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Poor-but-happy family says government took six kids because of poverty

Published: Monday, July 11 2011 1:32 p.m. MDT

From the outside, it's a storage shed — just 12 feet by 25. But inside the stark corrugated steel walls 35-year-old Chalomane Leonard has made a home for her husband and children. Neatly folded clothes sit on homemade shelves next to canned goods, textbooks and board games. Beaming faces peer out from family photographs.

"It's comfortable," Leonard told the Houston Chronicle, because it is full of love.

Leonard's "poor but happy" life was upended last month when Texas Child Protective Services took her six children into custody. The decision has raised questions about whether the government agency punishes families for living in poverty.

CPS was created in the early 1970s to get battered children out of danger. On a national level, though, substantiated reports of physical and sexual abuse have declined by more than half. Now, nearly three-fourths of maltreatment investigations are based on neglect — with poverty as an underlying issue, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

"Child Protective Services won't be effective until it becomes Child Poverty Services," Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told the Tribune. "That doesn't mean you have to eliminate poverty to eliminate child maltreatment — though whoever does the first will come closer than anyone else to doing the second. You can make enormous strides simply by ameliorating the worst effects of poverty."

Child Protective Services spokesman Gwen Carter said Leonard's children were removed because the shed is an unsafe environment. The agency does not remove children from their parents' custody based on economic circumstances, she told the Houston Chronicle.

"You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment," Carter said. "It's not the place as much as it was the circumstances."

CPS uses removal only as a last resort, Carter said. Caseworkers try to help parents in need find ways to provide safe living conditions for their children.

Leonard said, though, caseworkers made only one three-hour visit to her home and removed the children immediately. The family had outfitted the shed with a wood-burning heater, an air-conditioning unit and a compost toilet. They fetched water from a nearby spigot.

"They didn't ask us if we needed help or anything," Leonard said. "They just said, 'You can stay here, but your children can't.'"

In addition to the Leonard's case, CPS has taken children away from parents for reasons ranging from using an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing to keeping clothes in boxes instead of drawers, said Julie Ketterman, a Houston family law attorney who has been a defense attorney in CPS cases for more than five years.

In these cases, the agency usually cites "unsafe living conditions," Ketterman told the San Antonio Express.

"But to me, they are being picked up because they are poor," she said.

To remove children from their parents' custody, CPS must provide evidence of imminent danger, said Houston Family Law Attorney Chris Branson. The children should not have been taken away simply because they were living in conditions others might not find fit for themselves.

"If it is simply a case in which these people were poor and did not meet the standards of a caseworker, it is just flat wrong," he said.

Columnist Lisa Falkenberg from the Houston Chronicle posed the question: What defines an acceptable home? A crime-ridden apartment complex? A cramped homeless shelter where children may be exposed to mental illness and drug addiction?

"To someone who's never been poor, the realities of poverty may look like abuse," she wrote. "But by such standards, about one in every four Texas children could be removed from their homes."

Leonard and her family have lived in the shed, which is part of a large boat and RV storage facility, for more than four years. It was either live on the streets or make a shed a home, Leonard said.

Although he did not endorse the Leonards living in the shed, Toby Hill, who owns the storage facility, said he felt it was an acceptable living environment for a family that had fallen on hard times.

"Even though it's not the Taj Mahal, it's safer for these kids," he said.

Local philanthropists did not agree.

Robert Gilmore, president of Real Urban Ministry, a Houston agency committed to helping the needy, sided with CPS.

"This (storage facility) is a business establishment," he said. "It is not a home."

The courts will hear Leonard's case in August. In the meantime, CPS placed the children with their maternal grandparents. Leonard and her husband are only allowed to visit them for six hours per week, the couple said.

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com twitter: elizMstuart

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