I met Merlene Robinson-Parsons just after she had been evicted. The judge had approved the order of possession for her apartment, but she was still fighting.
The management company for her subsidized apartment in Rogers Park evicted her because she hadn't paid her rent. It'd gotten too expensive after her husband moved out. According to the rules, Robinson-Parsons should have been offered a rent adjustment when her husband left, but she wasn't. Even after she scraped together money with the help of family and friends, her manager wouldn’t take her back rent. Instead the manager told her to get out.
Her story was an eviction story. But a closer look revealed a child welfare story. If Robinson-Parsons lost her apartment, she'd also lose custody of her grandniece, Lamariana. And while that would be hard for Robinson-Parsons, I'm sure it'd be twice as hard for the little girl. Four-year-old Lamariana had already been through a lot.
When Lamariana's baby sister was 7 months old, she was hospitalized for "failure to thrive," which is a medical condition where a baby isn't gaining weight or developing normally. While failure to thrive can be brought on by an underlying medical condition, most often it's the result of intense neglect. Both children were taken out of their home and put in Robinson-Parsons’ care. But when the baby started to improve and gain a few pounds, the state returned the girls to their mom.
A few months later, the baby girl was dead. She had drowned in the bathtub, right in front of Lamariana. So, this poor little girl had probably been neglected, watched her sister die and now risked being taken from Robinson-Parsons--the only home where she had known love and care. If Robinson-Parsons lost her apartment, Lamariana would become a ward of the state and go to a foster home.
The system failed Robinson-Parsons when it tried to evict her unnecessarily. The system failed Lamariana and her sister when it put them back in a home where they were neglected. And now the system was about to fail Lamariana again by taking her away from Robinson-Parsons. All because the apartment manager wouldn't give a tenant what she was due and housing officials seemed reluctant to intervene.
Robinson-Parsons’ story came to mind when my colleague Maria Ines Zamudio told me about her investigation for this month's centerpiece for The Chicago Reporter entitled Dying for Attention. Her’s was a story about child welfare. Mine was about eviction. But really, mine was an instance where more than one system failed this family and that more than one system is broken.
We see this over and over as reporters. The same families who are dealing with one problem are also facing a host of others. We also hear the statistics about poor families:
- One in six Americans are on food stamps
- One-third of adults in our region have poor literacy skills
- Another third can't really afford the apartment they live in
- One in five Chicagoans aren't sure of their next meal
- Only half of public school students graduate from high school.
It's not that one quarter of the city is dealing with housing problems and another quarter is dealing with education problems. It's the same families, the same communities with so much stacked against them that it sometimes seems impossible to overcome.
The trouble is, no one seems to give a damn. Lamariana’s little sister didn’t have to die. Officials from the Department of Children and Family Services say they're doing as well as anyone else when it comes to preventing child homicide, but we see other states doing better. It doesn’t seem like there’s genuine political will to improve these systems because the people who the institutions affect often don't matter to politicians.
Robinson-Parsons shouldn't have been evicted. She should have been offered a rent adjustment. Those are the rules. But poor administration of those rules meant she was evicted, which meant another series of court battles for a poor old woman who's raising one child and grieving over the loss of another.
Thankfully, neighborhood activists stepped up to the plate and let Robinson-Parsons' story be known. From that exposure, Robinson-Parsons was allowed to stay in her apartment and keep custody of her niece. But there are thousands of other families trying to navigate these broken systems every day--systems that are designed to help them, and yet often fall short.
My co-worker Angela Caputo often reminds me of the old journalism adage that it's our job to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." Advocates often don't like our stories that criticize agencies designed to help the poor because it might result in less funding or resources. But it's our job to tell the truth, even when it's difficult to hear. And the truth is, these systems are broken. Unless we address it, families like Robinson-Parson's will continue to face not only the list of problems that come with being poor, but they'll have to battle the systems that are supposed to come to their aid.