At the end of the hearing, Vivian’s almond-colored cheeks became flushed. She quietly sniffled. She used her palm to wipe a tear and then briefly held her attorney’s hand. The outcome of her case was good: The judge announced that he would grant her asylum. She would never have to go back to the west African country of Cameroon .
On Dec. 10, Gov. George Ryan’s office announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had awarded Illinois a $21.6 million “high performance” bonus because of the state’s successful welfare-to-work efforts. But welfare statistics can be confusing. Here are some statements from Ryan’s press release, and The Chicago Reporter’s analysis of the meaning behind the numbers. “More than 115,000 Illinoisans have worked their way off welfare since July 1997.”
A shell of what it used to be, Chicago’s youth employment program has seen its budget shrink and now helps only a few hundred teenagers get jobs and credentials—the program’s two main goals. Representing a major shift in philosophy, the city’s federally funded summer jobs program no longer exists. At its height in the 1980s, it provided more than 25,000 teenagers each year with minimum-wage jobs that lasted six or eight weeks. Since a new federal workforce development law went into effect in 2000, the city has used federal dollars to serve low-income teenagers over the course of an entire year. And, rather than using part of the federal grant to pay the teens’ salaries, as it once did, the city now uses these dollars to hire a variety of agencies—social service organizations, alternative schools and adult employment programs—to find jobs for young people.
Jim “Doc” Nichols is a tall, pencil-thin man who wears a checkered red, green and black hat. He paces as he teaches his GED class. This late fall afternoon, he is preparing his class for a grammar test. He walks his students through each question. One of his habits is to hold worksheets in front of his mouth as he talks.
About 12,750 teenagers got paid to work or learn something this summer, thanks to a jobs program that the city pieced together. Some had traditional jobs, such as being lifeguards or planting flowers, and were paid an hourly wage. But others were given stipends for participating in programs in which they painted or wrote poetry, among other things. Chicago’s 9-month-old Department of Children and Youth Services was able to help the teenagers by convincing businesses, community-based organizations and other city departments to hire them. Those entities had to find money in their own budgets for the salaries and stipends.
Driving up to the apartment, Chicago lead inspector Delfin Diaz can tell the building is in poor condition. He points out the Irving Park neighborhood is gentrifying, and many of the other homes are spiffed up and have new windows. But the windows on this mustard-colored brick building, built in 1920, are covered with a film, and their edges are thick with layers of paint. The building’s door is propped open with a brick. When Diaz knocks on the apartment door, a short Mexican woman tells him, in Spanish and in no uncertain terms, that the child who lives there did not get lead poisoning from the apartment.
In Hilary Godwin’s large office at Northwestern University’s Technical Building, pictures of her round toddler lean against science text books. A spunky looking woman with curly hair and blue eyes, she tries to explain in everyday English her work on lead. But she is most animated when describing how the issue hit home—literally. Godwin, a chemistry professor who studies lead, says, because she’s familiar with the risks, she pushed her doctor to give her son a lead screening at 9 months. Otherwise, she believes the doctor would have waited until Jake went to preschool.
In June, Alex Jones graduated from Thornton Township High School in south suburban Harvey. He was ranked 14th in his class. His mother, Peggy, said she wanted Alex to come to Prairie State College in south suburban Chicago Heights because she works there as an administrative assistant and thought it would be a good way to acclimate her son to college.
A patron of a bowling alley is so disturbed when he sees a boy getting hit and kicked by a man that he calls police. Staff members at a public health clinic are alarmed after overhearing a girl’s father order her, in Spanish, to tell the doctor that her black eyes were the result of falling down the stairs. A mother, recently released from the foster care system, has self-de-structive thoughts and high levels of stress and anxiety. Each of these incidents was a sign that something in a family was awry, but none set off enough alarms for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to take definitive action. And, within weeks or months, children were killed by the very person previ-ously suspected of abuse.
When Tyrone McGhee began missing classes at Austin Community Academy High School halfway through his junior year, few noticed. The tall, quiet young man said not one teacher or counselor called his house or tracked him down. “Some of the students cared,” he said. “My friends were like, –˜Hey, where’s Tyrone?'”
McGhee was a ward of the state, and the official guardian listed on his school records was the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Caseworkers are supposed to check on wards at their schools every week.