In The News State wards time runs out; Options limited for older kids

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1 In The News State wards time runs out; Options limited for older kids November 16, 2003 Sunday Chicago Tribune INFO: This story is a composite of versions published in the various editions. BYLINE: By Ofelia Casillas, Tribune staff reporter. Growing up in the child welfare system, Berline Stokes and Talisa Davenport had each lived in more than 20 homes before the state ran out of options for them. By then, both young women had their emotional problems documented in thick files many of which stressed their need for structure and support. But the state moved them into separate independent living apartments in a South Side building, giving them freedom to begin living as adults. There, things spun apart violently, and Stokes now stands charged with killing Davenport, stabbing her in the back, chest and face. The collision of these two lives shines light on the loosely defined and sometimes poorly executed programs the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services uses to usher some state wards into adulthood. The girls were not chosen for independent living because of their maturity or life skills, but because they were aging out of the system and had exhausted all other options, according to documents that chronicle their lives in state care. I don t think there is a consistent criterion for placing kids in independent living and transitional living programs, said DCFS director Bryan Samuels, who spoke in an interview about the programs but not about this case in particular. Definitions have been very loose. The range of kids that go there are very loose. Nobody said here is the right outcome, the right set of services and the right population. It is clear to me that the success of DCFS in the future will be defined by how well we serve older wards. DCFS contracts with private agencies to care for the roughly 1,000 youths in independent 1 / 6

2 living. Most are between 18 and 20 years old and as young as 16, according to state statistics. Today, youths 13 and older make up about half the 20,000 wards in the state. Tom Finnegan, executive director of the agency that operated the apartments where the girls lived, would not comment on the case. But he did say that independent living could be improved and that part of the problem is that youths enter the program not because of need, but because of age. The way the programs have evolved is not necessarily reflective of the individual needs of kids, Finnegan said. Life of abuse, aggression The abuse that Stokes suffered could not have started earlier. Shortly after Berline was born on April 3, 1984, her mother made threatening remarks to the baby, which was overheard by hospital staff members, according to DCFS documents. Stokes mother who had a history of mental problems and drug addiction before she died of AIDS in gave the infant up to the state. The girl was soon placed in a foster home, where she lived for seven years and where her foster mother planned to adopt her. But the foster mother died before the adoption was complete. Subsequent foster homes failed due to abuse or her aggressive behavior. Soon, Stokes moved to a residential home. Later, her photograph appeared on a television news program seeking homes for foster children. A woman who saw Stokes on television brought the girl into her home. There, Stokes suffered physical abuse, according to state documents. Later, she told others that she became aggressive because of the things she learned in that home, according to the documents. After more foster homes and psychiatric hospitalizations, Stokes landed in 1998 at Allendale Association, a child welfare agency in Lake Villa where she accrued dozens of major behavioral incident reports for physical aggression toward staff members and peers. One person evaluating Stokes said she needed a stable environment... if she is going to feel safe enough to grow and develop. After two psychiatric hospitalizations, Stokes was placed in a residential facility called The Youth Campus in Park Ridge in While there she was 2 / 6

3 hospitalized and served time in juvenile detention. Stokes allegedly attacked staff members and peers at the campus, according to county documents. A Youth Campus report determined that Stokes needed a highly structured environment one more structured than the residential program she was in. Out of hope She began to say that things were hopeless. Workers became increasingly fearful that she would act out and were calling the police on her more and more. Shortly after that, Stokes was placed in an independent living apartment operated by an agency called Kaleidoscope. She was to enroll in school and receive supervision in her day-to-day life. In her apartment at 8149 S. Drexel Ave., she tended to become overwhelmed. She argued with another girl in her building, according to state documents. Berline has begun to exhibit inattentive behaviors, characterized by inability to finish a sentence or thought, to stare off into space, a Kaleidoscope caseworker noted on Jan. 14, She loved to be held Talisa Davenport was born in Harvey, three years before Stokes. Vivian Johnson, 72, remembered the first time she held her granddaughter Talisa. She loved to be held, said Johnson, sitting in an electric wheelchair in her Markham home. Johnson said she called DCFS in 1986 when her daughter, Davenport s mother, was hospitalized after a severe beating from her boyfriend. At that time, she was on drugs, my daughter was, Johnson said. Davenport told her first foster parent: My Momma taught me sex and how to roll a marijuana cigarette, according to state records. After a year, the foster parents asked that Davenport be moved. She has had too many 3 / 6

