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The pro-spanking, home-schooling, families-first forces have won their share of victories over the years, but Shell believes that the child-protection "racket" is heavily stacked against parents -- particularly since the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, federal legislation enacted in the late 1990s that made child safety a greater priority for child-welfare agencies than family preservation.
"The system is set up to offer financial incentives for removing children from homes, and also for terminating parental rights and adoption," Shell says. "The money is there for putting the child in foster care, but the money is not there for providing in-home services."
Shell urges her readers not to cooperate with the child-protection system at any level. Don't let social workers into your home if you can help it. Don't talk to any investigators without a lawyer. Don't sign any releases that will allow them access to confidential medical information. If you must send your children to a public school, teach them to be wary of nosy teachers and buttinsky counselors. (Shell has also written a children's book, Knowing My Rules: Who Do I Trust?,that "empowers them to be safe while being questioned.") If you see a child whom you suspect of being neglected or abused, you probably shouldn't report it, Shell suggests, since the kid could be victimized further in foster care; instead, try to help the child and the family in any way you can.
Tape everything. If it looks like the brutes might try to remove your precious dumplings from the home, hide them. If they snatch Junior anyway, plant a bug in his teddy bear so you can monitor what goes on in the foster home. And, as the case lurches toward trial, raise a barrage of constitutional issues.
The vast majority of D&N cases are resolved long before trial. A child's temporary removal from the home by law enforcement triggers a hearing and a petition to the court to determine if the child has been abused or neglected; typically, the accused parent agrees to a treatment plan that is supposed to lead to the family's reunification. Shell's approach throws a monkey wrench into the machinery, demanding jury trials and resisting the state's efforts to monitor what goes on in the home.
"They just crank these through," Shell says. "In 2000, there were nearly 3,000 D&N petitions filed in the state of Colorado and fewer than ten jury trials. What do you think would happen if everyone insisted on their right to a trial?"
Shell's crusade has a kind of quixotic appeal among accused parents, but they're not its only admirers. Last spring she was a guest of the Hawaiian legislature, the first state body to pass a law endorsing the use of family advocates in court hearings. In Colorado, though, she's had a much rougher reception. Her opponents say her brand of advocacy drags out the painful process of a D&N case, turns the entire proceeding into a hopelessly adversarial one and can end up depriving parents of their children.
"I don't think I've ever had a case where she's been involved where we have not ended up terminating parental rights," says Rocco Meconi, Shell's nemesis in Fremont County.
Meconi has tangled with other self-proclaimed family advocates, and the results are always the same. "All these groups take the same tack: The department is bad, the courts are corrupt, the attorneys are inept, the children should be home, regardless," he says. "We've had lots of cases where people like Suzanne Shell get involved, and they harden the positions to such an extent that there's no degree of trust or cooperation. Yet these cases are often so clear and extreme that when people deny things, we just move for summary judgment. The facts are not in dispute, and they're horrific."
And Shell's claim that most abuse cases are exaggerated?
"That's garbage," he snaps. "When I hear those kinds of comments -- and I do get that from legislators and reporters -- I say, ŒCome look. Come with us. You'd be horrified. You'd want to know why we didn't pick up every child.' In the larger counties, Denver and El Paso, they hardly do anything unless it's incredibly egregious because they don't have the manpower. If we took on every case that warranted it, the system would be buried."
Until a few years ago, Shell admits, she did provide legal advice and on occasion draft court documents for Colorado parents who'd sought her help. Her activities triggered complaints from the Fremont County Department of Human Services and its attorney, Meconi -- and drew a stinging rebuke from a district court judge, Julie Marshall, who ordered Shell not to have any contact with the children in one D&N case.
Shell insists that she never tried to contact the children, but simply delivered some school supplies in backpacks to their foster home. "I had the camera going the whole time," she says. "They called the police and said I'd dropped a bomb off at their door."
After her first go-round with the Colorado Supreme Court over unauthorized practice of law in 2001, Shell redefined the limits of her advocacy. "They spent a lot of time making me understand that I could not give case-specific legal advice, draft legal documents or tell people what documents to file," she says. "So I changed my website. If you want my help now, your attorney has to be on board. If your attorney isn't on board, I won't help you. But I will film you if you want."