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Family values: Court, CYF show preference for reuniting families over foster care

Juvenile Court Journal

Sunday, November 17, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Crying is a constant in juvenile court.

When judges remove toddlers from abusive fathers and terminate custody rights of addicted mothers, parents wail and babies bawl.

Christine Coleman has been reunited with her six children after, with the help of CYF, she got off drugs, kept a job and moved into her own house. Standing from left at top are daughters Charlotte, Shinika and Kristina. Son Edward is at front left, and daughter Ivory is at front right. The baby in front center is granddaughter Chyna Monet Coleman. Daughter Ebony is not shown. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Juvenile Court Journal
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When the court puts families back together, tears flow, too -- joyful ones like those that slipped down the smiling faces of Christine Coleman and her daughter, Charlotte Parran, on Oct. 23.

They cried together as Judge Cheryl Allen ordered a caseworker to give Charlotte's daughter, Chyna, back to her. For Coleman, the return of her first grandchild to the family was a glorious ending to a year in which her twins, then Charlotte, and, ultimately, her son, were all returned to her.

As Coleman and Charlotte entered the courtroom that Wednesday, another mother sang "Hallelujah" in the hallway because Allen had just returned her children.

Redeeming parents and reunifying families are the primary missions of child welfare agencies such as Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families. The agencies regularly remove children from dangerous homes and place them with foster families, but if that temporary arrangement becomes permanent, they've fallen short of their overriding goal.

Allegheny County is particularly good at reunification because both the agency and the courts have bought into the philosophy that children fare best with rehabilitated parents.

"I believe in reunification whenever possible," said Allen, supervising judge for juvenile court. "Whenever I have to sign a termination of parental rights, I see it as a failure."

The emphasis on reunification is equally clear at CYF, which celebrates family reunions annually with a picnic and plaques for the successful parents.

"This is really the most important thing, if you can get a family back together and keep them together," said Marc Cherna, county human services director.

Since Cherna took over the agency in 1996, the number of children in foster care has dropped from 3,088 to 2,160, partly because the agency makes a concerted effort to reunify families and partly because it provides services to troubled parents to avoid removing children.

Christine Coleman's caseworker, Erin Craig, estimates that she reunified 75 percent of the children assigned to her, and another 15 percent remained with relatives. Only 10 percent were terminated from their parents and adopted.

Coleman herself had the wrong impression of CYF until it removed her children. "I always thought CYF tried to get your children off you. That is not true. They try to care for your kids as you should be doing and give you the chance to get them back.

"They saved me."

'She believed in me'

In the summer of 2000, loneliness overtook Coleman.

Crack and booze failed to fulfill her the way caring for her children had. CYF had taken her six children three years earlier. She had gotten some of them back from time to time when she stopped using drugs.

But by that summertime, she had none of them. She was sick, tired and desolate.

She decided to do something about it. She enrolled in an in-patient drug treatment program at St. Francis Medical Center that October.

She called her caseworker, Erin Craig, to tell her. Coleman's family was special to Craig because theirs was the first case assigned to her when she began as a caseworker. But by this point, two years later, she was frustrated. The children had been jerked around because of their mother's on-again, off-again drug use, and they were misbehaving. Craig didn't have to deal with the two older girls because they'd turned 18.

But the younger four were a handful.

The teen-age twins, Ivory and Ebony Parran, were truant and running away from group homes. Their younger sister, Charlotte, had delivered a baby at the age of 13 and was living in a group home with her child. The youngest, Edward Larkins, in foster care with an aunt, was causing trouble at school.

Craig regarded with some skepticism Coleman's claim that she was going to get clean. "I didn't believe her," Craig said. "Although I said, 'That's great, and I will help,' deep down, I had doubts."

It was the, "That's great," part that Coleman recalls, however. She says that as she prayed for the crack cravings to recede, it helped immensely that Craig had faith in her: "She believed in me. She believed I could do it."

Such faith alone, however, is not enough to shake crack addiction. Coleman had other motivations. "I did not want to give up on caring for my children. Children need their mother. I felt I was giving up something beautiful. I love them, and I didn't want to hurt them anymore. I wanted to wake up to my children and have them come to me when they had problems."

She felt that the forlorn woman who'd lost her children was not the real Christine Coleman. "I knew I could take care of my children. I knew I was a strong black woman. I fell down, but I can pick myself up."

She spent four months at St. Francis, then went directly to another in-patient treatment program for another six months. When she graduated from there, she moved to a shelter in Wilkinsburg that provides temporary housing.

After several months there, in the fall of 2001, she got a house in Garfield big enough for her and all of her children. She landed a job at Clean Textile Systems in Lawrenceville. That October, she started getting her children back. First it was Ebony and Ivory. In April, it was Charlotte. Finally, in June, it was Edward's turn.

In that hearing, Craig reported to Allen that Edward had gotten suspended from school several times and wasn't minding his aunt, who was serving as his foster mother. Craig told the judge she thought he needed to be with his mother and sisters. "I think he is ready to go home. ... I am recommending that he return to his mother's care today."

That's what the judge ordered. It was a triumphant moment for Coleman.

It was a victory for Craig as well. Six months earlier, she'd begun a different job at CYF. Her other families were transferred to new caseworkers, but she kept Coleman and Charlotte's cases. "I fought to keep them," she said. "I put all of this work into it. I wanted to make sure things went well."

