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Mother and Child Reunion

The long road from drugs, prostitution, and a murder conviction back to the family she threw away

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The names of Denise, her boyfriend, and her children have been changed.

By Tori Marlan

In the two years that Denise had been coming to the juvenile courthouse, she'd gotten to know the routine well: run your belongings through the X-ray machine, pass through the metal detector, submit to a pat-down if necessary, and wait outside the courtroom, possibly for hours, until your name is called. A loquacious 37-year-old nurse's assistant, Denise liked to bide her time lobbying for the good graces of whoever happened to be handling her case that day in an attempt to regain custody of her children. When the opportunity presented itself, she'd sidle up to one of the attorneys or the caseworker and ensnare them in conversation. Often they would approach her, asking to be briefed. When they were new, she gave breathless explanations of what had been going on since day one. If all went well this September day, she'd never have to deal with any of them again.

As she waited for her case to be called, a public defender sat down next to her, rifling through her file. "You're a success," he proclaimed. "Would it break your heart not to have to come back here anymore?"

Denise had believed for some time that she was a success, but she'd been waiting for the day when the system, which so often seemed impenetrable and hostile, would acknowledge it. Denise's life now bore no resemblance to the one she'd led back in 1990, when she worked as a prostitute and needed crack to get through the day. Back then, she didn't bathe, feed, or otherwise properly care for her children, and she sometimes left them with strangers while she turned tricks. The Department of Children and Family Services had stepped in, placing three-year-old William and two-year-old Brittany in foster care. Now Denise believed it was time for the system to step out.

A day earlier, she had celebrated four years of sobriety. During those years she had taken parenting courses, gone through drug rehabilitation, seen a therapist, and received her nurse's assistant certification. For the past year and a half she'd held a steady job at a nursing home. Denise had never missed a court date, even when she had to work the night shift, and had advanced through the child welfare system as her own best advocate, notifying caseworkers and supervisors and supervisors' supervisors when problems arose. (Denise's struggle to regain custody of her kids was the subject of a Reader cover story last November.) William and Brittany had been back in her custody now for three months, and she hadn't collapsed under the pressures of motherhood. "It's pretty much what I expected," she says. "I haven't had any surprises."

The continued involvement of the system seemed unnecessary to Denise, like an overprotective parent holding a teenager's hand while crossing the street. With the state dictating and monitoring her every move, she was nothing more than a figurehead--a parent who wasn't really in charge of her family. "I want the system out of my children's lives," she said recently. "We need to be able to go on, instead of feeling that someone is holding the key to our future."

In the hallway, Denise caught the eye of Adam Stern, an attorney from the public guardian's office. He had been on the case for a year and nine months, the longest of anyone. In June he had successfully argued for his clients, Denise's children, to be returned to their mother's care. The victory was especially sweet because once children are in foster care, chances are slim that they'll be reunited with their parents. Less than 10 percent of the children in DCFS custody return home, according to the agency's own statistics. More often than not they are adopted, remain in substitute care (frequently with relatives), or become emancipated at age 18. Stern had surprised himself by getting emotional at the sight of Denise and the children joyfully weeping and hugging in the courtroom after the decision. He later said he'd had to fight back tears.

Today Denise was back in court for a routine progress hearing, but she had been tipped off by the public defender that there was a chance the case could be closed for good. She smiled coyly at Stern and said, "I know you like us, and we like you too, but can you just let us go?"

Stern smiled back, then reminded her that it was up to the judge.

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In 1994, when Denise first notified DCFS that she wanted to regain custody of her children, some might have considered hers a hopeless case. She was in Cook County Jail awaiting trial for killing her boyfriend. William and Brittany had been in foster care for three and a half years--most of their lives--and Denise had made no previous attempts to see them.

Denise was convicted of second-degree murder in 1994 and transferred to Dwight Correctional Center, where she served just under two years. She made good use of her time, enrolling in a rehab program, taking parenting classes, obtaining her GED, and writing letters to her children. After her release, the murder conviction was overturned by an appellate court, which ruled that she had killed in self-defense. In July 1995 Denise moved into Grace House, a residential after-care program for women just out of prison, and her case began inching its way through the juvenile court.

A revolving door of caseworkers, attorneys, and judges scrutinized Denise's behavior and required her to find a job and stay clean. She was quick to meet these and other demands, but the case dragged on for reasons beyond her control. One of her early caseworkers missed court dates and other important meetings and had to be reminded more than once by a judge to arrange services, such as counseling, to help Denise cement her relationship with William and Brittany. The foster mother often failed to get the children to supervised court-ordered visits, which delayed the dates unsupervised day visits and then unsupervised overnight visits could begin. In addition to these obstacles, Denise had some difficulties gaining her children's trust.

William and Brittany had spent most of their years in foster care in one home. They loved their foster mother dearly, and Denise's appearance had confused them. Nearly five years had passed by the time they started court-ordered visits with her. At times they clung to each other in her presence; other times they fought for her lap. During the early visits, Brittany masked her wariness of Denise, but William and caseworkers mentioned it. William was more expressive. One minute he'd tell Denise he hated her and never wanted to live with her, the next he'd write her notes saying he loved her and couldn't wait for the next visit. He was disruptive in school and got into fights. He started stealing. His grades dropped. He now admits, "I used to be mad all the time." Denise asked her caseworker if she could meet with her children's teachers. She wanted to be more involved in their lives. But since she was not the legal guardian, the caseworker denied the request.

