In a racially and politically charged custody case that has gripped the Illinois child welfare system in controversy for more than a year, a judge ruled today that a 3-year-old black child born with cocaine in his system will remain with his white foster parents--one of Chicago's most politically powerful couples--instead of being returned to his formerly addicted mother.
Circuit Judge Judith Brawka said the child, known as "Baby T," should remain for "the foreseeable future" with Chicago Alderman Edward Burke and his wife, state Appellate Court Judge Anne Burke, because his mother, Tina Olison, has not met the requirements needed to regain permanent custody. She said efforts to prepare Olison for custody have been a "disaster."
Brawka said Olison has recovered fully from her addiction, but has not made sufficient progress toward fulfilling her parental obligations, including trying to establish a relationship with the child. The judge said Olison will retain her legal rights as a parent, with visiting rights, but that the Burkes, who have indicated they eventually want to adopt the child, will retain custody as foster parents.
Brawka said Baby T's 8-year-old brother, identified in court as "Baby B," will remain in the care of his maternal grandmother. But the child could be returned to his mother in January if social workers determine she is prepared for custody.
The case has invoked the highly emotional issues of race, class and political power, with some black community activists accusing the public guardian's office of trying to systematically "break up" black families and to place their children in white families' homes where they have no exposure to African American culture. They also charged that the Burkes exerted their political influence to retain custody of the child.
The dispute took an unexpected turn last week when Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, who last year recommended the return of Baby T to his mother and suggested that the Burkes were using their political influence to keep the child, withdrew his support for Olison. He and his agency's attorneys said Olison had failed to focus on being a parent, had continuously fought with white social workers, had balked at scheduled 9 a.m. visits with Baby T because they were too early and had become consumed by her efforts to generate publicity around the case.
The comments were in sharp contrast to Murphy's suggestions last year that the custody battle had become politicized. He cited, among other things, that Cook County judges repeatedly recused themselves from the case, thereby delaying a resolution, and that Olison had been denied unsupervised visits with the child. At one point, Murphy called the case "the worst legal [and] social worker lynching" of a client in a child custody case he had ever seen.
Brawka's ruling today also was a reversal of an opinion the judge issued in March that Baby T should be returned to Olison within 12 months and that the brothers should be together. She said then that African American culture should be considered in decisions affecting the black children's future.
A visibly shaken Olison left the Juvenile Court House here today without commenting to reporters waiting outside.
Brawka was assigned to the case here from suburban Kane County to ensure that the Burkes' political clout in Chicago would play no part in deciding Baby T's future.
One South Side black leader, the Rev. Anthony Williams, pastor of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church, said in a news conference on Monday that Murphy's turnaround last week was motivated by his ambition to run for a judgeship. He noted that Edward Burke chairs a judicial nominating committee of the Democratic Party.
Murphy denied trying to curry favor with Burke, saying that, if he does run for a judgeship, he will not seek the party's support. He said the decision to reverse his agency's position on Baby T was made by an African American attorney on his staff, and that he supported it because Olison had refused to accept responsibility for her own actions and failed to cooperate with case workers.
CAPTION: Tina Olison gets a hug from her mother, Cecile Olison, in Maywood, Ill., last week. Tina Olison has lost her custody battle over Baby T.