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Single Mom Harassed

February 26, 2007 permalink

The San Antonio Texas Express-News has printed a lengthy story on the Lozano family. Ordinarily, the press only reports on extraordinary child protection cases, such as those involving an injured or dead child. This article deals with the most common kind of child protection case, the single mom. Details show many common tactics, such as omitting facts favorable to the family and a "Sophie's Choice": you get to keep some kids as long as we get the rest. When the family genuinely needs help it is denied. A digression shows the habit of the legislature to respond to all problems in the system by giving it even more money.



One family's struggle with child services

On a warm autumn day in 2004, Ashley Lozano waved a state caseworker's business card in her mother's face and threatened to call Child Protective Services.

Depressed and defiant, Ashley, then 13, was perpetually at odds with her mother, Juanita Lozano. Their relationship had reached its nadir after police caught Ashley skipping school with a 16-year-old boy and brought her home. Juanita decided to teach the girl a lesson by cutting off her long black hair.

"Things were so out of control at that point," Juanita said.

Even before then, Ashley had announced she would have herself removed from the family home if things didn't start going her way. But when CPS did remove her in October 2004, she got more than she bargained for.

For the next 17 months she was uprooted and shuffled through more than 10 shelters, foster homes, hospitals and group homes. The teenager had won her independence from her mother only to cede it to almost two dozen other adults in a revolving door of caseworkers, doctors, attorneys and judges.

CPS also removed Ashley's two siblings, Joshua and Sara, then 11 and 6, respectively, even though their mother had not been accused of abusing or neglecting them.

Juanita Lozano with Ashley  and Sara and Joshua

Juanita Lozano (center) gets a rare moment in sharing a prayer with three of her children — Ashley (from left), Sara and Joshua — at her home in January 2006 while battling Child Protective Services to regain custody of the three. Ashley, 15, returned home last March but since has run away. Joshua remains at home, and Lozano shares custody of Sara with the girl's father.

(Kin Man Hui/Express-News)
Ashley and Sara Lozano
Sisters Ashley (right) and Sara play with dolls during a visitation in January 2006. Juanita Lozano and her former boyfriend now have joint custody of Sara.

The younger children were taken from their home, caseworkers and judges said, under the assumption that whenever one child in a family is thought to be in jeopardy, the others must be at risk.

Removing the Lozano children from their mother's care was the wrong way to deal with the family's problems, say some child advocates familiar with the family, including a CPS worker once assigned to the case.

They maintain that not only did moving the children from one place to another fail to make them safer, it disrupted already fragile lives; the family would have been better served had it been allowed to stay together and provided counseling.

Juanita turned all of her attention to making her family whole again. She spent hundreds of hours taking copious notes, making a pest of herself to every caseworker and attorney connected to the case, hiring lawyers she could scarcely afford, depleting her meager savings, taking a second job.

As it is, Ashley's problems remain unsolved. CPS returned the teenager to Juanita's home last March. Within months, Ashley began acting out again. Over Christmas, she ran away from home.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which advocates for keeping families together, likens removing children in such cases to "treating a head cold with radiation." He and others urge a more proactive, holistic approach to helping at-risk children and families.

Grantly Boxill, a former CPS caseworker who first suggested counseling for Ashley and her mother, said dismantling the family was unnecessary and counterproductive.

But CPS was taking no chances. In the 12 months preceding the removal of Juanita's children, at least 11 Bexar County children had died of abuse, some while on CPS' watch. CPS came under fire for failing to remove from harm's way those children whose families had been assigned caseworkers.

The agency responded by taking children out of homes at a faster clip, resulting in what Wexler calls a predictable spike in removals.

Those in the system call it "erring on the side of the child." Wexler calls it "foster-care panic." The flip side of doing too little too late, it's the untold story of the social services crisis jeopardizing San Antonio's children, who are far from guaranteed of getting what they need when the state intervenes in their lives.

Critics like Wexler lament the inadequate counseling and lack of other services available either instead of or after removals.

Carey Cockerell, the state's top protective services official, testified earlier this month to the House Appropriations Committee that last session's landmark overhaul of CPS, which saw the state pour millions of dollars into the beleaguered agency, failed to address what happens after a child is taken from a home, focusing instead on investigations and removals.

