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Originally published August 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 19, 2007 at 12:39 PM

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Kids try to reunite with parents

When Timothy Wolcott was 10, the state took him away from his parents, alleging he and two siblings were neglected. Now 15, he's trying...

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Timothy Wolcott was 10, the state took him away from his parents, alleging he and two siblings were neglected. Now 15, he's trying to get his mom and dad back.

Wolcott and his twin brother, Jesse, are believed to be the first youths in Washington to test a new law allowing adolescents to ask a court to reinstate their mother's and father's parental rights.

So far, the boys have filed a petition and had a hearing in Kitsap County Juvenile Court, where a commissioner appointed them lawyers. The law is so new that rules for it still haven't been written, so no one is exactly sure what will happen next.

Nonetheless, the boys' story illustrates the difficulties of keeping kids in foster care, and the tremendous pull that family can have over a child. It also shows the dilemmas faced by courts when parents transform themselves after they've lost rights to their children.

Timothy and his parents maintain that the family never should have been broken apart. But in any case, Elaine Wolcott-Ehrhardt and Robert Wolcott are completely different from when they lost the three children, Timothy said.

"My mom's done 180 degrees," he said. "My dad's done a 540."

Jesse, meanwhile, was in juvenile detention Monday on a drug-related burglary charge, his mother said. Her 11-year-old daughter, who was also removed from home, has since been adopted.

Timothy, a thin boy whose teenage getup belies a surprising level of maturity, said he'd do anything to get back home.

"I want to be with my family that I know loves me, regardless," he said.

Parents divorced in '97

Last year, about 1,400 children in Washington state became "legally free," as their parents' rights were taken away due to abuse or neglect. Sometimes parents relinquish their children voluntarily. Other times, as with the Wolcotts, a court terminates a parent's rights after a legal battle.

Timothy and Jesse's parents were divorced for four years when the state took their children in 2001. Shortly before that, Wolcott-Ehrhardt had gotten in an alcohol-related accident with children in the car. And before that, she said she was found by Child Protective Services to have neglected her kids' dental care. She said she got a deferred prosecution for driving under the influence, completed treatment and complied with all requirements.

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Meanwhile, Wolcott said he was trying to kick a drug habit in 2001, adding that he's been clean since then.

It was impossible to verify much of the family's information Monday evening because neither the juvenile court nor CPS records could be inspected. Monday, Wolcott-Ehrhardt, who manages two convenience stores, presented a clean-cut image, dressed in a suit with her hair pinned up. Wolcott, a ponytailed roofer wearing jeans and a T-shirt, spoke as clearly as his ex-wife.

The two lost their parental rights in 2003. Wolcott-Ehrhardt said she kept filing motions asking the court to return the children. But since her rights were terminated, she had no standing to do so.

Meanwhile, her boys weren't doing well. Timothy said he left school in seventh grade, got addicted to drugs and did several stints in juvenile detention.

"I did drugs because I hated reality," he said. "Being in foster care is not that fun."

He spent much of his time on the run, panhandling and living on the streets.

Over and over again, he and Jesse ran away to their mother's or father's. Family made him feel good, he said. While in foster care, he said, "I have a cold, sinking feeling in my heart."

Authorities soon figured out where they could find the boys, and a cycle began.

"They would put them back in foster care," Wolcott-Ehrhardt said. "Then they'd run, and I'd pick them up again."

On occasion, Timothy said, he was sent to juvenile detention for running away.

Finally, Timothy just ran away without going back home. He missed birthdays and Christmases as he saw no further than his next hit of meth. He said he's been clean for five months.

Lawmakers get involved

Wolcott-Ehrhardt was scared for her boys and felt she could get them back on track, if only the state would let her. She heard about a California law that allowed parents to win back their rights, and approached several state legislators trying to get one passed here.

Sen. Phil Rockefeller and Rep. Ruth Kagi both agreed to sponsor legislation. The resulting bill was signed by the governor in May and took effect last month.

Now her boys are the first to use it, supporters of the law say.

At a preliminary hearing Monday, the lawyer representing the state said there are no plans to oppose the boys' petition. In order to reinstate parental rights, the commissioner must find that it is in the best interests of the children and that there is no other permanent plan for them.

Another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17.

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562

or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published August 7, 2007, was corrected August 7, 2007. A story Tuesday about children seeking to be legally reunited with their parents gave an incorrect timeline for the family's troubles. Elaine Wolcott-Ehrhardt and Robert Wolcott divorced in 1997; the state took the children in 2001.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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