Credit: Doug Boehm

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Find the Baby

On an early evening last May, 19-year-old Shawntaye Debrew heard a knock on the door at her apartment in Silver Spring. A man in the hallway shouted, “CPS! Open the door!”

Debrew opened the door, and four Montgomery County police officers walked in. They told Debrew they’d come for her baby daughter. Not seeing the child, they demanded to know where to find her.

“I don’t know where Paris is,” Debrew told them. “Paris is somewhere else.”

“How could you not know where your own child is?”

Debrew repeated that the baby was somewhere else. She says the officers started searching the apartment, poking around and opening drawers. After five minutes, they began to leave.

“We’ll be back,” they said, Debrew recalls. “The more you don’t tell us, the more we’ll come back.”

The cops had been sent by Debrew’s lifelong parent, the District of Columbia. The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) had given Maryland police an order from a D.C. Family Court judge to take the baby. Debrew had given Paris to a friend because she’d expected the police to come knocking.

The next night, around 8 p.m., another knock. It was the same cop from before: Lisa Olszewski, a lithe woman with short-cropped blond hair. Even though the cops had promised to return anyway, Debrew had herself to thank for Olszewski’s second visit. Debrew’s next-door neighbor had called the building’s management to complain of loud music. Angry that her neighbor had sicced management on her, Debrew gave the woman an earful.

In a call to a 911, the woman said, “Hi, my neighbor is screaming at me.” The neighbor said she’d had problems before with Debrew, describing her as a teenager in some kind of independent living program. She gave the operator the relevant apartment numbers but said she didn’t want to wait around for police to arrive. She had laundry to do.

In the hallway outside Debrew’s apartment, Olszewski smelled pot smoke. Debrew opened the door and Olszewski entered the apartment accompanied by several other officers. Debrew’s apartment reeked of weed.

“Where’s Paris?” asked Olszewski.

Legacy of Failure

Nobody told Debrew to expect the police at her apartment, but she knows how the D.C. government behaves when it doesn’t trust your parenting. Her babies, Paris and London, are the third consecutive generation of her family to enter the foster system.

Lucy Brown, Debrew’s grandmother, says CFSA took custody of Debrew’s mother after she turned 13. Brown says she raised one of her daughter’s other children, but she never speaks to her daughter and says she’s never met her two great-granddaughters by Debrew. As for Debrew, “she’s been in the system so long I never get to see her,” Brown says. “I feel sorry for Shawntaye because a lot of this is not her fault.”

One of Debrew’s siblings, Keyona, weighed four pounds when she was prematurely born in December 1995. The following February, Keyona was found dead in a roach-infested apartment.

In 2001, the Debrew family was featured in one of a series of Washington Post articles about the deaths of infants from families known to CFSA. According to the Post, “Keyona’s mother told police she awoke to find Keyona sleeping on her chest, her male companion’s leg draped over Keyona’s head.”

“Your momma’s a killer,” Debrew recalls being told by the grown-ups around her at the time. Thinking about it over shrimp scampi at the Red Lobster in Silver Spring, Debrew seems bemused: “Ain’t that crazy?”

Debrew’s mother could not be reached.

A fatality review committee found that CFSA blew it by not following up with Keyona’s mother after she was sent home with her baby from D.C. General Hospital. They blew it because they should have known better, because they’d taken Debrew and her brother five years earlier based on reports that their mother was on drugs.

Eight years later, the agency is in the news under similar headlines. A 5-month-old died sleeping with his mother in July, a six-month-old died in his Northeast home in June, and the decomposing bodies of four young girls were found last January—and in each case CFSA had had prior contact with the family. In addition, two young girls were discovered last September in the freezer of a foster mom CFSA had approved as a fit adoptive parent.

The cases generate big news stories, grandstanding by politicians, and firings of underlings, because the city should have known better than to leave those kids with those people.

The government’s foremost goal when it takes custody of a child is to reunite that child with its biological parents. Failing that, the government’s goal is permanency of some kind; ideally, the city wants to keep the kids with blood relatives or find a stable adoptive home. Shawntaye Debrew, though, has had nothing constant in her life.

One Placement After Another

Debrew stands a little over five feet tall and is full-figured. Medium-length hair frames her smooth complexion. She likes colorful clothes, sometimes the provocative sort—a social worker once chastised her in court for showing too much cleavage. On her arms she’s got tattoos, including a large piece on her shoulder with paris and london in cursive above and below a red rose. Debrew has not been to either city. She says her mother picked her kids’ names.

