Monthly Archives: October 2010

Statement for Legal Momentum Congressional Briefing on TANF

Every Mother is a Working Mother Network began in 1994 in response to welfare reform which ignored the enormous amount of work mothers do, in this instance mothers with the least. It ignored the importance of the nurturing relationship and bonding between mothers and children and in so doing made the case that mothers, instead of having the time and the support to care for our own children, be forced to take any job outside the home and our children placed in the care of strangers. This devalued the work of all mothers, in particular those with the least resources, and demeaned the caring relationship between mother and child. It treated our children like a nuisance that gets in the way of what is really important — a job outside the home. Our views reflect the reality of millions of mothers and other caregivers whose contributions are devalued, and the thousands of low-income mothers who are punished in welfare legislation for being mothers.

Statement for Legal Momentum Congressional Briefing: Punishing the Poor: How Harsh and Unfair TANF Sanctions Are Hurting Our Poorest Families  Thursday, September 30, 2010


“With tech, they learn to tell their stories”

philly1.jpgFour videos made by community groups will premiere Tuesday .

By Carolyn Davis
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tue, Aug. 31, 2010

Lawanda Connelly won’t be stepping out of a limo or walking the red carpet when she attends the premiere at the International House Tuesday of a documentary she helped make .

But she will be dealing with some of the same emotions, good and nerve-racking, that professional filmmakers experience at their debuts .

“I’m going to try to keep my composure,” she says at first, then adds, “There’s just a huge sense of accomplishment that we were able to do this . “

Connelly, 42, and others at the Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network produced DHS, Give Us Back Our Children, which will be screened Tuesday along with three other films produced as part of Scribe Video Center’s Community Visions program .

The film, whose name is derived from a support group the network sponsors and to which Connelly belongs, documents the stories of mothers and grandmothers fighting to keep their children out of foster care .

The Community Visions project fits snugly into the mission of Scribe, an organization begun in 1982 as a place where people could come together to share video skills and knowledge, and have access to equipment – and, therefore, to an influential medium, said center founder Louis Massiah .

Scribe facilitators take participants selected for the program through all the phases of making a documentary . Their final videos must center on an issue that is important to the constituency of each group .

This year, four films were produced . In addition to Every Mother’s production, other films were by Chester ‘s Community Grocery Co-op, which explored a community’s access to healthful food; the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, which addressed the effect on youths of being tried and incarcerated as adults; and Bridgeway Inc . , which delved into its relationship with its Tioga community .

“The idea of Community Visions is that making film and videotapes is a form of literacy,” Massiah says . “A video is a very powerful way of communicating to a broad constituency . It’s a basic form of communication . “

From the first round of documentaries in 1990, he says, the videos also have been artistic expressions .

Connelly, a senior administrative specialist at a pharmaceutical company, wasn’t thinking about art as she worked with the Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network to produce DHS, Give Us Back Our Children .

Her story, not surprisingly, is complicated . She says it begins with false allegations of abuse, ultimately proven untrue, and ends with getting her daughter back after a month of court wrangling .

She was excited to learn how to use the documentary form to teach people what she and others have been through – an experience that is largely hidden, she says .

Which also makes it isolating for those going through it, so passing on lessons and support to others in similar circumstances is hard to do .

“In that situation, you really don’t have a voice – you are thought to be guilty until proven innocent,” Connelly says . “I have always more than anything just wanted the opportunity to tell my story . This gave me an opportunity to tell my story . “

Not only was the Southwest Philadelphia resident interviewed for the documentary, Connelly also helped set up video shoots and position lighting . Until the project, she never realized how sights and sounds intersect every moment in life .

One time, the crew was filming a woman who was explaining what had happened to her .

“She was very nervous and the chair she was in was rocking back and forth,” Connelly says . “It was creaking and she didn’t realize it . “

The video team members realized they had to interrupt her .

“It was awful because she was right in the middle of telling this gut-wrenching story,” she says .

For Connelly, editing 100 hours of tape down to the required 12 minutes was the most grueling part of the project . The best they could do was get it down to 15 .

“To us, everything was relevant and we wanted to include everything,” she says .

Emily Rollins, 82, has always tried to work behind the scenes at Bridgeway, the nonprofit Tioga community group she started in 1974 .

Rollins calls her organization “a community-based empowerment center” that helps people realize they have possibilities in life . Its services include a food pantry and it also provides shelter, transportation, information, and moral support for area residents who are struggling .

