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Sallie Cleveland thought her days of raising children were long over. Cleveland and her husband, Jimmy, had raised eight of their own, seven of whom grew up to be relatively successful in and around Sanford.
The exception was the couple's second-to-youngest child. Their daughter had developed an addiction to crack cocaine so bad she spent most of her time trolling the streets, looking to get high, rather than staying at home with her twin daughters, Kenya and Kiya. So the twins stayed with Jimmy and Sallie Cleveland. He worked days, she worked nights. "We had a two-bedroom house and didn't plan on any more children," Sallie Cleveland says. "It was big enough for one family."
In February, 1994, another of Sallie Cleveland's granddaughters was born with cocaine in her system. The Seminole County juvenile court system got involved, and after a study found the Cleveland home to be a suitable for the three young children, all were placed in the temporary custody of Sallie and Jimmy Cleveland.
In August 1997, Seminole County Judge Nancy Alley permanently placed the children with the Clevelands and closed the case, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. (Alley declined to speak with Orlando Weekly about Sallie Cleveland's case.) Closing the case meant the court system would have to undergo the tedious process of re-serving court documents if one of the parents decided they wanted custody of the three girls.
Meanwhile, the Clevelands struggled to provide for them: they had little money for clothes and food, much less for cable television, dining out or other luxuries. The situation worsened when Sallie underwent heart surgery in 1996, and got really bleak after Jimmy died in 2000.
Today Sallie Cleveland, 69, raises her grandchildren alone in her two-bedroom house on the east side of Sanford. She is one of approximately 147,000 grandparents in Florida providing for some 258,000 children. Her porch roof, bathtub and doors have holes in them. Several of her windows are cracked, her air conditioner went out last summer, the utility company disconnected her power three times and she's six months behind on her life-insurance payments. She has no phone.
Each month, she gets $303 from the state to care for three children, a sum that the federal government itself says isn't enough to raise one child. (According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, it costs about $7,000 per year, or $583 a month, to provide for one child.)
Cleveland has asked the Florida Department of Children and Families for help nine times between January 1999 and May 2002. She got food stamps and other small benefits, but no more money to relieve the family's chronic poverty.
What Cleveland didn't know, until a friend told her early last year, is that the state has a program called Relative Caregiver specifically set up for aunts, uncles and grandparents. The program was enacted in 1999 because legislators recognized it's important to keep families together if possible, and it's also cheaper than making kids wards of the state.
To qualify for the program, the relative caregiver cannot be a felon or have a felon living in the house. Recipients also must undergo a study to determine whether they are willing to raise children, and their home has to be deemed safe and stable. Lastly, a court has to officially place children with the relative to qualify.
Cleveland met the requirements. But each time she tried to inquire about Relative Caregiver, she was rebuffed by DCF caseworkers -- and eventually, their supervisors.
She went to an attorney, who appealed her case to a hearing officer, exposing the DCF for the incompetence that has made it infamous. Many people already know the DCF as the agency that claimed to be supervising 5-year-old Rilya Wilson in a South Florida foster home. For 15 months a caseworker filed reports saying Rilya was thriving in foster care when in fact the caseworker hadn't checked on the little girl, who turned out to be missing.
That was in 2002. But not much has changed at the agency, even though the Wilson scandal sparked national outrage and a change in the DCF leadership, with Jerry Regier taking over the secretary's position last year. Though Regier has been given credit for decreasing the number of the state's missing foster children from 500 to 400 and expediting abuse investigations, DCF continues to prove itself a troubled institution.
Last month, DCF officials found that 35 confidential child-abuse and neglect files had been removed from a Pensacola office. The files turned up in a shed behind the house of caseworker Allison Harris, sparking a criminal investigation. In September, the Statewide Advocacy Council, a watchdog group created by the Legislature, claimed DCF abruptly stopped sharing records for the first time in 28 years because the Council had released a report saying nearly a quarter of the state's foster children have been prescribed mind-altering drugs without being medically evaluated. Recently, a Jacksonville attorney sued the DCF for failing to move more than 100 Duval County foster children through the adoption process quickly enough; most adoptions occur within six months, but Duval County cases were taking longer than two years.
The DCF is aware of its problems. A DCF report circulating last month calling the agency "unmanageable and inefficient" suggested the DCF fire about 500 middle-level managers, even as the agency moves to hire 375 caseworkers.
The joke's on her
It should surprise no one that the DCF mishandled Cleveland's case.
The fact that Judge Alley terminated jurisdiction of the Cleveland case seemed to confuse DCF workers. Terminating a custody case is unusual, and in this instance most likely a mistake. The year after Judge Alley's 1997 ruling, state lawmakers changed parental-rights law so that juvenile dependency cases must remain open until the child turns 18.
"Even the legislature recognized this wasn't a good provision of law," says Deborah Schroth, a Florida Legal Services attorney familiar with the Cleveland case. "The status of dependency doesn't just go away because the case was closed. That's just insane."
Terminating jurisdiction did not end the care the girls needed. Cleveland still had to feed them, take them to school and nurse them to health when sick. But Alley's ruling confounded the DCF. Caseworkers went searching for answers in the summer of 2002. They got no response until Oct. 23, 2002, when Karen Hubbell, the DCF program operations administrator for the region, wrote in a memo that the three girls "were placed with Ms. Cleveland years ago and jurisdiction was closed, thus ending dependency for the children and rendering them ineligible" for the Relative Caregiver program.
Hubbell's memo had a chilling effect on other DCF administrators. Paperwork Cleveland had completed to apply for the Relative Caregiver program got permanently bogged down. Without it, she couldn't get any money. "They're [the DCF] saying the client doesn't qualify for benefits because they never bothered to finish the paperwork," Schroth says. "They're saying, 'We didn't do what we were supposed to, but you have no right to complain.'"
Last February a DCF hearing officer, longtime DCF employee Judy Alper, heard the Cleveland case and sided with her employers. Cleveland's attorneys appealed to the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, which will likely hear arguments next spring.
"There's not very many people out there like Sallie Cleveland," Schroth says. "There's no reason to deny her benefits other than to prove a point."
The point DCF is proving is that the agency is mismanaged; it's the kind of bureaucracy where logic is turned on its head and cruelty is deemed kindness. DCF managers made it very clear they don't even like to tell people like Cleveland that the Relative Caregiver program exists. During the testimony before Alper, Marsha Norton, who monitors and trains caseworkers about special programs like Relative Caregiver, said it was inappropriate for caseworkers to mention the program to families who might actually need the money. Why? "Because, for example, I have two grandchildren living with me," Norton responded in her answer. "And I could get for them $241. OK? I couldn't get the caregiver relative because I don't have a court order. So why would you tell someone, 'Ha, ha, ha. This exists but you can't have it.'"
In other words, it would be better for people not to know a program exists than to find out they are ineligible for it.
DCF proved to be so good at not telling people about the Relative Caregiver program that they were sued so people seeking aid would find out what's available. That lawsuit, the terms of which went into effect in summer 2002, opened the way for DCF caseworkers to finally allow Cleveland to at least apply for the money she needs to support her grandkids.
"I think this is a cultural problem," says Cleveland attorney Treena Kaye. "This is a lot bigger than Sallie Cleveland."