By DEE DAVIS-TOKARZ
Paulette Patterson, a wheelchair-bound mother of three, was evicted form her apartment for withholding rent in 1983. She was trying to force the landlord to make repairs in her home. Patterson found her way to a shelter where she and her children lived in a third floor room with no access to a bathroom. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) came to the shelter and took her children because the shelter was considered inadequate housing. Barred from living in the shelter without her children, she wound up living in the park for four days.
On January 29, 1989, the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago (LAFC) filed a suit on behalf of four named plaintiffs, including Patterson, and all poor parents at risk of losing, or who had lost, their children to DCFS for reasons of poverty. LAFC, a legal service for the poor, contended that many parents cited for unclean and unsafe housing could solve their problem if DCFS provided cash grants instead of taking custody of their children. Lead council for the plaintiffs, Laurene Heyback, said, "The DCFS' attitude was, we don't help parents, we help kids."
The case, James Norman v Sue Suter, was settled in 1991 and is known as the Norman consent decree and attempts to resolve situations such as Patterson's which involve "environmental neglect." Before this case, DCFS had no policy of giving money to poor people because of such neglect. The consent decree requires DCFS to provide families with up to $800 if that assistance will prevent the removal of a child from the family or allow the imminent return of a child by solving the problem of the families having a dirty or inadequate home or of simply not being able to properly feed or clothe their children.
The Norman decree is two-pronged. The front end of the system helps those who are needy and in jeopardy of losing their children; the back end of the system helps people who have had their children taken away for any reason, have been rehabilitated and need the money to get started so their children can be returned. DCFS was allocated $1.8 million from general funds for implementing the Norman decree. Of that, $1.4 million was for cash assistance, $100,000 was to write up a reference manual and $300,000 was to set up a housing advocacy program.
Heyback said in April that the agency should be working faster to put children back with their parents. She said that children are abused in foster care at four times the rate they are in their own homes and that this was the drive behind the lawsuit. According to Heyback, by DCFS' own first count, there were more than 700 families that came under the Norman consent decree. In April, more than a year later, only 205 families had received Norman money. The previous year, DCFS figures show 6,687 families were cited for neglect for inadequate shelter, food and clothing. The state removed children from 1,190 of these homes.
The new financial assistance will help families pull their lives together, said Kim Baer, associate attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the firm retained by DCFS to defend the department. "It set a precedent. No other state I know has a program that gives money to the poor. It's on the cutting edge of child welfare practice," said Baer, who has worked on the Norman case for three years. Baer is now in charge of implmenting the decree. "DCFS is committed to this program because it saves money in the long run," said Baer. "It keeps kids out of the system and out of expensive foster homes. It makes sense to spend the money up front. [It] helps them get started in a new place or get food if the situation is temporary. This could help a homeless mother who finds a job, pay the security deposit or the first month's rent. If the job is too big for $800, we work with other agencies and the Department of Public Aid. One purpose of the agreement is to provide a network of resources that DCFS can tap into." On implementation, Baer said, "It's been a rocky road because there were misunderstandings about when back end case members get the money. There were problems and confusion about who is a class member."
Chief investigator for DCFS John Goad said, "We have resources we didn't have prior to the settlement. That was what the suit was about. There was never a finding that we systematically removed kids. We were investigated oriented, not service oriented. If we had had the money for a system,
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we wouldn't have had to take children we wound up taking."
Goad said he saw more back end cases when he was a follow-up worker. After a mother had been through counseling and the risk to the child was removed, the mother had lost her Aid to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC) grant. While the child was in state custody, the mother had to move to a smaller apartment and then had no room for the child. According to Goad, a substantial number in the Norman class cases are back end. "Now we have the resources to help them. It was a catch-22," he said. "You couldn't get your AFDC until you got your child back, and you couldn't get your child until you got your AFDC." DCFS has set up a system with Public Aid where families with AFDC can be reinstated more quickly. "If we know the court is going to return the child within 30 days, we go to Public Aid and get the grant all set up," said Goad.
Norman money is a short-term solution. If people are chronically poor, a case worker has to make the determination if $800 can remedy the situation. A family can get $800 only once a year and is eligible only if a case worker says so. Goad said, "More important than anything, is the mind-set that goes with Norman. It adds an element that is more family focused. You can't say that every good thing we do now in relation to those issues is a result of the settlement, but the settlement has given us resources that we didn't have and underscored some values."
The court-appointed monitor who reports to the court every six months on whether DCFS is in compliance with the decree is Jenine Smith. "As of January first, DCFS had spent $125,000 of the $1.4 million for cash assistance," said Smith. "I don't know whether it's enough money, but it's documented that this program is less costly than foster care. It's one of few social programs that can document saving taxpayer money and giving better service. That's a compelling argument for funding." According to DCFS data, the average care per child in nonspecialized foster care is $300 a month.
There are three years of implementation dates for the consent decree. In Smith's first monitoring report on March 1, she reported that phase one of the program — development, policy writing and training — was completed. Over a four-month period, all statewide departmental employees, as well as private agency staffs, were trained in sessions with a maximum of 50 people. "You don't implement a program like Norman, tomorrow," Smith said.
The second phase will be utilization of the program. "It will be another year before we know the magnitude of the problem. The program is well designed, and now we have to see how extensive the problem is and how much we have to spend. This is not fully implemented at case worker level yet where it really counts," said Smith.
The Housing Advocacy Program (HAP), which cost $300,000 helps people find adequate housing so they can get their kids back or not lose them in the first place. A number of agencies have contracted with DCFS for housing advocacy services. Heyback is concerned that the housing agencies are not doing an effective and prompt job or getting enough referrals. She cited a recent case where a family was turned down for an apartment because their was a "no-children" rule. Heyback said, "HAP should know that violates city ordinances and fair housing laws. HAP is not as visionary as I would like it to be, and there is a lag time, resulting in trauma to the child and expense to the state."
Heyback believes that Smith's first report to the court on DCFS progress puts on the most optimistic face even though a lot of concrete data has not come in yet. "I'm concerned that they keep putting off providing data and have no commitment to dates." She added, "They're not using the money in place. In the first three months, no Norman money has been used in several DCFS regions in the state. The cash is underspent." Heyback said she understands that DCFS went from "we don't do housing" to this system*. But out of 900 Norman cases now identified statewide, she expected to hear that at least a few hundred were settled in the first few months, and she hasn't.
And timing is everything. Heyback said, "Once the money is in place, housing is found and parents have resolved their problems, a lawyer has to petition the court for review. This could take months, and the Norman money is down the drain. When it's ready you have to move."
The Norman consent decree has the force of law and can be enforced by a judge. If the LAFC thinks that DCFS is not fulfilling its obligations, it can file a motion and DCFS will be held in contempt for violation. Both parties reserve the right to modify the agreement.
Dee Davis-Tokarz is a graduate journalism student at Columbia College, Chicago. She interned both in Springfield and Washington, D.C., this spring and will intern this summer at the Southtown Economist.