Debrew does not want to talk about her mother. She doesn’t really care to talk in depth about her crazy childhood, either. It’s hard to tell whether the subject makes her unhappy, or bored, or if it’s just so confusing it’s a pain to summon the details. Try to steer the conversation that way and she may start to play with her T-Mobile Sidekick. Maybe she’d rather listen to some Lil Wayne. She prefers to call the rapper by his nickname, Weezy. She’s a fan.

Debrew turned 20 in August. When she turns 21 next year, she’ll age out of the foster system. Right now, she’s got no job, no high school diploma, no GED. She’s had more than 20 placements in foster homes, group homes, and psychiatric facilities and has never lived in the same place with the same people for more than four years.

“You got to pack up your shit, like, every day,” says Debrew of the foster life. Asked for details about the different places she’s lived and when, she’s unable to put together a coherent timeline. “I been in so many foster homes, I can’t even keep track.”

According to a social worker’s report Debrew provided to Washington City Paper, her mother contacted CFSA in 1990 and said she was unable and unwilling to take care of her 2-year-old twins. The agency had also received calls to its hot line reporting that the kids were being left alone in the home and that the mother was using drugs. CFSA took the kids and placed them in a foster home, where they lived for four years before returning to their mother in 1994.

“It was OK,” says Debrew of the stay with Mom. But the arrangement lasted less than 12 months before Debrew was placed with her maternal aunt and uncle. The brief stay with blood relatives gave way to continuous hot-potato treatment, and worse. From 1997 to 2001 Debrew bounced around between four different foster homes in Maryland (it is not uncommon for D.C. kids to be placed in Maryland foster homes).

When she was 11, she says, her foster father raped her repeatedly and her foster mother beat her with coat hangers. She says she told her social worker, who told police, who then conducted an investigation. But Debrew says the foster parents told investigators she was lying, and that was the end of it. No charges were filed, and she was placed in another home, separating her from her twin brother. A psychological evaluation from July notes that Debrew has been diagnosed as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder due to sexual abuse, and that some of her past disruptive behavior had been attributed to sexual trauma.

After a series of foster homes, group homes, psychiatric hospitalizations, and a brief stint in the Oak Hill kids’ prison—during which she was seven months’ pregnant—Debrew gave birth to London, her first girl, in February 2005. She was 16, one year older than her mother had been when she first started having babies.

Debrew and baby were placed in a home where a foster mom supervised Debrew’s parenting. Before long, supervision became accusation. The foster mother began reporting to CFSA that Debrew was neglectful, which initiated a process that led ultimately to London being placed in a pre-adoptive foster home under care of a registered foster mom who’d once looked after Debrew. Debrew approved of the placement but says she felt “betrayed” by the city for taking London away. The woman declined to comment for this article.

Debrew says she completely lost touch with London’s father and doesn’t know how to reach him. Meanwhile, the pace of placements accelerated like a game of musical chairs: She went through three foster homes in 2005 and two in 2006 before giving birth to her second daughter, Paris, in December 2006.

Court documents identify Paris’ father as Ezekial McDaniel. Reached by telephone over the summer by City Paper, McDaniel said he lives in Oxon Hill and is 22 years old. He met Debrew at a mall in Maryland. He says he’s aware Debrew says he’s the father but he remains somewhat skeptical of his paternity. He’s certainly succeeded in escaping any kind of entanglement with the baby or its mother.

“I just walked away,” he says.

In June 2007, Debrew and Paris moved into a foster home in Northeast.

As a social worker’s report puts it, “the relationship began to sour as Shawntaye was inconsistent with taking her medications and attending school.”

The following September, social workers held a meeting between Debrew and the woman who was then her foster mom at the offices of the Foundation for Home and Community, a nonprofit that provides services for CFSA on a contractual basis and employs the social worker on Debrew’s case. The social worker’s report says “the foster mother said that she would no longer tolerate the name calling and outbursts; she asked that Shawntaye be removed from her home immediately. Shawntaye yelled and cried” before calming down and agreeing to earn her GED as a condition for staying in the home.

Things didn’t work out: “The [GED] program was some bullshit, so I stopped,” Debrew says.

Debrew and Paris wound up in another home in October, where Debrew “cursed-out the foster parents on her first night in the home,” according to the report. Another meeting, another placement, this time in a group house for troubled kids on East Capitol Street SE, near RFK Stadium and across the street from Eastern High School.

