Chicago Hope

WILL YOU BE MY MOMMY?'' IN February of 1994, when Chicago cops found 19 children jammed into a cold and squalid apartment on Keystone Avenue, one little girl looked up at a woman officer and pleaded for love. Conditions inside were horrific. On the floor, roaches scooted past rat droppings, and two hungry toddlers shared a bone with a terrier mutt. Bowls of rotting spaghetti sat by a flour sack crawling with bugs. One boy, crippled by cerebral palsy, had been burned and whipped. Child-protection workers seized the kids from their mothers--six women hanging out together, collecting $4,692 a month in welfare and food stamps. As she watched the news that night Judge Lynne Kawamoto wondered which of her colleagues in Cook County's juvenile court would draw the case.

The answer came the next day. A court clerk brought her 19 file folders, one for each child. Kawamoto took a nervous breath and thought, ""Welcome to Abuse and Neglect,'' the court division where she'd worked for only one month. Already the battle lines were drawn: social workers were moving the 19 children into foster homes and other temporary settings, and the kids' six mothers were clamoring, through court-appointed attorneys, to get them back. Over the next three years the case swelled from 19 children to 28: a few more siblings weren't in the apartment that night; others were born later. And so, in four progressive waves of rulings, Kawamoto has had to resolve the same agonizing question 28 times: should this child be sent home?

As recently as the '70s, the child-welfare system routinely plucked kids from their families after allegations of neglect. A backlash set in: critics said too many were being taken from parents whose only crime was poverty. A 1980 federal law strongly urged judges and social workers to keep troubled families together. Today, even in cases of clear-cut child abuse, many juvenile judges cling to the ideal of ""family reunification.''

In 1994 the Keystone kids seemed likely to follow the pattern. Lawyers working the case predicted that most would be returned to their mothers. This, they confided, was what the system calls a ""dirty house'' case, in which parents convince a judge that they've learned better parenting and housekeeping skills. But by then other voices had begun arguing that reunification often sacrificed the safety of children. One of the loudest was Patrick Murphy, the Cook County public guardian, whose staff of 125 attorneys represents 46,000 abused and neglected kids--including most of those from Keystone. In the 1970s Murphy wrote a book advocating family reunification. Now he had changed his mind: too many kids who were returned to abusive parents wound up wearing toe tags.

As a rule, child-abuse cases don't catch the nation's attention until the victims are dead. The Keystone kids were different. They still had a chance. And Kawamoto, though a rookie judge, was willing to buck the system. Because juvenile-court cases are cloaked in secrecy, the full scope of Kawamoto's decisions has never been reported. This story comes from the judge's first public discussion of the case--and from seven feet of confidential case files that NEWSWEEK obtained from other sources. No judge, Kawamoto included, looks forward to choosing between the best interests of children and the sanctity of families. Next to the death penalty, America's courts mete out no justice more final than the termination of parental rights--a permanent break between parent and child. Yet in three years of rulings, Kawamoto has all but ensured that not one of the Keystone kids will ever return home; most will be adopted by new parents.

Lynne Kawamoto was ready to make the tough calls. Now 46, she grew up in Chicago, the daughter of Japanese-Americans held in U.S. detention camps during World War II. She earned a law degree from DePaul University at night while teaching during the day at an inner-city Hispanic high school. Her first worry about the Keystone case was logistical: how could she keep track of everyone? In addition to the kids and their mothers, the case would ensnarl 22 fathers and 22 attorneys. Even more confusing: five of the mothers were sisters, with the same last name. She stole the solution from her days of grading students: long yellow spreadsheets, with new developments marked in color-coded inks.

The legal situation, too, was confusing. The mothers faced trials not in one Cook County court but in two. In April of 1994 a criminal-court judge found five of the women guilty of misdemeanor neglect. Stressing the dangerously unhealthy conditions, he rejected as ""ludicrous'' the defense claim that police had trashed the apartment to frame the mothers. But he told the women he wouldn't send them to jail if they embraced his offers of child-rearing classes, job training and, for those who needed it, drug treatment. Eventually, though, all five would blow their opportunity, and would serve time. The sixth mother later pleaded guilty to felony child abuse of her son, and is still in prison.

