The Stuths think they were flagged as trouble-makers because they complained, a lot, about what was happening. They even called their senator, Pam Roach, who rattled cages in Olympia over the case.
"I'm trying to right something that I think is wrong," Sen. Roach said. "I think it's important that the state realize that it's doing something very damaging to this little girl."
Roach lobbied to get the Stuths visits with their granddaughter. They'd been told by the child's court advocate there was a court order forbidding them to see her. But we've found there was no such court order. They should have been allowed to see her all along.
"It's heartbreaking why any state would want to step between a family tie like that and try to sever that bond," AnneMarie said.
A judge ordered there should be visits and last month KING 5 was there for one of them. The child, now 3 years old, lit up upon seeing her grandparents in the parking lot where the supervised visit was to take place.
"To see the excitement in her eyes and know how we feel inside," AnneMarie said, "there's no way to put that into words."
DSHS officials couldn't answer specific questions about the Stuths' situation because it's part of an ongoing case. But speaking in general terms, Cheryl Stephani, who heads up all child welfare programs at DSHS, told us: "The first requirement is that any placement be in the best interest of the child."
Stephani also says custody cases are never as simple as they appear.
"It's easy to sit back and say, oh, I know exactly how that should have gone," Stephani said. "But when you're in the midst of it, there really are a lot of folks who have the best interests of the child at heart but there are a lot of different viewpoints."
One high ranking DSHS official thinks the case hasn't been handled correctly. We've obtained an internal state e-mail where the administrator writes: "If we don't (place the child) with a relative there will be a lot of explaining to do."
Later this month a judge is expected to rule on the fate of the little girl. The young mother is fighting to get her back, and the grandparents support that goal. State social workers have pushed to have her adopted by the foster mother, saying the little girl is very bonded to her now.
During this turbulent year and a half, the Stuths have left their granddaughter's room untouched in their Enumclaw home. Her clothes, toys and blankets sit empty in a pretty pink room. It's hard to go in, so they usually have the door closed.
"You look at different things and you remember, where you got it, where you were, how much she loved it," said AnneMarie. "It's a piece of your heart and life gone."
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