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Sins of the Mother

She survived drugs, prostitution, and prison. Now comes the hard part: getting her kids back.

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Most of the subjects' names have been changed.

By Tori Marlan

On days like this Denise appreciated more than anything having her own room. For five and a half years she'd had no place to cry or cuss or think or talk to God in private. But in the sanctuary of room number five at Grace House, a residence for women newly released from prison, she was free to do all these things as loud and as often as she liked. Simply knowing this, she believed, had kept her from doing anything rash.

The morning started out full of promise. She woke up early, showered, and curled her hair. From under her bed she dug out several large plastic bags stuffed with presents for her two children, thinking it was a shame that it was almost a month after Christmas. But excitement welled up inside her as she rifled through the bags examining the toys: a remote-control car, a Nerf basketball, Electronic Battleship, a crayon set, a Whiz-Kid computer notebook, a Power Ranger figurine, a doll in a bassinet--all had been donated by people responding to the "wish lists" of the women at Grace House.

The courts allowed Denise to visit her children only once a month at a site supervised by a caseworker. In the days following Christmas she'd considered saying "F them people" and popping up unannounced at the foster home, gifts in hand. But she knew her every move was scrutinized by the Department of Children and Family Services, the office of the public guardian, the public defender's office, the state's attorney's office, a judge, the foster mother, and Grace House. Slipping up--even slightly--could mean losing her chance to regain custody.

Lutheran Children and Family Services, the agency DCFS had hired to supervise the visits, operated out of a yellow brick house on a residential street in Englewood. Denise arrived five minutes early but had to wait outside because the door was locked. On the last visit, a bitingly cold day, she and the children squeezed into a car with another family and their caseworker and waited half an hour until someone showed up with the key. At least the sun was out today. Denise greeted each passerby with a friendly hello.

When she finally spotted Darryl, her Lutheran Services caseworker, her heart sank. He was holding the hand of a child she didn't recognize, and her children were nowhere in sight. Her visit, he informed her, had been canceled. "The foster mother's father-in-law, or whoever it is that stays with her sister, fell down the steps this morning. She didn't have anybody to keep the kids, so she had to take them with her to the hospital."

Denise knew the older children in the house often baby-sat hers. "That's bunk, Darryl."

"Well, she said nobody was going to be there, and when something happens like that, a tragedy, I don't know if she's lying or not. I don't take nobody to be lying about a tragedy."

Darryl disappeared into the building, leaving Denise on the sidewalk feeling like a punctured balloon. In the six months she'd been allowed to see her children she'd gotten only three visits with them. Even though the problem always lay elsewhere--a mix-up on the part of the caseworker or the foster mother--Denise, in her own mind, shared the blame. She'd made her own bed. Today's letdown reinforced her fear that she'd be punished forever for the imprudent choices she'd made long ago. "It's all my fault," she said, beginning to cry.

Denise knew her children lived only a few blocks away. And she had a strong suspicion that they were home. She started to head in the direction of their house but quickly did an about-face. She'd been learning how to control her anger in therapy and workshops and had been thinking a lot lately about the difference between acting and reacting. She'd been told that she'd get nowhere unless she played by the rules.

Back at Grace House Denise struggled to maneuver the bulging bags of toys through the front door. "I'm gonna throw this shit in the fucking garbage someday," she shouted. "Shit, they ain't never gonna get it." A woman appeared in the hallway to help. "Calm down, baby. It's all right. Calm down. Give me a hug." Denise embraced her, then trudged up to her room and shoved the Christmas gifts back under her bed in disgust.

Denise often reminded herself that "nothing in God's world happens by mistake." The notion made it easier for her to come to terms with her past. She was born into poverty to parents who were less than nurturing. She dropped out of high school, became addicted to crack, sold her body on the street, and, at her lowest point, committed murder. She also neglected her children and watched without protest as the state ushered them off to a foster home. Now, at 35, she was trying to undo the damage she'd done.

One purpose of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act is to "preserve and strengthen the minor's family ties whenever possible." Denise was told that as long as she followed the DCFS service plan--requiring her to be in school or work, take parenting classes, and stay clean, among other things--and didn't do something the court deemed irresponsible, her children would be eventually returned to her care. So far she was making rapid progress. She attended weekly NA and AA meetings and consistently produced clean drops during random drug testing at Grace House; she was enrolled in a certified nurse's assistant program, had completed a parenting course, and saw the Grace House therapist weekly. Once she finished school and landed a job and an apartment, she hoped, it would be no time at all before she got her kids back. She never imagined that she'd come to think of herself as more responsible than some of the professionals charged with moving her children's cases through the system.

Denise clung to the hope that eventually she'd earn her children's love and respect. But she knew she had a lot to prove. William and Brittany, now nine and eight, had been placed in foster care five years earlier. Since then they'd accumulated stray bits of information about her, like that she'd been on drugs and used their grandmother's name once when she was arrested. On one of the early visits Denise asked the children if they wanted to live with her someday. When they agreed to without hesitation, Denise said, "You don't have to try to please me. You can always tell the truth and I won't be mad." William admitted he didn't really want to live with her. "Will you at least give me a chance, get to know me?" she asked. "And see if you want to change your mind?" He said he would.

But sometimes it seemed that even if William and Brittany were willing to give her a chance the system wasn't. The foster mother refused to send Denise pictures of the children and wouldn't allow Denise to call them. The DCFS caseworker missed court dates, was slow to return Denise's phone calls if she returned them at all, and hadn't gotten it together to set up counseling for the children, though it had been mandated by the courts. The visits were few and far between, lasted only an hour, and took place in an unfamiliar setting where, despite its homey decor, neither Denise nor her children felt entirely at ease. On numerous occasions an exasperated Denise would say to whoever would listen, "I want the ball to start rolling here!" Sometimes she thought maybe this was God's work, a test of some sort.

Denise also considered the possibility that things wouldn't work out as she hoped. "There may come a time when I have to decide what's best for my children and not for me, and I'm preparing myself to give them up if they'd be happier somewhere else." Given up by her own mother, Denise had already lost contact with her first two children. She believed that frequent contact with these two would be crucial if she wanted to raise them. And as the months passed, she would increasingly believe that despite her best efforts, perhaps reunification was nothing more than a pipe dream.

Denise was separated from her own mother early on. Her parents--who are now both deceased--both came from a small town in northern Louisiana. Denise's mother, May, was 14 when she began dating Isaac, who was married and about seven years her senior. They had an on-again, off-again affair that lasted nearly 20 years. Isaac and his wife moved to Chicago in the late 50s, but it wasn't long before his wife left him. "To my understanding my father sent down south for my mom, or he went and got her, and they stayed [together] for almost two years," Denise says. It was during this time that she was born. Eventually Isaac's wife returned, and Denise and her mother moved into their own apartment. "But my father was still coming to see my mom and still coming to see me. You know how married men do, I guess."