But more caseworkers has meant more children removed from their homes and placed into an overburdened and underregulated foster care system. Since last fall, three children have died in foster care in North Texas, all placed by the same agency.

Last week state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, filed a $90 million foster-care bill designed to improve the way abused children are cared for by foster families and overseen by the state. Much of the bill's contents came from the agency's own recommendations to the Legislature.

Child welfare advocates say that once again, the state is focusing on the wrong end of the equation, that resources must be allocated to prevent children from being taken away in the first place.

Until then, CPS caseworkers, many with little experience, still labor under caseloads that often preclude their familiarizing themselves with families enough to fully understand them. And errors of judgment occur.

"Everyone knows how badly caseworkers are overwhelmed," Wexler says. "They often make mistakes in both directions — leaving some children in dangerous homes even as more children are taken from homes that could be made safe with the right kinds of services."

Court records show that the cursory and sometimes incorrect knowledge of the Lozanos by those assigned to the case — eight CPS workers in all — was a recipe for misunderstandings and misconceptions that led to questionable decisions by everyone from caseworkers to judges, who often have only the opinions of CPS employees on which to base their rulings.

And so, besides raising the question of how far government has a right to intrude in private lives, the Lozano case, critics say, illustrates the same systemic problems that figured into the deaths of children such as Jovonie Ochoa, whose starvation at Christmastime 2003 was met with public outrage.

When CPS is too quick to remove children from a home, it's often indicative of the same problems as when the agency is too slow. And the results, while certainly not as dire, often are less than ideal.

Wexler points to a Harvard study of foster care alumni that found 80 percent suffered from lack of education, stability, emotional and physical abuse.

"How can throwing children into a system which churns out walking wounded four times out of five be 'erring on the side of the child'?" Wexler asks.

While the plight of at-risk youngsters is seen most dramatically in the gaunt face of children such as 4-year-old Jeremiah Campos, whose beating death last month focused attention once again on child abuse, Ashley's plight is instructive in its own right.

But families like the Lozanos rarely make the news. When there is little more at stake than the living arrangements of one dysfunctional and sometimes unsympathetic family, when there are no clear-cut heroes, villains or victims, when the fate of children turns on a judge's ruling rather than the chill rush of tragedy, a case doesn't make headlines.

Ashley's story churned on behind the scenes for almost two years while her mother fought tenaciously to get her children back.

"All that my family went through, and for what?" Juanita asks. "There has been so much hurt, pain and suffering. In the end, they didn't help Ashley, the one who needed help. How much did we lose? How much time, how much money, and for what?"

Family history

Juanita Lozano doesn't look like the firecracker she is. She is short and softly round, dressing modestly, often in pinstriped shirts and slacks. Despite her lack of formal education, she is clearly intelligent. She speaks quickly and has a ready smile. But that smile disappears when she feels she has been crossed.

CPS workers felt Juanita's wrath and complained about her temper. She is slow to forgive perceived transgressions, family members say — perhaps because she had to learn the art of self-preservation at an early age.

Juanita was the second oldest of seven children raised by a single mother who ran a bar on the West Side. They lived in Alazán Courts, the city's first public housing project and one of the toughest.

At one point, when the children were staying with their grandmother, CPS removed them for a time to different foster homes, though Juanita no longer can remember why.

Her tumultuous home life instilled in Juanita a fierce need to give her children a better life — efforts that may have been too vigorous. "She is strict and does not tolerate any kind of insubordination," a CPS caseworker wrote. "As a result, her daughter Ashley appears to be getting the brunt of her mother's frustrations."

Juanita has four children by four men. She first became pregnant at 15 and dropped out of school. Her mother insisted she marry the child's father, but the union lasted less than two years. Her husband left her for one of her sisters.

Several years later, in Lubbock, she became pregnant with Ashley. She left Ashley's father for a battered women's shelter.

When Ashley was 2, Juanita met Joshua's father and became pregnant yet again. She left him, she said, because of a cocaine habit that would take his life when Joshua was 2.

