In the first days of her life, Jennifer was taken into custody by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after nurses reported to the state’s child abuse hotline that her mother appeared paranoid and unsure of how to care for the tiny baby, one time almost letting the newborn slip out of her hands.
Almost 19 years later, Jennifer is still part of the system. Only now she is also in the criminal justice system, awaiting trial on a charge of first-degree murder.
On March 1, 2002, when she was 17, Jennifer allegedly stabbed another foster child to death. The two girls were neighbors at an independent living facility, an apartment building where DCFS pays the rent and wards are supervised but live alone.
Jennifer’s arrest for first-degree murder makes her case extreme. But court documents and confidential records obtained by The Chicago Reporter that date back to the day she was placed in foster care tell a story with themes that are common in the child welfare system.
A growing group of older kids in DCFS are leaving the system ill-equipped to face the real world. Many have been moved multiple times. And an increasing number have severe psychological problems for which they have not received enough treatment.
State lawmakers and advocates say that Jennifer’s case highlights a reality that no one wants to confront: As these children–”most of them black and from poor families–”reach their 17th and 18th birthdays, no one really knows what to do with them.
“We throw up our hands and we say we have nothing else to do with this kid,” said state Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie who formerly chaired the Mental Health Committee in the Illinois House. “So we put this kid over here where we know this kid is doomed to failure. That is a disaster, –¦ a disaster that has been re-visited over and over again.”
Patti Marino, a teacher who worked with wards of the state for more than a decade and at one point taught Jennifer, said she warned DCFS officials about what she saw as its increasing failure to handle distressed foster children.
“What I can tell you is that DCFS continues to place kids in extremely inappropriate placements, and that certainly happened here,” she said. “They have no system. They have no programs that are appropriate for kids who are severely disturbed or aggressive. The mental health services are inadequate, and that is an understatement.”
Peter Nierman, clinical director for child and adolescent mental services for the Office of Mental Health, which is part of the Illinois Department of Human Services, said he knows of other troubled young adults whose lives had equally “dour” endings.
The problem, he said, is that the state spends as much as $85,000 for children to live at residential facilities where they have some structure and access to mental health services. When they leave, however, they are put into communities where substantially less is spent on them.
“Of course, you don’t have the network of support,” he said. “You don’t have the aunts and uncles. You don’t have the close family relationships and you don’t have other people in the community who know you and know what your needs are.”
The family of Talisa Davenport, the girl Jennifer is accused of killing, believes the child welfare system bears some responsibility for the death, and has filed a civil lawsuit against Jennifer and the social service agency that ran the independent living program.
Family members also plan to sue DCFS, said their attorney, Yao O. Dinizulu of the Chicago law firm Harris, Mitchell and Dinizulu.
They hope the lawsuits will spur the agency and DCFS to take a hard look at how they work with older children who are troubled, especially because Talisa’s 16-year-old sister is still in DCFS care, Dinizulu said.
“They are worried that the system will fail her just like it failed Talisa,” Dinizulu said. “She is getting ready to move toward more independence. She has some problems, and there are many boys and girls like her. We are wondering whether they are getting what they need. Are they getting the proper therapy?”
Officials from DCFS did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Jennifer’s case, or the questions it raises about the system. The department’s inspector general, its independently operating watchdog, is investigating the case.
While most of these children don’t commit violent crimes, some advocates remain concerned. The state’s inability to deal with some of its most troubled wards was shown by a September report by Ron Davidson, a DCFS consultant and a member of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Davidson found that staff at Maryville City of Youth, Illinois’ largest residential child-care facility, were struggling to control problems, including fighting and sexual abuse, among ever more difficult kids. The report noted that police were often called when a child acted out.
Dr. Carl C. Bell, president and chief executive officer of Community Mental Health Council & Foundation, a private, nonprofit clinic on Chicago’s South Side, said research has clearly shown that children exposed to adverse situations such as abuse or a parent’s drug use are more likely to engage in behavior that is dangerous to themselves and others.
Add to that the trauma of being removed from one’s parents, and wards of the state are at a heightened risk, he said.
“The question then is, –˜What does DCFS do for children who are so angry because they have been so hurt?'” Bell said.
Jennifer–”whose real name is not being used because she was arrested as a juvenile–”was born on April 3, 1984, at Hyde Park’s Chicago Osteopathic Hospital, which has since shut down. According to DCFS reports, she was taken into DCFS custody because “caseworkers and concerned relatives felt that there was –˜risk of harm’ to the infant based on the natural mother’s three psychiatric hospitalizations.”
Jennifer’s mother almost immediately checked out of the baby’s life. Court records note that she almost never showed up for scheduled visits. In 2001, she died of complications related to AIDS.
