The officials who work most closely with foster children disagree on the accuracy of the data used in this investigation. But none tracks, or can provide, comparable numbers. Beginning in July, The Chicago Reporter and CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform requested information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on how well foster children perform in school and which schools they attend. The requests were repeatedly denied by DCFS officials, who said the information was not available. The publications then received Chicago Public Schools data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonprofit based at the University of Chicago that was conducting a study on foster children in the schools.
Chicago schools are not the only ones grappling with the education of former and current foster children. Eight south suburban school districts have turned to the state legislature to ask for help with such students. The superintendents of these districts say that, in the past six or seven years, they have seen an influx of foster children and children who were recently adopted. For example, one of the school districts is in south suburban Ford Heights, the poorest municipality in Cook County, where 343 foster children live, according to DCFS. The South Cook Education Consortium–”which is made up of South Holland School District 151, Posen-Robbins 143.5, West Harvey-Dixmoor 147, Dolton 148, Harvey 152, Ford Heights 169, General George Patton 133 and Prairie Hills 144–”initially came together to lobby state officials for regional school funding changes.
Tracey Redmond (top) points to his house, which sits across an alley from the plot of land he works with his wife, LaDonna (left). (Photo by Louis Byrd III)
Tracey and LaDonna Redmond slowly take in a hot, sunny weekday on their farm–”a plot of land, 150 feet by 300 feet, at 4429 W. Fulton Ave. in the West Side community of West Garfield Park, where every couple of minutes the Green Line elevated train rumbles by. As the morning unfolds, they keep an eye on their 2-year-old daughter, Taylor, and 4-year-old son, Wade, wait for a city truck to bring them wood chips and show off their rows of tomatoes and collard greens. A year ago, the two left busy professions to become what they are today: harvesters of crops on once-littered city lots.
Wenona Thompson says she’s a fighter. Sometimes, as she talks with her head bowed, she seems embarrassed by the things she’s done. But other times, she speaks with conviction, dark brown eyes fixed straight ahead. Thompson, 26 and a mother of two, runs a program called Girl Talk that encourages young women in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center to tell each other their stories. She hopes they will gain perspective on their lives and heal before going back to their communities.
At 9:35 on a Tuesday morning in June, the windowless waiting room in the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Woodlawn office was already crowded. All the brown chairs were taken, and women were lined up on both sides of the large room, looking tired and annoyed, waiting to see their welfare caseworkers. The office, at 915 E. 63rd St., was just as crowded as it was five years ago, when a sweeping new federal welfare reform package pushed recipients to work and set a 60-month time limit for getting cash benefits. As a key component of the legislation, states were allowed to design their own welfare programs.
Moving into welfare reform’s critical fifth anniversary this July, Illinois’ rolls are down 73 percent, leaving 50,712 cases as of June 2002. But 77 percent of these remaining cases are in Cook County, up from 65 percent in 1997, according to an analysis of Human Services data by The Chicago Reporter.
Ernestine Jackson thought at first that the January chill invading her Englewood apartment was temporary. She bought two electric heaters. She burned her stove for extra warmth, and boiled water for baths. She wore layers and layers of clothes at all times. But finally, as cold days turned into even colder nights, Jackson got frustrated.
Tax scavenger Tony Bryant tops a list of the owners and management companies with chronic building court violations, according to The Chicago Reporter’s analysis of Cook County Circuit Court records. In the past five years, Bryant has been listed as a defendant in 106 housing court cases–”more than twice as many as the number two name on the list. In Chicago, city attorneys take landlords and property owners to court when they repeatedly fail to correct serious problems.
The housing court records the Reporter obtained were for all cases between January 1997 and March 2002. Bryant, who lives and works in Chicago, buys interests in tax delinquent properties, some of them crumbling or about to be torn down. He said he isn’t a landlord.
Seventeen-year-old Emily and her 1-year-old son, Jeremiah, are caught between the expectations of others and the reality of their own lives. On the one hand, the thinking goes, Emily and other teen mothers should live at home with their parents. On the other, if her own parents aren’t willing to support her, she should become a foster child and get access to the state’s network of supportive housing programs.