By then, Juanita had completed a welfare-to-work program and had begun a job as a clerk in the Lubbock law office of Vince Martinez.

Martinez recalls a hard-working young woman who rarely socialized.

"Her life at that point consisted of her kids, even on the weekends," he said recently. "She was single at the time, and just baby-sat, and watched the kids."

After she had worked in the office for a year, the pair went out and celebrated, and began dating soon after, he said.

Juanita and her three children moved in with Martinez and she became pregnant for the fourth time.

After the birth of Sara, Martinez became withdrawn, Juanita says, spending time with his infant daughter, but not she or her other children.

She moved back to San Antonio. As her oldest daughter, Jennifer, reached puberty, Juanita grew stricter. Jennifer says she sought refuge in a relative's more permissive household.

When Ashley headed into adolescence, she, too, began having problems with her mother.

Often defiant, she cut school, hung out with older boys, smoked cigarettes and vandalized school property, according to Juanita and to school documents she provided. After Juanita would discipline her, Ashley would often sink into depression.

Removal, repercussions

Those familiar with the family agree on this much: Ashley and her mother needed help. Juanita is temperamental. But Ashley can be manipulative, said the former CPS caseworker Boxill, who saw the girl as partly responsible for her difficulties with her mother.

"I referred them to a family-based caseworker," he said. "I said, hey, here's a mom who needs the tools to help deal with Ashley's behavior."

But Juanita and her daughter didn't get the counseling Boxill requested. Juanita says before the caseworker could set them up to talk to someone, things in the household deteriorated to the point that Ashley was taken to Nix Hospital, where a new caseworker threatened to remove all of Juanita's children if she didn't place Ashley with a relative.

Even Melissa Montgomery, the caseworker who ultimately asked a judge to remove the Lozano children just months later, and who still believes the removal was justified, testified before the state Legislature that kids removed from their homes often are overmedicated and don't receive consistent counseling.

The current system is ill-equipped to help children once they've been taken from their homes, she says. "Kids don't get what they need."

What they do get often is difficult to ascertain. Child welfare cases are almost impossible to penetrate. CPS files are not public, and state law prohibits anyone involved in a case in any official capacity from explaining decisions made with regard to a particular family. Only family members are free to talk.

A spokeswoman with CPS in San Antonio could only say that when a child is moved more than once within the system, it is done for the child's best interest.

And while Ashley had more than one caseworker, Mary Walker said, she did have the same supervisor, "who was very well-acquainted with and knowledgeable about this child's case."

The transcript of an early court hearing and the emergency removal order sheds some light on what happened in the Lozano case.

In testimony given Nov. 29, 2004, Montgomery and another caseworker, identified as Amanda Hammock, painted Juanita as an angry, out-of-control mother with a pattern of abusing "the oldest child in the home." They said Juanita slapped Ashley and told the girl she was a burden. They described Ashley as depressed, with suicidal thoughts, a passive victim of abuse, as her older sister had been years earlier.

The two younger children, they testified, were Juanita's favorites.

But the caseworkers weren't as familiar with the Lozanos as might be expected. Under questioning, Hammock admitted she'd never seen Ashley's school records and didn't know about her truancy, vandalism or brushes with the law. She admitted she never had met Juanita in person, speaking to her only over the phone.

Montgomery told the court that Juanita had instigated a custody battle with Martinez over Sara, which wasn't the case.

Montgomery had an especially negative impression of Juanita, so much so that the second judge in the case, Andy Mireles, asked at the end of the hearing to make sure another caseworker be assigned to the case.

In the end, caseworkers were unable to substantiate allegations of physical abuse. But they found "reason to believe" Juanita was guilty of emotional abuse and medical neglect — the latter because Juanita had allowed Ashley to stop taking medications prescribed to her at Nix until she could get a second opinion; she had an appointment for the second opinion, but that detail wasn't included in the removal report.

As for Juanita's other two children, Montgomery justified their removal by writing, "Ms. Juanita shows a history of abusing her oldest child, and someday Joshua and Sara will be the oldest children."