In a letter to CFSA dated Oct. 24, 2007—the same day she moved into the group house—Debrew wrote that she authorized a woman she’d met at Children’s Hospital to take temporary custody of Paris. The social worker’s report indicates the woman lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her 3-year-old daughter in Southeast. (She has apparently moved from this apartment and could not be reached.)

Debrew wrote that the arrangement was supposed to last “until I am totally able to reunite my family as one.…Thank you in advance for your assistance and understanding with my intent to improve myself as an individual and better mother to my child.”

Debrew says she had no idea what she was getting herself into either time she got pregnant. “I didn’t understand,” she says. “I wish I’d had a baby at a better time.”

If Debrew’s tumultuous childhood in the foster system has left her unprepared for adult life, she’s hardly a unique case. A June CFSA follow-up survey of young adults who “aged out” of the foster system in 2006 found that “[t]hirty-four percent of the youth had few or none of the necessary supports and resources when they exited care.”

Debrew talks eagerly of getting a job and says she’s been sending her résumé around. In October she interviewed for a front desk job at a nursing home in Maryland but lost out on the gig.

Mother’s Day

Debrew moved in to her Silver Spring apartment in February. Every day for 15 minutes she was paid a visit by a caseworker with Transition Living Services (TLS), an independent-living agency that rents apartments and provides supervision for older foster kids preparing to “emancipate” from foster care. Aside from the visits, Debrew was by herself for the first time in her life.

She says she was as happy in her ninth-floor apartment in the Blair East as she’s been in any of her past living arrangements. She had her own kitchen, her own bathroom, her own TV. And from last fall through the beginning of this year, she spent every other weekend with her younger daughter, often in her new home.

But then came Mother’s Day. Debrew says she called the woman watching Paris several days before May 11, hoping to make plans with her baby. She says the woman no longer wanted to share Paris.

For help, Debrew called Anne Schneiders, her court-appointed legal advocate of six years, a white-haired lawyer she sometimes refers to as “Mom.” Schneiders called the woman to ask what was up. According to a court filing by Schneiders, the woman said she’d changed her mind again and no longer wanted Paris at all. A government court filing says the woman complained to Debrew’s social worker that Debrew’s harassment made it impossible to raise Paris. She said Debrew would call her at work and make “inappropriate remarks” to co-workers, such as “fucking tell her Shawntaye is calling.”

Debrew went with her case manager from TLS to take Paris to Silver Spring on May 7. The baby handoff went off without a problem, but the move was not OK by Debrew’s social worker, who, according to a court document, expressed to Debrew’s TLS case manager her “grave concerns as to the mother’s on-going substance abuse issues and her overall inability to provide appropriate care for the baby,” as well as her concerns that Debrew’s apartment didn’t have a crib.

According to Debrew and a court filing by Schneiders, supervisors at TLS indicated to CFSA that they were willing to transfer Debrew to its teen mother program, which had the appropriate licensing and would provide a bigger space to accommodate the baby. It was against the rules for Debrew to have her baby in the efficiency apartment provided by the independent living program.

CFSA refused to go along with the move, pointing to, among other reasons, Debrew’s erratic behavior and repeated positive drug tests for marijuana earlier that month. (TLS executives declined to comment for this story.)

The court’s disapprovalof her pot-smoking didn’t make much of an impression on Debrew. For a time this summer, she knowingly delivered “dirty urines” to the court on more than one occasion. She says that when she gets stressed, she likes to puff—her relief from the judges, lawyers, and social workers.

“What’s wrong with weed?” she says.

Debrew’s drug use figured prominently in its case when the city filed its neglect petition on May 14, opening a book on Paris Debrew for the first time and scheduling a hearing for the following week. The next day, Debrew gave the baby to Tanya Koonce, 30, the biological daughter of the woman who had once been Debrew’s foster mom (and who is currently raising Debrew’s other daughter). Because Debrew once lived with the woman, she and Koonce consider themselves sisters.

At the subsequent hearing before Magistrate Judge Mary Grace Rook, which Debrew skipped, Schneiders revealed that baby had been given to someone else, but she didn’t know to whom. Alarmed, the government moved to withdraw its neglect petition and replaced it with an emergency pre-petition custody order to speed up the process of taking the baby.

The Trouble With Weed

The pre-petition custody order is what sent Maryland police to Debrew’s apartment in May. Confronted by officer Olszewski for the second night in a row, Debrew repeated her lines from the previous night about the baby being somewhere else.

