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Mother for a Month

In 25 years as an emergency foster mother, Anna Marie Novak has fed, diapered, and cuddled more than 270 unfortunate children. For some, it's the best mothering they ever get.

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A newborn baby's cry is often inaudible to the unattuned ear. An infant can wake up and start to bawl, and a stranger in the household won't hear a thing.

Anna Marie Novak always hears. "Must be Stinky," she says one morning in the kitchen of her small white frame house in Oak Lawn. It is remarkable that she hears, since there are three yipping Chihuahuas in a wire pen in the corner.

"Will you be quiet!" she yells at the dogs.

Novak is 61, a short, stocky, dark-haired woman in glasses and a floral housedress. She rises from the kitchen table and walks back to a rear bedroom. The bedroom, with its flowered wallpaper and pink lace curtains, contains two cribs. In one is the crying baby, named Tiffany (her real name, like those of the other children in this story, has been changed). Tiffany is ten days old and has a full head of curly black hair.

"Come here, you," Novak murmurs as she scoops the baby up and changes her diaper in a quick succession of movements that betray a lifetime of nurturing children--right hand, left hand, wet diaper off, fresh diaper on. Back in the kitchen, she gives Tiffany a bottle that she has warmed on the stove. The baby rests in Novak's arms, looking into her caretaker's warm round face. "There, there, Stinky," Novak says softly.

Stinky is Novak's pet name for Tiffany, but she applies the name to many of the other children she cares for. She serves as an emergency foster mother for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and she tends each child for a stint of a month or more. Novak likes the name Stinky because she and her adopted teenage daughter, Kelly, who is retarded, find it easy to remember. "We also call the foster kids Peanuts or Monkey Face," she says. "That way I can tell Kelly to go get the baby and she'll get Tiffany. But if I told Kelly, 'Get Tiffany,' she'd ask, 'Who's Tiffany?'"

Novak is grateful for whatever assistance Kelly gives her, but she isn't complaining. It pleases her deeply to change diapers, give baths, rock small bundles to sleep, and comfort cries in the night. She actually pays out more money than she takes in for the privilege.

"Tiffany is so cute, such a sweetie pie," says Novak. She knows very little about the girl's origins, though she has learned from a standard DCFS form and some facts a department staff member let slip that Tiffany's mother is a prison inmate who is supposed to be released in May. "Whatever the mother is in for, it has nothing to do with her ability to be a mother," she says. Tiffany's father had wanted to take the baby, but that didn't work out. Her grandmother already had a stray child to care for and didn't want another. So Novak tended the baby until DCFS relocated her at the end of March. Since then she has had two more babies to care for.

Tiffany is just one more in the long parade of children given temporary refuge by Novak. Since she began taking in foster children 25 years ago, Novak has cradled 270 children. She is allowed by DCFS to have four children in her charge, but she usually has two and occasionally only one.

It is work Novak grudgingly admits she adores. "For me to get up and get dressed and go to a job in the morning would be a bummer. I can't get out of my house in a hurry nohow, and I really wouldn't want to hold down a job every day of the week. Yet I need something to keep me busy. So the babies keep me busy. I like babies. What can I say? Not washing them, but the cuddling, to be sure."

Since Novak's house is an emergency home, the babies are supposed to stay only 30 days, yet they may remain with her for two months or more because there has been a huge increase in the number unwanted or uncared-for children in Cook County. Donna Petras, the statewide foster care coordinator for DCFS, attributes the increase to more abuse and better means of reporting, such as a much-used hot line. The numbers tell a depressing story. In fiscal 1986 the state recorded 56,000 reports of abuse and neglect; in fiscal 1989 that figure is expected to hit 100,000, with half the cases in Cook County.

Up to 30 children a day--all under DCFS supervision--are now being processed through the department's Columbus Maryville Reception Center at Cuneo Hospital in Uptown. If these youngsters aren't immediately placed with a relative or in a group home or institution, they will go to an emergency home like Novak's, of which there are only 100, with 192 spaces for kids, in Cook County. In all, there are 2,647 active foster homes in the state that are affiliated directly with DCFS. In addition, close to 2,000 more homes are overseen by 62 private agencies, notably Catholic Charities and the Children's Home and Aid Society of Illinois.

