Why did DHS take away the kids?

Janice Brown ponders her life's losses, including the death of daughter Latoya (on T-shirt) and removal of her grandkids. ( SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff photographer )
Janice Brown ponders her life's losses, including the death of daughter Latoya (on T-shirt) and removal of her grandkids. ( SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff photographer )
Posted: March 30, 2010

THE CITY stood by Janice Brown and grieved with her in June 2009, when a driver being chased by police slammed his car onto a Feltonville sidewalk and killed four people, including Brown's 22-year-old daughter, Latoya Smith, and her 11-month-old granddaughter, Rimanee.

Mayor Nutter attended the mother and daughter's funeral, and City Council issued a formal citation in their honor.

But just six months later, the city's Department of Human Services took three of Brown's grandchildren out of her care - including her deceased daughter's surviving son - and placed them into foster care with a stranger.

"Those children gave me my strength," Brown said.

"The Lord first, my grandchildren and my son. That's where my strength came from."

Now DHS claims that neglect reports lodged against Brown nearly a decade ago when she was raising her own children prevent her from caring for her grandchildren, even though the agency knew about those reports when the grandchildren were placed in her care.

None of those reports resulted in the removal of Brown's children from her custody, and no abuse claim has ever been lodged against her.

"I think she's had a lot of grief and loss in her life, and the last thing we want to do is compound that," DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose said.

"But even though the reports were long ago, we feel they are enough to be concerned."

The neglect reports were the only reason ever presented to Brown for the children's removal, but, in an interview with the Daily News, DHS presented at least five more, some of which they later retracted in writing.

Among those other reasons was a "concern about her emotional stability," in light of her daughter's and granddaughter's deaths, Ambrose said.

"Issues of grief and loss might have destabilized the home," she said.

This upset Brown, who said that those around her have been impressed by her strength in light of the tragedy, something for which she credits her family and her church community.

"It just seems so heartless," she said.

Brown took in her granddaughter, Envy Smith, now 5, and Envy's brother, Zyeem Hill, now 6, in 2006 at DHS' request.

Brown is Envy's paternal grandmother, and Envy and Zyeem share the same mother.

Although Zyeem is not her biological grandson, Brown said she took him in to keep the children together.

One day after placing the children in her care, DHS learned of the prior-neglect reports, known as general protective service (GPS) reports, and removed the children.

Yet, three days later, the children were placed back in her care.

Ambrose said that was a result of a court order by a judge who believed that they should remain with Brown.

"The judge in that case really wanted these children to be with their grandma," Ambrose said.

In 2007, Kyshone Smith, now 4, son of Latoya Smith, Brown's now- deceased daughter, also was placed in her custody by DHS.

Although Kyshone's mother was alive at the time, DHS felt that he would be better raised by his grandmother, Brown said.

That placement was not the result of a court order.

Three caseworkers from the Friendship House, a private agency contracted by DHS, oversaw Brown's grandchildren for three years and at least one visited Brown every two weeks.

She was given glowing evaluations time and again for all three children. Her home was "safe and nurturing" and offered "love and security," according to the reports.

"In every piece of paperwork I have, everything is positive," Brown said.

She said her trouble began when DHS told her the agency wanted to change the children's goals to adoption.

At first, she was resistant to the idea of adopting Envy and Zyeem because she didn't want to take away their parents' rights, but once they gave her their blessing, she began the process.

She said that a woman had come to do a profile on her home but that she was not one of the three caseworkers who had worked with her for three years.

Brown said the woman told her she wasn't qualified to adopt because of the prior GPS reports.

In December, Brown had one of many court dates for the adoption process.

She said she was very sick and called her caseworker to tell her that she couldn't make it.

The caseworker, she said, told her that was fine.

Two days later, someone showed up at her door and took her grandchildren away with only an hour's notice, Brown said.

"If I knew that court date was something about taking them, I would have been there sick or not," she said.

"When they called to tell me, just an hour before, I'm thinking it's a nightmare."

Ambrose said the children were taken from Brown on a court order from a judge. Brown said she never saw a court order and doesn't believe one exists.

"They took them on their own discretion," Brown said.

Aside from her adult children, Brown also has a 10-year-old son, Dontay, who lives with her. DHS did not take him out of her care when they took her grandchildren.