But the criminal-court phase was the simple part. A conviction--even for child neglect--doesn't cancel the right to custody of a child. More crucial to the future of the Keystone kids were the four sets of questions Kawamoto had to answer, one after another. Was there enough evidence of neglect to justify keeping the kids parked in foster homes? Had the mothers really endangered their children? Even so, could the women turn their lives around? And, if not, should the kids be freed for adoption by other families?

Kawamoto's first phase, called custody hearings, began in May of 1994. One by one, the mothers appeared in her tiny courtroom. It's an intentionally intimate place, far calmer than the large waiting area outside, with its brightly decorated play area and its ceaseless swirl of social workers, lawyers, parents and kids. Yes, Kawamoto ruled, the Keystone case was serious enough that the children would be kept from their mothers, at least temporarily. She wanted to send a message to the absentee fathers as well: ""Now you know there's a problem. Will you step forward and help your child?'' A few eventually did try, at least halfheartedly, to win custody. Most didn't bother.

Outside court, dozens of social workers, counselors and therapists had begun exploring ways to reunite the families. But some of their confidential reports, at this and later stages, were alarming. Several of the children said they had been sexually abused, including one who claimed that a woman relative had forced four youngsters in the extended family to lick her body ""all over.'' One child deflected questions about sexual abuse, nervously muttering, ""Yes no yes no yes no yes no.'' But investigators couldn't confirm that the sexual abuse had occurred, so Kawamoto didn't hear a word of it.

Not that prosecutors didn't already have plenty of damning evidence against the mothers. Kawamoto's second phase, a fact-finding civil trial of five of the mothers (the sixth didn't contest charges of child neglect), began in the fall of 1994. To handle all the parties, she moved the trial to a drab courthouse basement, where swarms of parents and grandparents sat at folding tables.

Kawamoto was shocked by some of the 89 exhibits. Most troubling, she says, was graphic medical evidence about the boy with cerebral palsy, ""the marks and bruises on his little body.'' Lead prosecutor Kathryn Gallanis offered a devastating diagram of the apartment as police found it, with photos of the kids and the squalor displayed in wild collages as chaotic as the conditions they depicted. Social workers testified that three of the mothers had admitted to heroin use. Kawamoto struggled to keep a poker face, wishing she could be a prosecutor again, free to jump up and attack thin arguments from the defense. The thinnest, she thought, was the assertion that the mothers weren't to blame because they were victims of poverty. ""I kept waiting to see the evidence that would support that,'' Kawamoto says. ""I never did.''

As the 10-day trial ended, Kawamoto stayed up nights at home, scribbling her passionate decision on a legal pad. ""This case is much more than just a dirty house,'' she wrote. ""These children have so very little ... only selfish mothers and missing fathers.'' Hiding behind poverty, she wrote, ""is an insult to the poor people who run their homes and raise their children with love and devotion ... This particular courtroom is called Abuse and Neglect. Those two words, quite simply, describe these families completely.''

Strong as it was, the ruling didn't mean the mothers would lose their kids. Some of their attorneys predicted just the opposite, and for good reason. The law protects the rights of biological parents at every step in the process. Kawamoto held out hope that at least some of the mothers would turn around their lives. If they did, she had wide latitude to send their children home. Besides, the odds didn't favor drastic action. Most kids either went home or stayed in foster care. At that point, only about 2 percent of Cook County's cases ended in terminations of parental rights.

Still, in the third court phase, Kawamoto was free to start thinking about the children's futures. These ""dispositional'' hearings, which lasted through much of 1995, focused on whether the mothers were making good use of the many free social services that had been arranged for them. The plan offered to Denise Melton was typical: drug treatment, peer-support meetings, enrollment in a GED program, a safe-sex seminar, child-rearing classes and vocational training. But the mothers' reactions suggested they didn't much care. Several were chronic no-shows not just for services but also for scheduled visits with their kids. Diane Melton couldn't quit cocaine. Denise Melton refused a mandatory drug test. And May Fay Melton, by now a 27-year-old mother of four, told a social worker: ""I'm not ready to grow up at this time.''

