The three women appearing before Judge Kimberly O'Donnell last month were something of a best-case scenario on an average day in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Two of the women were the grandmothers of a 7-year-old plagued by "behavior issues," an unstable home environment and a drug-addicted mother. The third woman was the girl's neighbor, with whom she'd found security and stability before her grandmothers and the courts intervened to help.
The girl wanted to live with her neighbor. She did best there, according to all three women. And after a short, disastrous stay with one of the grandmothers, she was on her way back with the blessing of both grandparents and the judge.
O'Donnell simply called the situation "heartbreaking."
But luckily for the girl, her grandmothers and neighbor provided a support network. Other children in the city aren't so lucky.
Last month, more children in Richmond ran out of luck. Cases of sexual abuse, felony child abuse, neglect or crushing financial problems are a few reasons Richmond Department of Social Services says it removes children from families. The agency is still evaluating why it was busier than normal in May.
"We removed 43 kids in May," says Anne Kisor, the city's deputy director of social services. That's an almost bionic jump from the same period last year, when the agency removed 28 children from their homes. In April, 18 children were removed, and the month before, circumstances required the removal of 27 kids.
The jump has been raising eyebrows at social services, Kisor says: "Everyone kind of went, 'Whoa.'"
"It's been a noticeable increase in the courts," O'Donnell agrees. "Whenever that happens, I think everyone wants to know why whether there's a trend that's going to continue or it's just an unusual situation because of large sibling groups."
The May spike may well turn out to be the latter. Of the various cases that came to court, two families accounted for 11 of the total of 43 children removed.
But even after identifying an unusual cause not likely to be repeated, "you still have to delve more deeply," says O'Donnell, and ask the question: "What is the basis of the increased instances of abuse and neglect?"
Even an atypical event could provide important clues to another underlying social trend that should be red-flagged, she says. Kisor agrees.
"I would have to say that we're going to be looking at it very closely," Kisor says. "It could be just statistically insignificant just something that happens but we don't want to leave that to chance. We're trying to put some pieces of the puzzle together." S