When Denise was a toddler, a welfare caseworker making a routine visit one morning found Isaac asleep in May's bed. When May got the letter from public aid informing her that she was no longer eligible for assistance, she asked Isaac to raise their daughter.

Isaac and Denise's stepmother preached the importance of education but showed little interest in her schoolwork and did little to encourage her to actually get to school. They wouldn't buy her a bus pass, and by the time she was in high school, spending the days smoking pot with her friends made more sense than walking the 14 or so blocks to school--especially in winter. She dropped out of Englewood High School in 1976, without completing ninth grade.

Denise says her father and stepmother were stingy with affection. "I don't feel like I was loved enough," she recalls. "I was talked at not talked to. I did what I was told to do, no questions asked. But sometimes I did just the opposite so they could holler or do something, 'cause that's the only time I would really ever get attention from them."

For all her faults, Denise's stepmother did her part to ensure that Denise's mother felt welcome in her home. She also admonished anyone who denigrated May, an alcoholic, in Denise's earshot, saying, "Don't you talk about that girl's mother. That's her mom."

Denise says comments like that taught her to appreciate and respect her mother. Today, she believes someone must be teaching her children the same lesson. On an early visit with them they pressed her about the stories they'd heard about their past. Brittany, picking up on Denise's concern for how they'd digest the truth, said, "No matter what, you're always gonna be our mommy, and we'll always love you." The comment consoled Denise at the time, she says, but "I want them to love me not just because I'm their mom and they're taught to love me. I want them to love me because I give them reason to love me. I want to do things to earn their love and respect. I don't want it 'cause I wear this title that I'm their mom and that's the only reason why they love me. But I did feel good when Brittany said that."

Denise is petite and slender with big brown eyes that are almost as dark as her pupils. She has a deep-throated, hearty laugh, so startling at times it's infectious. She likes attention from men and easily gets it. She met her most recent boyfriend, Charles, at a drug-counseling meeting a couple of months after moving into Grace House. An ex-pimp who'd spent time in prison, Charles once told Denise that they led "parallel lives." Their addiction-filled pasts and recovery-bound presents created between them an instant bond, and led Denise to believe that she'd found a soul mate. Sometimes her enthusiasm for the relationship surprised her. From the time she was a teenager she'd moved from one destructive relationship to the next. "You're what we call a "slim goody,"' a man once told her. "You're the type of girl a man would want to take care of, dominate, control, 'cause you're so tiny and act so girlish."

First there was her mother's boyfriend, Robert. Denise moved into Robert and May's apartment in the Sutherland Hotel on the south side when she was 14. They had a one-bedroom apartment, so Denise slept on the sofa bed in the living room. From the start, Robert took great interest in her budding sexuality. Denise was still a virgin, but at his urging, May supplied her with birth-control pills. One day Denise came home from school and found Robert and her mother in bed talking about "breaking her in."

"They were saying he was a male nurse," she recalls, "and that I'd be doing it soon anyway. And I had heard about the tearing and the bleeding, and they were saying that the way he'd do it would be less painful. I looked at my mother, and she wasn't saying much. She probably expected me to protest. I got into bed between both of them, and he proceeded to break me in. My mom was just lying there." After that, Robert regularly visited Denise's bed at night. The whole family used liquor and pot to smooth the awkwardness of the situation.

One day Denise stayed home from school to hang out with a boy who lived down the hall. When Robert found out, he flew into a rage. In the process of beating up both Denise and her mother he damaged the apartment. The building manager evicted them, and not long afterward Robert left town. Denise sank into a depression and moved back in with her father and stepmother.

Denise was still 14 when she met and started dating Daniel, the older brother of a friend. By the time she was 21 they'd had two children together. Daniel worked odd jobs in carpentry and plumbing. He also sold marijuana and cocaine, both of which he and Denise used.

The first time Denise felt scared of Daniel occurred after she'd had a frank conversation with some friends, who were discussing what an orgasm felt like. Daniel, she told them, "ain't never made me feel like that before." Word got back to him about what she'd said. Today she can't remember whether he hit her or threatened her with a shotgun, but whatever he did, at that moment he crossed a line: Denise learned to fear him. Beatings soon became something she expected, and they got progressively worse. She suffered black eyes, fat lips, and fractured ribs at his hands, but she stayed with him for ten years.

The relationship ended when Denise began seeing Mark, an acquaintance of Daniel's who'd helped her get a job at Wendy's. One night Denise stayed out so late with Mark that she was afraid to go home. "I knew there was no sense in going back," she says. "I knew he was gonna kick my butt if I did." She had left him once before and taken the children, but he tracked her down and started what she calls a "tug-of-war" with them. She finally returned home, regretting it when he punished her with a beating. This time, Denise was set on staying with Mark, even though that meant leaving her children. "Mark had a legal job. He kept his hygiene up. He was a hard worker and responsible. I always felt a man was supposed to get up every day and go to work. Mark did that; Daniel didn't." The children ended up with Daniel's parents and Denise rarely saw them after that.

Not long after Denise moved in with Mark, she ran into Daniel on the street. He forced her back to his apartment, where he beat her, raped her, and sodomized her with a mop handle. Denise says Daniel held her hostage for two days before she somehow managed--she can't remember how--to free herself. She ran straight to the police station. Daniel pleaded guilty to attempted murder and criminal sexual assault, and wound up with an eight-year sentence.

The month after the incident, Denise's period was light and spotty. A month later she missed it altogether and realized she was pregnant. She wanted to have an abortion, but Cook County Hospital was prohibited from doing abortions at the time, and she was turned away. She then inquired with a women's advocacy group, but she never followed up because Mark urged her to go through with the pregnancy.

But in June things changed. On the first Saturday William came alone; Brittany, a majorette, had attended a parade. The following Saturday the children went to their paternal grandmother's for a picnic; the third Saturday the agency mistakenly didn't include her children's names on the list of those to be picked up, and on the fourth Saturday, Denise was told, the children weren't home when the driver arrived to pick them up. After each failed visit, Denise called the caseworker and her lawyer to complain.

Randi Kane, an outreach worker for Beacon Therapeutic, spent a year teaching the parenting class at Grace House. A white 27-year-old therapist who was born and raised in New Jersey's suburbs, Kane says her background always "poses a problem" at first. "They want to know "Who is this girl? Who the hell are you to teach parenting skills when you don't have children?"' she says. "I say if you think you know everything you can leave the class. But they see my face once a week. After a month or two it's nice. It's some kind of stability for them knowing that Randi's coming."

Denise had taken a parenting class before, while in prison, and soon became one of Kane's best students.