Novak rarely leaves her house. She says that since she doesn't hold a paying job, there is very little reason to venture out. Moreover, she suffers from Crohn's disease, a chronic illness that inflames her intestines. She has had surgery and is on medication, but she is still often in great pain when she moves. On Sunday mornings, however, she does her major grocery shopping at a nearby Dominick's, sometimes prolonging her excursion with a stop at a Zayre store. If she has babies, they trundle along in her red Ford station wagon, which is outfitted with three car seats. Occasionally she will drive east to the Chicago Ridge Mall, and at Christmastime she likes to take in the decorations there. A rare night out for her and her husband, Tom, a forester for the Cook County Forest Preserve District, usually means a one-block stroll to the tavern on 95th Street.

"When we were growing up, it was always such a big deal when Mom put on lipstick," says Kim Kachert, one of Novak's seven natural children, all of whom are grown. "It happened once a year. It was always totally amazing." It's still a rare event, as Novak seldom dresses up. During the winter her normal garb is a housedress, anklets, and flat black shoes--problems with her right knee, dating from a childhood accident, prohibit her from wearing heels. When warm weather hits, she changes to shorts and a sleeveless tank top.

Her universe is four bedrooms, a living room, and the kitchen. The living room contains his-and-her easy chairs--a rust-colored chair from which Tom watches television every evening and a blue rocker that is Anna Marie's exclusive province. A baby's crib occupies one corner, and near it is a battery-operated swing. A metal filing cabinet, topped by a box of Q-tips, contains DCFS forms on Novak foster children that go back years. On a shelf across the room rest two Cabbage Patch dolls, one of which Novak's grandchildren gave her for Christmas. A 20-gallon fish tank is home to a colony of goldfish. "I stick to three-ninety-nine fish," she explains, "because that way when they die, I don't feel so bad."

Tom Novak is an old-fashioned, taciturn man who likes to tinker in his basement workshop to the sound of country music, and who's usually asleep by 9 PM. He leaves the baby tending to his wife. "Outside of sticking a bottle in their mouths, turning 'em over, or watching them when I go to Dominick's on Sunday, Tom doesn't have much to do with the babies," says Anna Marie. Still, he seems to like to have them around. "If there aren't any foster kids around for a day or two," says Kachert, "Dad'll ask, 'When are we getting more of them kids?' He likes them underfoot."

One month and one baby before Tiffany arrived in February, Novak was caring for two infants named Rhonda and Aaron. Rhonda's mother gave birth to her in November in a city hospital, and then abandoned her there. It seemed a habit with the mother. A foster family was harboring a child of hers, a relative had taken in two more, and two others had been adopted. Aaron came from a more stable environment; a brother and sister were living with his grandmother and a teenage sibling remained with his mother. But the mother was an alcoholic, and DCFS had taken Aaron from her until she was rehabilitated. Yet Rhonda was good-natured, while Aaron was fidgety, was given to tremors, and had an aversion to bright lights and noise. At six weeks he had the classic symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal.

"When I try to hold Aaron, his feet will go up and his head will go down, and so the only part of him touching me will be the middle of his tummy," says Novak. "He will not let me cuddle him. If I talk to him, his eyes will skirt away and he will not make contact. To sleep, he has to be on the water bed in my bedroom with the shades closed, and there must be quiet. The monotony of the ceiling fan also helps. If he's going to sleep, he will do it there. But he doesn't sleep much."

On one typical night, Rhonda drifted to sleep early. Novak put Aaron down for what she could only pray was the duration at 10:20 PM. He slept in the crib in the living room until 11:30, when he woke up. He was up again at 1 and then at 2:10. Novak rested him on the arm of the couch and patted his back, and then offered him baby formula.

When Novak has a nonsleeper she can usually watch TV or read, but Aaron wouldn't tolerate that--Novak sat in total darkness. A pacifier might have helped calm Aaron, but Novak doesn't believe in them. They breed dependency, she says, and besides one of the three family cats is likely to steal them.

Aaron stayed awake until 3:45, when he fell asleep in the living-room crib. Forty-five minutes later Rhonda began to wail. Aaron was up at 5:30, down again, then up at 6:15. "I slept in between all this," Novak explains. "I'm pretty accustomed to this schedule--this was a normal night--so I sleep for about ten minutes at a crack in my chair. I could go into my own bed, but once I did and got settled, there would go that little voice again. It wouldn't be worth it."

