DCFS - give us back our children
See below for excellent Daily News articles published on the work of DHS Give Us Back Our Children (which Every Mother is a Working Mother Network coordinates and in which the Global Women's Strike is involved) and on the case of one of the mothers in the group! Please forward widely, and write letters to the Daily News thanking them for these breakthrough articles (write to email@example.com). Also there is an online poll here asking whether lack of a permanent home should force a parent to separate from a child. Please take a second to vote "No" (it's currently leading with 50% saying No).
Two other breakthrough articles have also appeared in the Daily News which contributed to a boy who was abused in foster care being returned to his mother, see below.
Should poverty and inability to find & keep appropriate housing tear mother from child?
Is home where the heart is?
Should poverty and inability to find & keep appropriate housing tear mother from child?
By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News
Posted on Mon, Feb. 22, 2010
SPARKLE Ballard had her baby home just a year when city social workers swooped in and snatched the infant away to foster care, deeming Ballard an unfit mom.
Her offense: She didn't have permanent housing.
Desperate for her daughter, Ballard did what she was told in a bid to get her back: She quit hopscotching houses and settled in a Mount Airy apartment, took parenting and GED classes and applied for jobs with more family-friendly hours.
But it wasn't enough. One year later, Ballard has seen her daughter, Christianna, only in weekly, supervised visits on the foster agency's turf.
"I think it's outrageous," said Ballard, now 19. "There are other people out there who can use their help and services, people that actually are abusing and neglecting their kids. I'm not one of those people."
Like Ballard, thousands of parents nationally have lost their children to foster care for little reason other than inadequate housing.
One fifth of foster children nationally landed in county custody - or languished there, as housing issues delayed family reunification - because of inappropriate housing, according to the Child Welfare League of America. A third of the nation's foster children have at least one homeless or "unstably housed" parent, according to the league.
Desensitized bureaucrats too often equate poverty with neglect and seize children away from biological parents whose only "offense" is hardship, critics charge.
And once kids are in the system, it can prove insurmountably difficult to get them out.
Parents petitioning to get their children back in Philadelphia typically wait five months between hearings, local parent-advocates say.
Because federal law requires social-service agencies to place foster children in permanent homes - biological or adoptive - after 15 months in county custody, biological parents might have just two or three chances to get their children back.
"There is not endless time to resolve some pretty serious problems," said Kathy Gomez, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit of Community Legal Services, who represents hundreds of parents in custody cases.
"Housing is among the single biggest factors in the use and misuse of foster care," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "Not only is it doing enormous harm to the children, who face abuse [in foster care] and possible permanent separation from their parents. It's doing enormous harm to the taxpayers, because foster care costs more than a rent subsidy.
"It is never an excuse to take away a child because the child's family can't afford a decent place to live," Wexler added. "It is incredibly cruel to the child and it's stupid financially."
Poverty a problem
Under the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, the list of reasons why children can be placed in county care is vast and varied: Physical or sexual abuse; delinquency under age 10; the death of or abandonment by parents; parental behavior such as drug abuse that endangers the child; the child's habitual disobedience or truancy; and so on.
Poverty is not on the list.
But poverty is a common denominator in many of the families whose children end up in foster care. It invites authorities' scrutiny, and snowballs into other issues that could prompt removal or delay reunification, child advocates say.
"It's easy to come under child-protection observation when you're poor," Gomez said. "And there's no room for error when you're poor: Once something goes wrong, things just tend to spiral."
Housing problems frequently result.
Parents struggling to pay rent might not have money to cover utilities or maintenance and repairs, creating living conditions that social workers might deem unsafe for children, Gomez said. Others who can't afford child care and transportation costs might miss so much work that they get fired - and without a paycheck to pay rent or a mortgage, they lose their housing, she said.
"Lack of housing is not legal grounds for removal, but homelessness, housing problems and residence in low-income neighborhoods all result in a greater likelihood of CPS [child-protective services] being involved," said Corey Shdaimah, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland who has studied the correlation between poverty, housing and child welfare issues.