The history to which Montgomery referred dated back to Juanita's oldest daughter, Jennifer. When she was 16, the girl left Juanita's home to live with an aunt because she, too, was clashing with her mother. Her aunt said she eventually asked Jennifer to leave because, as had been the case when the girl was living under Juanita's roof, she wasn't abiding by the rules of the house.

That detail also failed to make it into the removal report.

In an interview for this article, Jennifer said of Juanita: "She was a strict mother. And I done a lot of bad things. Before, I thought it was too much."

But Jennifer's feelings weren't so nuanced when a caseworker came calling in 2004. Then, she told caseworkers that her mother was mean to Ashley and overly strict, as she had been with her years earlier. And even though Montgomery got Jennifer's name wrong in the removal report, her comments were used to justify the removal of her siblings from their mother's house.

Revolving doors

Ashley was first removed from her mother's home after her stay at Nix. That was when Hammock received the case. She told Juanita, over the phone, that she would have to remove all three of her children if Ashley could not be placed with a relative.

Juanita's aunt agreed to take the girl but soon asked Juanita to take her back, saying she could not control Ashley.

Over the next several weeks, Juanita called Hammock repeatedly to discuss getting counseling. Finally, she says she went to see CPS supervisor Richard Brooks to complain that Hammock wasn't answering her phone calls.

Brooks responded by assigning yet another worker to the case.

By then Juanita had sent Ashley to the Boy's and Girl's Club for after-school supervision, but she was kicked out for bad behavior, including leaving the premises and lying, according to a letter from the director Juanita made available to the Express-News.

Ashley arrived at her alternative school one day, teary-eyed and with what looked like burn marks on her neck, according to the removal report. A school counselor phoned CPS.

Because the caseworker Brooks had assigned to the case was gone on maternity leave, Montgomery responded to the call. She thought the marks on Ashley's neck looked like hickeys, according to the court transcript.

Ashley told Montgomery she had scrubbed her own neck until it bled because she was afraid to go home. She didn't mention that she had a court hearing for vandalism scheduled the next day.

Moved by the girl's fear, Montgomery reviewed the family's CPS file and decided to place Ashley with Juanita's sister, Terry.

Montgomery, too, warned Juanita that she would have no choice but to remove all three children if the placement with her relative didn't work out.

Within days, based on an allegation of unsafe conditions at that home, Judge Richard Garcia granted Montgomery's request for the emergency removal of all three children. She drove them to a shelter in Luling— the closest place that could take all three — until a permanent placement could be found.

Then, because of several delays before the hearing to determine if the removal was appropriate, the children languished in the Luling shelter for six weeks.

Based on information provided by Hammock and Montgomery, Mireles decided to send all three children to live in Lubbock with Martinez, Sara's father. He had offered to take in not only his daughter but also Ashley and Joshua, to whom he is not related, so that the children could remain together — something caseworkers and attorneys always prefer.

Ashley lasted almost five months in the Martinez household.

"I enjoyed matching wits with her, making her think," Martinez said recently. "But when she flipped her switch, that was it. She just kept getting more and more defiant."

Ashley disrupted the house, defied Martinez's wife and tried to overdose on sleeping pills. After several months of struggle, he asked CPS to remove the girl.

Medication rotation

As each subsequent placement for Ashley failed — she ran away from one group home, tried to overdose at another and fought with other children — a new caseworker would drive her to a new place, where a new doctor would re-evaluate her, often changing the type and dosages of her medications. Never was one person in charge of her care.

Each new doctor prescribed a new mix of medications: In Luling there was Ambien, a sleep aid; trazodone, an antidepressant; Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication; and Zoloft, also an antidepressant.

During a brief stay at the state hospital in Amarillo, she was prescribed 150 mg of Trileptal, an anti-seizure medication also prescribed for bipolar disorder, twice a day; 10 mg of Lexapro, an anti-anxiety and depression medication; and trazodone, a caseworker said during a routine hearing.

A doctor in Victoria told Juanita that Ashley had been taking a daily dose of 900 mg of Seroquel — a medication prescribed for "acute bipolar mania," according to the drug's Web site — and he lowered the dose to 100 mg, because, he said, 900 mg was dangerously high.

The merry-go-round of medications infuriated and frightened Juanita, but there was little she could do.

