Janice Brown still remembers what it felt like to hear the phone call that would change her life.
She was told her daughter Latoya and granddaughter Rimanee were in a car accident. She fell to her knees and screamed, feeling the hot panic course through her veins. She found out later her other granddaughter Aailayah was also killed. The rest of the night passed in a haze of crushed metal, hospital rooms and broken bodies. Almost a year has gone by since that terrible night in June.
“It just seems like it was yesterday. It is something a parent could never forget,” Brown said.
She received support from the Feltonville community who banded together to support the bereaved. A memorial was erected on Third Street near Annsbury Street, the site of the accident. A local artist painted a mural with the girls’ names on the wall of the accident.
“The community has been more supportive than anybody,” Brown said.
Brown felt the pain with her every day, but knew that she had to be strong for the children in her care.
If this pain was not enough, Brown’s tragedy continued. On Dec. 9, 2009, Brown’s grandchildren were taken out of her custody. She had raised Zyeem Hill, Envy Smith and Kyshone Smith for the past three and one-half years, but they were taken away with just an hour’s notice.
The Department of Human Services’ reasoning for this seizure was some reports from 17 years ago when Brown was raising her children. The reports sited a leaking roof, a cracked window, no hot water for a short time and children begging for food, which was actually just the kids taking the free lunches and snacks offered to the community. Brown felt betrayed by the city that had shown her so much support during her crisis.
“Just to have the city support you in one thing and then rip your grandchildren out of your life and arms,” Brown said. “It hurts and you don’t know who to trust no more.”
While the three children were in her care, Brown had received good report after good report. The only negative reports were for truancy, which Brown provided verified reasons to excuse the absences. There was no court order explaining why the children were taken.
“We still don’t know what led them to take my grandchildren away,” Brown said.
Since her grandchildren were taken Brown has faced a whirlwind of judges, caseworkers, lawyers and paperwork.
“There are so many judges on the cases and caseworkers. It’s so confusing,” Brown said.
Different judges keep popping up to review the case and they do not know the full story. Brown contacted countless child advocate lawyers, but all claim it is a conflict of interest. She went to a private lawyer who charged her $600 for two hours. She used up all her savings and is now back to doing it on her own.
With little help and information, Brown stays up all night researching DHS policies to determine what was done right and what was wrong. She goes through pages of information looking for a reason or explanation. She sometimes calls her fiancé Maurice West at 3 a.m. to let him know what she found out.
“All that’s going on, she needs someone to talk to,” West said. “I’m that listening ear.”
Brown keeps trying all avenues to get her children back. She spoke to Philadelphia Daily News and Fox29 to make pleas to Mayor Nutter to help her. At her daughter and two grandchildren’s funeral, he had promised to help her if she ever needed anything.
“I made a plea to the mayor. The time I really needed him I got no response,” Brown said. “I needed him to help me get my grandchildren back.”
After the article in The Daily News appeared, Brown did receive some hope. After seeing the article, DHS moved to have reunification between Brown and her grandson Kyshone. Brown can now have visitations with 4-year-old Kyshone and will be reunited with him at the latest in July.
Despite this good news, Brown is faced with the troubling news that Envy and Zyeem have been put on the fast track for adoption.
“How can I get back one and not the other two?” Brown asked.
Envy and Zyeem were put in separate cases from Kyshone. Brown managed to stop the process of adoption for Kyshone, but Envy and Zyeem were put up earlier. Brown sent a letter last week asking if the cases would be put together to avoid all this confusion.
“If they are from the same house, they should be the same case,” West said.
What worries Brown the most is how Envy and Zyeem are doing away from her. She has not seen them since they were taken from her in December. She wonders if the foster parents kiss them good night or tell kids that they love them. She dreams of the day that she can hold them in her arms again.
“They don’t realize what they’re doing to these children. They need their family” Brown said. “They need to be loved. They need to be brought back home where they belong.”
Brown fights the pain she feels by making sure she always keeps busy. Recently she started making brightly colored, pipe cleaner bracelets and rings for a fundraiser. She hopes to make enough money from selling the bracelets to buy a tombstone for her daughter and two grandchildren. She also wants another mural to be painted at the scene at the accident. When she twists the pipe cleaners into rings, the tension eases a little from her face.
“This is my therapy or I open up my bible,” Brown said while making her crafts.
Brown also relies on her faith to get her through this tragic period. Every day she reads her Bible or listens to recorded scripture.
“God gives her strength and she doesn’t fall to weakness,” West said. “I just see her getting stronger.”
Brown plans to keep fighting to regain her grandchildren. Even afterwards she wants to protest the laws that put her in this situation. She wants the families out there going through the same situation to know they are not alone.
“Let’s get together and fight. If you know you did nothing wrong you got to fight,” Brown said.
[soundslide url=”https://smcsites.com/soundslides/uploads/sp1022feltonvillesoundslidesjanicebrown/” height=550 width=600]
Wellness Center Provides Peace in Troubled Neighborhood
Patient files grow and waiting rooms fill as Feltonville residents discover the Multicultural Wellness Center on Wyoming Avenue.
The center provides therapy for adults, children, parents, couples and families. It is the only psychological center in the area where residents can seek help.
“The center is a place where people can relax and know that whatever their problem is, we can help them make it through,” said Pamela Wells, a cognitive therapist at the center.
The staff at the center helps with a variety of problems such as anger management, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, hyper-activity in children and eating disorders. Many patients have experienced physical, mental and sexual abuse. Others have witnessed multiple deaths and financial problems.
According to the World Health Organization, although mental disorders occur in all economic classes, they are most common in communities with low socio-economic status. Feltonville falls easily into this group since 36 percent of its residents fall below the poverty line with the reported average income in 2008 listed as $27,452.
Referrals from Community Behavioral Health, the local schools and walk-ins build up the client list of the center. Since their opening last year, they have received a steady flow of clients.
“When I first started here we had 200 clients and now we have about 600,” Wells said.
Although the center provides a number of services, most of the clinicians specialize in family therapy.
“When you don’t have a good support in the house you grow many problems,” said Jose Bautista, the clinical supervisor.
Bautista stated that many of the problems in the Feltonville community arise from dysfunctional families.
“When you deal with the family situation, you get to the core of a lot of problems,” Wells said.
The family members typically attend the same therapy sessions to work out problems, but individual therapy with the parents and children is also common.
Children are often referred from the schools for hyper-activity, aggressive behavior and anger. The children participate in the center’s dance, music and art therapies. Bautista said that the music therapy helps to work out the excess energy while also increasing concentration and focus.
“We are open to helping everyone, especially the kids,” Bautista said.
The center also participates with the Civil Air Patrol cadet program that tries to keep kids off the street and off drugs. Recruiters come and give talks to prospective adolescents who might be interested in joining the program. The program participants are taught how to fly and participate in rescue missions.
Like the kids, many of the adult patients suffer from anger issues and must attend group anger management meetings. The clinicians teach relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, positive thinking skills, problem-solving and stress management.
During the warm months the groups are filled with people who are told to attend the sessions.
Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology, reported that people in low income communities have a much high propensity toward anger and aggression. This anger can be linked the high amount of crime in the Feltonville community.
Bautista stated that about 80 percent of the clients suffer from anger issues and attend anger management therapy sessions.
“When a person has anger, they are more likely to suffer a heart attack or panic attack,” Bautista said. “We try to lengthen the life.”
Wells typically sees improvement in her patients after a month of therapy. Many people become more open with talking about their problems, maintaining eye contact and practicing the various stress reduction techniques.
“Hopefully, they will find that the things we do will benefit them in long run and not just now,” Wells said.