Ruth White, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, agreed: "Child welfare won't say that they have actually separated a family because of housing. But it totally happens."
The remedy seems obvious: Help these families get housing.
But agencies that offer subsidized housing are overwhelmed by demand.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority, for example, has a waiting list of 43,000, spokesman David Tillman said.
Still, PHA participates in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Family Unification Program, which covers subsidized housing costs for 16,000 families nationally whose housing troubles threaten child-welfare involvement.
Since 2000, HUD has given PHA 300 vouchers under the program; 224 families in Philadelphia have benefitted, Tillman said. While 76 vouchers remain up for grabs, not everyone can use those vouchers, even if no one disputes a family's needs. HUD and PHA disqualify applicants with a history of violent crime or drug convictions.
DHS also partners with the city's Office of Supportive Housing to get 50 federally funded housing vouchers for families facing separation due to housing problems, DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose said.
Ambrose said that her agency doesn't track how many DHS-involved families have inadequate housing, nor how many children were removed from families living in poverty.
She insisted that her agency does not remove children solely for housing reasons. But among the more than 3,000 children in Philadelphia foster care, inadequate housing is a frequent concern, she acknowledged.
"I believe that children should, first and foremost, be with their families," Ambrose said. "We remove kids only if there is an identified safety threat. When there is a safety threat, we have a legal mandate to remove those children."
But family preservation is paramount, she added.
The agency has a $1.35 million emergency fund it uses to fix broken windows, buy beds, repair faulty plumbing, pay utility bills and solve other housing headaches that could endanger children, she said.
Because those funds are so sorely needed, DHS workers strive to ensure "housing sustainability," Ambrose added. That means that instead of passing out checks for security deposits willy-nilly, the agency wants to make sure that the families it helps can continue paying their monthly rent - and that requires a steady paycheck.
Further, the agency last July launched an "alternative response services" program, in which it identifies cases where no safety threat exists and hook up those families with in-home services to avert removal, Ambrose said.
DHS spends an average of $50 a day to provide a family in-home services under the new program, and up to $80 a day for those struggling with cognitive impairment, medical issues or sexual abuse, she said. In contrast, they pay foster parents about $24 a day per child.
"We pay double to triple to keep kids in their homes," Ambrose said. "We don't believe that children and families should be destabilized because of a housing issue."
Still, Shdaimah and others ask, why bother giving any money to foster parents? Why not just give it directly to the biological parents to fix whatever ails them and to preserve the family?
Wexler thinks that he knows the answer to those questions.
"The only reason we don't do this is it's not politically popular," he said. "It's not popular to provide help to 'bad parents.' The child-welfare system is really a parent-punishment system. But the problem is: When we take a swing at those parents, the blow almost always lands on the children."
But Ambrose disagreed.
"We're very clear about when we should remove children: It's when we can't keep them safe in their homes," Ambrose said. "I'm not sure that throwing money at them is what's going to keep them safe."
Hope for the future
Anyone with any experience in the child-welfare system knows that most cases are murkier than the waters of the Schuylkill.
In the decision to remove Ballard's daughter, Christianna, housing was an issue, Ambrose acknowledged.
But Ballard, who worked late nights as an IHOP waitress, occasionally left her daughter with a relative who was a sex offender, Ambrose said. Ballard and her baby also lived in one home where other residents had domestic-violence issues, Ambrose added. Ambrose listed other lesser problems she says delayed reunification, but Ballard denied any problems or noncompliance.
Ballard hasn't lost faith. She has a hearing scheduled for June, and she hopes that she'll get Christianna back then.
Until then, she'll visit her daughter, trying to coax the quiet girl into opening up more to mama.
"She doesn't talk - she just whispers," Ballard said. "They think she needs speech therapy. They think there's something wrong with her. But she's only 2; she doesn't understand what's happening to her. You [DHS] took her away from her mom. I wouldn't want to talk to you either."