Olszewski said she smelled marijuana and that she thought Debrew was high, which Debrew denied. Olszewski demanded ID, but Debrew could provide only a photocopy. When Olszewski said it wasn’t good enough, Debrew snatched it back, saying, “Then what do you need it for?”

At this point, according to Debrew, Olszewski said “lock her up, I’m tired of her,” and an officer put Debrew in handcuffs. Olszewski soon found a “burnt cigar wrapper containing a burnt green plant material” on the floor. According to the police report, “Debrew stated that this was her marijuana and that she wanted to stop smoking the drug.”

Reached by phone, Olszewski declined to comment.

Debrew wasn’t smoking alone. Her friend Briscoe, 40, was there, too. Two male officers frisked him immediately. “They thought they were gonna find some drugs on me,” he says. The officers took him into the hallway and asked him if he’d paid Debrew for sex. “They were trying to turn one thing into another,” he says. When he told them he’d known Debrew for two years, he says, the questioning stopped. (Briscoe declined to give his last name. He and Debrew say they’re just friends.)

Olszewski again demanded to know where to find Paris. Debrew says she asked if divulging the baby’s location would keep her out of jail. When Olszewski said it would, Debrew says she owned up.

“That was the most broken-down part,” she says. “I was hurting.”

Olszewski took Debrew’s cell phone and called Koonce. Assured by Koonce that the baby was fine, Olszewski notified CFSA and wrapped up her part of the Paris investigation.

For the pot, Debrew was busted. Olszew-ski explained that she was under arrest for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. Debrew gave her keys to Briscoe before being taken off to jail. Months later, Debrew admitted no guilt in Maryland court. The charges will go away in a year if she completes a drug education program.

The day after her night in jail, police dropped Debrew off in her yellow pajamas on East-West Highway, in front of her building.

Meet Me at the Border

Koonce and her husband were happy to take Paris into their home in Waldorf, Md. Koonce’s kids are in the same age-range as Paris, she says, so they get along well together. As far as Koonce knew, nothing was amiss.

“Shawntaye said she had a lot of stuff going on and she needed someone she trusted to take the baby,” says Koonce.

Koonce had been watching Paris for about a week when she heard from officer Olszewski on Debrew’s mobile. After assuring Olszewski over the phone that Paris was in good hands, Koonce did not expect to hear from authorities again.

“They gave me the impression they were just trying to make sure she was safe,” Koonce says. “I had no idea D.C. was looking for the baby.”

The next day, Koonce got a call from a D.C. CFSA social worker, who said Paris was “a ward of the city and that I would have to turn her over. They said I had no legal custody and that Shawntaye could come at any time and take her.”

Koonce wasn’t so much afraid that Debrew would come to take her own daughter—that would have been OK by Koonce. But the words “no legal custody” made her afraid she might be breaking the law. She says that when CFSA asked her to meet social workers at the Maryland–D.C. border and hand over the baby, she agreed to do so because she didn’t want to lose her job as a dispatcher with the Prince George’s County Police Department.

Two female social workers from CFSA met Koonce the following afternoon in the parking lot at the Penn Branch shopping center, just within city limits at Pennsylvania and Branch Avenues SE. Koonce and her husband brought Paris and some baby stuff, including a stroller and diapers.

There, against the backdrop of a dreary, suburban-style strip mall with commuter traffic rushing by, Koonce went over a few things with the social workers: what Paris had eaten that day, what she’d done the previous week, what was in her bag. Then she put the baby in a social worker’s arms.

Paris was not happy at all when she found herself with a stranger. “She was kicking and hollering and reaching for me,” says Koonce. One of the social workers said, “You might want to walk away.”

“It was the most traumatic thing for me. I felt so bad, like I was really selling her short,” Koonce says. “That was the worst thing I ever had to do.”

Koonce walked back to her car in tears, where she sat with her husband for a few minutes, weeping.

“I can’t believe they made that baby start over like that,” she says. Nobody from CFSA contacted Koonce to let her know what was going to happen with Paris. Debrew did get a call that day, though. “We have Paris and she is fine.”

She didn’t want to hear it: “Why the fuck are you calling me?”

The Trial

The neglect trial for Paris Debrew got moving at the end of summer, after Paris had been in city custody in an undisclosed location for more than four months. Debrew spent two days at Superior Court, mostly in the hallway outside Judge Rook’s courtroom.

Inside the room—a tiny cube with walls adorned by kids’ drawings and posters of wild animals cuddling their young—lawyers, social workers, and guardians ad litem for Debrew’s children talked about Debrew.