Using the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program, Kane acted as a facilitator for classroom discussion and role-playing. The nine-chapter STEP course came with workbooks, and Kane instructed the women to read aloud and then ponder the content of the text either as a group or individually. Although Kane never had the opportunity to observe the Grace House women interacting with their children, she believed--by observing them in class and talking to the house administrators--that she was able to get a sense of the kind of parents they'd be. She had faith in Denise, who was the only student to get 100 percent on her final exam. "I graded it hard," Kane says. "She knew it backwards and forwards."

But Kane acknowledges that there's "no manual for being a perfect parent" and says whatever it is that she's been able to teach the women, "it's up to them to put it to use."

"Denise has a lot to look forward to from her children," Kane said on the last day of the class: "aggressive behavior, a lot of hostility, abandonment issues, trust issues, self-esteem issues, maybe drugs and alcohol in their lives. These kids were abandoned. They were neglected. They have every right to be pissed off at her, and she knows it. And what I've tried to do is teach her how to deal with those feelings. They need stability; they need to know that mom's not going to leave again, mom's not going to do crack again."

Kane's advice to Denise was to "let them yell, let them scream, let them cry, let them become outraged."

But Denise would soon learn that the way she responded to her children was sometimes different from the way things played out in class.

On the last Saturday in June Denise woke up to a phone call from the Lakeside driver, informing her that the children were on their way. After weeks of Saturday-morning disappointments, the news should have made her happy--relieved, even. "I guess if they wasn't here for me to be fussing about I'd be upset," she said. "But if they hadn't come today it would have been fine."

In two days she and Charles would be moving into an apartment at 47th and Drexel. They had lucked out in finding a landlord who empathized with recovering addicts; their bad credit didn't dissuade her from giving them a chance. They signed a year-long lease at $455 a month. A small place with only one bedroom, the apartment wouldn't accommodate a family of four. But Denise figured that the way things were going it would be at least a year before the court would grant her custody. The supervised visits had to be followed by a period of unsupervised visits, which then had to be followed by periods of overnight and weekend visits. She still wasn't sure when her unsupervised visits would begin. Since she was no longer seeing her children weekly, she worried that the judge would again refuse to grant unsupervised visits.

She also expected, if Bowles's misgivings were any indication, that living with her boyfriend would complicate matters, even though on the face of it he seemed a good choice. He'd spent a year in a rehab center, continued to attend NA meetings, and worked full-time as a janitor. "I don't care how much work some of these women do on themselves, their downfall is relationships," says Bowles. "We see it over and over. And Denise is putting other things before her children again. She's made a decision based on a relationship, not on what is in the best interest of the children. I told her I felt that it was more important to put time and effort into reestablishing a relationship with her children than with a man."

Expecting such a reaction from Bowles, Denise had kept the seriousness of her relationship a secret around Grace House until she decided to move in with Charles. When she finally told Bowles and Nolan her plans, they asked the couple to undergo joint counseling at Grace House. Charles felt put under the microscope at first but says he didn't mind. "I understand their concern for Denise," he says. "They wanted to see what I was like, how I felt." He felt it gave him a chance to affirm his commitment both to Denise and to a sober, productive future. "We love each other," he says. "And we both have a passion to change our lives."

Feeling cranky when the children arrived, Denise told them she was moving out of Grace House and then took them upstairs to her room. She offered them M&M's and a banana, gave William a Dennis Rodman jersey--a gift from Charles--and snapped at Brittany for rifling through her purse. The children occupied themselves with electronic games while Denise sorted her clothes.

When Denise asked the children why they'd missed the last visit, they said they'd been dressed and ready, but nobody had come to pick them up. Their story conflicted with that of Lakeside's driver, who'd called Denise from his cellular phone that day saying he was parked outside the foster home but no one was there. A couple of weeks later the caseworker would tell Denise about yet another twist: that on a few of the days when visits were missed, Brittany had told her foster mother she didn't want to see Denise.

Denise's relationship with the children, while it was getting stronger, was still extremely fragile. Trust was one area that caused them trouble. Sometimes she didn't know whether she could believe the children, and it was clear they didn't know whether they could believe her.

An hour into this visit William confronted Denise about something that had been bothering him. Why, he asked, had she told her lawyer that the foster mother kept him and his sister from visits? Caught off guard, Denise deferred to Kathy Nolan, who had come by to give Denise a Department of Human Services "start-up kit," which contained such household items as pots and pans, a mop and broom, and dishes. "When you all didn't come we had to call the caseworker to let her know that you didn't come," Nolan told the children. "Your mother has a court order that she's allowed to see you once a week. That's very important that she sees you once a week. So when you weren't coming we had to call the lawyer to let her know that. Not for anybody to get in trouble or anything like that but because she needs to have this time with you all. So that's why we called the lawyer."

"But now we gotta leave," William said.

"You gotta leave where?" Denise asked.

"To another home," Brittany said.

The news came as a surprise to both Nolan and Denise; later they would learn it was all a misunderstanding.

After Denise had complained about the missed visits, her public defender had sent the foster mother a letter asking her to appear in court, where a motion would be filed to compel her to comply with the service plan--namely, to have the children ready for visits with Denise every Saturday morning. The caseworker later told Denise that the foster mother had gotten fed up and said that if caring for the children meant missing work to appear in court, she wanted to relinquish her duties. The caseworker also said that only after she "begged" the foster mother did she agree to keep the children.

Later William and Brittany lay curled up together under a blanket on the couch in the lounge, hoping for strength in numbers, or so it seemed during the confrontation that ensued.

"We don't want to live here," William said. "Because you called the lawyer and told him that--"

"William, you're not explaining it right. Explain it right," Brittany jumped in.

"OK, well, you explain it," Denise said to her daughter. "Can you do better?"

"He's saying it's because of you. That's what he's trying to say."

"I'm sorry," Denise said. "I didn't mean for you all to have to leave your foster mother right now, but I do intend for you to leave one day."

"One day?" William said, his eyes widening.

"Yes, you're coming back to me," Denise said.

"Who told you that?" William demanded.

"The judge, the social worker, the lawyer."

"William says he's going to live with his auntie," said Brittany.

"What do you say?" Denise asked.

Brittany cocked her head and began to chant "Eenie, meenie, miny, moe."

Denise didn't let her finish. "No!" she said. "It's not eenie, meenie, miny, moe! It's not really up to you all where you live. As long as I'm the mother and I'm doing what I'm supposed to do I'll get custody of you. But it is up to me to make a decision whether I think it's best if you live with me. I think you're all saying a lot of things right now 'cause your feelings is all upset 'cause you're leaving your foster mother."

William was growing angry. He moved behind the couch across the room and began "throwing daggers," as Denise would later describe it. The small boy became like a fountain spewing the sewage of his past.

"You're not our mother," he said, choking back tears. "A mother is someone who loves and cares for you. You left us in an abandoned building."