A month after Jennifer’s birth, the baby was handed over to a foster mother in southeast suburban Chicago Heights. For six years, she stayed with the woman she called “Granny.” In confidential records obtained by the Reporter, social workers noted that Jennifer seemed happy, and there was talk of adoption.
A turning point came in 1989, when “Granny” died of heart disease at age 57. Over the next 12 years, Jennifer would live at more than 20 different sites, but she never found a place to call home.
At several points Jennifer went to live with her maternal great-aunt, Lady Stokes. Stokes, now 72, is raising Jennifer’s three younger sisters. She said they all came to her as babies.
Jennifer was 7 when she first lived with Stokes, and already “she didn’t want to behave,” Stokes said. With sadness in her voice, Stokes said she just couldn’t handle the little girl, who wouldn’t listen to her and sometimes stole things.
“It was too much for me,” she said.
By the time Jennifer was reaching adolescence, the child welfare system in Illinois was in the midst of drastic change. Under pressure from a consent decree and a 1997 federal law, DCFS started focusing on placing children into permanent homes, mostly through encouraging relatives to adopt their kin.
And the policy was successful. Over the past six years, about 35,000 children statewide have been adopted out of DCFS or placed in permanent guardianship. As of the end of June, about 23,000 children were in substitute care, which includes foster care, residential facilities and group homes–”a drop of 54 percent from 1997.
But younger children are more likely to be adopted than older ones like Jennifer. Children older than 12 now make up 36 percent of the foster care caseload, up from 25 percent in 1997, according to DCFS data. And the children lingering in DCFS statewide are primarily African American.
“The system adjustments [DCFS Director] Jess McDonald made took away the cream, those that could leave the system,” Bell said. “The more difficult kids are left.”
While DCFS reports that foster children have, on average, experienced fewer placements over the past six years, Cook County Public Guardian Patrick T. Murphy contends there is still a large group of troubled children who are continually shuffled around.
Murphy said instability can destroy a child’s psyche, often leading to mental illness.
“The question is, –˜Did the multiple moves cause the craziness, or did the craziness cause the multiple moves?'” he said. Either way, Murphy said, the department is responsible. On behalf of 200 current and former wards, including Jennifer, his office is preparing to sue DCFS over the issue of multiple moves.
When Jennifer was 12, a staff member of the residential facility where she was staying wrote in a report, while “[Jennifer] wants to be sweet, cooperative, charming and connected with a nurturing family, she shows many of the characteristics of children who have been in multiple placements. –¦ She is hostile to others, lonely, full of unmet needs for nurturance, and burned out emotionally.”
Three years later, DCFS was still trying to find Jennifer a home. Officials even put her on “Wednesday’s Child,” a news segment on Channel 5 that features foster children looking for parents. But, when nothing worked out with two potential adoptive parents, Jennifer was greatly disappointed, and “her acting out behavior worsened,” according to a court report.
With no permanent home on the horizon, Jennifer was affected by another DCFS reform.
In 1995, 792 of the state’s most difficult children–”chronic runaways and those with severe behavior problems–”were living in out-of-state residential facilities, on mostly locked campuses that were supposed to offer intensive treatment.
But the care was expensive, costing the state more than $48 million a year, and a team of state inspectors, led by Davidson, found that children in some of these facilities were using drugs, wielding knives, and sexually and physically abusing each other.
In 1996, saying these children shouldn’t be out of sight and out of mind, McDonald, the DCFS director, announced his intention to bring them back to Illinois. By the end of 2002, virtually all Illinois foster children were living in the state. This move has saved the state about $65 million.
When the children came back and other children with similar problems presented themselves, however, they had limited options. The residential facilities in Illinois mostly featured programs structured like family homes. Many had “house mothers” or “house fathers.” At McDonald’s direction, the facilities couldn’t have locked doors, or use restraints.
In September 2002, Davidson issued his scathing report of Maryville. In response, Maryville officials blamed DCFS for bringing the troubled children back to Illinois without making provisions for them.
But Davidson said studies had shown that many of the out-of-state children didn’t need to be in highly restrictive settings. The thinking was that many of the kids previously placed in residential treatment facilities in Illinois could live independently, reserving these facilities for the most troubled, he said.
“The children out of state were not super-predators,” Davidson said. “They were not that bad.” He added that no “violent sociopathic predators–”who properly belong in jail–”were ever part of the masses of mentally ill and emotionally disturbed kids that Illinois was dumping in other states.”
Davidson insists that other residential facilities made more of an effort than Maryville to retrain staff to deal with difficult children. Still, he said, the state lacks an intensive psychiatric treatment program for the small number of young people who are truly disturbed.