On Aug. 29, Debrew got to speak for herself. After testifying, she emerged from the room with a proud smile, bragging to Schneiders that she hadn’t lost her temper, though she said she’d been somewhat flip when telling Judge Rook that she couldn’t recall specific dates. Schneiders offered praise and a high-five.

That Debrew had held her temper was certainly a positive development after an expletive-ridden outburst back in April, for which U.S. Marshals were summoned to the courtroom (and which is counted as evidence of her erratic behavior in the government’s May 26 neglect petition).

Debrew spent some of the next day of trial, on Sept. 2, curled up on the plastic chairs in the hallway, her head in Schneiders’ lap and Schneiders’ sweater over her shoulders. A couple times Debrew peeked into the courtroom to hear people talking about her. She did not like what she heard. Twice, she stormed back into the hallway complaining that witnesses supposedly favorable to her side were being too critical.

During a recess, Debrew’s lawyer, psychologist, and social worker stood in a semi-circle in front of the hallway chairs. Debrew stood up and took an aggressive posture toward them, her face slack in an ice-cold stare.

“Get out my face,” she said, her 5-foot-1 frame inching forward. “Get out my face.”

They tried to soothe her, but Debrew raised her voice and dropped some loud F-bombs. People in the hallway began to stare.

“Shawntaye, you’re ruining your case,” Schneiders said.

“I don’t care!”

“Yes, you do.”

Debrew’s rage faded before the trial ended that day. Outside the courthouse, she had a smoke. She asked this reporter, “Have you ever seen someone fight for their kids like I do?”

Judge Rook excluded Schneiders from the trial. Schneiders has had her say outside of court, however, sending letters about Debrew’s situation to the D.C. Council and to U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, presiding judge of the 1989 case that put CFSA into federal receivership for eight years.

(Schneiders refused to comment for this story. Her letters were provided to Washington City Paper by Debrew.)

In her June 25 letter to Judge Hogan, Schneiders blasted the District:

“[T]his young woman who CFSA has raised since the age of 2 and for whom CFSA is acting ‘in loco parentis’ is preparing for emancipation in 2009 with virtually no foundation for the rest of her life. She has found no stability, let alone permanence. She has had her two children taken from her without any help in learning to care for them and without any verification of neglect. She has not completed her education nor been assisted in securing employment,” Schneiders wrote.

The letter continues, Debrew “is angry; trusts no one in authority and has no emotional ties to anyone except her two children. This is a classic example of how the system fails its long term children, and all the glowing reports of progress reflected numerically, fail to capture the emotional trauma inflicted on these young people.”

Among a list of 11 allegations of government malfeasance, Schneiders wrote that it was wrong for CFSA to disallow Debrew’s retaking custody of her daughter from a temporary placement, wrong to pursue Paris in Maryland before the baby had become a ward of the city, illegal to lure Koonce to the city from Maryland, and illegal to issue a pre-petition custody order without evidence of immediate danger.

As for Debrew’s pot habit, Schneiders says a parent’s drug use doesn’t automatically make a parent neglectful; drug dependence “can only be considered a factor when combined with neglect” and a nexus bet-ween the drug habit and the neglect must be established.

The government also alleged that Debrew has “mental health concerns,” namely bipolar disorder, mood disorder, and ADHD. But Schneiders says the city is relying on a dated evaluation from 2002. In June, she commissioned her own evaluation by a licensed clinical psychologist, David Missar, who wrote in his report that “there do not appear to be any significant mental health impediments to Shawntaye being able to parent London and Paris” so long as reunification is accompanied by intense family therapy and individual therapy for Debrew.

Missar appeared at the trial, but if he testified that Debrew could raise her kids, it wasn’t enough to convince Judge Rook, who found on Sept. 22 that Debrew had neglected Paris. Debrew got the news in a phone call from her lawyer, John Pascale.

“I was mad as shit,” she says.

She called Schneiders in hysterics, sobbing and unable to breathe.

Debrew is allowed to visit her daughters once a week at a CFSA-approved location.

In the fall, Debrew lost the apartment, marking the end of what had been one of her longest stays in the same place. CFSA terminated its contract with Transition Living Services and all the soon-to-be-emancipated kids in the program were transferred to D.C. apartments run by Catholic Charities. By way of explanation, CFSA spokeswoman Mindy Good wrote in an e-mail, “Transitional Living Services lost their lease at the apartment complex where they were providing housing for these youth.”

Debrew’s latest placement is a foster home in Capitol Heights. “I don’t got nobody,” she says. “I wish I had my kids.”