"I didn't leave you in an abandoned building, William."

Brittany positioned herself an arm's length from the television, suddenly absorbed in Babe.

"I'm sorry that you feel the way you feel about me," Denise said. "I wasn't with you all and you didn't just find this out. You have been with your foster mother for a long time, and I know you love your foster mom, but for you to say the things you're saying about me is really not nice. Again, I'm sorry that you feel the way you feel, but William, there's nothing you or I can do about it. What has happened has happened. That's the past."

William's eyes were red, his tears now copious, his voice hoarse, but he continued. "By writing that letter [to the foster mother] you were trying to hurt her but hurt us instead."

Brittany shouted at Denise and William to lower their voices so she could hear the movie.

"I didn't write no letter, William," Denise said. "The lawyer wrote the letter." She wondered if the children had actually seen it, or if what they knew of the letter had been filtered through the foster mother. "What's the letter say?" she asked William.

"I don't know."

The answer rankled Denise. "You know what?" she said, raising her voice. "Your foster mother is lying. She is not an angel. She said that I said this and I said that, but she don't know what I said. I got on the phone with my lawyer and my social worker and said the foster mother of my children don't have them over here."

William slid out from behind the couch, and Denise grabbed his arm. "You can't go nowhere," she said. He tried to wriggle out of her grip. She laughed; he cried. "You gonna call your mama?"

"Yup," William barked.

"What's she gonna do? You want 35 cents?" said Denise, reaching into her pocket. "Here. Call her. That's not your mama."

"Yes, she is," William insisted. "She's the one who cared for me all these years--not you!"

"So Mark ain't your daddy?" Denise said.

"He's my daddy; he didn't do nothing to me." Brittany ran up to her brother, wrapping her arms around him. Then she pressed her hands over his mouth.

"What'd I do?"

"You called your lawyer and now we got to leave."

Brittany returned to the TV.

"Oh, God, how can you be like that, William?" Denise said. "I'm supposed to see you all, and you know what? I'm going to see you all."

"You ain't gonna see me," William threatened.

"You ain't gonna come? Brittany, you gonna come?"

"Brittany ain't gonna come."

"Brittany got a mind of her own," Denise snapped. Then she turned to her daughter. "You mad at me too, Brittany?"

"Don't put me in this," Brittany said, facing the TV.

"Hate me now?" Denise asked William.

"Yup."

"I don't believe that. People don't love people today and hate them tomorrow. People say things sometimes out of anger because they be mad at people, and they say some things I think they really don't mean. I think you're just mad at me and I don't think you mean the things you're saying to me. I still love you, and you know what? If you ever need me you can call me."

After William calmed down, Denise made the children some noodles. Ever resilient, their moods improved and soon they were giggling again. At one point Brittany whispered in William's ear, prompting him to walk over to his mother and hug her. "I'm sorry and I love you," he said. Denise looked at William wistfully, drew him close, kissed his head, and said she loved him too. Her eyes were sad and tired, but she couldn't help smiling when the children took places side by side, clapping rhythmically, and began a call-and-response dance.

"Hey, Britt'ny," William chanted, stepping to the left, then the right. "Whatcha gonna do?"

"I'm gonna turn around."

"Yeah."

"Touch the ground."

"Yeah."

"Break down."

"Yeah."

"Do the brown."

"Yeah."

After the children left, Denise sat in the smoking room deep in thought. Six months after the children's attorney recommended counseling and four months after the court had ordered it, her children had yet to see a therapist. "My son is really hurting," she said. "He's confused. I don't think I'm going to get them back." Then, almost immediately, as if remembering that someone somewhere had told her to think positively, she changed her tune. "I can't see how God can have all these doors open and let me see all these opportunities and then snatch them from me. When I get my children back--I don't want to say if--and they want to see their foster mom and it's OK with her, I will allow them to go and see her. I won't be to her like she is to me."

The visit became known as the "abuse incident" in court a couple of weeks later. William told his foster mother Denise had grabbed him, and the foster mother told the children's attorney that William had returned home with unexplained marks on his arms and back. But the house manager on duty at Grace House had been supervising the visit and wrote a report deflecting any suspicions that abuse had occurred. Still, the children's attorney, who'd been prepared to recommend unsupervised visits, was alarmed enough by the accusation to argue for continued supervised visits. The judge agreed; he denied unsupervised visits and ordered family and individual counseling within seven days. He told Denise that he wanted counseling to be in place before she spent time alone with the children. He also made a finding that DCFS and Lakeside Community Committee, both of which should have arranged counseling months ago, hadn't made "reasonable efforts" on the case.

Denise now lives in a mid-rise building on a beautiful tree-lined boulevard on the south side. Guests must be buzzed in. To get to her apartment you take an elevator, then follow a long, dim corridor nearly to its end.

A week after she's moved in with Charles, the apartment is still bare. Without a single piece of furniture, they live out of cardboard boxes and garbage bags. The space itself is bright and airy--a ceiling fan blows a soft breeze through the living room and every window reveals a view of the Sears Tower. Other than what's on the television screen, there's a striking absence of color in the apartment. The walls are painted white; the wall-to-wall carpeting is gray; even Denise, dressed for work, is swathed all in white, sitting on a white makeshift bed.

It was in this very building, 21 years ago, when it was called the Sutherland Hotel, that Denise was first exposed to the conditions--sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug abuse--that would come to define her life. "I never thought that I would have ever set foot back into this place," she says. "But I've made peace with what happened here." Perhaps it's one of life's inexplicable coincidences that Denise is starting over in the same spot where it all began to go wrong so long ago. Or perhaps it's no coincidence at all, and her decision to live here is the most literal manifestation yet of her determination to confront the past.

When their time was up, Denise and the children stood outside saying good-bye. Darryl's coworker wasn't ready to take them home, so they had a few extra minutes to kill together. "Find me," Brittany said, dashing past Denise back into the house. William tailed close behind. In the upstairs room she found William hugging a ball, grinning knowingly. She found Brittany, all smiles, crouched in a closet. The unexpected time together gave way to raucous celebration. Brittany switched on the radio and started dancing, bending her skinny legs apart and together at the knees, crossing her arms in front of them, somehow managing to look gawkish and graceful at the same time. "It's the butterfly," she announced proudly. William, who looked as if he'd done this before, and Denise, who looked as if she hadn't, joined in. The three wiry figures danced and whooped and laughed in front of a full-length mirror until Darryl ruined the fun. Their ride was ready to go, he announced. Outside, Brittany had to be coaxed away from Denise; William stared dolefully out the car window, waving from the backseat.

This time, Denise returned to Grace House feeling on top of the world.