During the early morning hours both kids had baths, Rhonda took some cereal, and both consumed baby formula--making for a total of six bottles for Aaron and two for Rhonda over a 12-hour period. "The first night Aaron came to me," Novak says, "he slept for four hours between feedings. But that lasted three days. Once the drug symptoms set in, he became irritable, crabby--and, like I said, he doesn't want to be held. I took him to Dominick's once on Sunday, and I won't do that again. From the minute he walked through the turnstiles all he did was cry, because they have these big ceiling lights there, and of course there's all the noise from the hundred shoppers and the bumping carts and stuff. You can't love Aaron, really, much as you'd like to. If I could get him to look me in the eye, I'd consider that a month's worth of accomplishment. But I do love Rhonda. I call her Stinky."

In early March DCFS placed Aaron and Rhonda in more permanent settings. An aunt took Aaron in. Rhonda went to a long-term foster home; Novak guesses she'll be put up for adoption unless her mother reclaims her. When Rhonda left, Novak cried. "In a way I was glad she was going into a long-term home," she says. "But she was also so sweet and lovable I could have spoiled her to death. With Aaron, thank God he's gone." Novak's daughter Kim says Aaron represented a defeat for her mother. "She tried and tried to get him used to touching and sounds, and he wouldn't grab. My mom couldn't touch him. He was a big disappointment to her."

Such disappointments occur more often than they used to. Half of the 25 babies she has received from DCFS over the last year and a half had symptoms of drug withdrawal. So far this fiscal year DCFS has seen an 88 percent increase in the number of babies it has handled who have been born with drugs in their systems. Last year the department witnessed a 153 percent jump; the year before, a 75 percent rise. "The numbers are ascending, and they show no signs of stopping," says John Goad, an administrator in the child protection division of DCFS in Cook County. Statewide, he says, the number of babies exposed to cocaine has been accelerating fast, but babies exposed to heroin and alcohol are also increasingly common.

Novak has very little sympathy for the parents of these children, particularly the mothers. "What a mother like that wants to do with her own life is one thing, but why would she want to start her baby off on that kind of life? If she's stupid enough to get pregnant, why can't she withdraw herself from drugs? I would have no understanding for her, no matter what her hard-luck story is. If a drug-person mother had visiting rights and wanted to visit my home, I would say no, because I would be tempted to tell the woman just what I thought of her."

But Novak never meets the mothers and knows little about them. "I know the children, and they are all I care about," she says. If the natural parent is entitled to a once-a-week visit, a DCFS caseworker will fetch the child from Novak, supervise the session at a department office, and then return the child to Novak. Aaron's mother, for instance, saw her boy regularly.

In general, Novak has little contact with DCFS. If she has a vacancy in her home, she will receive a call from a DCFS "resource specialist" telling her that a baby needs a home. The resource worker will tell her the baby's age, sex, and color, and whether the child is withdrawing from drugs. Novak then decides whether she will accept the youngster. She usually does, although often a baby who is listed as drug free is drug dependent. She refuses to take babies who need a monitor that warns of alarming fluctuations in vital signs. She also refuses children who are more than a year old.

When she accepts a baby, a DCFS caseworker delivers the infant promptly, which sometimes means it arrives late at night. Then DCFS fades into the background. A caseworker is supposed to see a child once a month, according to Donna Petras, but the workers' caseloads make that difficult. Workers are supposed to handle a maximum of 40 cases at a time, but the average worker now juggles 65. "A good worker will give you a call every two weeks," says Novak. "But that's a good one. Sometimes you won't hear from a worker for two to three weeks. If you have to call them, sometimes you reach them and sometimes you don't. When I've had older kids, the workers have stopped by to take a kid out for a Coke and a chat. But with the babies, they don't come as a rule."

Every year the Novaks' home is inspected by DCFS, and every couple years it is relicensed. When their home was relicensed in December, a chunky young inspector spent two and a half hours with the family. The inspector combed the house, and even searched a clothes closet, presumably looking for guns. She checked the family's gas, electric, and phone bills and their car-insurance premiums. She examined their marriage license and Tom's pay stubs, to ensure that the $617 he takes home biweekly is enough to cover the household's expenses. The inspector found the room where the babies sleep adequate.