"Now he's afraid DHS will take him away," she said. "Every time someone knocks at the door, Dontay gets scared."

Brown said her three grandchildren have been placed with a single woman in her 20s who lives with her mother and who has a child of her own and another foster child.

Envy and Zyeem have already been placed on a fast track for adoption, and Brown gets no visitation or phone calls with the children. She has filed an appeal to stop the adoption process.

Brown does, however, get supervised visitation with Kyshone, whose case is before a different judge.

Kyshone has not been placed on an adoption track.

The visits with Kyshone have been heartbreaking, Brown said. She said that he had scratches on his face and neck, that his clothes were dirty and that he was wearing girls' socks.

Still, the hardest part of each visit is saying goodbye.

"When we leave he screams and cries. We're all in tears," she said. "They don't understand what they're doing to these children.

"He lost his mother and sister, and now he's thinking, 'Grandmom gave me up.' "

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, likened the result of DHS' action to "mental abuse."

"What about the emotional stability of the children they're treating like ping pong balls?" he said. "If you put the child first, consider how horribly traumatized he will be after losing a mother and sibling, and then you tear him away from a grandmother who has provided loving care for three years."

Ambrose said the removal of the children was not just because of the prior GPS reports, which can be called in to DHS anonymously.

"These cases are a totality of the circumstances; there are a lot of nuances," Ambrose said.

Among the circumstances, according to DHS are:

* Brown had 20 prior GPS reports - only six of which were substantiated. The most recent report was nine years ago, and the rest date back "long ago," DHS said. The complaints included dirty clothing, a smelly house, truancy, no running water, missing windows and her children begging for food.

Brown said that her children never begged for food but that they did accept it as part of the neighborhood's free box-lunch program. She acknowledged that she had struggled financially and that sometimes her home went without some amenities, but never for more than a month.

She said she was not aware of a GPS report more recent than 13 years old. She never had a report on Dontay, she said.

Wexler said neglect reports are generally a function of poverty.

"Assuming there was validity to the original allegations, that was way too long ago to be a factor here," he said. "What should be a factor is the research we know about kinship care. There is study after study that shows kinship care is better for well-being, stability and safety than what should be properly called stranger care."

* DHS is concerned for Brown's emotional health in light of her daughter's and granddaughter's deaths. This contradicts a September report from the Friendship House, the agency that DHS contracted to manage Brown's case, which reads, in part: "Kinship parent and child are adjusting well following tragic death of daughter and mother respectively."

* DHS claims that Brown had not kept all of her grandchildren's medical appointments.

Brown said the children had never missed a medical appointment. Reports she has from Friendship House specifically state that she has "taken child for medical evaluations."

* Truancy was also an issue. Brown said that DHS told her that in the '08-'09 school year, Zyeem missed 40 days of school. But Brown said that all but about 15 days of that could be accounted for with medical appointments, illness or memorials for her daughter and granddaughter.

She said the kids' school was eight blocks from their house. When it was raining or snowing, she said it was difficult to walk there with three small children. She said that many of the missed days can also be accounted for by doctor's appointments or illness.

In the four months of the '09-'10 school year while they were in her care and in a school just a block from her home, they missed only one or two days of class, Brown said.

* DHS also told the Daily News that Brown's home had not been certified as a foster home.

Five days later, in a follow-up e-mail, the agency said it had found a certificate of approval certifying her home up until this November.

"Upon reviewing this case the Commissioner recognizes that there are systemic issues, such as having multiple judges and different social-work teams, that impact case management," the follow-up e-mail read. "We will work to identify solutions to these issues. This case is extremely complicated. In short, the social-work team determined that Ms. Brown's emotional stability and her ability to meet the needs of the children long term would be compromised without continued social-work services provided by DHS and its provider agency."

Still, DHS offered no explanation as to why, instead of providing those services, it took her grandchildren away.

Wexler said it sounds as if DHS is "desperate to cover up their bungling in this case."

"What we're really talking about is, child-welfare agencies never like to admit a mistake," he said.

"They'd rather engage in psychological torture of these grandchildren than to admit they were wrong and say they're sorry.

"By the way, this case doesn't sound terribly complicated at all.

"You have children who desperately needed somebody to love them," he said.

"They got somebody to love them - their grandmother - and then DHS took her away from them."

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