Casework reports on the kids chronicled greater progress; they seemed to be getting on with their lives. Still, more than a few passages were disturbing. Though some of the children said they missed their mothers, many were now talking about their chaotic backgrounds. A boy, asked to create a picture of a family activity, drew himself and his two sisters driving around their neighborhood, looking for their mom. Another boy insistently jammed all of his dolls into one room of a dollhouse. And at one foster home, the children ran to hide whenever a caseworker arrived. They said they were terrified of going back to Keystone.

As the dispositional hearings concluded, Kawamoto had to decide whether the mothers should get still more chances. But she also weighed a question that judges nationwide have begun asking more aggressively in the mid-1990s: how long should children have to wait in limbo for their parents to shape up? Kawamoto decided that these children had waited long enough. Her heartbeat quickened each time she issued her findings, and she felt her lungs reaching for extra air. But she made sure to look each mother in the eye: each, she said, was unable, unwilling or unfit to be a parent. One by one, the mothers stared impassively toward a future that was becoming clearer. Three chose to act before the courts acted for them; by the end of 1995 they had surrendered their parental rights, making them, in the eyes of the law, no longer related to their children.

There is no simple answer to the simplest of questions: how are the children doing? Though their journey has been painful, the overwhelming evidence is that they're doing very well. Almost to a child, those old enough to remember Keystone have privately told social workers they want to remain where they are. Twenty-two are likely to be adopted, and five others will grow up in one foster home. One boy, by now too old for adoption, eventually will ""age out'' of the Illinois child-welfare system.

Michael, the little boy with cerebral palsy, bounds into a room, smothering everyone in it with bearhugs. He is 7 now, though mental impairments leave him functioning more like a baby. He'll crawl into a lap, curiously tug a beard, then fall asleep to a hand gently stroking his back. Michael lives with five other handicapped children in the spotless home of Darryl and Madlyn Calhoun, who hope to adopt him. Like most of those who welcomed Keystone kids into their lives, the Calhouns are African-Americans who viewed these special challenges as special opportunities. ""When he came here, Michael was an angry kid,'' Madlyn says. ""He's grown more patient over time.''

The lives of five brothers living with Claudine Christian may offer the best insight to how the Keystone children have fared. ""They're just happy little kids'' who spend after-school hours riding horses and raising goats, Christian says. Two years ago the boys were still traumatized by the separation from their mother and often stared blankly out windows. Christian understood; she's been a friend of the boys' mother for 20 years. But now, she admits, ""to be honest, I think the kids are over Mom. When they got here, it was "When my momma gonna call? When she gonna come visit us?' Now it's "Hey, either she does or she doesn't'.'' Only one boy still struggles with the past. ""There's a lot locked up in his mind from what happened to him before he got here,'' Christian confides.

In fits and starts, the children's cases have been leaving Kawamoto's courtroom. Last year, in the fourth phase of her rulings, called permanency planning, she nudged most of the kids toward termination of parental rights--and adoption. Other judges are now processing those final steps. Two mothers, including the one still in prison, are contesting termination, though neither is likely to succeed. The mothers' defense lawyers have little to say against Kawamoto's rulings. ""You get a lot of swings at the plate in that court, but eventually the game ends,'' says Martin Shapiro, lawyer for Diane Melton.

Though they have moved out of her courtroom, the children are never far from Kawamoto's heart. She steals asides with their lawyers and social workers when they appear before her on other matters. She reluctantly accepts the fact that not every outcome may be perfect. But she has done her best. ""My responsibility is to predict what's best for the children's future,'' she says. Still, in a world without crystal balls, predictions can go awry. She hopes none do. ""It sounds so harsh to say this,'' she says, ""but can anyone argue that their lives would be better if they'd been returned home?''