For her work, Novak receives $240 a month--about 35 cents an hour--from DCFS, which goes toward buying food, diapers, and other basics. In addition, each new infant receives an allocation--Novak has been given sums that vary between $21 and $56--toward the purchase of clothes that go with the child when it leaves. Baby formula, an average 31 cans per month, is obtained free through the federally funded Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. An Illinois Department of Public Aid green card enables each child to obtain free medical attention. Novak uses the clinic at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, principally for inoculations. The waits there are long, she says, but the service is adequate.

Despite the government funds she gets, Novak often spends her own money on the babies. "If I see a cute little dress and I decide to buy it, that comes out of my pocket," she says. "They may need socks or a rattle, and when I end up finding something right at Zayre I'll buy it." Two infants go through two boxes of disposable diapers a week, by her accounting, and she favors the more costly brands--Luvs or Pampers--over the generic ones. Generic diapers, she says, lead to diaper rash, which can bring DCFS down on her. Novak figures she spends $25 of her own money on her babies every month.

An only child, Novak spent her early years in furnished apartments in Lawndale. She says her father left her mother when she was three months old, though he'd return from time to time. "My mother was a seamstress, and we subsisted mostly on the little she made," she says. "My father was what you'd call a jack-of-all-trades. He was a member of the carpenters' union, yet if you wanted plumbing put in, he could look at the job, estimate it, go buy the materials, come back, and put it in. And it would all work beautifully. People trusted him. He had the gift for gab. But he was also a womanizer, and one was never enough."

Novak's parents eventually divorced. When she was 12, her mother married a younger man, a Native American named Oca Esco. Shortly thereafter the family relocated to a new subdivision in the Palos area. "It didn't go so well with Oca Esco," Novak says. "I never really argued with him--I would have been knocked on my behind if I had--so I just sort of avoided him. Sitting across the dinner table, we had nothing to say to each other. But after I got married and had left the house, I discovered he was a pretty nice fella."

Eighth grade was as far as Novak progressed in school. At 13 she went to work as a punch-press operator and spot welder. "They thought I was 18," she laughs. "I always looked older 'cause I was heavy." She met Tom at the plant, and they married in 1943. He was 25. She was 15. Novak's mother had to sign a consent form.

The two lived in Lawndale for a year, then moved through a succession of houses in North Palos and Oak Lawn. In 1960, after the state purchased the Novaks' property to widen Harlem Avenue, they bought a soon-to-be-demolished frame house they liked and moved it to their present address.

As a young mother Novak continued to work. "My mother and I lived close together, so after I had a baby I would get a job for six or eight months, and she'd baby-sit. Then, after the next baby was born, I'd stay home awhile." She made car-seat springs for a wire company, handled the cleanup detail at an ice cream parlor, and functioned as a bookkeeper of sorts at a Sambo's restaurant. "I'd take the waitresses' checks home with me at night to make sure they weren't giving away any free dinners."

But Novak wanted to be home. "Basically I was an at-home person. I was a mother, and my neighbors always said I was a strict one. If another kid ever wanted to play with one of mine, they played at our house--which was rather stupid as I look back on it. But that's the way I was. When I wanted my kids home, I'd go out on the back porch and scream. And if they weren't back within two to three minutes, they couldn't go out in the yard for a week or so. If I did let them go to a friend's place, they had to call the minute they arrived. In 1967, when that big blizzard hit, Tony, my oldest, wanted to go tobogganing with some friends. But it was no with me, so Tony had to tell his friends, 'My mom won't let me go.' Tony was 23 years old."

In September of 1964 the Novak kids started to pressure their mother to get pregnant again. But she was done giving birth. "Let's put it this way, seven is enough," she says, and laughs. But she found she missed having babies around and answered an ad in a local newspaper that read, "TLC: Homes wanted for newborns." A DCFS representative told her she wouldn't qualify as a foster parent because, with the addition of foster children, she would have too many people under age 18 in her home. But, Novak says, within days the representative called back and said that they were desperate for people who would take babies.

"They sent out a worker," says Novak. "The lady's name was Mrs. Vanderbilt. This was the first association I had had with a black person in my home. Mrs. Vanderbilt was nearly six feet tall, and she dressed like she had money--really nice--in high heels, the purse, and the little hat on the back of the head. She asked us about everything--what our income was, how many bills we had to pay, how many years were left on the mortgage. She even asked the kids whether, if mama brought a baby into the house, it would make them sad enough to cry." Vanderbilt returned on a Saturday to question Tom, who was then driving for the state highway department. She licensed the Novak home as a foster-care facility that would take in children on an emergency basis, although Anna Marie often elected to take kids long-term.

