Rescued more than two years ago from a house where alleged abuse and drug use occurred, a 4-year-old girl is at the center of a controversy that has raised sharp criticisms about how a government system failed to follow its own rules in placing a child in foster care.

Rescued more than two years ago from a house where alleged abuse and drug use occurred, a 4-year-old girl is at the center of a controversy that has raised sharp criticisms about how a government system failed to follow its own rules in placing a child in foster care.

Medford resident Norman Fincher has struggled to adopt the girl, who is the daughter of his cousin. But he said he has been thwarted at every step by the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services' Children, Adults and Families Division.

A foster family in Wilderville that has taken care of the girl for more than two years also wants to adopt her. The girl's name is being withheld to protect her identity.

While the families disagree about who should adopt her, both say DHS has been inept in handling the situation.

"The DHS has run us both through the wringer," said Fincher, 38, a financial adviser who lives in east Medford with his wife, Patty, and their four children. "They have affected one little girl's life and two families."

Madeline Fitzsimmons, 62, who is the girl's foster parent along with her husband, Pat, said, "DHS has wronged everybody all around."

At this point, DHS is preparing to award adoption of the girl to the Fitzsimmonses.

But Fincher said he's also appeared at hearings and other meetings held to determine who should adopt the girl. However, he said DHS lost his paperwork at one point, has blocked efforts to visit her and now claims that he hasn't properly bonded with her.

The girl ended up in foster care in 2004 after DHS determined her birth parents in Cave Junction were providing an unsafe home environment that included drug use and physical abuse, according to both the Finchers and Fitzsimmonses. She was separated from her older brother and twins who were placed in separate foster care homes. Both the Finchers and Fitzsimmonses say the girl may be suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome.

"One thing I do agree with DHS, it was a good decision to take the kids away," said Norman Fincher, who describes the little girl as blond-haired, blue-eyed and skinny. "Whenever she comes over she wants to see Brandon and Ashley," he said, referring to his children. "She loves to climb the stairs. She loves her baby dolls. She named all her dolls and brings them over."

State rules dictate that DHS attempt to place a child with a family member, but in this case, Fincher said, he was overlooked.

His plight has caught the attention of Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, who has demanded an accounting from DHS about whether it follows its own rules in placing children in foster care.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," said Esquivel. "DHS has admitted they screwed up but they're not going to make things right."

Esquivel said Fincher is fully qualified to be a foster parent. He also referred Fincher to a Medford attorney, who will be challenging DHS in Josephine County Circuit Court.

Doug Mares, district manager for Jackson and Josephine counties for Children, Adults and Families, said the Finchers initially indicated they wanted some kind of relationship with the girl after she was taken away from her home. However, he said DHS was hoping to place the children back with their birth parents.

"When it became apparent we weren't getting the child back home with the parents, we should have contacted the Finchers and that didn't happen," he said.

Because DHS failed to contact the Finchers, Mares said he is asking for a review of that practice. "It is concerning to me that that happened," he said.

While the process has been trying on the Finchers, Mares said the girl has had a good home to stay in since she was taken away from her parents.

He wouldn't disclose specifics about what the birth parents did, but said, "In general, we don't get involved in situations where there isn't abuse or neglect."

Mares said he's hoping to work through a process where the Finchers could have a relationship with the girl in a sort of aunt and uncle capacity. He said he's hoping this might head off a court action.

He said the Finchers are respected by DHS for their abilities to be a foster-care family.

"Both sets of these families are great people — the Finchers and the Fitzsimmonses," he said.

Ultimately, he said DHS was aware of the Finchers early on in the case and was aware of their interest in having a relationship with the girl.

"We're trying to take a lesson from what happened in this particular case with the system in Jackson and Josephine county," said Mares, indicating that it might have statewide implications as well.

According to a March 20 e-mail sent to Norman Fincher from Caroline Burnell, legislative coordinator with DHS, Fincher is considered a foster and adoptive parent in good standing and has passed all background tests.

Burnell, in a March 27 e-mail, told Fincher he wouldn't be able to have longer visitations with the girl because therapists concluded it was causing her too much anxiety.

"I do not want you to think that your family is doing anything wrong," she stated. "Everyone takes in the world differently and (the girl), through her behaviors, is telling her therapist she is at her limit in what she can take in at this time."

Fincher sent Burnell an e-mail on March 27 pointing out another therapist at a DHS hearing had recommended the girl have more contact with family.

He said his inability to visit with the girl was one of the main reasons DHS chose the foster family. “The reality is that Grants Pass DHS is doing everything possible, including the use of professionals, (to) ensure the outcome they see fit,” he stated.

Explaining why he wants to adopt the girl, Fincher said, “We’re basically from a very tight family. We couldn’t just turn our backs on this. We needed to step in and help out.”

He saw the girl twice before she was placed in foster care. But Fincher said it took 18 months before he could work out visitation rights. He’s seen her about eight to 10 times in the past eight months because of limitations placed on him by DHS.

The few visitations he’s received have been short because DHS sends out a van to the Fitzsimmonses to pick her up, drive her more than an hour to east Medford, then pick her up an hour and a half later for the return trip.

Fincher offered to pick her up in Wilderville, but DHS denied this request.

Fincher and his wife say the girl gets along well with their four children, Brandon, 11, Ashley, 6, Madison, 9, and Nolan, 13.

“The last time she came over to our house, she asked us to come visit her at her house,” said Patty Fincher, 42. “She just loves Brandon and Ashley.”

Patty Fincher said that early on DHS asked if she could take all four children who had been placed in foster care. “We don’t have the ability to take all four kids,” she said.

The Finchers are no strangers to foster care. They had two children living with them more than two years ago, whom they still see and babysit from time to time.

Now, Patty Fincher said, DHS has told her too many children is one reason not to allow them to adopt the girl.

Norman Fincher said, “Each step of the way DHS has put up barriers.”

His wife said, “Now (DHS) won’t let us adopt her because we don’t have an established relationship with her.”

Stefanie Burke, attorney for the Finchers, said she will be filing for an administrative review in Circuit Court by next week to challenge the DHS’s handling of the case.

“The DHS failed to follow their own procedures,” she said.

Burke said DHS should have sought out a relative first before placing the girl in a foster care home. “They didn’t do that here,” she said.

Under DHS rules, the Finchers are considered a relative even though he is a second cousin to the birth mother, said Burke.

The Finchers are not alone in having problems with DHS, said Burke, who has represented others who have had problems seeing a child even though they were a relative.

Madeline Fitzsimmons said she didn’t want to discuss specifics of her complaints against DHS unless she could first discuss the matter with her attorney, Claudia Browne, who was out of town last week for personal matters.

Fitzsimmons said the decision to hire an attorney came after her own problems with DHS, which she describes as injustice, lies and deceptions.

“It’s a terrible thing and DHS ought to be ashamed of themselves,” she said.

Fitzsimmons, who has been both a foster parent and an adoptive parent, said this is the first time she has had so many problems dealing with DHS.

“We’re not going to be foster parents anymore because of DHS,” she said.

She said the young girl, who was placed in her home two 1/2 years ago, gets along well with another boy she adopted, who is also 4 years old. “They absolutely adore one another,” she said.

With so many ups and downs in this whole process, Fitzsimmons said, “The poor baby is the one suffering,” she said. “She’s going through a lot of anxiety over the whole thing.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.