Mothers March & Speakout 13 March Los Angeles London
Group of mothers with common foe: DHS and its 'adversarial system'
By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News
Posted on Mon, Feb. 22, 2010
It's a motley crew that meets regularly in the shabby, red-brick storefront in Germantown that is the humble home of the Crossroads Women's Center: Young and old, black and white, high-school dropouts and MBA-holders, activists and just plain angry folks.
But all are mothers, and they're united by a fierce determination and a common loathing. Their foe: The city's Department of Human Services.
"It's a totally adversarial, punitive system that really wants to separate you from your child," said Mary Kalyna, an activist in the growing "DHS - Give Us Back Our Children" effort based at the center.
The protest group formed several years ago after a mother named Tilly Ayala, frustrated by fruitless efforts to get her two children out of foster care, began weekly pickets outside DHS headquarters, at 15th and Arch streets. Her revolt was contagious, and before long, a crowd of supporters frequently joined her.
Volunteers from the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network embraced the effort, and now host weekly support-group meetings for other mothers similarly stymied by the system.
They also act as parent advocates, accompanying mothers to court hearings and meetings with caseworkers. And they lobby for reform, saying that more transparency and accountability are keys to improvement.
"Removing children should be the absolute last resort, when all other resources have been exhausted, when all other therapies have been tried, when a child is in immediate danger for his life," Kalyna said. "Instead, children get taken because there are roaches in the house. Or because their housing isn't adequate. Or because a parent has a drug addiction. Instead of giving those families help to handle those problems, DHS just removes the child."
Such claims annoy Anne Marie Ambrose. The DHS commissioner says that her agency does address those problems by providing in-home services and linking families with community services. DHS, she emphasized, removes children only when social workers identify a safety concern.
"I believe in advocacy, and I feel passionately about the welfare of children," Ambrose said. "So I respect that in others. But I've been called a 'babykiller' and a 'babysnatcher' [by DHS-Give Us Back Our Children pickets]. It hasn't been a productive relationship."
But Kalyna and her supporters are steadfastly unapologetic.
"I think DHS doesn't really care about children," Kalyna said.
Kalyna is a surprising spokeswoman for the anti-DHS movement. She used to work for DHS, as a social worker employed by an agency DHS that subcontracted to manage its foster care. After two years, she got tired of fighting for her clients without success.
"They said I identified with the clients too much," Kalyna said. "I took that as a compliment."
Kalyna and her colleagues have ambitious goals. Besides lobbying on a grassroots level for parents' rights, they believe that mothers deserve pay for their work in raising children, a concept practiced by some European countries.
"Mothers shouldn't lose their children because of poverty," said Pat Albright, a center volunteer.
The group complains that DHS is infected by a culture of contempt for biological parents.
And they want a more active advisory role within DHS. There are two groups already working for DHS reform: a community advisory board and the DHS Community Oversight Board. But many members of both boards are what Kalyna calls "muckety-mucks": doctors, politicians, professors, judges and the like.
They also want an investigation into how DHS spends its money and what quality-controls exist. Agencies subcontracted to manage foster care are paid according to how many children remain in care, giving them greater incentive to retain rather than return them, they charge.
The group is developing a video "dossier" of cases they say illustrate DHS problems. They aim to air it on public-access TV channels and at community meetings starting in May.
Mom: 'I'm on Cloud 9' after judge OKs son's return
By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News
She's getting her boy back.
Shannon Berthiaume, the West Philadelphia mother whose battle to get her three children out of foster care was chronicled in the Daily News in January [see below], asked a Family Court judge yesterday to return her eldest son, who has been in and out of foster care since May 2005.
Judge Ann Butchart agreed, with several conditions, and Berthiaume expects to have her 16-year-old son by early summer.
"Finally! Finally!" Berthiaume said a few hours after the closed hearing, at which Butchart approved a therapist's recommendation that the teen be reunited with his mother at school year's end.
"We was all crying. I told my son: 'Pinch me, because this is too good to be true,' and he pinched me hard too!" Berthiaume said, laughing. "I'm on Cloud 9."