Rochelle Bowles can be warm and affectionate, even maternal, to the Grace House residents. But sometimes she has to be an authoritarian, taking away privileges or kicking someone out of the program. She's also brutally honest. "If I don't tell you about yourself, nobody else will," she says to them. To some of the residents, Bowles can seem a world away; she lives in the suburbs with her husband and her nine-year-old son who, the residents tell her, sounds "white." Bowles has never been addicted to drugs or lived on the street and is admittedly shocked by their stories at times. But she's a large woman with a background in law enforcement, and she knows how to gain respect. She once broke up a fight by stepping between two residents. When she was pushed, she pushed right back.

"There are always two sides to everyone," she says. "I'm professional and educated, but there's a street side to me too. I tell the ladies it's not necessary for them to see it, though, unless they cross me. I've had to explain to them, "You don't know who I am or where I've come from. Just because I talk the way I do and dress the way I do don't mean I won't protect myself.' My language changes and the street side of me comes out. I tell them, "You got something to say to me? Come on with it.' I tell my husband, one of these days someone's going to call me on it and, I don't know, I'm 42 years old."

Denise never felt the need to challenge Bowles. Instead she clung to her from day one, frequently asking "Where's my hug?" or "Where's my kiss today?"

"I had to get her out of that mode," Bowles remembers. "But I also knew that I needed to be able to meet a need that she had in her life and I also had to be able to work with her. And keeping her a crippled little girl was not going to cut it. I played that role for a little bit and then I started talking to her and I said, "You know what? You need to stop talking like a baby.' And it hurt her a little bit. But I also had to tell her that the only way she was going to be able to meet her goals was by being assertive and confident and not acting like a little girl."

One of Denise's goals was to successfully navigate her way through DCFS. When Bowles and Kathy Nolan learned that Denise's visits were repeatedly canceled and the caseworker wasn't responsive, they intervened. "I saw that there had been no follow-through," says Bowles. "The caseworker was not prepared, the progress reports we had prepared for them were never picked up as planned, and we had set up two or three appointments with her that were canceled right when she was supposed to be there. Even though I'd been encouraged to call the caseworker directly, at that point I was planning on bypassing her and her supervisor and going directly to the ombudsman. But when Kathy got through to the supervisor and said we're taking this to the ombudsman's office, of course they wanted to meet with us immediately."

The supervisor came to Grace House and got an earful from Denise. "If we had not been here I don't think she would have gotten much of a response," says Bowles. "The women here don't even know how to ask for a supervisor. The system has totally rendered them powerless, and they do not have the self-esteem or the motivation to follow up. If somebody tells them no, they drop their head between their legs and go home. We're teaching them to keep following the system step-by-step until they get to the top."

At the rescheduled hearing, on February 8, a public defender who said she was "just filling in" for Denise's attorney presented documentation of Denise's progress on her service plan, including a copy of random drug test results, letters from drug counselors, and Grace House reports. Everything went as planned--the goal of her children's cases was upgraded to "return home." In preparation for that goal the judge granted weekly visits and mandated that the children begin counseling within 30 days.

Before court adjourned the hearing officer--at the request of Adam Stern, the attorney from the public guardian's office who represents Denise's children--made a finding that the DCFS caseworker hadn't made reasonable efforts to achieve the goals of the case. The finding didn't remove her from the case, however, as Denise might have hoped. But it did serve both as an admonishment and as a red flag to others in the system who might pick up the case at a later date and wonder why it was moving along so slowly. "What it means is that there was a feeling that DCFS didn't do its job," Stern said afterward. "There are problems or issues that need to be resolved and they had the mechanism to do it, and they didn't follow through." A psychological evaluation had revealed that William had been stealing and had engaged in "sexual misconduct." Stern was concerned that the caseworker hadn't shown up for the last court date and hadn't arranged counseling for the children, especially William.

Later, at Grace House, Denise explained to Bowles what had happened: "The children's lawyer was irritated, demanding, shaking his head. He didn't cut [the caseworker] any slack." Then she laughed, hardly believing what she was about to say. "I actually felt bad for her. We don't do it like that here, Rochelle. He didn't leave her no dignity."

Bowles was less sympathetic. "That's unfortunate, but she got what she had coming, Denise."

The weekly visits, which were to be held at Grace House, couldn't begin until the DCFS caseworker worked out the logistics. Someone authorized by the agency needed to transport the children each week. Denise made several calls to the caseworker and the caseworker's supervisor to find out what was going on. Thirteen days--and two Saturdays, on which she should have had visits--passed before the caseworker returned Denise's calls. When they finally spoke, Denise discovered the caseworker hadn't even started making the arrangements, wouldn't commit to a date the visits would start, and wouldn't even agree to call Denise back with an update.

It was the letter to the caseworker, which Denise wrote with the help of Nolan and Bowles, that finally got the ball rolling--if not the letter, then the "cc" in the lower left-hand corner indicating copies had been sent to the caseworker's supervisor and the supervisor's supervisor. The letter was brief, asking for the caseworker's "assistance and cooperation" so that she and her children could "re-establish a relationship." It also stated that Denise had left messages, which had never been returned, for the caseworker, the supervisor, and a DCFS administrator.

The supervisor's supervisor responded first. "I expressed my concerns, and we had a very good conversation," Denise recalls. "She listened attentively, and she seemed to have some concerns too as to why these things aren't happening. Then [the supervisor] called and I talked to him and we had a good conversation. Things went really well. Finally he connected me with the caseworker and it just didn't go well. I said my concerns are the weekly visits, the family counseling, the individual counseling. I was letting her know it was more than the visits. I know we need the family counseling to help reestablish a bond with each other. I know that William has to have individual counseling so that he won't continue his behavior in the future. Maybe we can start working with him now with his sexual misconduct and stealing and see what the problem is.

"She cut me off, and I'm trying to continue and let her know what's bothering me, and she's saying she's not in the office because she's in the field, and when I can't get in touch with her I should call her supervisors, and I was like, "OK, I've done all the things you're suggesting.' And by this time my anger is coming. It's coming, it's coming, and she's cutting me off and at this point I'm saying, "I understand that you're busy and you're not always at your desk, and I'm being nasty and sarcastic and indignant and just ugly. Period. But the last time I talked to you was the 21st, and you said you couldn't pin down when you'd get in touch with me. It just seems to me that you would pick up the phone--if not write me a letter--and say, well, this is not happening and this is why it's not happening, or, it will happen soon. Let me know something. You know, I'm not a complainer, I'm not a whiner.'

"Then I ran out of energy. And I really got upset with myself. And I know this is not the way I'm supposed to act. I'm still supposed to be professional in spite of her. I have anger management at Grace House, and I know I'm not supposed to talk to her that way. I don't want this lady to be an enemy. I know that I can't ruffle her feathers because in the long run she's the one who's going to help me get my kids. But the way I was feeling, I wanted to go through the phone and choke her. I wanted to curse her. I wanted to say things to her. I just really wanted to lose it. Just lose it. And only because of what I worked so hard for--I'm being taught to learn how to conduct myself and how to talk to people--I knew if I'd done all the things I wanted to do it wouldn't have been a real good thing."

