Jasmaine Shaphon cherishes every second she spends with her 6-month-old son, Mason.
The Arizona Department of Child Safety ruled she is safe and fit to take care of him, yet she still hasn't regained custody of her three older children who've been in the foster care system for nearly three years.
"It's awful! As a mother, I have never experienced such pain," Shaphon said. "It's like dealing with death."
Her three children were removed from the home back in 2019 over what Shaphon says was initially a medical marijuana issue. She says she completed the assigned programs, but just days before she was to regain custody of her kids, she made a mistake and let the children see their father.
Shaphon says the children's father has PTSD and other mental health issues that DCS has determined make him a potential risk.
The father posted a defiant video to social media saying nothing would keep him from seeing his kids. As a result, Shaphon says DCS denied her pending custody, and she's been fighting to get the kids back ever since.
"You know that they're there. You know that they're still breathing," Shaphon said about her kids. "You know that they still have light in them, but you don't get to see that light. You don't get to watch that light shine," she said.
Matthew Stewart has worked in the child welfare system for 10 years and now helps people like Jasmaine navigate the system and get their kids back.
"I think Jasmaine is an intelligent and capable mother," Stewart said.
Stewart says part of the problem is that caseworkers have never been around Black culture and don't truly understand it.
"It's almost like you would need a translator for one culture to another," he said.
He says caseworkers pass judgment through their own lens of what a proper household should look like and are oftentimes removing Black children from the home unnecessarily.
"So those standards, those cultural practices are basically the bar that other families (Black families) have to meet when that's not necessarily fair to those (Black) families," Stewart said.
As for Jasmaine, she says DCS first tried taking little Mason from her, too.
"They removed him from the hospital, from me, while I was breastfeeding him," Shaphon said.
"She called me crying and upset," Stewart said.
Fortunately, Stewart was able to meet with DCS and intervene on her behalf and the agency decided, in Mason's case, Jasmine was fit to care and the child was returned.
"Sometimes families need to be left alone," Stewart said.
He says most Black families are reported to DCS after a negative encounter with either law enforcement or the school system.
The Arizona Department of Child Safety released the following statement:
"We are acutely aware that challenges exist for African-American and Native American children becoming involved in the child welfare system. African-American families are between 4% and 5% of Arizona's population, but comprise 14% of children in reports to DCS. The Department is engaging with the African-American community and other family-serving agencies to address the disproportionate number of African-American children that are reported to DCS."
Stewart was recently awarded a grant from Microsoft and used it to form "Project Home Team." It's an organization Stewart says is aimed at bringing awareness to the disproportionate number of Black children in the system, allowing him to continue his work of reuniting those children with their families.