4 disruptions and too many people willing to give up on her already, a worker wrote. Talisa has seen this and is almost ready to give up on herself. Davenport started her journey through residential and foster care acting out aggressively. According to incident reports, she pulled a knife on one foster mother. In a rampage, she broke furniture, dishes and a window in another home. And a foster father allegedly had sex with her. Johnson, who had visits with her granddaughter, fondly remembered the girl who liked to eat spaghetti with her grandmother s special meatballs, fried chicken, greens and cornbread. In 1995, Davenport visited her mother at the hospital on the day before the woman died from kidney failure and a heart attack. Davenport attended the funeral and cried, her grandmother said. As an adolescent, Davenport spent time in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile detention, according to county documents. After living in 24 foster homes and residential facilities, Davenport moved to the independent living apartment run by Kaleidoscope. An attorney for the Cook County public guardian s office interviewed Davenport at the apartment on Jan. 23, She said her apartment didn t have heat at night, paint fell from the ceiling as she slept and windows shook in the wind. But Davenport was working toward her GED, about to begin a 12-week program to become a certified nursing assistant. Davenport said she was moved into the same building as a girl who had had a fight with her, and the girl would beat on her back door and run. Client is afraid to live in the apartment, the attorney wrote. Witness to violence In January, Stokes allegedly beat up a runaway she had been harboring in her apartment and Davenport was a witness. Stokes was arrested, and when the case was heard in court on Feb. 28, the runaway didn t show up, but Davenport did, to testify against Stokes. When Stokes was released that day, she allegedly used a box cutter to cut the throat of a male friend, who required 19 stitches, according to a Cook County document. The arresting officer in that incident stated that when he arrested Stokes, She related that she was going to get a key and get Talisa, according to a police report. On March 1, Stokes was released without being asked to post bail. According to police reports, she went to the Kaleidoscope headquarters at 1279 N. Milwaukee Ave. and asked for the keys to Davenport s apartment as if it were hers. A Kaleidoscope worker gave Stokes the keys, according to police reports. 4 / 6

5 Kaleidoscope workers warned Davenport, who stated that if she had any problems she would call the police, the reports said. Caseworkers checking on Davenport the next day discovered the gas burners on, her cell phone chirping and her body face down. According to police reports, there were no signs of forced entry. The red coat and gray hooded sweatshirt Stokes wore in an arrest photo were found under Davenport. Stokes bond slip from court was also found in the apartment. Arresting Chicago police officers alleged in reports that Stokes confessed in the ride to the police station to going into Davenport s apartment and killing her. I stabbed her; I stabbed her sitting down, I stabbed her standing up. I stabbed her a bunch of times, Stokes allegedly told police. Thursday, Stokes, who has pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder charge and an attempted murder charge against her male friend, appeared in front of Judge Dennis A. Dernbach for a status hearing. A court date was set for Jan. 28 to hear DNA test results. Stokes wore her short hair pulled back in a little ponytail. She rested her hands on her lower back, looked at the court reporter s computer screen and tapped her right foot. In July 2002, Stokes was diagnosed with psychotic disorder and traits of schizophrenia and personality disorder, according to court records. Stokes lawyer, Herschella Conyers, said the state does not do enough for youths like Stokes. There s a limbo for kids between 17 and 21 in age, she said. Most of us feel like, Whew, it s over, and we hope they disappear. Davenport s grandmother, who along with her family has filed wrongful death lawsuits against the state, Kaleidoscope and the girls apartment building owners, blamed DCFS. The grandmother then pulled out a furry cat ornament, a gift from her granddaughter. Johnson is not the only one who blames the state. Lady Stokes, Berline s great aunt, said DCFS is responsible for what happened to Berline Stokes. She was in no shape to be in independent living, said Stokes, 73, who is raising Berline s three sisters. Lady Stokes described Berline as a fighter, hyperactive, stubborn and 5 / 6

6 defensive. Berline Stokes has told her great-aunt that she did not kill Davenport, Lady Stokes said. Even in jail, Berline Stokes gets angry, because I won t accept all her collect calls, the woman said. Sisters Lady, 14, and Paula Perry, 12, recalled Berline. Lady remembered Berline as the best friend who bought her a Harry Potter book. To me she don t act the way she acts around people, the girl said. The elder Lady Stokes said she just wants a verdict. Guilt or innocence, she said, is what I d like to know. New home, job, plans At the top of the pink staircase, Sherelle Jackson lives in Berline s old apartment. Jackson doesn t know anything about a murder. She doesn t even lock her gate. The 20-year-old has been in the child welfare system for 14 years. And after living in foster homes and residential facilities, she has made a home of her own with a job at a card shop and plans to get her GED. She dreams of becoming a nurse. Kaleidoscope is giving her the support she needs to become an adult, she said. It s a chance. << back to news 6 / 6

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