As she received one phone call after another from each new caseworker, informing her that Ashley had been moved yet again, she dutifully attended anger management classes, as ordered. They provided so much relief she began looking forward to her Wednesday evening sessions, she said.

Also as ordered, Juanita took homemaking and parenting classes. She saw a therapist every week. And she continued working as an office assistant at the San Antonio Fire Department's Emergency Management Services, a job she had held for about a year when the children were taken away.

Her compliance with the court-ordered classes and her continued work for the Fire Department were praised during regular court hearings.

Caseworkers also noted she had begun to take more responsibility for her own behavior. But her brash and grating style continued to work against her.

Juanita complained to each new caseworker that she always was the last to know where Ashley was, how she was doing and why she was on so many medications.

She complained as her daughter's weight and cholesterol ballooned, as she fell further behind in school. She complained that Martinez was not making a good-faith effort to make Sara and Joshua available by phone at the appointed times.

In the midst of her efforts, Martinez decided to sue for full custody of Sara, believing it would be in the little girl's best interest to stay in Lubbock.

Juanita was devastated. To help pay mounting legal bills, she took a second job at Taco Cabana.

At a judge's urging, the dispute went to mediation, and attorneys attempted to broker a deal that would bring Joshua and Ashley home while Sara stayed with Martinez until the custody battle could be resolved.

Juanita agreed, but couldn't sleep that night. The next morning, she told her attorney she didn't want to take the deal; she wanted to go to trial.

Juanita feared that if she left Sara, she would never get her back. After all, she thought, whom would a judge believe? Martinez, an attorney, or a woman whose children had been removed by CPS?

As 2005 wound to a close, CPS began making preparations for Ashley to return home. She had finally stayed in one place for several months.

But Joshua's fate, like Sara's, was in limbo. Though he was not part of the custody case Martinez initiated to keep Sara, CPS wasn't ready to release him back to his mother.

Therapy records Juanita shared with the Express-News show Josh himself was reluctant to return home, worried that nothing between his mother and Ashley would have changed.

But after a weekend visit and several therapy sessions with his mother on a speakerphone, he said he would like to go back to San Antonio.

Brief homecoming

Ashley arrived home last March. She was 15, having spent two birthdays in CPS custody.

At first, she and her mother saw the counselor Juanita had been visiting almost weekly, and Ashley tried hard at school.

Just weeks later, the trial over Sara's fate was averted when Juanita and Martinez agreed to joint custody of Sara. Sara and Joshua finished out the school year in Lubbock and returned to San Antonio in May.

By then, Ashley and her mother began to clash once again. When it was time for Sara to go back to Lubbock to begin her half-year with Martinez, Juanita was relieved to get her away from all the disruptions.

When Ashley ran away, Juanita, while still in phone contact with her daughter, went to CPS looking for help, terrified that Ashley's behavior would jeopardize her family again.

A supervisor suggested she find a relative who would take Ashley, saying the agency couldn't help her anymore because her case was closed and CPS doesn't open cases on runaways.

Juanita swallowed her pride and called her sister Terry, who agreed to take Ashley but kicked her out three weeks later.

Ashley went to another aunt's house but left after a short time. And now her mother doesn't know where she is.

Juanita is deflated when she talks about her children. She feels she has lost Ashley, and may lose Sara to her father in Lubbock after all. Joshua hangs in the balance.

Having moved into adolescence, he too is testing Juanita's boundaries. He still is a good student. But sometimes he cusses at his mother during arguments.

Juanita continues working for the Fire Department and has realized her dream of home ownership. With the help of San Antonio Alternative Housing, she put a down payment on a small house to be built near the Toyota plant within months.

The last she heard of Ashley, several weeks ago, the girl had called her sister Jennifer and left an angry message. Ashley accused Jennifer of "taking mom's side." Jennifer told her mother her little sister's voice sounded slurred.

Juanita called CPS once again. And, once again, she was told there was just nothing the agency could do.

Juanita recalls the conversation.

"The supervisor told me, you know, Mrs. Lozano — you can't help someone that doesn't want to be helped."

Source: San Antonio Express-News