“We help people to unscatter their minds,” she says .

She remained behind the scenes as her group’s documentary was made, but has become an enthusiastic advocate of using technology to educate people about the relationship between Bridgeway and its community .

“You have to show and tell,” Rollins says with a laugh .

So she did for this project what she does best for people . She urged on her teammates as they shot interviews and neighborhood scenes, and wrestled with lighting and other technical chores . She assisted in the final editing, which she shepherded along by constantly reminding her colleagues of their common purpose – “to have people see the possibility of community processes,” she says .

Like Connelly, Rollins thinks she and the other Community Visions participants will use their new skills long after the premiere is movie history .

“Our future depends on knowing how to do a great deal of managing and marketing,” Rollins says, “and that will depend on our technical skills, our use of technology . “

“Group of mothers with common foe: DHS and its adversarial system”

By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News
Posted on Mon, Feb. 22, 2010
difilid@phillynews.com 215-854-5934

It’s a motley crew that meets regularly in the shabby, red-brick storefront in Germantown that is the humble home of the Crossroads Women’s Center: Young and old, black and white, high-school dropouts and MBA-holders, activists and just plain angry folks.

But all are mothers, and they’re united by a fierce determination and a common loathing. Their foe: The city’s Department of Human Services.

“It’s a totally adversarial, punitive system that really wants to separate you from your child,” said Mary Kalyna, an activist in the growing “DHS – Give Us Back Our Children” effort based at the center.

The protest group formed several years ago after a mother named Tilly Ayala, frustrated by fruitless efforts to get her two children out of foster care, began weekly pickets outside DHS headquarters, at 15th and Arch streets. Her revolt was contagious, and before long, a crowd of supporters frequently joined her.

Volunteers from the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network embraced the effort, and now host weekly support-group meetings for other mothers similarly stymied by the system.

They also act as parent advocates, accompanying mothers to court hearings and meetings with caseworkers. And they lobby for reform, saying that more transparency and accountability are keys to improvement.

“Removing children should be the absolute last resort, when all other resources have been exhausted, when all other therapies have been tried, when a child is in immediate danger for his life,” Kalyna said. “Instead, children get taken because there are roaches in the house. Or because their housing isn’t adequate. Or because a parent has a drug addiction. Instead of giving those families help to handle those problems, DHS just removes the child.”

Such claims annoy Anne Marie Ambrose. The DHS commissioner says that her agency does address those problems by providing in-home services and linking families with community services. DHS, she emphasized, removes children only when social workers identify a safety concern.

“I believe in advocacy, and I feel passionately about the welfare of children,” Ambrose said. “So I respect that in others. But I’ve been called a ‘babykiller’ and a ‘babysnatcher’ [by DHS-Give Us Back Our Children pickets]. It hasn’t been a productive relationship.”

But Kalyna and her supporters are steadfastly unapologetic.

“I think DHS doesn’t really care about children,” Kalyna said.

Kalyna is a surprising spokeswoman for the anti-DHS movement. She used to work for DHS, as a social worker employed by an agency DHS that subcontracted to manage its foster care. After two years, she got tired of fighting for her clients without success.

“They said I identified with the clients too much,” Kalyna said. “I took that as a compliment.”

Kalyna and her colleagues have ambitious goals. Besides lobbying on a grassroots level for parents’ rights, they believe that mothers deserve pay for their work in raising children, a concept practiced by some European countries.

“Mothers shouldn’t lose their children because of poverty,” said Pat Albright, a center volunteer.

The group complains that DHS is infected by a culture of contempt for biological parents.

And they want a more active advisory role within DHS. There are two groups already working for DHS reform: a community advisory board and the DHS Community Oversight Board. But many members of both boards are what Kalyna calls “muckety-mucks”: doctors, politicians, professors, judges and the like.

They also want an investigation into how DHS spends its money and what quality-controls exist. Agencies subcontracted to manage foster care are paid according to how many children remain in care, giving them greater incentive to retain rather than return them, they charge.

The group is developing a video “dossier” of cases they say illustrate DHS problems. They aim to air it on public-access TV channels and at community meetings starting in May.

“Torn Apart”

TOP STORY

Should poverty and inability to find & keep appropriate housing tear mother from child?

SPARKLE Ballard had her baby home just a year when city social workers swooped in and snatched the infant away to foster care, deeming Ballard an unfit mom.

