In foster home, DCFS letter gave paper-thin authority

Carolyn Lowe took custody of two infant boys and kept them for years without any court approval. Her only authority: two form letters issued to her by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The state agency gave the custodial letters to Lowe even though it had previously put her foster parent license on hold and had removed a child from her home.

DCFS officials say they have issued “potentially thousands” of such letters to caregivers declaring that they have custody of children, with the expectation that they will soon get a judge’s approval. But because the letters are undated, and because DCFS did not always follow up, some guardians such as Lowe have had years-long custody with no court oversight.

Child welfare advocates say the use of the letters could be illegal and could potentially put children in danger.

Years before Lowe took custody of the two boys in 2006 and 2007, child welfare workers found several problems with her foster home. A child was scalded in a bathtub, but Lowe said she rubbed “burn cream” on his wounds rather than take him to the hospital. A male resident of the home was accused twice of sexually abusing a 3-year-old girl there, and a 15-year-old boy in Lowe’s custody used an illegal gun from the home to commit suicide, court records show.

Last month, following questions raised by the Tribune, DCFS removed the two boys, now ages 2 and 4, from Lowe’s home. Child welfare officials say they have begun an investigation into whether one of the boys was abused while in Lowe’s care.

Lowe’s case is a stark example of how the DCFS letters have been used in some cases to keep children out of the foster care system without safeguards such as home background checks and home visits, child advocates said. It also points to problems with DCFS’ screening of caregivers who were provided custodial letters.

“It outrages me,” said Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris, whose office will represent the two boys when their cases come into Juvenile Court later this month. “They didn’t do one check. Not even one.”

The undated form letters, in which DCFS declares that the state has determined the caregiver to be the custodian, have been given out since the late 1990s as part of the DCFS Extended Family Support Program, said DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe. The program was established 12 years ago to provide short-term help to needy families whose risks were not deemed serious enough to bring them into the child welfare system.

The intent of the letters was to make it easier for caregivers to enroll children in school, take care of the children’s medical needs and apply for state financial aid until legal guardianship was awarded in court, DCFS officials said.

Many of the caretakers who received the letters later asked judges to award them legal guardianship of the children. But others never went to court, and instead continued to use the letters as proof of custody.

Marlowe said the agency stopped issuing the letters March 17, two weeks after the Tribune raised questions with DCFS officials about a number of cases, including Lowe’s. Marlowe, however, said the decision to end the practice was unrelated.

“The letter was created to help families receive public services, but it’s clear to us that, in both form and substance, the letter doesn’t do that job well and can be easily misinterpreted,” Marlowe said. “We see multiple problems with that letter. That is why it will need to be revised.”

The mothers of the 2- and 4-year-olds gave their boys to Lowe as infants with the approval of DCFS officials, who later confirmed the arrangement with the letters. Although the letters refer to “the custodian of the noted related child,” Lowe is not biologically related to either of the children, according to court documents.

Stacey Platt, associate director of the ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, said the letters suggested that DCFS had the authority to make formal custody decisions.

“That’s just wrong. No decision has been made by any legal body at the time the letters are written,” said Platt, who has represented families in guardianship cases. “It’s lawless for the department to suggest that children are … legally in the care of relatives or other would-be guardians who they have simply approved.”

Marlowe said use of the letters was not a “deflection” from the court system.

“This is not intended to make any kind of legal determination or recommendation, nor were they meant to be a judgment on a caregiver’s fitness to parent,” he said.

After DCFS gave Lowe the letters, caseworkers were prepared to provide her temporary assistance, but the plan fell apart when Lowe declined the help and DCFS severed ties with the family, Marlowe said.

“The family refused to cooperate … and refused to consent to background checks on adults living in the home,” Marlowe said.

At that point, Harris said, the child welfare system could have easily run a check on Lowe and discovered her history. Then child welfare officials could have removed the boys and brought their cases into the child welfare system.

Instead, DCFS left the children with Lowe without any home monitoring or support systems. And for years, Lowe used the tattered papers — a form letter written on a letterhead from a DCFS director who left the agency in 2003, before either child was born — to obtain state financial benefits, according to court records.

