Lynne and Grant Delph have been married more than 20 years and have completed foster care and adoptive parent training.
They’ve provided care for five years for their great-grandson, Paul Lima, who was born to their drug-addicted granddaughter, as well as to four other children placed with them by the S.C. Department of Social Services.
Now the Delphs want to gain custody of Paul’s youngest sister, Vivian Delph-Lee. But DSS, which usually tries to keep families intact, believes the girl would be better off with the foster parents who have cared for her all of her young life.
“DSS should be trying to keep families together and since Lynne already has custody of Vivian’s brother, it makes no sense to not place Vivian with her,” said Thomas Boggs, who will be representing the Delphs in the Family Court hearings in Oconee County in early February that could determine custody. The Delphs now live in Myrtle Beach.
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DSS says it is not that simple.
“When children go into foster care, DSS has a preference for placing them with family members,” said DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus. “Sometimes the child’s best interests require other placement. Many factors go into the decision.”
That’s the heart of the case: how “best interest of the child” is defined, and who gets to define it.
DSS in Oconee is expected to argue next month that it is not in Vivian’s best interest to be added to a home that already includes numerous challenges. Lynne and Grant Delph believe being part of a family that has demonstrated a willingness to take care of its own on multiple occasions, despite those challenges, is in Vivian’s best interest.
Jim Rogers, a certified parenting expert not involved in the case, said in situations such as these “caution is a good word to work by.”
“I would have to evaluate the couple, their stability, their reasons for doing all of this, and what their lives are like and how the other children are doing and what the special needs assistants are saying,” he said. “The infant might have a better chance for growth with a family who didn’t have as much going on, biological or not. The workers in this case may have all the info they need to make the call to put the child in another place.”
While the Delphs expect the DSS professionals in Oconee to argue against placing Vivian with them, the couple recently passed a home study test conducted by Horry County DSS, which said the house is suitable for Vivian.
The struggle Tiffany Delph, who gave birth to Paul, Vivian and another daughter, has with addiction is well documented and illustrated by DSS’s intervention in the lives of each of her children. Because of that, Lynne Delph knows no matter what happens with Vivian, the family could face this issue again.
“We’ll just cross that bridge when we get there,” she said. “If she had another kid and they took that one, then I think at that point, I’m hoping that one of her other sisters will step up and help, or maybe we’ll be in a position to do it again. I hope it doesn’t happen. But I hoped it wouldn’t happen after Paul, but we have two more.”
The Oconee County DSS office became involved with the Delphs in 2007 when it investigated Tiffany Delph for physical neglect and substantial risk of harm of physical abuse “in regards to domestic violence in the presence of a newborn child as well as drug use (cocaine and marijuana) by Ms. Delph and the father of the child,” according to court documents.
That case was closed once Lynne and Grant Delph secured custody of Paul.
In February of 2011, Tiffany Delph tested positive and “admitted to smoking crack cocaine as recently as five days prior to giving birth” to her second child, Alexandra, who “most likely” got cocaine in her system from breastfeeding, according to court documents.
Jennifer Delph, Tiffany’s sister, moved to South Carolina from Massachusetts and stayed for a year to secure custody of Alexandra.
Ironically, Grant and Lynne Delph’s decision to take in Paul in 2007 is one of the primary reasons they are having difficulty gaining custody of Vivian.
When Vivian was two days old her mother could have agreed to a placement with Grant and Lynne but declined saying she wanted Vivian with her in a drug rehab house. She has since written a letter in favor of such a move.
Grant and Lynne had moved from Oconee County to Myrtle Beach, frustrated by Tiffany’s continued drug abuse, but were at Greenville Memorial Hospital when police and DSS officials took Vivian out of Grant’s arms. DSS then secured temporary custody and placed her with the foster family the agency believes is best suited to care for her long term.
DSS says it is prevented by privacy laws to fully discuss the case, but according to court documents and the Delphs, the agency is balking at the placement because of what it says are numerous stressors already present in the home.
Primary among those stressors is 5-year-old Paul.
A year and a half after they were awarded custody of him, the Delphs went back to the DSS office in Oconee begging for assistance, saying if something didn’t change Paul would likely have to be taken away from them.
“Nobody bothered to tell us that this kid was hooked on cocaine when they brought him to us,” Lynne Delph said. “I was crying. I was saying somebody needs to help us. I didn’t know what to do with him. He was also detoxing at the time.”
That was during a period when the international financial crisis was unfolding and state budget limitations began to stretch DSS’s resources.
The economic downturn forced cuts in spending that increased the workload of social workers even as the number of families needing help was increasing. Even before the downturn, many social workers complained they too often felt hamstrung, wanting to keep families together and in their homes but often not able to because of a dearth of support services in communities throughout the state.
Lynne Delph said that in the case of Paul, DSS guidance turned things around.
DSS directed them to BabyNet, an agency which helps babies and toddlers with developmental delays.
Paul was not only born addicted to cocaine; he has a form of autism and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something he shares with his mother, Lynne Delph said.
DSS employees and BabyNet worked with them on a plan that included a more structured environment for Paul, a psychiatrist and a padded play area. They get frequent help from friends and neighbors. Some of the professionals who got involved 5 years ago still help and provide advice.
Lynne and Grant are raising Paul like one of their own, they said.
“We got him to the right doctors. There’s no reason that should be their grounds,” Lynne Delph said. “And that’s all we did was reach out for help.”
But while Paul is better and the Delph household is less hectic, he remains a special needs child who needs constant, specialized attention. He still has unpredictable outbursts at home and at school, which is common for children with such developmental delays.
Grant Delph is retired and receives disability benefits because of leg injuries that restrict his movement.
He’s 66 years old and had lung cancer five years ago.
“But he got a clean bill of health from his doctor and we got letters from both of our physicals,” said the 45-year-old Lynne Delph.
The appointed guardian ad litem, who is required to play an independent role and represent Vivian’s best interests in court, is going to argue the girl should not be placed with the Delphs, the Delphs and their lawyer expect.
The guardian, who is under the same privacy restrictions as DSS, initially seemed warm to the placement but changed her mind after DSS’s recommendation, Lynne said.
They hope to have a professional who helped them with Paul testify on their behalf.
They also plan to tell the court that DSS was OK placing four other kids with them between 2008 and 2010 – two of them for two months, one for more than a year – who were escaping abuse and unsafe living conditions.
Lynne Delph said the DSS workers who are recommending her great-granddaughter be placed elsewhere might not know of the improvements since they received help for Paul, or that their seemingly full house is devoid of children for 9 hours a day because they all go to school, including Paul, leaving plenty of time to provide Vivian with undivided attention.
Paul’s father also makes occasional visits and has begun to make child support payments.
Jennifer Delph, who took in Paul’s other sister, Alexandra, might be moving to Myrtle Beach soon, reuniting them all and providing more of an extended family environment.
Lynne and Grant are the best current options within the family because they are both home, Lynne said.
“We love that little gal,” said Grant Delph. “She’s family. Family’s family, no matter what.”