Image004

Daily News file photo
DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose says housing is not the sole reason for children’s removal.

Is home where the heart is?

Should poverty and inability to find & keep appropriate housing tear mother from child?

By DANA DiFILIPPO
Philadelphia Daily News
Posted on Mon, Feb. 22, 2010
difilid@phillynews.com 215-854-5934

SPARKLE Ballard had her baby home just a year when city social workers swooped in and snatched the infant away to foster care, deeming Ballard an unfit mom.

Her offense: She didn’t have permanent housing.

Desperate for her daughter, Ballard did what she was told in a bid to get her back: She quit hopscotching houses and settled in a Mount Airy apartment, took parenting and GED classes and applied for jobs with more family-friendly hours.

But it wasn’t enough. One year later, Ballard has seen her daughter, Christianna, only in weekly, supervised visits on the foster agency’s turf.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Ballard, now 19. “There are other people out there who can use their help and services, people that actually are abusing and neglecting their kids. I’m not one of those people.”

Like Ballard, thousands of parents nationally have lost their children to foster care for little reason other than inadequate housing.

One fifth of foster children nationally landed in county custody – or languished there, as housing issues delayed family reunification – because of inappropriate housing, according to the Child Welfare League of America. A third of the nation’s foster children have at least one homeless or “unstably housed” parent, according to the league.

Desensitized bureaucrats too often equate poverty with neglect and seize children away from biological parents whose only “offense” is hardship, critics charge.

And once kids are in the system, it can prove insurmountably difficult to get them out.

Parents petitioning to get their children back in Philadelphia typically wait five months between hearings, local parent-advocates say.

Because federal law requires social-service agencies to place foster children in permanent homes – biological or adoptive – after 15 months in county custody, biological parents might have just two or three chances to get their children back.

“There is not endless time to resolve some pretty serious problems,” said Kathy Gomez, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit of Community Legal Services, who represents hundreds of parents in custody cases.

“Housing is among the single biggest factors in the use and misuse of foster care,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “Not only is it doing enormous harm to the children, who face abuse [in foster care] and possible permanent separation from their parents. It’s doing enormous harm to the taxpayers, because foster care costs more than a rent subsidy.

“It is never an excuse to take away a child because the child’s family can’t afford a decent place to live,” Wexler added. “It is incredibly cruel to the child and it’s stupid financially.”

Poverty a problem

Under the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, the list of reasons why children can be placed in county care is vast and varied: Physical or sexual abuse; delinquency under age 10; the death of or abandonment by parents; parental behavior such as drug abuse that endangers the child; the child’s habitual disobedience or truancy; and so on.

Poverty is not on the list.

But poverty is a common denominator in many of the families whose children end up in foster care. It invites authorities’ scrutiny, and snowballs into other issues that could prompt removal or delay reunification, child advocates say.

“It’s easy to come under child-protection observation when

you’re poor,” Gomez said. “And there’s no room for error when you’re poor: Once something goes wrong, things just tend to spiral.”

Housing problems frequently result.

Parents struggling to pay rent might not have money to cover utilities or maintenance and repairs, creating living conditions that social workers might deem unsafe for children, Gomez said. Others who can’t afford child care and transportation costs might miss so much work that they get fired – and without a paycheck to pay rent or a mortgage, they lose their housing, she said.

“Lack of housing is not legal grounds for removal, but homelessness, housing problems and residence in low-income neighborhoods all result in a greater likelihood of CPS [child-protective services] being involved,” said Corey Shdaimah, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland who has studied the correlation between poverty, housing and child welfare issues.

Ruth White, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, agreed: “Child welfare won’t say that they have actually separated a family because of housing. But it totally happens.”

The remedy seems obvious: Help these families get housing.

But agencies that offer subsidized housing are overwhelmed by demand.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority, for example, has a waiting list of 43,000, spokesman David Tillman said.

Still, PHA participates in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Unification Program, which covers subsidized housing costs for 16,000 families nationally whose housing troubles threaten child-welfare involvement.

Since 2000, HUD has given PHA 300 vouchers under the program; 224 families in Philadelphia have benefitted, Tillman said. While 76 vouchers remain up for grabs, not everyone can use those vouchers, even if no one disputes a family’s needs. HUD and PHA disqualify applicants with a history of violent crime or drug convictions.

