Zsazsa Karajman has a bedroom in her home for her two granddaughters.
It’s been that way since one day in February when the two children went to school but didn’t come home to Karajman’s Plantation Golf & Country Club home in Venice. State officials moved them to a foster home, and Karajman has had little contact with them since.
Karajman said her own daughter — the girls’ mother — became addicted to drugs at 12. The 72-year-old grandmother has been the girls’ primary caregiver and mother figure since 2016, almost all of their lives.
Although the girls are in Karajman’s temporary custody, as the grandmother, she has limited rights. The courts only become involved in allowing grandparents to have full custody if it’s proven it’s in the best interest of the children. Otherwise, children in abusive situations are put into Florida’s foster care system and grandparents can ask for scheduled visitation or eventually adopt the children.
That’s what Karajman did with her daughter’s first-born child, who is now 12. Karajman had custody of her eldest granddaugther since she was 9 months old and later adopted her.
However, it hasn’t been the same for Karajman’s other two granddaughters, who are 7 and 8. The arrangement was informal.
They were doing fine, Karajman said, until she asked for a three-day respite to heal from surgery, and state officials removed the children from her home.
Department of Children and Families
Case workers from the Department of Children and Families and the Safe Children Coalition have monitored custody of the girls since Karajman’s daughter did not legally sign them over to her care in 2016.
The girls also have a court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem who speaks for them during court hearings, home visits or other issues. A Guardian Ad Litem is a trained volunteer who interacts with the children and advocates for their needs to DCF or a judge.
Karajman, a longtime hair dresser, suffers from back problems. On Feb. 9, she needed a surgical procedure. Her doctor suggested she be on bed rest.
“I called DCF to see if was OK for the girls to go over to their Guardian Ad Litem’s house in North Port for the three-day President’s Day weekend while I was recovering,” Karajman said. “DCF denied it. I didn’t think much of it, and on Feb. 17, they (the girls) went back to school.”
The girls didn’t return to her home. A DCF case worker went to Taylor Ranch Elementary School and brought them to a foster home on the other side of North Port. They were switched to Atwater Elementary School.
Karajman doesn’t understand why this happened. She said she only asked for respite from DCF once in six years. However, she didn’t know DCF doesn’t offer respite for grandparents. Karajman said she would have never requested the help if it meant the girls would be removed from her custody.
“I feel like they were kidnapped,” Karajman said. “I was told the girls were removed from my home. I wasn’t told in advance. I was devastated. They were doing good at Taylor Ranch and finally had a counselor who was working with them.”
A grandparent’s support group
For years, Karajman told members of the Kinship Core Support Group — a group for grandparents raising grandchildren — how she feared for her grandchildren’s safety before they came to live with her. She said they witnessed drug use, fighting and were often left alone. She said her daughter went to rehab 20 times and had a rocky relationship with the children’s father who lives in another state.
The Kinship Core group meets monthly at Children First in North Port, but only remotely since the pandemic.
Members share experiences of having grandchildren who are in the DCF system and topics like stress management, child mental health, parenting strategies and discipline.
Karajman told members the girls and their mom lived with her on and off. Things went well for four years, but Karajman received a call from the girls saying they didn’t feel safe and wanted to live with her. She took them in. She later joined the support group for help raising the young girls.
Jack Baker runs the group through Children First. He said it’s extremely challenging for grandparents to navigate the court system.
“It’s a growing demographic in our nation with millions of grandparent-headed households where the grandparent is the primary caregiver and children’s resource,” Baker said. “Foster parents have more resources than grandparents. Some grandparents navigate the legal system on their own, but many, sometimes who are on a limited income, have to get an attorney.”
Baker said the state has a new relative caregivers program similar to the foster care system. Grandparents who apply through the courts can get funding to help raise the grandchildren.
Karajman’s struggle with the system
On Jan. 4, Karajman was supposed to call the girl’s father so they could speak to him. She said she missed the call because she was in the hospital. She thought she was having a heart attack. Her neighbors took care of the three girls overnight. Karajman returned home and made the call.
“They did not want to talk to their dad,” she said. “I reached out to the school to help me to find an in-home therapist. They sent one from Parenting Matters. It was a great help.”
Three weeks into their counseling sessions, DCF removed the girls and placed them at a foster care of a 76-year-old, Karajman said. There are other foster children in the home.
“They went from a home where they ate home-cooked meals every night with their biological sister to chaos,” Karajman said.
Karajman, who is from Hungary, has been in the United States for 49 years. She said her temper got the best of her several times when dealing with caseworkers. While she was talking to a reporter for The Daily Sun, a caseworker called Karajman. The woman explained Karajman speaks to her granddaughters about their parent’s situation and it’s not in the best interest of the girls. Therefore, Karajman can only have one-hour supervised visits with them.
Karajman pleaded for the girls to be removed from the foster home and to live with the Guardian Ad Litem in North Port. The caseworker said “yes” and the girls could move there with Karajman given supervised visits.
The other side of the story
DCF doesn’t discuss cases with the media. However, a letter from Lynne Johnston, Government Operations consultant for the Department of Children and Families, to Karajman, explains the agency’s findings.
“In terms of the removal of the children from your home, it is apparent that you did request respite initially and it was explained that respite is not available,” Johnston wrote.
“Options were discussed that if you had other family members or friends, they could be screened for possible placement. You requested the children be moved to the Guardian Ad Litem … Such a move would take time and discussion about whether this was in the best interest of the children and a home study, including background screening, would need to be completed.
“The purpose of the counseling was not necessarily to assist with your relationship with the girls, it was for the girls to process and adjust to the traumas they experienced from their parents, from the removal, etc.,” she wrote.
Johnston wrote the girls expressed opinions about their father that were “beyond their level of maturity.”
“Although you may not have been the one responsible for their thoughts or opinions about their father, there was little to no support for building that parent-child relationship or recognizing the father’s right to be involved with his children and the case,” she wrote.
“Children that have been removed from their parents due to abuse or neglect carry heavy burdens. As a result, it’s important that the children not be burdened with adult matters and details of the case or promises that are not within our control,” the letter states.
Johnston wrote that supervised visits are a way of protecting children from becoming part of “adult” discussions. In time, they could lead to unsupervised or unlimited visitation.
“The case management team will continue to work with each parent to get them the services they need, to promote an on-going, healthy relationship with the children and to ultimately allow the children to find permanency in a safe and nurturing environment,” Johnston wrote. “As their grandmother, you play a crucial role in providing them the love and consistent emotional support they need, and the team recognizes your essential role in their lives.”
Johnston wrote Karajman’s grandaughters will stay with the guardian “until” the parents successfully reunify or the court approves another permanency option.
“It’s all wrong,” Karajman said. “Grandparents in Florida should have meaningful rights. I’m their grandmother and can only see them one hour a week.
“I’m grateful they have an amazing guardian, but I desperately want them back in my life for good.”