Berthiaume, 37, lost her children, then ages 8, 10 and 12, to county custody after she drove her minivan into a West Philadelphia elementary school in May 2005 to protest the escalating racial bullying her kids had suffered there.
Although no one was seriously injured and the only damage was a scratch on the school door, she was arrested and sentenced to a year of probation. She later was acquitted of all but one (simple assault) of the five charges against her.
Social workers from the city's Department of Human Services took her children and kept them, pingponging between foster homes, for 18 months. When Berthiaume got them back, all three had been sexually molested in their foster homes, she said.
The Daily News is withholding the siblings' names due to the nature of their alleged abuse.
DHS took Berthiaume's eldest son again in spring 2007, after he molested his little brother. He has lived since then in a group home for sex offenders.
Berthiaume said Butchart had agreed to the reunification as long as the teen continues with rigorous therapy once he's home and social-service workers assess Berthiaume's home to ensure it's suitable for his return.
Meantime, Berthiaume looks forward to reacquainting herself with the boy she's seen only in sporadic visits and counseling sessions during the past three years.
She aims to buy him some games for the PlayStation that has become his favorite plaything and wants to take him to the Franklin Institute.
"We really haven't been able to reconnect, because he's been gone for most of the past five years," Berthiaume said.
"It will be a struggle, but it will be good for all of us to have him home."
Avalanche of Anguish
By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News January 21, 2010
SHANNON BERTHIAUME knows she did something stupid, something she can't take back.
In a fit of frustration, the mother of three drove her minivan into a West Philadelphia elementary school in 2005 to protest the escalating racial bullying her kids had suffered there.
Although no one was seriously injured and the only damage was a scratch on the school door, Berthiaume was arrested and sentenced to a year of probation.
But her legal troubles were trivial compared to the avalanche of anguish that followed.
Social workers from the city's Department of Human Services took her kids away and kept them, pingponging between foster homes, for a year and a half.
When Berthiaume got them back, all three had been sexually molested in their foster homes, she said.
"My oldest son [then 14] came home bleeding from his rectum - a lot, like a woman bleeds [menstrually]," Berthiaume said.
That son, now 16, is in a group home for sex offenders, after DHS took him again when he molested his little brother. Her other two kids resent her for catapulting them into the misery that has marred their lives since their mother's arrest.
"DHS has destroyed my family," said Berthiaume, 37, wiping tears from her cheeks.
While judges and social workers often assume removing children from troubled homes will make them safer, the ordeal of Berthiaume and her family illustrates a disturbing epidemic in foster care:
Kids in foster homes are up to four times as likely to suffer sex abuse as other kids.
The odds worsen for kids unlucky enough to get placed in group homes and other institutional settings:
They're 28 times as likely to be sexually abused there, studies show.
And while predatory foster parents make the headlines, the abuse typically is child-on-child, experts agree.
As shocking as the statistics are, child advocates say sexual abuse occurs far more than even the most perverted mind can imagine.
"I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, a New York-based nonprofit.
"It is quite common."
A parental protest
When fire forced Berthiaume and her brood out of their charred Kensington home in November 2004, they relocated to West Philly, where she enrolled them in the Samuel B. Huey Elementary School .
They were the only white kids in the school.
That didn't matter to Berthiaume, who married a black man and whose youngest son's father is Puerto Rican.
But it apparently did matter to some of their classmates, who rarely let an opportunity pass to call them racial names, beat them or otherwise bully them, the family said.
"My kids would come home crying every day. They were afraid to go to school," she said.
Berthiaume complained repeatedly to the school, the district, local and state politicians and even the U.S. Department of Education.
She still has a dog-eared file thicker than a phone book of her various fruitless pleas to people for help.
Finally, in May 2005, with the abuse unabated, she planned a protest outside the school.
She made up signs and kept them in her van, waiting for the perfect opportunity.