“They gave her the letter, she gets the kids, knowing that if she came to juvenile court she couldn’t be a foster parent,” Circuit Court Judge Patrick Murphy said in court. Murphy alerted DCFS to the case earlier this year.

After the boys were removed last month, Lowe, 50, told the Tribune she felt DCFS had unfairly pegged her as an unfit foster parent, and that the children, whom she calls her babies, were wrongly taken from her. The 2-year-old was placed with Lowe’s mother and the 4-year-old is with his biological grandmother.

“I’ve been hoodwinked. That’s what you get when you help people, when you are taking care of children other people don’t want,” Lowe said. “They (DCFS workers) are crooked.”

On a recent afternoon, Lowe’s Englewood home was swarming with people, many of them relatives, she said, who had attended a party there the night before.

Though DCFS removed the boys from her custody, Lowe said they both visit regularly. That afternoon, Lowe said, the 2-year-old was there, as was his 30-year-old birth mother.

“I’m addicted to heroin and crack cocaine,” the birth mother announced in front of her 11-year-old daughter, whom Lowe has adopted.

As the birth mother drifted in and out of the bedroom to speak, the 2-year-old rolled a plastic truck on the carpet nearby.

“This child was born a drug baby,” she said. “(Lowe) went through hell for this boy.”

She said she comes to Lowe’s house to visit her son and daughter “anytime I take a crack break.”

She said raising her own children is not an option and that both are better off with Lowe, a longtime family friend.

“Once I pushed that baby out, I left,” the birth mother said. “(Lowe) stopped her life to take care of my kids. If it weren’t for her, where would my kids be?”

State records reviewed by the Tribune detail many problems over the years with Lowe’s foster home.

Twice, allegations were made to the DCFS hotline — in 2002 and 2003 — that a male resident, who previously was convicted of public indecency, had sexually abused a female toddler in the home. State officials did not find enough evidence to prove the charges, but in 2002 they placed Lowe’s foster home license on involuntary hold, meaning she could not take in additional foster children. A year later, her license expired.

DCFS officials temporarily removed the female toddler, but returned her after putting a “safety plan” in place requiring Lowe to monitor children when the male resident was in the home.

In 2004, Lowe said, a young man placed a child who was visiting in a bathtub of hot water. State documents show the child suffered leg burns, but Lowe says she never took him to the hospital. When the child’s mother took him to a clinic the following day, DCFS cited Lowe for medical neglect.

After that incident, DCFS removed a 4-year-old male foster child from Lowe’s home. Then, the teenager whom Lowe had custody of used an illegal gun from the home to kill himself, records show.

State documents detail other issues, including allegations that she improperly supervised her children, failed to notify officials about troubling incidents, did not have a working telephone and had not cooperated with officials to improve her home.

A DCFS report noted that Lowe’s home was “very busy with people coming and going.” A Tribune review of court cases found that young men who listed their address as Lowe’s current home were charged with crimes including drug possession, unlawful use of a weapon and domestic battery.

Lowe said she has cared for more than a dozen children since becoming a foster parent in 1987. But in recent years, she said, she has lived alone with her adopted daughter and the two boys.

This year, Lowe went to probate court with her letters to officially file for guardianship of the boys because, she said, she wanted to adopt them.

Murphy, the Circuit Court judge, denied the guardianship request after learning of her home’s troubled history and ordered DCFS to review the case. The agency then removed the boys from the home, though a caseworker had declared it safe two weeks before, according to state records.

Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of the Child Protection Division of Cook County Juvenile Court said Murphy had told her office about the custodial letters but she had not actually seen one until the Tribune presented her with a copy.

Lawrence Grazian, director of policy initiatives for the child protection division, said that according to his understanding of the law, DCFS has authority to place a child for only 60 days with an additional 60-day extension. Before DCFS disclosed it had stopped issuing such letters, Grazian said Judge Martin had asked state officials to “take appropriate action” regarding the letters.

“That’s obviously a problem,” Grazian said. “We don’t want to see this again.”

April 17th, 2010
Topic: DCFS Tags: None

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