Denise had high hopes for the visits at Grace House: her children would have the opportunity to see her in her own world, relaxed and comfortable. They'd see her belongings, meet the people she lived with. Denise would cook for them, they'd brush their teeth together, they'd curl up on a couch and watch a movie. They'd test the waters of what life together might be like.

But when it came down to the first visit at Grace House Denise was anything but relaxed and comfortable. She tried to organize activities, but William and Brittany spent most of the time "rippin' and roarin"' through the house, and the commotion annoyed and exhausted her. Things calmed down a bit when she fixed them some Ramen noodles. They also had some peace when they sat down to watch an exercise video together. Toward the end of the day a barber Denise knew stopped by to style William's hair with a part and a few side lines.

Denise hadn't given the decision a second thought. Her son looked handsome. What could be objectionable? But after the foster mother got a look at William, she called Denise. It was their first conversation, and it didn't go well. "She was a little irate," Denise says. "She said William couldn't go to school like that, something about how she thought the new hairstyle might be mistaken as a sign that he was in a gang. I told her I didn't mean no harm."

The caseworker, who somehow had gotten the impression that the barber was Denise's boyfriend, called Nolan worried that Denise, with her history of abusive relationships, might be exposing the children to a violent boyfriend. "I think they have a perception of Denise, and they're not able to change it because they don't have any contact with her," Nolan said later of DCFS and the foster mother. "This incident reinforces their perception that she's irresponsible, a perception that at one time was based on reality. But the reality has changed. I don't think it's malicious on anybody's part. It's just part of the reality you go through when you're trying to reunite with your child. It takes time for people to see that she's changing. We're all very proud of the fact that Denise is clean, but in light of how long she was using it's nothing."

It's no secret that DCFS caseworkers are overburdened or that their performance is compromised by heavy caseloads. The standard workload for DCFS caseworkers is supposed to be something between 25 and 30 cases, according to the supervisor of the caseworker for Denise's children. But in reality, he says, each worker was handling an average of 80 or 90 cases. Their responsibilities include arranging services, evaluating the progress of the case, and making recommendations to the court. The workers are often unreachable because of their responsibilities in the field--making the required monthly visits with the children (although according to one DCFS employee the rule of thumb is a visit only once every two months) and appearing in court (which often means wasting almost a full workday waiting for the case to be called).

With 50,000 children in the system, in March an overcrowded DCFS began paying private agencies to take over some of its cases. Under the new system DCFS turns over some cases in full and some in part, and retains full control of others. DCFS remains the legal guardian of the children whose cases are contracted out and is still responsible for monitoring their cases, investigating complaints, and attending court hearings.

At the end of March Denise's children's cases were transferred in full to a private child-welfare agency, Lakeside Community Committee. Believing that the letter finally had made an impact--that now DCFS was beginning to take her seriously--Denise received the news of the transfer with mixed emotions.

On March 20, Denise arrived at the courthouse with cramps. "Am I having an anxiety attack?" she asked Nolan, clutching her stomach. Today's hearing was to determine if Denise was ready for unsupervised visits, and she was bracing herself for disaster, afraid the haircut fiasco would overshadow everything she'd done right.

While waiting for the case to be called, Nolan told Denise's public defender, the same temporary one who'd represented her at the last hearing, about the incident, concerned that it might be used against Denise. "It's completely stupid and irrelevant," the attorney assured her. Nolan further updated her: Denise had had only one visit this month, family counseling hadn't started, and William's individual counseling hadn't started. The attorney seemed ticked off for a moment, then pleased. "We have more to complain about than they do," she said. "We'll see how it goes today."

As it turned out no one broached the subject of the haircut, but the hearing upset Denise anyway. Nolan, DCFS, the state, the children's attorney, and the public defender all agreed not to move forward with unsupervised visits. Because the weekly visits had not been carried out, Denise and her children, everyone agreed, had not had enough of an opportunity to bond. Denise strongly resented--and disagreed with--the implication that she wasn't ready to be alone with her children. But nobody asked her.

At one point the judge asked the DCFS caseworker why the visits hadn't been carried out according to his mandate. The caseworker responded that she hadn't been aware that the visits weren't taking place--which incensed Denise, who'd repeatedly notified her and her supervisors through phone calls and eventually the letter. When Stern asked if at any time between today and the last court date she had followed up to see if the weekly visits had been occurring, the caseworker fumbled around, finally admitting she hadn't. Later when the matter of counseling came up, the caseworker said she was still in the process of arranging it for the children. The judge again ordered that individual counseling be in place within 30 days. Because of the changes at DCFS, this became the responsibility of the Lakeside caseworker.

Things started picking up for Denise in the spring. She completed the certified nurse's assistant program and found a job at a nursing home on the south side. She wore a white uniform, white nurse's shoes, and a stethoscope. Charles proposed, saying he thought she'd make a fine June bride; they set a tentative date for June 1997. Denise saw her children three out of the four Saturdays in April and four out of the four in May. She finally got pictures of them--their school portraits--which she framed and set on her dresser. The visits were going well, and Denise was feeling close to her children. Brittany was always quick to jump into Denise's arms, wrapping her little legs around her mother with the determination of an infant's clutching fingers. William wrote notes like "I love you mommy" and "I can't wait until the next visit" and "I miss you."

William was born in January 1987, the "spitting image" of Mark. Denise became pregnant again shortly afterward, and in December of the same year she gave birth to Brittany. Despite their new responsibilities, the couple's condition was deteriorating. They were smoking up what little money they had, staying with friends and relatives. Eventually their welcome wore thin and they started squatting in abandoned buildings without electricity, toting the children from shelter to shelter for fresh diapers.

The drugs and the poverty put a constant strain on their relationship. Their disagreements began to grow violent. At first Denise was the one doing the hitting, but eventually Mark started to hit back. Denise emerged from one scuffle with a broken arm and two loose teeth. During another argument Mark punched them out for good.

Denise eventually grew tired of the moving grind and managed to scrape together enough cash to rent an apartment. But obtaining drugs began to take priority over everything else. She was 28 when she started turning tricks. The money was easy and the work made her feel desirable. "These men were coming after me, making me feel wanted," she says. "Hell, I wasn't getting that at home." She hoped the attention from the johns would make Mark appreciate her, but he only encouraged her to work more.

"I knew this wasn't how it was supposed to be," she says. "When you use drugs you don't wash, you don't eat, you don't sleep, you don't change clothes, you don't do anything. You start living like a dog. I would pay the rent, but I wouldn't buy food for the children; they weren't dressed properly."