In the summer of '96, Denise moved into a one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend, Charles, whom she had met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. They planned to eventually marry. Though an administrator at Grace House criticized Denise for complicating the reunification process with her children, it didn't take long for the caseworker to conduct a background check on Charles and to clear him for contact with the children.

One day last November the children's foster mother dropped them off at Lakeside Community Committee, the private child-welfare agency that had been in charge of the case since DCFS had contracted it out the previous March. After five years of caring for them, the foster mother suddenly told the agency that it needed to find William and Brittany a new home. She left the sobbing children in the hands of stunned and heartbroken administrators. "Everyone was crying," Brittany recalls. The caseworker called a number of foster homes before finding a new placement. The children then moved into an "exceptional" two-parent home, according to Stern. Though they had to transfer to a new school, he says that the "transition went really well" and that ironically, the uprooting actually helped strengthen their ties to Denise. It was around this time, Stern points out, that they began unwaveringly asserting that they wanted to live with their mother.

On June 12 the court finally granted Denise custody of her children. "The judge gave my mama a slip and she had to sign it, and when she signed it, she had custody of us," Brittany says. "We was happy, and we was excited."

A few weeks later Denise, Charles, and the children moved into a larger apartment in a courtyard building in South Shore. On August 28 Denise walked her children up the street to O'Keeffe elementary school and enrolled them both in fifth grade. She met the principal. She talked with an administrator about how to help bring up William's reading scores. And she introduced herself to her children's teachers. Finally she had the right to be in their school, to be informed of their behavior and academic progress. It was a good feeling.

And it was a feeling that she got to know well--though the news wasn't always good. In the first month of school Denise was called in for three parent-teacher conferences--one about William, who'd been fighting, and two about Brittany, who talked too much in class and in the hallways. Brittany's teacher told Denise that Brittany was a "chatty little girl." "I guess she takes after me," Denise says.

Denise got a big dose of parental anxiety when she received a letter notifying her that a man had been seen around the school trying to talk children into getting in his car. "I was a little alarmed," she says, so she sat down with William and Brittany and discussed "the importance of not talking to strangers."

Denise describes her family life as stable. "They come home from school, take the garbage out, do their homework," she says. "They're fed, clothed, and have a roof over their heads. And they have cable in their room. Sometimes Charles brings movies home. Sometimes we go on outings, like picnics and barbecues."

Denise works the night shift and sleeps during the day, while the children are in school. Charles prefers that Denise handle most of the parenting. He's usually quiet around the children, Denise says, but "his presence is felt," and "his care for them is obvious."

William spends his time playing basketball and video games; Brittany jumps rope and practices for cheerleading tryouts. They both say that they love their mother and that they're happy to be home. "Our mama's been very nice to us," Brittany says.

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If Denise's case entered the system today, it's likely that she and her children would not be reunited. In September the Illinois Permanency Initiative went into effect, shortening the length of time parents have to correct the conditions that were responsible for bringing their children into the system. The new legislation also aims to speed up the process of adoption. Today, says Stern, Denise's rights "would have been terminated."

Denise knew that her children could have been legally adopted years ago anyway, since they had been in the system for years without any contact with her. So she felt particularly grateful that the judge was considering Stern's motion to close the case. She stood in the courtroom, looking neatly put together in a pair of dark blue jeans, a white sleeveless blouse, and a white sweater draped delicately over her shoulders. She spoke with confidence when she was asked to introduce herself, and then remained quiet for the rest of the hearing.

Neither the caseworker, the state's attorney, nor the defense attorney objected to closing the case. All agreed that the children were doing well and that since their return Denise had been a responsible mother. The caseworker had met with Denise and her children only once, but she had read her predecessor's notes and said that she believed there was nothing in Denise's home or case file to cause concern.

Denise watched the judge closely and noticed simple gestures--a nod of the head, a slight smile--that indicated everything was working in her favor. Her heart began beating fast with expectation.

Then the state's attorney broached the subject of counseling, and Denise momentarily grew tense. She and the children had seen family and individual therapists in the past--but not lately. The caseworker soon eased her fears, though, telling the court that while she thought counseling could benefit everyone, she didn't see an immediate need for Denise and her children to be in counseling at this time.

Then the courtroom fell silent. Denise was confident but a bit nervous. Afterward she said, "These people have all this power in their hands to say, 'Yes, you may go on and lead a normal life,' or 'No, you can't be normal.'"

The judge began to speak, but because she had laryngitis, the words Denise had longed to hear were barely audible, overpowered by the din from the waiting area outside the courtroom. But Denise kept her eyes planted on the judge's lips and understood the verdict as well as if the judge had shouted it into a megaphone: Denise had come a long way, and it was in the best interest of her children for the case to be closed.

Stern turned to Denise and smiled warmly. He truly believed he had done right by William and Brittany, and that overall the system had served them well. The family was repaired.

The public defender, standing at Denise's side, rested his hand lightly on her back. She stood there for a moment, seeming stunned, and expelled three loud breaths, as if someone had socked her in the gut. With the system to answer to, she'd been constantly reminded of her past, of all the mistakes she had made. Now she felt something powerful inside, a freedom she could equate only with what she had felt upon being released from prison. Denise mopped up her tears with splayed hands and left the courtroom. For the first time, she had no plans to return. "It was an awesome feeling," she later said. "It meant my past was over and I could move on." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Katrina Witkamp.

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