A D.C. family works to reunify, in and out of court

By Henri E. Cauvin
Sunday, September 5, 2010; C01

Danielle Pleasant knows this is her last shot.

Her five children have been in and out of foster care for more than a decade as Pleasant struggled to overcome addiction, mental illness, HIV and her own parental shortcomings. Now years removed from the days when she was abusing "everything," when laundry went unwashed for months and her little ones were left waiting at day care, Pleasant wants her children back with her, under one roof.

Time is running out. Louran is 23. Darnelle is 19. Jerel is 18. Shaun is 16. And Munroe is 14.

So when the District's child welfare system, in a last-ditch push to reunify the family, proposed sending a social worker to Pleasant's Southwest Washington apartment every few days for months, Pleasant told herself to open the door.

"I knew I wanted my family all together," she said.

Yet healing a family fractured by neglect takes more than the will of a parent, even one as determined as Pleasant, 44, who lost her children for the first time in 1995 and then again in 2005.

"It's hard," said Olivia Golden, who led the District's child welfare agency from 2001 to 2004 and is now a fellow at the Urban Institute.

It can require the sort of close-quarters counseling that Golden and other experts have advocated for years to head off the removal of children from troubled homes or to reunite families that are making progress in resolving their problems.

When such interventions work, they can save money by keeping children out of foster care or psychiatric residential facilities. But they don't always work, they don't come cheap and they risk the most damning sort of outcome: the death of a child who wasn't removed or was returned too soon.

Proponents say that the benefits, for children, parents and the system, are worth the cost of trying.

"We've put a great deal of money into other aspects of the child welfare [system], nationally, in particular adoption, and that's been money very well spent," Golden said. "But we haven't spent very much on reunification, on helping those families cope with the challenges they have."

A frequent visitor

For Pleasant, it was Chanell Scott who arrived last November to help, a foot soldier in the fight to save families trying to climb out of crisis.

A D.C. family court judge had just given Pleasant a vote of confidence by allowing her youngest child, Munroe, to come home on a conditional basis after four years in foster homes and a mental health care facility. Scott was there to help make sure Munroe, who had a history of aggressive behavior and an inability to manage her anger, stayed for good.

Darnelle was already back, under a similar sort of protective supervision. Louran, who had aged out of foster care when she turned 21, was back, too. But Jerel and Shaun, although they visited, remained in foster care.

For the next six months, Scott, a 31-year-old social worker for the nonprofit group Youth Villages, was a frequent visitor to Apartment A619.

What she found early on, she noted in an initial assessment, was a mother struggling to place limits on her adolescent children. And in addition to Pleasant's "permissive parenting" and "chaotic home," Scott listed conditions that would destabilize many a family: a lack of space in her cramped, two-bedroom apartment, almost no furniture and "sometimes not enough food."

But she also found that Pleasant and her children spent time together and that they were supportive of each other. And she was impressed with Pleasant's determination to reunite her family.

"She wants what's best for them," Scott said in an interview, "and she knows that being together is what's best for them."

Scott soon became "like a long-lost member of the family," said Pleasant, who has worked for HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations over the years.

Scott was in and out of the apartment two or three times a week. She talked to Pleasant about being the disciplinarian (and not leaving that to Louran) and about learning to take a break when her children were taxing her nerves. She encouraged Pleasant to put together a chore chart so everyone knew what was expected. She helped Pleasant line up a voucher for the bigger home she'd need to win the judge's blessing to bring Jerel and Shaun home.

And Scott listened. "She didn't just hear me," Pleasant recalled. "She listened and she understood, which is really rare."

The sort of intensive family therapy that Scott provided to the Pleasants is costly, averaging nearly $4,000 a month, according to Youth Villages, which has a contract with the D.C. Department of Mental Health. About 30 families from the District entangled in the juvenile courts or the child welfare system are working with Youth Villages, and about 500 have been served by Youth Villages since the organization began working in the District in 2005.

About two-thirds of the children served by Youth Villages were living with family members a year after completing the program, the organization reported in June. Nearly three-quarters were living with family two years after completing the program.

The notion that troubled families should be kept together if possible gathered steam in the 1990s, spawning numerous family preservation and reunification initiatives. But such efforts demand an up-front commitment of resources from child welfare systems that tend to act most aggressively after something has gone wrong.