But fury overtook patience on May 24, when she picked up her kids from school - only to hear that bullies had pounced on her 8-year-old in the bathroom as he relieved himself, yanking painfully on his privates as they called him names, she said.
"I snapped," she said of the day that led to years of tears.
Berthiaume locked her kids in the van and steered toward Huey's front door. Berthiaume said she merely parked the van at the door to protest her kids' treatment; police said she rammed it.
Either way, she got arrested and spent the night in jail. Although acquitted of all but one (simple assault) of the five charges against her, she was sentenced to a year of probation, court records show. The case is the only blemish on her otherwise clean criminal record.
After her arrest, DHS took her kids, then ages 8, 10 and 12, and put them in foster care.
The three bounced around between 15 different placements, according to DHS records. Berthiaume's daughter was moved most, hopscotching between eight foster homes, according to DHS records.
She remembers none fondly.
"A lot of homes hit me, they beat me. Some of the homes, I starved; they would sit down at the table and say: 'You can't sit at this table because you're not part of this family.' So I'd have to eat at school," said the girl, now 14.
The Daily News is withholding her and her siblings' names due to the sexual nature of their alleged abuse.
At one home, Berthiaume's daughter said, a foster parent choked and threatened her after wrongly assuming she scratched a foster baby in the home.
Worst was the teenage boy in one home who pinned her down and fondled her as she struggled to escape in May 2006. She was 10 years old. She and Berthiaume sued DHS for the incident and won a $25,000 settlement from the city and its subcontracted provider in which DHS admitted no fault, DHS records show.
In infrequent phone calls and supervised visits, Berthiaume learned of her kids' struggles in foster care and worked hard to get them back. She earned her GED and took classes in parenting, nutrition and anger management to demonstrate her worthiness as a parent.
Still, DHS kept her two youngest until August 2006 and the oldest until October 2006.
Aside from the assault on Berthiaume's daughter, none of the three reported any maltreatment in foster care, said Dell Meriwether, deputy commissioner of DHS' Children and Youth Division.
Berthiaume said she first learned her sons had been molested two weeks after her eldest came home.
She walked into the boys' bedroom and saw her sons, who had been lying under a blanket, jump up. She thought she had interrupted the eldest trying to molest the youngest, so she called her DHS social worker.
Meriwether said, DHS investigators determined the eldest boy had performed oral sex on his little brother and then threatened him with violence.
"That is a pretty significant incident," Meriwether said.
DHS removed the boy again, and police charged him with a sex crime.
The criminal charges eventually were dropped, but DHS placed the boy, now 16, in a group home for sex offenders where he remains today.
A Family Court judge ordered the other two children to undergo therapy.
Berthiaume said both boys told counselors they'd been repeatedly raped while in foster care, although neither reported the abuse to social workers and DHS has no records of such reports, Meriwether said.
Berthiaume has spent the past three years struggling to rebuild relationships soured from simmering resentments and long absences.
"I love my mom, but I ain't even speak to her now without arguing with her. I have anger issues," Berthiaume's daughter said recently. "This [foster experience] damaged me. I just think of that day [when Berthiaume got arrested at Huey], and I think: If she wanted to get us out, she could have did it in a different way. 'Cause now, we're living a nightmare."
Berthiaume wishes she could take that day back.
"I feel bad, because I take responsibility for my actions," she said, crying. "I take on that burden that I got them placed in the system. If I wouldn't have did what I did, they wouldn't have suffered like they did."
Her house is quiet now.
Berthiaume's husband, tired of the drama, moved out last month.
Her two sons are gone.
DHS refuses to return Berthiaume's eldest son, despite professing, as most social-service agencies do, that family preservation is a top priority.
"Preservation of the family can only be possible when all of the children in the family can be safely maintained," Meriwether said. Further, the child "has not completed his sexual-offender therapy. He still is addressing his mental and behavioral health issues. [And] Ms. Berthiaume has not completed the requisite family therapy."
