Pair embroiled in custody nightmare

By Sharon Kiley Mack, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail Sharon
Last updated: Saturday, October 2, 2004

VAN BUREN - After spending 15 months in Maine trying to obtain custody of their four grandchildren, Yvonne and Norman Thibeault packed up their van last month and headed to their winter home in Maryland without them. Once there, they were faced with the reality of bedrooms that have been carefully decorated and prepared for their grandchildren but will remain empty.


"He made us give up," Norman Thibeault said, speaking of Judge Ronald Daigle of Caribou District Court, who denied the couple custody and shattered their dreams of reuniting their four grandchildren, who are now in four foster locations.


The children are two girls, ages 14 and 15, and two boys, ages 10 and 11.


Court documents from the latest in a series of hearings show that the judge ruled the children had undergone severe trauma by their mother and father and would continue to need extra therapeutic services.


He ordered the children to remain in the custody of the state Department of Health and Human Services. "Said services shall be arranged for and paid for by [DHHS]," the court order states.


Newell Auger, spokesman for DHHS, said he could not discuss the situation without written permission from the Thibeaults.


"There is no way we would do that," Yvonne Thibeault said recently. "The court could use that against us in the future, saying we did not have the best interest of the children in mind."


But the Thibeaults felt their family had been torn apart by DHHS and felt compelled to go public with their story.


They sought and were granted intervenor status, which allowed them to obtain DHHS paperwork that indicates the children may have been abused while in DHHS care.


"The abuse in the system has been one hundred times worse than the abuse in the home," Norman Thibeault said.


As a result, the Thibeaults have spent three years trying to pry the children from DHHS custody.


Yvonne Thibeault said the children were removed from her daughter's care in February 2001, a move she said was necessary. DHHS documents indicate that physical and sexual abuse were taking place.


The Thibeaults themselves had reported their daughter's neglect when the family lived in Canada. "There were over 150 pages of complaints," she said.


But once her daughter and the children moved to Van Buren, the U.S. system moved quickly, she said. "Those kids were basically taking care of themselves," she said. "They were removed, torn apart and placed all over Maine."


Though the Thibeaults stepped forward immediately and offered to take the four children, DHHS denied that request and retained custody, according to the grandparents.


In the three years since, the couple has been working tirelessly to gain custody. Yvonne Thibeault has taken training courses regarding the care of emotionally challenged people. Her training credentials fill a 1-inch thick binder.


At their two-story home in Maryland, the couple fenced in the back yard, installed swing sets and other toys, and decorated the two bedrooms with bright colors.


Their home was inspected and passed by the Maryland equivalent of DHHS, and they lined up therapists and psychiatrists to help with the children's care.


In January, they took the foster parents' course for the state of Maine and were denied a Maine license only because they already hold a Maryland foster parents' license.


They also moved back to Maine, as requested by Judge Daigle, taking expensive leaves of absence from their jobs. The move was supposed to be only three months long but stretched to 15 months.


Their frustration has boiled over into anger, and they are contemplating a lawsuit against the state of Maine for what they have documented as abuse within the system.


"My grandchildren were taken from an abusive home to be put in a safe place," Yvonne Thibeault said. "They were put into a system that was worse. I want the abuse to stop. I don't believe in this system. The healing has to start."


The Thibeaults maintain that one of the children has been placed in 16 locations in the past three years and they were all separated from each other.


She said one child ran away 12 times in an attempt to reach her grandparents. "They placed her near us at Grand Lake and once she could see us all the time, she stopped running," the grandmother said.


The couple said both of the boys have been sexually and physically assaulted while in foster care and both girls have had sexual relations, one when she was 12 years old with another foster child.


DHHS documents obtained by the Thibeaults contain repeated references by the children to alleged abuse while in foster care. The Thibeaults were unable to get documents from DHHS confirming the abuse.


However, they have discussed the issue with their grandchildren, they say, and the grandchildren are adamant that the abuse occurred.


Several reports in 2002 detail one of the boys telling his caseworker how another foster child repeatedly hit him. According to DHHS documents, a caseworker recommended that the child be removed from the foster home, and he was, according to the grandparents.


In a treatment summary, prepared in May for DHHS by Community Health and Counseling Services of Houlton, social worker John Pasquarelli wrote that the separation of the two brothers has been particularly damaging.


"[The child] has always had a strong attachment to his brother ... and this separation from him continues to be traumatic," the social worker wrote.


Another caseworker reported that one of the girls, at age 12, claimed having lesbian encounters with another foster child. Toxicology reports on one of the girls, who at the time was 14 and in a state-run high school, indicated she tested positive for both amphetamines and marijuana.


The Thibeaults maintain that these reports document "only a small part of the abuse these children have gone through.


"How can the state possibly believe they wouldn't be better off with us?" Yvonne Thibeault said.


Last December, the Thibeaults appealed to Gov. John Baldacci for help.


"Our grandchildren are becoming institutionalized because they have not been permitted to spend significant portions of their formative years with family," they wrote to Baldacci. "DHHS considers the availability of family of no consequence in matters of our grandchildren's placement. I firmly believe that the department's continued disregard of appropriate family placement is causing my grandchildren irreparable harm and that such disregard flies in the face of existing law."


Though they have returned to Maryland, the Thibeaults haven't given up. They also have contacted U.S. Senator Susan Collins for help and written to President George W. Bush.


"We will never, ever give up the fight for our grandchildren," Yvonne Thibeault said.






Yvonne and Norman Thibeault of Van Buren have accumulated dozens of boxes of paperwork in their three-year quest to obtain custody of their four grandchildren. "We will never, ever give up the fight for our grandchildren," Yvonne Thibeault said