The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry runs the state’s only inpatient psychiatric program for DCFS wards, but it can only take children for short periods, while they’re in crisis. Jennifer had two short stays there.
“You cannot blame DCFS for what happened to [Jennifer],” said Davidson, who noted that he was not directly involved in Jennifer’s case, but that it had become notorious within the child welfare community. “If anything, blame the Office of Mental Health.”
But Nierman, the office’s clinical director for children and adolescent services, said these long-term, in-patient programs are too expensive and serve a small number of children each year. Such programs drain money away from critical community-based mental health services, Nierman said.
“The debate is where will the state benefit the most from spending its resources, and I think the answer to that is community, community, community,” Nierman said.
Jennifer wound up being shifted from one north suburban residential facility to another–”from Arden Shore in Lake Bluff to the Rice Children’s Center in Evanston. From the Rice Children’s Center, she was put in at least two different psychiatric hospitals until she eventually was sent to Allendale Association, a lauded residential facility in Lake Villa, a northwest suburb.
Multiple hospital stays and two years later, the staff at Allendale wrote in a court report why they wanted Jennifer to leave. On top of minor fighting, smoking, being verbally aggressive and running away, she got into a fight in which she broke another girl’s nose, caused trauma to her jaw, and left bruises and bite marks on her back and a side of her body, according to the report.
“It is our hope that with a fresh start, [Jennifer] can gain the motivation needed to make better choices for herself and her life,” concluded the report.
From Allendale, DCFS sent Jennifer to the Youth Campus in Park Ridge in March 2000. On 13 acres in the upscale northwest suburb, the Youth Campus is spotted with red brick cottages and looks a bit like a small liberal arts college. On its Web site, it boasts that it provides “comfortable home-like residences” for children.
Joe Loftus, the agency’s executive director and a former deputy director at DCFS, declined to comment.
But Marino, who taught at the Youth Campus school for five years, said she complained to DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane about aggressive kids intimidating staff and teenagers engaging in sexual activity and drug use.
She said the atmosphere at the facility had changed after DCFS brought the children back from out of state and eliminated a policy that allowed foster children to be readily relocated.
“Take these kids and you are stuck with them,” Marino said. “So the kids do whatever they want because nothing will happen to them. In terms of consequences, the kids learned that there aren’t any. Kids started running the programs, and they knew it.”
The Youth Campus school is part of Maine Township District 207, and this year Marino and eight other teachers were so fed up that they asked to be assigned to other schools, she said.
While Marino didn’t want to talk about particular students, documents indicate Jennifer had a hard time at Youth Campus. At one time, after a fight in which she sent a girl to the hospital, she spent two weeks in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Later, other aggressive behavior landed her in UIC’s inpatient psychiatric program.
But there are also hints that Jennifer often acted like a typical teenager. One time, a lawyer noted in a report that she showed up at a meeting with her nails sculpted and her hair in French braids.
Damien Simpson, a friend of hers at the Youth Campus, said he enjoyed hanging out with her.
“We would play basketball,” said Simpson, who is now 22 and looking for a job. “We became really good friends. We would joke and laugh together.”
Simpson said he and other young men at the Youth Campus had short relationships with Jennifer. And on the occasions she would “go off,” as Simpson put it, he assumed she was just another angry, sad resident who didn’t want to be there.
All this time, Jennifer was growing up. By 2001, she was 17 years old.
When troubled kids become adults, fewer resources are available for them, said Alan Morris, the director of one of the units of UIC’s psychiatric program for wards.
“The transition is one of the most difficult things,” he said. “There is very little in the way of follow up, and there is virtually no mental health system for young adults.”
Morris would not talk about Jennifer’s case. But at some point after she left his program, it was decided that she should try living on her own. Records obtained by the Reporter do not indicate who made the decision, but by law caseworkers and juvenile court judges must approve such moves.
In July 2001 Jennifer’s case was handed to Kaleidoscope, a social service agency in Chicago. She became part of the Youth Development Independent Living program, which is designed to work with “older, severely troubled youth,” according to the agency’s Web site. While Kaleidoscope’s executive director, Tom Finnegan, would not comment on the case, the Web site’s program description may offer some explanation for why the agency took her in.
The teenagers the program works with “will soon be too old to be state wards and must be able to make it on their own,” it says. “It is an environment of last resort–”one that serves youth who have not adjusted in other kinds of programs.”
The program provides them with apartments, counseling services, formal supervision and job development.
But, when Jennifer was assigned to live in her own apartment, some of the adults involved in her case were incredulous.
According to court papers, Marino was upset that Jennifer was sent to a less restrictive environment after so much aggressive behavior at the Youth Campus.
Marino’s statement reads: “When I found out, I was in a state of shock. –¦ When I met with Denise Kane I told her this girl had her own apartment somewhere on the south side and was capable of killing someone.”