The first foster child the Novaks received was Dorothy. She stayed from September 23 to December 17, 1965, according to the notebook Novak keeps. Dorothy was born out of wedlock to an unmarried 16-year-old. She had dimples and hair that fell three inches down to her shoulders. She was later put up for adoption. "She would be 24 years old today," Novak says wistfully. Another mother, a Mormon, had been exiled to Chicago to have her baby. The church elders decreed that she could only come home without her baby, whom she named Laura. "I spoiled Laura rotten," says Novak.

The Novaks were licensed to receive first one, then two, and at one time six children. They are still licensed to accept four. In the early years Novak chose to care only for newborns, because her own children were attending a half-day elementary school. With the construction of a new school in 1967, the Novak offspring started a full-day schedule, and Novak asked DCFS to send her toddlers.

That October brought four-year-old Mary and her three-year-old brother Larry. Their parents had divorced, and the mother, who was 29, had taken Mary and Larry to her parents' house and left them for the weekend. She never returned. The grandparents kept the children for three months, but the grandmother was dying of cancer and was given to venting her anger where she shouldn't. Once she meant to throw Larry onto her bed but missed, and Larry crashed into the wall. Frightened, she called DCFS. Since the father was serving in the Marine Corps in South Carolina, there was no choice but to put Mary and Larry in foster care.

"They were holy terrors when they came to us," says Novak. "Larry was the instigator; Mary would more or less follow him. She would be sitting, coloring with her Crayolas and writing her name, when Larry would grab the crayons and break them. He was thinking, 'I don't want to color, so why should Mary?' It got to the point where I wanted them to go. Then I got to thinking, this Larry is a three-year-old kid, and I can't take care of him? What's wrong with me?

"At that time the main rule of foster care was to treat a child like your own. That meant that if your kid and the foster kid were doing something wrong, both of them got their behinds whupped. Today you can't touch a foster kid--that's considered corporal punishment--but back then you could smack 'em if they had it coming. Anyway, Larry did something or the other awful to Mary, and I picked up a paint stick and told him, 'If you do that one more time, you're going to get your bottom blistered. And if you think I'm kidding, go ahead and try it.' Well, it wasn't two minutes before Mary runs in, screaming again. So Larry got his bottom smacked. And that was the end of the trouble."

Mary and Larry remained with the Novaks for nearly five years, and they became a part of the tribe. They celebrated Christmas and Easter with the family. When Frances Novak got married in Michigan, Mary and Larry went along; Mary wore a floor-length lace dress to match those of the bridesmaids. Larry developed a warm relationship with the oldest son, Tony, a truck driver. One year on Mary's birthday her father, on furlough, planned to take the two kids out for a special dinner. But Tony had won permission from DCFS to take Larry with him on a truck trip to Colorado, and that was the day they were set to depart. "Larry didn't go to dinner with his father, who he hadn't seen in a year," says Novak.

The father had planned to let his kids stay in foster care until he had logged 20 years in the Marines, long enough to reap his pension. But DCFS finally warned him to reclaim his children or they would be adopted. So he came to get Larry and Mary. When he pulled up to the Novak house with a trailer to haul their belongings away, it proved harder to haul his children away. "When it came time to leave, there were hugs and kisses all around," Novak says. "First Mary didn't want to go. Then she was in the car, ready to go. And finally she was back out. Larry could go with Dad, she yelled, but she'd be staying. It was a very emotional experience. But they had to go--they weren't adoptable."

Every fall for a while the Novaks received a card and school photos of Larry and Mary. Then the cards stopped coming. "That was the last we ever heard of 'em," says Novak. Novak loves to show off color pictures of her foster children, which she has collected in three photo albums. Yet the only alumni she ever hears from anymore are three sisters.

A stream of children with their own problems and afflictions followed. "If one of them walked in right now and said, 'Hi, I'm George,' I don't know if I'd recognize him or not," says Novak. "But I do remember a lot of the names, and a lot of the reasons they were placed here."