DHS also partners with the city’s Office of Supportive Housing to get 50 federally funded housing vouchers for families facing separation due to housing problems, DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose said.

Ambrose said that her agency doesn’t track how many DHS-involved families have inadequate housing, nor how many children were removed from families living in poverty.

She insisted that her agency does not remove children solely for housing reasons. But among the more than 3,000 children in Philadelphia foster care, inadequate housing is a frequent concern, she acknowledged.

“I believe that children should, first and foremost, be with their families,” Ambrose said. “We remove kids only if there is an identified safety threat. When there is a safety threat, we have a legal mandate to remove those children.”

But family preservation is paramount, she added.

The agency has a $1.35 million emergency fund it uses to fix broken windows, buy beds, repair faulty plumbing, pay utility bills and solve other housing headaches that could endanger children, she said.

Because those funds are so sorely needed, DHS workers strive to ensure “housing sustainability,” Ambrose added. That means that instead of passing out checks for security deposits willy-nilly, the agency wants to make sure that the families it helps can continue paying their monthly rent – and that requires a steady paycheck.

Further, the agency last July launched an “alternative response services” program, in which it identifies cases where no safety threat exists and hook up those families with in-home services to avert removal, Ambrose said.

DHS spends an average of $50 a day to provide a family in-home services under the new program, and up to $80 a day for those struggling with cognitive impairment, medical issues or sexual abuse, she said. In contrast, they pay foster parents about $24 a day per child.

“We pay double to triple to keep kids in their homes,” Ambrose said. “We don’t believe that children and families should be destabilized because of a housing issue.”

Still, Shdaimah and others ask, why bother giving any money to foster parents? Why not just give it directly to the biological parents to fix whatever ails them and to preserve the family?

Wexler thinks that he knows the answer to those questions.

“The only reason we don’t do this is it’s not politically popular,” he said. “It’s not popular to provide help to ‘bad parents.’ The child-welfare system is really a parent-punishment system. But the problem is: When we take a swing at those parents, the blow almost always lands on the children.”

But Ambrose disagreed.

“We’re very clear about when we should remove children: It’s when we can’t keep them safe in their homes,” Ambrose said. “I’m not sure that throwing money at them is what’s going to keep them safe.”

Hope for the future

Anyone with any experience in the child-welfare system knows that most cases are murkier than the waters of the Schuylkill.

In the decision to remove Ballard’s daughter, Christianna, housing was an issue, Ambrose acknowledged.

But Ballard, who worked late nights as an IHOP waitress, occasionally left her daughter with a relative who was a sex offender, Ambrose said. Ballard and her baby also lived in one home where other residents had domestic-violence issues, Ambrose added. Ambrose listed other lesser problems she says delayed reunification, but Ballard denied any problems or noncompliance.

Ballard hasn’t lost faith. She has a hearing scheduled for June, and she hopes that she’ll get Christianna back then.

Until then, she’ll visit her daughter, trying to coax the quiet girl into opening up more to mama.

“She doesn’t talk – she just whispers,” Ballard said. “They think she needs speech therapy. They think there’s something wrong with her. But she’s only 2; she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. You [DHS] took her away from her mom. I wouldn’t want to talk to you either.”

 

Baby illegally detained by DCFS – Press conference

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Who: DCFS Give Us Back Our Children
What: Mothers and grandmothers demand baby detained by DCFS be freed
When: Monday 10:30am July 26
Where: DCFS office at 8300 S. Vermont Ave., LA 90044
Contact: 323 646 1269

Baby Illegally detained by DCFS, placing infant at emotional risk

DCFS Give Us Back Our Children, mothers, grandmothers, family supporters and community members are holding a press conference to demand that the Department of Children and Family Services return Cashmere Alexander, a 14-month-old baby, to her maternal grandmother, Deborah Farris. Cashmere has been under Ms. Farris care since her birth. Ms. Farris has done an exemplary job of providing food, shelter, clothing, and other care for the baby while receiving no material support from DCFS.

The actions of DCFS in removing Cashmere from her family – a family ready, willing and able to care for her – removing her from everyone she has known and is attached to, exposed a happy and well adjusted child to feelings of abandonment and future problems of attachment. This is abusive first of all to Cashmere, but also to her primary caregiver Ms. Farris and other family members who are bearing the emotional trauma of this precious infant being snatched from them. No one at DCFS was able to tell the family over the weekend where Cashmere was or who was caring for her, and no one had inquired about allergies or other health issues Cashmere might have.