Stokes, Jennifer’s great-aunt, said she was appalled.
“My feeling is that DCFS should not have turned her loose on her own,” Stokes said. “She was not able to take care of herself.” While she was living in the brown courtyard apartment building at 8149 S. Drexel Ave., a public guardian noted that Jennifer wasn’t going to school regularly and wasn’t working, court documents show. She also wrote that Jennifer didn’t feel safe in her apartment, and that it had peeling paint and lacked heat at night.
Simpson said he could tell Jennifer’s emotional state was deteriorating. The events that led up to the alleged murder, he said, should have signaled to caseworkers and police that something was wrong.
In January 2002, Jennifer was arrested and charged with domestic battery after she was accused of beating up another girl living in her apartment building. The girl she allegedly attacked didn’t testify against her in court, but Talisa Davenport, a 20-year-old security guard at McCormick Place who also lived in the building, did.
After spending a month in the detention center, Jennifer was released on Feb. 28.
According to the police report, Jennifer told a Kaleidoscope staff member she needed a key to her apartment. But she lied about where she lived and got the key to Davenport’s apartment.
That same day, Jennifer visited Simpson at an apartment he shared with his sister. He said she smelled as though she needed to take a shower.
“I know she always kept herself up,” said Simpson. “So I knew it was something wrong because she never smelled bad. I told her she smelled kind of bad, and I said, –˜What is up with that, [Jennifer]?’ She said, –˜I am just struggling. I am going through a bad time right now.'”
About 30 minutes later, she left, but then came back because she had forgotten her jacket. He said that, as she was standing on the stairs in his apartment building, Jennifer told him she wanted him to be her boyfriend. He said he didn’t want to.
Then, he said, she came up behind him and slit his throat. He went to the hospital and received 21 stitches. Meanwhile, Jennifer was arrested for the assault.
The next day, she was released on an I-bond, which means she had to sign her name as a promise that she would return for court.
By this time, Kaleidoscope staff had realized Jennifer had the wrong key, according to the police report. On March 1, they went by the apartment building and found Davenport stabbed to death.
Jennifer was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on March 2.
When she first heard the news, Marcia Davenport couldn’t believe her sister, the girl with the wide, toothy smile, was dead. “I was like, –˜You have got to be kidding,'” said Davenport, who is now 27.
Even in late January, she was grappling with the loss. Davenport said Talisa and their younger sister had become DCFS wards 12 years ago.
But the sisters stayed close. Davenport said Talisa had some problems, but was her 9-year-old daughter’s favorite aunt.
With tears in her eyes, she remembered going to a party with Talisa on Christmas Day, 2001. They danced the night away, played cards, laughed and “talked about everything.” Talisa, she said, had been accepted into a junior college nursing program and was optimistic about her future.
“That was the last Christmas we had,” Davenport said.
Dinizulu, the family’s attorney, said some family members are interested in taking in Talisa’s 16-year-old sister, but don’t feel they have the financial resources.
“The family really feels helpless,” he said.
In mid-January, Jennifer took large steps as she walked into an old, wood-paneled Cook County courtroom for a pretrial motion hearing. The thin braids that she had when she was arrested were gone; her hair was short and slicked back. Her arms were slung loosely behind her back.
She said nothing throughout the short court proceeding. In the hallway afterward, her attorney, Herschella G. Conyers of the University of Chicago’s Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, wondered out loud whether Jennifer understood the seriousness of the crime she was charged with. “It’s not at all clear to me that she appreciates what she’s facing,” she said.
Stokes recently said she believes her great-niece was failed all down the line. When Jennifer was a little girl, Stokes said, state officials allowed her to be passed through too many hands, leaving her too damaged, too out-of-control.
“They are responsible,” Stokes said.
Experts and advocates are split about what DCFS should learn from Jennifer’s case. They say she represents the worst-case scenario. Some worry that telling her story might cause officials to make knee-jerk changes.
Others say the case speaks to some larger issues that DCFS must confront.
“Obviously these are some fairly singular circumstances, but I think some of the reasons behind them really weren’t that surprising,” said Conyers. “It’s just that there’s a real hard decision that has to be made about what we’re going to do with DCFS wards at a certain age, and with certain issues. –¦ And my two cents’ worth is that I don’t think we’ve made the right choices so far.”
State Sen. Donne E. Trotter, whose office is about two miles from where Davenport was murdered, said what happened to her underscores the need for DCFS to broaden its mission. Right now, he said, the department sees putting a roof over a child’s head as its only job.
“The loss of self, the loss of trust that happens when we take these kids away from their parents–”we don’t address that.”
Shawn Allee and Fernando Díaz helped research this article.