We’ve all been warned to read the fine print. Be sure you understand what you are signing. The reminder usually relates to a cell phone contract or insurance policy. Turns out, it applies to children too.
Patty and Larry Harvey were given custody of their grandchildren when the kids were toddlers. They raised them for nearly ten years before both were diagnosed with different forms of cancer.
As it grew more difficult to battle their illnesses and properly take care of their grandchildren, they tried to do what good parents do - find a safe, stable place for the children to live temporarily.
They had recently attended a tour with their grandparents group of WinShape Homes, a non-profit private foster home in Floyd County. The organization openly markets to grandparents raising their grandchildren, no longer able to keep up.
The Harvey’s agreed to place the children there temporarily. Four years later, they have been reduced to supervised, quarterly visits and will likely lose even that privilege by the end of July.
When the Harvey’s began to question decisions being made by the foster parents, the relationship became strained. The contract signed by the Harvey’s stated they could regain custody, with 90 day notice, but only on the condition that Winshape agreed it was in the best interest of the children.
Upon that request, the Harvey’s received a letter stating the children would be returned to their home in August 2014 and that transition visits would begin shortly. But before any of that could happened, WinShape went to court to file a petition asking the children remain with them.
The Harvey’s admit, they always focused on the word “temporary” in the contract they signed, never thinking there would be a reason for WinShape to fight them for custody.
But court records show even though the Harvey's cancers were either cured or in remission, WinShape had concerns about the couple’s age, health, mental stability and parenting style.
“What is too old?” asked Larry Harvey. “I am ornery as the devil. I do my own yard work, he mows outside, I buy groceries,” added his wife, Patty.
WinShape also argued the children were emotionally dependent, basically too stressed out about their grandparent’s health to live with them or maintain frequent visits.
The Harvey’s attorney argues the stress was caused by WinShape’s decision to keep the children away and the growing friction with the foster parents, not the Harveys’ actual medical conditions.
“I think that sets a dangerous precedent for anyone out there who may have an illness. At what point do we say okay, you have diabetes. You’re too sick to take care of kids?” asked attorney Megan McClinton with the Manely Firm.
WinShape also claimed the oldest child was not getting a proper education, despite being enrolled in a private school.
The Harvey’s felt blindsided, scrambling to find an attorney that would take on an organization created by Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A.
The Harvey’s hired several lawyers, but say they were never truly represented. Despite adamant opposition to decisions being made in court, none of their attorneys ever filed a motion or appeal on their behalf.
Attorney McClinton didn’t learn about the case until the custody proceedings were nearing an end. Still she agreed to take the case.
“You have a privately funded organization that is petitioning for custody of children and is also systematically isolating those children from their families, their biological families, contrary to what the goals of juvenile court are which is reunification,” said McClinton.
Custody cases are always complex, but McClinton says DFCS never would have taken the children out of the home for reasons given by WinShape and even if they had, state law would have encouraged frequent visits with a goal toward reunification.
Because the children are in the custody of a private organization neither DFCS, nor the Office of the Child Advocate have any power. The decision rests with the judge.
The Harveys admit they haven’t always been their best advocate. Their heartache and now hatred for the organization they trusted, has clouded their ability to communicate with WinShape and follow some court orders. They fail to understand why they're having to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fight for custody of children that in their mind, still belong to them.
Over the past two years, they have been barred from holidays and school events. The Harvey’s say they can’t even give the children gifts.
Feeling like they have no voice in court they have posted signs in front of their house hoping to increase public pressure, but their actions only seem further proof to some that the couple is not stable to care for the children.
“I hope and pray that no grandparent has to go through with what we’ve gone through here with this. It’s not right,” said Larry Harvey.
The director of WinShape, Tyra Walker, would not comment on the case because it is a pending court matter.
While there is no doubt the organization has truly helped some families and children in need, child advocates say the Harvey's case should give others considering this as a temporary option, some pause.
The Harvey’s say the children, now ages 14 and 16, have decided they want to stay with their foster parents and do not even want them to visit. The court is expected to make that decision official later this month.