Toward the end of 1989 Denise left her babies in the care of her landlord's son. After a couple of days he asked the police to come get them. DCFS stepped in, and the children became wards of the state. Denise, worried and regretful, vowed she would do whatever it took to get them back. She sought help at a residential drug-treatment center, and soon her children were returned to her. The three of them lived together in the center for almost a year. During this time Denise completed training to be a nurse's assistant and held a job for six months. But she was expelled from the rehab program after she violated its rules by allowing a man to stay overnight in her room. Feeling dejected and somewhat fearful, she headed toward 63rd and Western and found a favorite dope house still thriving. She set the kids on the floor, smoked some crack, and left with some new friends when her money ran out. At their apartment she asked if they'd baby-sit William and Brittany while she turned a trick to replenish her cash flow. She says they agreed, but when she returned they told her they'd handed the children over to the police. Denise stormed out of their apartment and ran to a pay phone. She called the police, hoping they still had the children. "I thought I could explain I was only gone an hour," she says. "They said they'd come and pick me up, but it took them so long I was really panicked. I stood there for about 45 minutes and a date came first, so I got in the car and thought, I'll be right back." She never called back to find out where her children were.

"I gave up. Using drugs helped me to cope better, so I couldn't care as much. I tried to stay high more than anything 'cause I didn't want to think about where William and Brittany was or how I had messed up my life."

Denise was hanging out in the back room of the laundromat where she and a handful of other addicts spent their days staring at a television screen when she met Terry.

Terry and she took a liking to each other and became inseparable. But their relationship, like the others she'd had, became violent. They got into heated arguments that often ended with Denise pulling a knife on him. On at least two occasions the police arrested Terry for beating her.

On September 16, 1993, Denise and Terry spent the night smoking crack, then went their separate ways. They met up near Western and 62nd at about 3 AM and argued after he refused to walk her home. At one point she tried to dodge him by running around a parked car. "He grabbed me by my face," Denise said later, "and that's when my head must have hit the side of the car. All I know [is] my head was hurt and bleeding." Witnesses saw Denise pull a knife from her sleeve and swing it at Terry while retreating across Western. "I kept asking him to stop," Denise testified in court. "He was telling me a knife wasn't going to stop him." She took cover behind a lamppost, and they swung at each other from opposite sides. At one point a witness heard Terry say, "I told you the next time that you pull something out on me you better use it." Denise responded by stabbing him. She got him once, in the chest. The blade penetrated his heart.

Denise was convicted of second-degree murder, but the judgment was eventually reversed by an appellate court, which considered the killing an act of self-defense. The appellate ruling wasn't handed down until after Denise was released from prison, however: by acquiring "good time" and enrolling in drug counseling, Denise had been able to knock years off her five-year sentence. She served less than two.

While she was isolated and forced into sobriety awaiting trial at Cook County Jail, Denise says, her "mother instinct" kicked in. She hadn't seen her children in three years.

She learned through Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers that William and Brittany hadn't been adopted and that she still had parental rights. She then set in motion the long and exacting process of reuniting with them.

After being convicted, Denise was transferred to Dwight Correctional Center. Once there, she enrolled in the Gateway rehab program, replaced her missing teeth with false ones, and began group therapy, talking for the first time about being molested by her mother's boyfriend.

She also started corresponding with William and Brittany. She began with the basics: that she was in prison, that she loved and missed them, and that she wanted to see them. William came to visit first. He greeted her with a big hug and called her "mom." "He accepted me right away," Denise recalls. "I'm glad he hugged me because I didn't know if I should do that."

Brittany joined her brother on the next visit. She warmed up to Denise immediately, planting herself on her mother's lap, rubbing her hands over Denise's face as if she were wondering, "Is she real?"

Toward the end of her sentence Denise heard about Grace House, which offers its residents free room, board, therapy, and life-skills classes while they go to school and look for a job and housing.

Rochelle Bowles, the Grace House program director, came to Dwight to interview applicants. "Grace House is not a place for someone to come and just hang out," Bowles tells prospective residents. "This is not a rehab house where you can come and dry out and get back on your feet. You'll be busy, quite busy."

Denise talked to Bowles about her past and her desire for something different. She feared that without guidance on how to be sober in the world she might revert to the life she knew best.

"I interviewed six women that day," Bowles recalls. "And Denise stuck out. I had never met such a sad person. Everything about her was sad, her disposition, her body language. I wanted to just put my arms around her and hold her. She cried quite a bit during the course of our interview." Bowles accepted Denise into the program on the spot, impressed by what she perceived as her sincerity and "teachable spirit."

Grace House is shielded from 51st Street, just east of Ashland, by a muraled brick wall. A heavy wrought iron gate opens onto a small courtyard in front of the two-story brick building. The administrative side--which houses the offices of Bowles and Kathy Nolan, the Grace House therapist, as well as two closets of clothing (casual and business) to which the residents can help themselves--is joined to the main building by a stairwell that leads to the front desk. The residential quarters upstairs include bedrooms, a small library, and a computer room; a living room, dining area, and kitchen are downstairs, where the only giveaways that Grace House is an institution are the fire extinguishers, exit signs, and reception area. Otherwise, the decor is homey. Afghans drape several couches and cushiony chairs face a large TV and VCR; the room is rearranged every time someone donates a new piece of furniture. A house cat ambles freely through the building.

When the program is filled to capacity, 12 women reside here. Most, like Denise, are black. Most, like Denise, are former drug addicts with children and have been abused physically or sexually or both. Other than the time they've spent in prison, few have ever left Chicago, or even their own neighborhood.

The residents have rigid schedules and often spend their days moving back and forth among workshops, discussions, and presentations--some mandatory, some not--on things ranging from self-esteem to how to land a job. As the women get settled the meetings give way to school and work. They also have weekly chores. Though the program is intended to last six months, the length of a woman's stay is flexible, depending on her need and progress.

Denise arrived at Grace House on July 27, 1995, the day she was released from prison. At first she shared a room with two other residents, then she lucked out and moved into a small but cozy single--with green carpeting, pale yellow walls, and a twin bed with floral sheets. She quickly added personal touches. From the ceiling she hung a stuffed canary on a perch. On her door she stuck an angel sticker. On her bulletin board she tacked Polaroids of William and Brittany from when they visited her in prison; photos of her older children; and a calendar, which became her record of communication with attorneys and caseworkers.

Grace House is in one of the three impoverished areas in the city that are considered enterprise communities and therefore eligible for state subsidies, but the neighborhood has yet to see the $915,000 that's been earmarked for economic development. Burned-out buildings with boarded-up or broken windows--not unlike the kinds of places Denise used to call home--line the neighboring streets. There is a cluster of churches, but other than a pest-control center, a dry cleaner's, and a tire store, all the businesses around are liquor stores.