California law that stipulates every effort must be made to place children with family members before detaining them was broken when Cashmere Alexander was detained by DCFS on Friday, July 23, 2010. Additionally, Federal law under the American Disabilities Act was also broken, since Cashmere was detained after her primary caregiver, her maternal grandmother had a seizure brought on by continuous harassing by the social worker.

The mothers and grandmothers in the group say that their relationship with their children is not seen as important and valued, making it too easy for their children to be taken and placed needlessly in foster care with strangers or put up for fast track adoption.

They also say that all too often families are penalized for simply being poor and that rather than making resources available to help mothers or grandmothers care for children, families are torn apart. The resources that could help these families instead are diverted to foster care with strangers. Also past records of contact with the criminal justice system and/or DCFS are used to block family members who now have clean records, and whose contact with criminal justice were for minor offenses to begin with. This has a disproportionate impact on communities of color which, due to poverty, institutional racism and more, are more likely to have been under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. Black children are detained at a disproportionate rate: Black children are 8% of the total LA County child population but are 34% of the foster children. LA County takes away children at a higher rate than most major metropolitan areas – and the number of families torn apart has increased most years since 2004.

Those victimized most are the children – taken needlessly from mothers and grandmothers whose only crime may be poverty, and then consigned to the chaos of foster care. Study after study has found that in typical cases children left in their own homes do better in later life. According to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (nccpr.org), foster care “alumni” found they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans and only 20% could be said to be “doing well”.

We demand the immediate return of Baby Cashmere to her grandmother.

“DCFS Give Us Back Our Children!” is a self-help, multi-racial support and action group of mothers, other family members and supporters working together to end the unjust removal of children from their families by the Department of Children and Family Services. They are coordinated by Every Mother is a Working Mother Network, have a sister group the Philadelphia-based DHS-Give Us Back Our Children, and are part of a growing national movement.

Their DEMANDS are:

DHS/DCFS to prioritize –in practice – the protection, reunification and maintenance of families, recognizing that most children are safer and better off in their own home.

Prioritize placing children with family members if they truly can’t remain with their own parents (according to state law), not fostering them out to strangers. Children are almost always safer with family than with strangers.

1/3 of those who were in foster care report abuse by an adult in a foster care facility (Casey Family Programs)

Stop removing children from a mother because she is suffering domestic violence. Families need protection from violence, not the further violence of separation.

The Federal Government, the State and County must provide adequate resources for mothers to keep families together, including financial support, housing, childcare day or night, family-centered drug treatment, support for people with mental and physical disabilities, legal and other help. A financial crisis is no excuse for inaction since this kind of assistance costs less than warehousing children in foster or group homes and destroying their futures.

One third of children would be home tomorrow if their parents just had decent housing! Richard Wexler, Natl Coalition for Child Protection Reform

End financial incentives for DHS/DCFS and provider agencies to keep children in foster care.

Families need access to free, respectful and accountable legal representation. Professionals must explain clearly what is happening in each case

DHS/DCFS and related agencies must stop hiding behind confidentiality to keep information from the public; allow families to decide if they want their case heard in courts open to the public.

End discrimination on the basis of race, gender, poverty, age, disability, immigration status, cultural differences, sexual preference, being a victim of domestic violence or any other.

End the run-around, delaying of cases and abuse of power by workers, lawyers, so-called “child advocates” and others, and give mothers the time they need to meet DHS/DCFS goals. Children need their mothers and/or other family members who love them, not be detained and then given a teddy bear.

Mothers and families must be treated with respect, not threats, harassment and arrogance. They have the right to the support and accompaniment of family and community members in all dealings with DHS/DCFS and Family Court.

Black children are more likely to be taken from their homes, to stay in protective custody longer and never to return to their parents. (Cincinnati Post)

Mothers must not be forced to choose between homelessness and staying with an abusive partner who may be her only source of financial support – either way the child is hurt and they risk losing custody. Welfare must be available.

When childcare arrangements fall through or when children are sick, mothers must not have to choose between staying with their children and getting fired, or leaving children alone or with inadequate care. Welfare must be available.

Independent public scrutiny of how cases are handled.

Accountability by case workers, supervisors & administrators for the welfare of children.

Accountability on how DHS/DCFS and related agencies are allocating their funding, ie how much goes into foster care and adoption and how much to services families need to stay together.