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

Danielle Pleasant, whose five children have been in and out of foster care for more than a decade, finally moves into a house big enough to fit the family she's bringing back together.
By Henri E. Cauvin
Sunday, September 5, 2010

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.

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