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

Posted: February 22, 2010

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.

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