For her, reunification has both personal and broad policy implications. "If my own family had problems, I would want someone to help, not just yank the kids away," she said. "If we did that, there would be too many kids in care and not enough permanent homes. When kids are without their parents, there is a tendency toward anger, drug use, delinquency and sexual acting out. We prevent those problems when we successfully reunify."

Emotional costs

Besides the work of caseworkers such as Craig, CYF contracts the help of eight nonprofit agencies to get families back together. Each time children are removed, a caseworker links the family to one of these eight groups. They then help parents accomplish tasks that CYF says must be completed before the children can be safely returned. That may be attending a drug treatment program, going to parenting classes, getting new housing and faithfully visiting the children.

The agencies help in ways that range from driving a parent to visits to finding a new refrigerator, which could be the only remaining barrier to reunification.

These services are costly -- $10 million a year. And many other child welfare organizations simply do not provide them. But failure to help has a high price as well. Each additional day a teen spends in a group home costs taxpayers about $148, and each day a child lives in foster care costs about $50.

And the costs continue even if parents' legal rights are terminated and the children adopted because state and federal governments pay subsidies similar to foster payments to adoptive parents of many of these children.

CYF garnishes the wages of working parents such as Coleman to help pay the costs. But that does not cover the entire financial debt, nor does it begin to cover the incalculable emotional costs to children separated from their families. Coleman acknowledges her responsibility for those emotional debts. She blamed herself for Ivory and Ebony's misbehavior and for Charlotte's loss of Chyna.

'I had a bad attitude'

Charlotte was one angry 13-year-old by the time Chyna was born in October 1999. For two years, she'd been in and out of her mother's care, in foster care and then group homes. Her mother still wasn't clean, and Charlotte couldn't be sure when or if she'd ever go home.

After Chyna was born, Craig found places where mother and baby could live together. But Charlotte was aggressive and uncooperative, forcing Craig to move them three or four times in Chyna's first 14 months. Then Charlotte, all of 14 years old, ran away with the baby, and when she returned, the group home staff told Craig that Charlotte was rough with Chyna.

Craig in turn reported the group home's concerns for the baby's safety to Allen, who ordered Chyna placed in foster care and Charlotte sent to Mars Home for Youth.

"Charlotte was really mad," Craig recalls. "I let her vent. They vent on me because I am an easy target. I can understand they have anger. I came out and took their kids." But when the anger subsides, Craig gives parents the solution. "I say, 'This is what you need to do to get your children back.'

"I always told Charlotte, 'No matter what you think, I don't want Chyna. I want to give her back to you. But here is what you have to do.' "

At first, Charlotte wasn't about to do what she had to do. "I had a bad attitude," she conceded. But that was only until it sank in that she wouldn't get her daughter back until she behaved.

"I could not go on with her not being in my care," Charlotte recalled. "I had to do everything. I could not get below a B in school. I had therapy two times a week and parenting classes, and I had to follow the Mars rules."

Most parents, motivated in the same way Charlotte was, comply with CYF demands and get their children back. Exactly one week before Charlotte's hearing in October, Allen conducted routine reviews of 12 cases in which children had been removed, and in four of those, she sent children home.

In one, a 16-year-old boy was returned to his mother, who'd begun drug treatment. His sister had been returned a month and a half earlier. The mother and children promised to continue family counseling.

Also on that day, a 16-year-old girl and her baby were sent to live with the girl's mother. The mother was in drug treatment and living in a shelter. This was the first step in reunification for the family. The two sons would be permitted to visit on weekends.

In another case, Allen sent a 17-year-old girl home to the grandmother who had raised her. The grandmother had asked for help from CYF because the girl was skipping school and defying curfew. After 45 days in a group home, the girl had a new appreciation for rules. "Part of the reason you ended up in placement is your failure to follow rules," Allen said. "Now are you willing to put that all behind you?"

"Yes," the girl replied.

In a similar case, Allen sent a 16-year-old girl home. She'd been placed in a group home after repeatedly refusing to go to school, so repeatedly that she'd not managed to get beyond the ninth grade. She, too, told the judge she'd learned her lesson. "I want to go to school and do what I have to do," she assured Allen.

What Charlotte had to do to get Chyna back was more than just go to school. After Charlotte returned to her mother, and Chyna spent weekends there, Charlotte had to crawl out of bed at 5:30 Monday morning to get herself and the baby ready, then take Chyna to day care and get to school on time.

When Craig saw that Charlotte accomplished those tasks, she knew the 16-year-old was ready to have her baby back. And she felt Chyna needed a settled household because it upset the toddler to be moved between her mother and foster parents. "Everyone was doing well, and it was time for Charlotte to see if she could do it," Craig said.

Allen agreed, and, on her third birthday, Chyna went home to her mother and grandmother.

Before Coleman and Charlotte went into court that day, Coleman was handing out help in the waiting room. Did someone need housing? Call the Section 8 people at the Housing Authority, Coleman advised. Was a security deposit the problem? Call the Urban League, Coleman recommended. They helped with hers.

"She definitely knows the system," Craig said, and she is putting that knowledge to work to help other parents.

And it doesn't end in court.

Coleman has organized a support group that meets in her living room once a week. "A lot of people don't know how to reach out and ask for help. I tell them everybody makes mistakes. You can get back up."

She wants to take on a new project -- talking to women in shelters. She worries about them because sometimes they give up there. "I want to tell them they should not feel ashamed. They should know they have the opportunity to stop using drugs and get their kids and a house and get faith."

Craig is clearly proud of Coleman's accomplishments. "She is an amazing woman," Craig said. "She has come a long way to get her family back."

Barbara White Stack can be reached at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

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