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Two-sided tale: Single mom vs. the judge

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tina Olison wanted her baby back. She'd freed herself from the addiction that had held her hostage for two decades. She'd gotten herself an apartment and a job. It was time to raise her own child.

But she couldn't get the baby from the politically powerful, well-off couple who'd fostered him since he was a crack-quivering newborn.

A juvenile court judge in Chicago decided that Olison's baby would be better off with the foster parents, a city alderman, whose influence extended over selection of judges, and an appeals court judge, whose colleagues would decide any case Olison brought challenging the ruling against her.

So Olison pleaded her case in the media. She accused the child welfare agency of obstructing her efforts to get her son back to appease the influential couple who wanted to adopt him.

In Pennsylvania and most other states, a parent's side of the story is about all the public would know. That's because most child welfare agencies are prohibited from discussing individual situations and most juvenile court hearings are closed.

The one-sided stories play out like fables in which foster parents are Rumpelstiltskins snatching children from heartbroken mothers.

Olison presented her tale as a racial power play in which white political monarchs oppress a poor black woman.

But like everything else in child welfare, it was more complicated than that. And because Olison lives in a state that gives the press access to juvenile court hearings, the complexities of the case were reported. Both sides of the story were told.

Chapter 1

For a woman who spent the majority of her 39 years high, Tina Olison tells one good story. She is so poised and articulate that her attorneys encouraged her to take her case to the press and public.

Initially, Olison won hearts while the steadfastly silent foster parents and the officially gagged child welfare agency failed to salvage their reputations as the villains.

To Olison, the foster parents, Alderman Edward Burke and Appeals Judge Anne Burke, got to keep her son because the child welfare agency was beholden to Anne Burke, who had posed in photos with Olison's son as a prop to promote foster parenting by upper-class white Chicago families such as the Burkes.

And, the way Olison sees it, the judges on the Cook County bench didn't want to cross Anne Burke, either, because their decisions might be appealed to the bench on which Burke sits. When one Cook County judge finally took the case, she decided the baby would be better off with the Burkes. That jurist, Olison points out, was promoted to presiding judge, over many other juvenile court judges with more experience.

After that decision, Olison went to the press. She got support in the community, including pickets at the Burke house, and a group of private lawyers volunteered to represent her.

The new attorneys got the case moved to a new judge from another county, whose decisions would not be appealed to Burke's bench. That judge, Judith Brawka, decided Olison should get her son, then 3, as well as an older son who was in foster care with Olison's mother.

That was March 1999. The child welfare agency was to gradually increase visits between Olison and her sons over a year to ease the transition. But Olison complained that the agency, which had urged the judge to give the Burkes guardianship, was doing everything it could to make the visits difficult.

Then, as she tells the story, everything fell apart.

The Burkes filed their own request for guardianship, and seven months after the judge had rejected that option, she reversed herself. Olison would get the other son, who was then 8, but the Burkes would keep the baby.

Olison believes that was political, too. What else could explain Brawka's decision that Olison was good enough to mother her older son, but not her baby? The people of Chicago would be told the reason. And it would come from the judge's mouth, not Olison's.

Had the judge's decision been made in a closed court state such as Pennsylvania, her rationale would be a secret.

Chapter 2

At the hearings, reporters heard some information about Olison that she hadn't mentioned.

They learned that caseworkers were critical of her parenting skills and believed she had some mental-health problems.

At the March 1999 hearing, an expert hired by the child welfare agency discounted the racial difference between the foster parents and the child, contending that in the new millennium, society would be more enlightened about race.

Brawka didn't buy that. When she decided that the baby should be returned to his mother, she said the agency had failed to acknowledge the importance of race.

The judge had observed the baby and his older brother together and emphasized their closeness. If the brothers were brought together with Olison, they would always have each other for support and solace, the judge said.

In the months after the hearing, Olison, who had previously appeared compliant, began fighting with social workers. She fired therapists. She balked at family treatment. She seemed unable or unwilling to arrange increasingly longer visits with her son.

Then, at the hearing on the Burkes' petition for guardianship, a therapist testified that Olison might eventually be able to serve as a parent to the baby, but she was not ready at that time, partly because she couldn't control her anger. Social workers said the baby's behavior worsened after visits to Olison's home.

The judge changed her mind. Perhaps, she said, Olison could handle the older boy, but she wasn't able to meet the baby's needs.

"The transition process was not working," Brawka said. Expressing concern about the baby's behavior, she said, "This court will not foist any more disruption upon him."

Olison could visit, Brawka said, but the Burkes would get guardianship.

Even though Anne Burke feels she was exploited by Olison and the press, she wouldn't close Illinois' juvenile courtrooms.

"It is a good thing for people to understand what goes on in the court," she conceded.

The Burkes' attorney, Marina Ammendola, knows that closing the hearing in Chicago would not have made the story go away. It would, she says, only have eliminated the best chance her clients had of getting their side of the story aired.

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