The first seven days a resident is at Grace House she must stay on the premises. She's given a manual outlining the house rules--among them no drugs, alcohol, weapons, sex, violence, or gambling--and guidelines, regarding such things as wake-up time, signing in and out, curfew, and weekend and overnight passes.

When Denise first arrived she spent a lot of time staring out her bedroom window, transfixed by things that reminded her of her not-too-distant past: watchful dealers scanning for signs of trouble; prostitutes looking for dates, calling out to passersby and climbing into cars. "I would pray for those girls," she says.

Bowles likes to say, "If the residents can make it here, given what's outside the fence, they can make it anywhere."

By the time Denise started the process of reuniting with her children they'd been in foster care for five consecutive years and in their current placement for four. They'd had some contact with Mark and his parents, but nothing constant. Given that children in the system are often bounced from home to home and separated from their siblings, Denise's children were extremely fortunate.

Shortly after reentering her children's lives, Denise saw that their foster mother's attitude would be an obstacle to a smooth reunification. Denise once wrote the foster mother a letter, "trying to establish some kind of rapport with her."

"I expressed my gratitude," she says. "I was thanking her for being a mom to my children when I wasn't there and for all she's done. I requested letters from my children and pictures and phone calls. They did send some letters, I never got the phone calls, and I never got the pictures. I expressed to her that since she had a lot of influence over them that she could probably encourage them to sit down and write me. And why is it so hard for her to send me a picture to let me see how my children look? I hadn't seen them in so many years. Why couldn't she ask them, "Why aren't you writing your mom?' Why can't she be of some encouragement to this relationship?"

The foster mother forbade Denise from calling the children, and they told her that they would only be allowed to call Grace House if Denise gave them a calling card. "She says she's not a threat to me and stuff like that, but in fact she's not helping me and them get back together either." On Thanksgiving, when the children were visiting Mark's mother, they called Denise for the first time. "Happy Turkey Day," they chimed into the phone.

Nor did it take long for Denise to realize that the DCFS caseworker "wasn't about her business." While in prison Denise had asked the caseworker to deliver Christmas presents--books on Michael Jordan and Jesus--to the children. Several months later, when the children visited her in prison, Denise learned that they had never received them. Denise says when she complained the books suddenly emerged from the trunk of the caseworker's car. After Denise was released, two back-to-back monthly visits--in September and October--were missed for reasons that the caseworker never bothered to explain. And she didn't call Denise to reschedule. When Denise tried to reach the caseworker by phone she was usually unsuccessful, and it was rare if the caseworker returned her calls. On two separate occasions the caseworker was a no-show for meetings with Grace House administrators. In December she was extremely disorganized at the agency's case review, stopping the hearing several times to retrieve paperwork from her office. Although Denise says she never had much confidence in the caseworker, around this time she started thinking, "Where is this lady's brain at?

"I know a lot of individuals in my shape," Denise says, "and they get so much help from DCFS and from the foster parents. It just seems like I'm one of the ones who's caught up in the system with nobody who really gives a damn."

When a child is taken into foster care, DCFS comes up with a goal-- "return home," relative care, foster care, adoption--and creates a plan to provide services that will help meet that goal. The agency reviews the case every six months and updates the service plan if necessary; the court reviews the goals and the service plan once a year. According to state law, a permanent plan must be developed within 16 months of a child's entering the system. But for years the cases of Denise's children were in limbo, written off as what's now referred to as "Dana W." cases, cases considered static and therefore exempt from active monitoring. The exemption was considered potentially harmful to the children who were wards of the state and was eliminated in a 1993 case against DCFS in which a girl named "Dana W." was the plaintiff. But Denise believed it might have worked in her favor. By the time she started tracking down her children they'd been in the system without a permanent plan twice as long as the state allows. "Sometimes I have to be glad the system is negligent," she admits. If her children's cases had been regularly reviewed, the court might have terminated her parental rights. The irony is not lost on Denise, who recognizes that the characteristics of the system that once worked to her advantage--no follow-up, slow progress--are now working against her.

A month before a hearing to determine a permanent plan for the children, Denise called her public defender to confirm the date. He said he was off the case and gave her the number of her new lawyer. When she called him, he said he had never heard of her, didn't have her file, and didn't know who was supposed to represent her. He said he'd check on these things and get back to her, but he never did. "I get discouraged sometimes and leave it up to God because I keep getting the runaround," she said at the time. "I knew this process was not going to be easy, but I sure didn't think it was going to be as hard as it is. I should be able to get hold of one person in this system, just one out of all the people I contact, that's about the business they're supposed to be about."

At the hearing neither he nor any other public defender showed up. The DCFS caseworker was also absent, and the hearing had to be postponed.

On Saturday, January 19, Denise once again dug the bags of Christmas gifts out from under her bed. Because of the kids' failure to show the week before, she only half believed they'd turn up this time. She took longer than usual to get ready and didn't leave Grace House until 11:30 AM, the time the visit was supposed to start. Sure enough, when she arrived ten minutes later the Lutheran building was locked. But this time Darryl was there waiting for her. He'd left the kids at the foster home so they wouldn't have to wait in the cold. It was only after the employee with the keys arrived and Denise settled into an upstairs room, knowing the kids were on the way, that she started to get excited. Soon she heard furious trampling on the stairs and elated shouts of "Mommy!" William and Brittany, who'd seen her maybe five times since they were toddlers, burst into the room and threw themselves into her arms.

Within minutes all the toys were strewn about the floor. William scooped up the Nerf basketball. Brittany splayed herself out on the floor with the talking computer game. Denise lay on her stomach with an arm slung over her daughter. Together they worked at answering trivia questions and changing verbs to past tense.

For the most part the children seemed well-adjusted and surprisingly comfortable with this stranger. Occasionally hints of aggression surfaced--like when Brittany, shrieking with laughter, swiftly mock-kicked her mother's back, and when William repeatedly steered the remote-control car into his mother's backside, high-pitched giggles erupting from his wide smile. "You kicking my butt with the car?" Denise said. "That ain't funny, William."

Toward the end of the visit Denise started fishing for information.

"Where were you last Saturday?" she asked.

"Shopping," William told her.

"You didn't go to the hospital?"

"What?"

"You all didn't go to the hospital last Saturday with that man?"

"What man?" William asked.

"Why didn't you come see me last week?"

"Didn't know you was here," William said.

Denise raised her eyebrows and shot Darryl an I-told-you-so look.

"Did somebody get hurt last Saturday?" Darryl intervened.

William scrunched up his face in bewilderment. Brittany stared blankly at Darryl.

With renewed anger, Denise made a mental note to complain to the DCFS caseworker about the foster mother defying court orders.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Cynthia Howe.

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