I was wrongly accused of murder, but I have lost my children to DCFS as a result.
The system of alleged srevices for “children and families” is hopelessly broken.
My name is Lydia Price. I live in Justice, Illinois. This is my diary of what has happened to our family….
On September 8, 2011, my wonderful little 14-year-old son passed away suddenly and unexpectedly after a brief, seemingly minor “tummy bug.”
I called 911, and paramedics arrived with the police and a fire truck. When the ambulance pulled away for the hospital, a detective offered to follow with me in his car. While I was at the hospital with my son, the police forcibly removed my four remaining children (ages 18, 17, 16, 12) from the home as well as my elderly mother (who had her own, separate, legal apartment). My family was brought to the hospital and I was not allowed to see them.
Police arrested me and charged me with homicide (this is a story in itself, of police corruption). DCFS came to the hospital and took my three minor daughters.
The coroner declared my son’s death to be by natural causes the next morning, but the police kept me for many days and changed the charges to abuse and neglect and animal hoarding. There were many pets in the home brought by my husband, not by us. I certainly never abused or neglected my children, and my children testified to this fact.
So I have been dealing with Criminal Court (animals) and Juvenile Court (children) in Chicago.
This is how my children came into the “system.” Initially, after my brother Johnny (Price) bonded me out of jail, I did not know the whereabouts of my children. I had been incarcerated for approximately four days. On my last day in jail (September 12), a DCFS hearing was held and my mother (Barbara Price) and sister-in-law (Doreen Price) attended. They had been informed of the hearing date by phone from DCFS (Marla Courts). A continuance was issued because I was unavailable. No one at the court would give them any information about the children or any paperwork.
My oldest son (Nathaniel Degner, 18) was still at the MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, Illinois. He has a slight learning disability and the hospital had instructed him to “sign himself in.” The DHS stated that because he has a disability, he was not capable of signing himself out. But he was capable of signing himself in?
I hired a civil rights attorney, Michael Kedzie, who got him released after being held against his will for eight days. I still could not locate my daughters, even appealing to the detective who had interrogated me for help. Finally, on September 16, a DCFS caseworker, Dawn Barnes, contacted me. She expressed surprise that I was out and declined to inform me of the whereabouts of my three daughters. She stated that my next court date was September 22.
I had no success trying to hire an attorney. They wanted thousands of dollars up front. We called State Representative Mary Flowersâ€™ office appealing for help. Her secretary, Evelyn Jackson, told us that DCFS had no right to take the two older girls (Elizabeth Degner – 17 and Raechel Degner – 16) and due to their ages, they should have been emancipated. She said to request a public defender at the next court date.
At the next court I requested and received a Public Defender, Kenneth Sanders. He insisted that we “stipulate” to the charges against me. Some of them were patently false and misleading at best. When I requested that they be amended or eliminated, he became visibly upset and stormed out of the room.
He returned in a better mood; the prosecutor had agreed. We proceeded to court, and my daughter Elizabeth was brought in by her therapist, Whitney Davis. My daughter held my hand the entire time and afterwards asked to speak to Judge Rena Van Tine in her private chambers. This was granted.
After court, my mother and family friend, Lydia Harootunian, and I brought up the subject of emancipation for the two teenagers. Their Public Guardian, Aaron Weiss, and Marla Courts of the DCFS stated “No, the girls have no right to emancipation because they don’t have any means to support themselves, and they can’t be placed with family.” We said “But Bethy (Elizabeth) is almost 18.” They said “We keep children in the system until they’re 21. Regardless of what may have been said to the judge in private. if necessary, we’ll remove the case to another judge’s jurisdiction to prevent it and take it out of Judge Rena Van Tineâ€™s hands.” The next court date was set for December 9, 2011.
On September 28, 2011, Dawn Barnes, Intake Coordinator at Laurel and Laurel’s supervisor came to the apartment building to assess me and do a “family history.” The police had confiscated my house, citing multiple building code violations, and I was now basically homeless and living with my brother. We spoke in the hallway, and the conversation seemed to go well. I described the abuse that we had all suffered at the hands of the children’s father, Robert Degner, who is now in prison, and how he had brought the numerous animals into the home and then abandoned us all in poverty. My children had all been home-schooled by myself for their entire lives and Dawn Barnes commented “Those girls are so smart!”