The eldest boy's "victim" - Berthiaume's youngest son - moved to another state a few weeks ago to live with his biological father, weary of fighting with his mother and rehashing things in interminable court-ordered therapy.
"I live in a four-bedroom house with one child," Berthiaume said. "This has broken my family."
A DHS social worker made a surprise visit to Berthiaume's home for the first time in years last week, shortly after the Daily News began asking DHS about the family.
But Meriwether denied any ill intent.
"Because there's an active child in placement, safety assessment visits should be done every six months. Those were not being done, so your call prompted that," Meriwether said.
But Berthiaume feels unfairly targeted.
"I just wish they would leave my family alone so we can heal from this," Berthiaume said. "They're supposed to be a child-protection agency. They could have left them with me, and they'd be fine. But instead, they say I'm not fit to be a mom, and then they place them with other people who abuse them. They didn't protect my children."
Cases like Berthiaume's exasperate Richard Wexler.
Wexler heads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Virginia-based nonprofit that advocates family preservation.
"In every respect, this is a perfect microcosm of everything wrong with the Philadelphia child-welfare system," Wexler said. "This mother flew off the handle, but did nothing herself to harm her children. So these children were taken from a perfectly safe home only to be abused in foster care."
Fearful of the public criticism that comes after high-profile abuse deaths like Charlenni Ferreira and Danieal Kelly, Philadelphia is too quick to remove children from their biological homes, Wexler contended.
" Philadelphia takes away children at, by far, the highest rate of any major city," he said.
Philadelphia's rate of removal – entries into care divided by the number of impoverished children - is 31.3 children removed for every thousand impoverished children in the county, according to coalition statistics. The national average is 20.2.
"The more you overload your child-welfare system with children who don't need to be there, the greater the likelihood of abuse," Wexler said. "There are two reasons for that: You put your DHS in a position where they are begging for beds. Beggars can't be choosers, so there is an enormous incentive to lower standards for foster parents. The other problem is if you have too many children coming in, you cannot be careful about which foster children you put with other foster children. And one of the biggest problems in foster care is foster children abusing other foster children.
"The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it," Wexler added.
DHS Spokeswoman DeszereeThomas countered that DHS has been successful at reducing its removal rates, saying only 4,988 children were placed in foster homes, group homes, supervised independent living and other settings, as of fiscal year 2009. That's down about 20 percent from a recent high of 6,210 in fiscal year 2005, according to DHS data.
Thomas couldn't quantify how many of those children are in treatment as sex-abuse victims or offenders, saying such information isn't tracked centrally.
But the state Department of Public Welfare, which investigates reports of children abused in foster care, tallied 261 reported incidents statewide of sexual contact between children in foster homes in 2008 and 2009.
National studies suggest the actual incidence of abuse is far higher. For example, youths in foster care are at a higher risk of acquiring HIV, according to a 1999 Washington University study.
"If bad things happen to these children, for the most part, they're unreported," Robinson Lowry said. "And when a foster-care system does a really lousy job, there are really no consequences. These are systems that are usually isolated from public outcry (because of privacy protections). Very often, the only real accountability is when a system gets sued."
A family forever fractured?
Some kids dislike school.
Berthiaume's youngest son has sworn it off forever.
"I will never go back to a public school ever," he said.
Since getting her kids back in 2006, Berthiaume has home-schooled them, the family's faith broken in all public agencies.
She'd like to leave Philadelphia , the city that has brought her so much heartache. But she won't leave her eldest son behind.
So she waits to learn what else she must do to get him back.
"I shouldn't have felt driven to take matters into my own hands. I had this nightmare for five years. Where was the city for me? They're still failing me after all these years," she said of her unending battle to make her family whole. "Five years of people just turning their backs. It feels as though the weight of the world is on us. I'm tired."
Co-ordinator of Global Women's Strike
Quoted in NY Times Op-Ed: Pay People to Cook at Home!
In the Guardian: From welfare to wages, women fight back against the uncaring market
Listen to speak in Ireland: "How can women defeat austerity?"
Other countries we work with (so far...)
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