There will be more kids like those from Keystone. In Cook County alone, the number of petitions for termination of parental rights has more than tripled in three years, to 3,657. ""Today we're determined to find a permanent home for every child,'' says Kawamoto's reform-minded boss, Judge Nancy Sidote Salyers. ""If it can't be in the biological household, we're going to go to our second option.'' Unfortunately, finding good homes isn't the only growth area for Salyers's 17 judges. Last year an additional 6,650 abuse-and-neglect cases flooded into Cook County's juvenile court. The burden is staggering: Kawamoto carries a caseload of 3,400, and weighs the futures of 60 to 100 children every day.

On a bitterly cold evening in January, the judge was working late in her chambers when she learned that the first of the Keystone kids--a 4-year-old boy--had been adopted in a downtown Chicago courtroom. Her head dipped, and her eyes disappeared into the far reaches of a smile. ""I am so tickled to hear that,'' she murmured. She reached for a pen, searched out her cheat sheet and made the notation in red ink. Then she drew a little star next to his name. Case closed.

Despite predictions that a judge would send most of the children home, none of the 28 are likely ever to return to any of their six mothers. Several of the kids have stayed together in new homes; most are likely to be adopted by their foster parent s. Here's what's become of the Keystone mothers and their children:

Judged unfit, unable and unwilling to parent. A judge placed the first four of her eight children in foster care in 1989 after citing her for neglect.

Son, 17 years old: Lives in a group home. Jovial teen is too old for adoption. Once dismissed himself as "a dummy"; college now possible. Daughter, 12: Has lived for several years with a woman committed to raising her. Daughter, 10; son, 8; daughter, 7: After arriving at the foster home they now share, the three children seemed anxious and disorganized. All have improved with therapy. Girl s are doing above-average work in school. Daughters, 4 and 3: Both girls are doing well with a family stationed at U.S. military base in Germany. Both tested positive for drugs at birth but have overcome developmental delays. Son, 2: Born drug-positive after Keystone. Mother tried to hide her identity by entering hospital under a phony name.

Judged unable to parent. Arrested for heroin possession seven weeks after Keystone incident. Surrendered legal rights to her children in 1995. Daughter, 9; son, 7: Both children live with relatives in another state. Boy accidentally started a fire that burned foster family out of its home, but adoption is still on track. Case-work report: kids are "very secure" with new family. Son, 4: Only one of the 28 kids to have been adopted. With paternal grandparents in a suburb of Chicago.

Judged unwilling to parent. Surrendered legal rights to children in 1995. Son, 11; daughter, 10; son, 9; daughter, 7: One family hopes to adopt all four children. Reports characterize older boy as "nice, sweet, quiet young man." Older sister used t o hide from caseworkers, fearful she'd be sent back home. Younger boy has "bonded well with foster home."

Judged unable and unwilling to parent. Fighting state efforts to terminate parental rights. Court action could delay adoptions. Son, 7; daughter, 3: Early on, boy's IQ tested at 55, but he's thrived in foster home. Report predicts "bright future" f or both. Daughter, 6; son, 4: Girl is "very open and friendly," boy is "more active and vocal" than the with-drawn state in which he arrived. Daughter, 1: She will have no Keystone memories.

Judged unfit, unable and unwilling to parent. She is contesting termination of parental rights. Serving five-year prison term after pleading guilty for narcotics offense and aggravated battery of her son. Son, 7: Victim of most brutal abuse doing well in new home. Surgery has improved symptoms of cerebral palsy. Daughter, 6; son, 4: Boy has overcome anemia, delayed speech and concerns about lead levels in his blood. Both children now "bonding well" in new home.

Judged unable to parent. Surrendered legal rights to her children in 1965. Sons, 12,11, 6, 8 and 5: All five boys live on a farm with foster mother who quit a nursing job to care for them. She hopes to keep them "forever" but is reluctant to adopt, she says, because she can't afford college costs. The boys, who were traumatized when they first arrived, are now described as normal, pleasant, helpful and loving. They see their mother regularly but no longer dwell on the separation. Foster mother fre ts over how to afford a small outdoor basketball court for her starting five: "That's what we're praying for now."

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