One foursome was sent because their father had left them in a motel with a stack of bills that totaled $21. He had apparently told the oldest child, who was seven, that when they ran out of bread and milk, they were to take $1 for milk and $1 for bread and go down to the gas station to buy what they needed. The children had been in the motel for more than a week before DCFS was called.

Other children had been physically abused. "We saw blisters so big the kids couldn't walk, and black-and-blue marks that nobody knew about." Karen and Katie had supposedly been deloused before the Novaks accepted them, but lice soon infested all the Novaks and two boyfriends.

Officials showed up with Carmen at two o'clock one morning. The police had arrested her mother for literally dragging her down State Street. Doctors at Saint Bernard's Hospital had examined Carmen and found no severe injuries. But by the next morning Carmen's ankle was badly swollen, and when she tried to walk she fell down. X rays taken at Christ Hospital showed not only that Carmen's ankle was broken, but that she had had all sorts of breaks and fractures that had healed without treatment. Foster families were new to the suburbs then, and for several hours Novak was suspected of having abused Carmen.

Once when driving a three-year-old named Bobby down 95th Street, Novak passed a sleazy motel--"the kind of place you wouldn't even drive in for coffee." Bobby perked up. "That's my mama," he burst out, pointing to a woman in the clear garb of a prostitute. "And that's Ted." Ted turned out to be a favorite john.

Tina, who was ten, had run away from 37 homes. "I ain't staying," she informed the DCFS worker who ferried her to the Novaks. "I ain't living in the sticks. There're no buses, no shows, no shopping, no nothing." Six days later she hopped the backyard fence and was gone.

"Sharon was 11 years old, I'd say," says Novak, "and she couldn't keep her hands off my son-in-law. Now this particular son-in-law is very good-looking, and Sharon would get in our backyard swimming pool and start hanging on his back. My husband has a garden in summer, and if he was out there weeding or planting, she'd walk outside the fence--right by Tom--all the while he was out there. If he walked inside for a beer or a cup of coffee, she came in, sat down, and waited on him. She was just plain man happy, and by that I mean she just didn't want boys, she wanted men."

Novak grew exceptionally fond of some kids. Once, when the Novaks petitioned DCFS to adopt a girl named Cindy, the department said they were too old. They tried again with Kelly, who had spent her early infancy in the hospital recovering from various falls and smacks that her mother blamed on an older child and her estranged husband. By the time Kelly arrived at the Novaks', she was six months old and had spent all but six weeks of her life in the hospital. She had weathered surgery twice, once to drain blood clots in her head. But the Novak family liked her. "She just sort of fit in," says Novak.

Kelly was clearly a slow learner, but no one had told the Novaks that she was mentally retarded, only that she required the drug phenobarbital and would catch up. When Kelly neared her third birthday, her mother asked the girl's DCFS worker if the Novaks were interested in adopting her. Kelly's father had stipulated that if she were adopted she had to go to a Catholic family, which the Novak family was. Afraid that their age would be held against them again, they contacted a lawyer. "Did you go through your change of life yet?" Novak says the attorney asked her. She was then 47. "No," she said. "In other words," said the lawyer, "you could be pregnant and not know it. That eliminates any argument about your being old. Mrs. Novak, you call the worker and say you want the adoption papers to you within 24 hours." On July 15, 1974, a judge sanctioned the adoption.

Kelly, who is well loved, now attends a special-education program at Evergreen Park High School. "Physically she is 17, subject to all the typical feelings and emotions and stuff," says Novak. "Mentally she is about nine. For Christmas she wanted a talking doll."

In 1985 the Novaks were sheltering three sisters and their little brother, who had the same mother but various fathers. Novak had handled the children before, and had only taken them back as a favor to a caseworker. When the children were transferred to another home, the oldest girl, who was nine, charged that Novak had stuck her brother's head in the toilet. For two months Novak's license was suspended, until three previous foster mothers stated that the girl was a notorious liar.

Foster parents account for only about one half of 1 percent of the abuse and neglect cases that are reported to DCFS. Yet Donna Petras says that foster parents get cited at a higher rate than is warranted because of their visibility in schools and the community. When something goes wrong with a foster child, she says, foster parents quickly turn into suspects. "When they are investigated, often nothing turns out to have happened."