After the Banita Jacks case in 2008, in which four children in Southeast Washington were killed by their mother, removals in the District surged. Some critics say that, even now, the Child and Family Services Agency still acts too hastily in many cases.

The interventions provided by Youth Villages are one of the ways the city tries to keep families together. Usually, the targets are families where the children are on the precipice of being removed. Occasionally, it's a family like the Pleasants, where the children are already in foster care and at risk of never coming home.

Hostage to the past

It has been 15 years since Pleasant's children were taken for the first time.

Pleasant, who was in the throes of her drug addiction, doesn't remember a lot of the details, and the court records are confidential. But she does recall the police officers and the social workers who showed up in 1995 at the basement of the Northwest house where the family was living.

What the authorities found was disorder and neglect.

"I got high in one room," Pleasant said. "The kids were in the other."

She was, she said, using crack and marijuana and alcohol. She was pregnant with Munroe, and she was trying to deny the reality that Shaun had contracted HIV in the womb and developed cerebral palsy.

"I did the best I could with what I had. I was dealing with having a child with AIDS and cerebral palsy, and I wasn't getting any help," she said.

Louran, then 8, went to live with her grandmother, who'd cared for her off and on for years, and other relatives. Her younger siblings went into foster care. More than a year later, the children came back after Pleasant had gone through drug treatment and given birth to Munroe. But the family remained unsettled.

Louran, who had been forced to help care for her younger siblings, was constantly at odds with her mother. "Louran was really, really angry, and she wanted to hold me hostage to the past," Pleasant said.

It came to a head one day when Louran was 14.

"All I remember is I lunged at her," Pleasant said.

Louran stormed off to the social services agency that was working with the family and ended up in foster care, where she remained until she was 21.

"I was mad at her for everything that she'd done to us," said Louran, who went years without talking to her mother before reconciling with her.

As Darnelle followed her sister into adolescence, she, too, began clashing with her mother.

"I was really at my wits' end, and I didn't know what to do," Pleasant said. A confrontation about an overnight visit away from home led to police and social services being called.

"I can't help her," Pleasant told the social worker, all but inviting the woman to take Darnelle.

But handing over Darnelle to the city wouldn't be the end of it, she was told. The other children would have to come, too. To Pleasant, it didn't seem as though she had another option. "I said, 'Do what you got to do,' and they took my kids that day."

She figured she'd have them all back as soon as Darnelle got some help. "I had no idea they would be gone this long," Pleasant said.

Now, more than five years later, she is confident she is ready. And so is Scott, whose time with the Pleasants ended in May.

"The emotion that she's put into these children, she didn't have to do that," Scott said. "A lot of parents don't do that. She could give up and walk away, but she's made a choice to be a good parent and fight for her kids."

But Louran, who has had to play the role of mother for long stretches over the past several years, still harbors doubts.

"I believe it's going to be difficult," she said. "Everybody's a teenager. . . . She's going to have to learn to be stern because, if not, they're going to run over the top of her."

Falling into place

Pleasant has been through too much not to be a little scared.

"My biggest fear," she said, "is probably," and then she stopped for a moment to think. Certainly, she has a lot weighing on her. She takes powerful anti-retrovirals to keep her HIV at bay and psychotropic drugs to control her bipolar disorder.

On the screen of her home computer are color-coded calendars with the myriad medical appointments for Shaun, Munroe and herself that make it so hard, Pleasant said, for her to hold a nine-to-five job. Since funding dried up at the nonprofit group where she was working, she has been living off unemployment benefits and assistance from the city's HIV/AIDS agency as she tries to make a business of her skill at writing grant applications.

Slowly, though, some pieces have fallen into place.

In June, the judge in the case made Munroe's return home permanent. Munroe is happy: "I can see my mom more," she said.

In early August, after months of searching for an affordable home big enough for six, the Pleasants hauled their possessions in a borrowed Ford van to a six-bedroom brick house on 28th Street SE.

On Aug. 25, Pleasant was back before Family Court Magistrate Judge Lori E. Parker for the first time since the move, finally able to report that she was in a bigger home.

The judge made Darnelle's return permanent. And, any day, Shaun and Jerel will join their siblings on a conditional basis. If all goes according to plan, the judge told Pleasant, the family would be formally reunified in January.

It was what Pleasant had come to hear. Yet, in an interview afterward, she sounded more weary than anything else.

"I mean, I was happy when court was over," she said, "but I can't really be excited."

The biggest tests are still to come, in the house on 28th Street.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company