Novak swore off older kids, partly in reaction to the abuse charges, but more because she was simply tired of dealing with older children. "I took some teenagers when my kids were that age, but I couldn't handle one in today's world, with the drugs, the smoking, and cars. Yet all the children you get now are different. You're getting the streetwise kids, who hate the suburbs, or crafty kids who have been in foster care before and know the ropes. Fifteen years ago, if you told a seven-year-old, 'We don't do this, we don't do that,' it would be accepted. Not today. Today if I told a kid that we don't use certain kinds of words in this house, that kid'd tell me point-blank what I could do with my house and my words and my rules.

"And what's my recourse? Nowadays you can't even slap a kid on the hand, because that's considered corporal punishment. I cannot deprive him of dessert--if everybody at the table is getting Jell-O, the bad kid gets Jell-O too. Or I can sit him in the corner for ten minutes. I can send him into the other room, but only for a 20-minute limit. And you put a child in a bedroom today, what punishment is that? Two toy boxes sit in our bedroom. You mean to tell me that that kid is going to stand in the corner and do nothing for 20 minutes? Unless I stand there and watch him, he's going to be into those boxes in two minutes flat."

Actually, DCFS rules do not spell out specific time limits, but they do state that a child may be confined to "an unlocked bedroom" only for "a reasonable period of time. While restricted, the child shall have full access to sanitary facilities." Moreover, the guidelines state, "No child shall be deprived of a meal or part of a meal as punishment" and no child shall be subjected to corporal punishment, verbal threats or derogatory remarks about him or his family." Novak came up with her specific time limits after talking to various caseworkers.

When she decided against taking older children, Novak at first took only three-year-olds and then two-year-olds. Lately she has concentrated on emergency-basis infants. "All things being equal, I'd like a toddler. But there just aren't any available, unless you take an eight- or nine-year-old along with 'em. So from here on out I'm sticking with kids who aren't big enough to talk."

The vast majority of the children Novak now takes are black. DCFS tries to place black foster children in black foster homes. But 72 percent of the babies that need care are black--more than the licensed black parents can take.

Like many other foster parents, Novak has gripes about DCFS, or this or that worker. One June night nearly two years ago, for instance, Kelly developed a high fever from a urinary-tract infection and had a seizure. An ambulance carried her to the hospital, and a frightened Novak asked DCFS to fetch the two babies she was caring for. The department moved one baby within an hour, but it took them until 5:30 the next afternoon to retrieve the second child. "When the worker finally showed up he said, 'How are you today, Mrs. Novak?' He had a big smile on his face, but I wiped it off real quick. That poor guy caught everything I had to give. Afterwards I wrote to [DCFS director] Gordon Johnson and some other big shots, but I didn't get a letter of apology or a phone call from anyone."

A half dozen local organizations composed primarily of foster parents offer each other support, but Novak prefers to get her bolstering through talking on the phone with fellow parents, usually her friend Gerry Ready, who specializes in monitored infants. Novak says she doesn't get much respect for her work from others. She says that when she tells a stranger what she does, she gets a range of responses. "Oh, that's nice," is common. "What kind of check do you get?" others ask. When she replies "$240 a month," she says they look at her like she's the stupidest creature imaginable. "What are you messing with babies for at your age?" some people ask. "Ain't you got nothing better to do than change shitty diapers?"

She doesn't, actually. She likes to sew and crochet, but she can make those hobbies part of her baby-sitting day. A trip to Wisconsin to visit the two Novak children who live there constitutes a vacation for the Novaks, and if they go, whatever foster babies are on hand go along too. Every fifth year they travel to Minnesota to catch up with relatives. Seeing the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park remains an unfulfilled dream. "I'd like to see Disneyland, too," says Novak, "but with my disease I doubt I could walk through it." Tom is giving no thought to retirement, according to Anna Marie. He is reluctant to give up his employment benefits, and he doesn't want more free time.

What difference can she possibly make, providing a way station for children who are moving from bad circumstances to unknown circumstances? "While these babies are in my home, I cuddle them and love them," she says. "I'm keeping them clean, and they are eating every three and a half to four hours a day, which they probably wouldn't be doing if their mother is on drugs and so spaced out she doesn't know what she is doing. These guys are too little to know where they are. All I can hope is that somewhere down the lime, maybe my small amount of cuddling will have done them some good. But other than that, what can I say?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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