On September 29, I received a letter from Ken Sanders stating that next court date was now November 15, 2011. I later learned that they were moving things along quickly to prevent my oldest daughter from aging out of the system before they could gain full custody.
On September 30, Dawn Barnes called me on speakerphone stating Bethy was in psych unit at Lakeshore Hospital. She made an appointment for me to see her October 4 and told me that I could visit my other two girls at Aunt Martha’s Children Reception Center on Michigan Avenue in Chicago that same day as well. While visiting Bethy, she informed me that she had been “sassed” simply because she was grieving over her deceased brother and the animals that had been destroyed by authorities. She said they forced her to take Prozac and to take Benadryl to make her sleep and instructed her to “Talk to your furniture if you get lonely.” I then visited Raechel and Katharine (Katie) at Aunt Martha’s. It was the first time I had seen them since September 8. I was allowed to visit again on October 4.
On October 5, I visited Bethy again at the hospital. She was bitter over being incarcerated and forced to take drugs and being labeled bi-polar simply for having normal grief. She stated that she wanted to attend court and defend me so that we could all be together again.
On October 6, 2011, I attended a conference with DCFS at 1701 S. 1st Ave. in Maywood. (I have signed papers from this meeting but the signatures are hard for me to read). During this meeting, the children were transferred to the care of Seguin Services in Cicero, Illinois, a facility that deals with special needs children (Katie has autism). They determined that it was necessary for the children to remain together (“Myra” stated “These children are a package deal”) and chastised the person who had placed Bethy in the hospital. Myra said “This is not a psychiatric issue. This is normal grief.â€ Dawn Barnes immediately left to retrieve Bethy from the hospital. A new caseworker was assigned from Seguin, Francee Henley.
I began to have regular visitation with my girls at Aunt Martha’s three times a week (two hours on Tuesdays with Francee, two hours on Thursdays with Whitney, all day Saturday unsupervised).
I was informed by mail that mediation would take place at Juvenile Court on October 25, 2011. Francee told me it would be informal where we all sit and speak with the judge (who comes down from the bench) and discuss what our plans are for the children. In reality, this never took place and it turned out to be court where we again “stipulated.” Mr. Sanders informed me that this prevented the judge from looking at the “photo evidence” against me and would help me get my kids back. The “evidence” was a house ransacked by police and too many pets.
I continued to see my girls (with my niece Dawn Price) and things went smoothly during visits. During this time, Francee Henley stated that “The girls can’t stay here forever. This is a temporary shelter. We need to find a foster home that can accept all three children.”
The girls began being tutored for one hour five times a week by Chicago Public School System teacher, Ms. Wilson. She began making very personal and disparaging remarks to the girls about their mother. “You can never go back with your mom.” “Your older brother has a problem (learning disability); your sister is autistic (Katie); your brother who died had a problem (retardation); and your mother had two miscarriages. Didn’t she think that God was trying to tell her something?” “Was she a drunk?” “Did she drink?” “I was once in a ‘stalker- type’ situation and I would never allow a man to do that to me.”
I had stayed in the marriage because my husband had threatened to kill me and harm the children. I complained to Francee, and nothing was done. My brother threatened to hire a lawyer and sue, and the teacher was reprimanded and told to refrain from making personal comments.
November came and went. During this month, Francee Henley located a foster family (Mr. and Mrs. Jackson in Plainfield, Illinois). The foster couple is black, and we are white, but our family is not prejudiced. My girls did not want to leave the shelter as they had grown very attached to their therapist there and numerous other staff, but Francee insisted. We met with the foster couple attended by Francee Henley and a higher supervisor named Dave. (I have his signature but can’t decipher his handwriting). Francee took the girls for an overnight visit to the home, and they came back miserable. The house was full of glass and china and was not safe for a child with autism. In addition, the yard was not fenced, and they felt uncomfortable around Mrs. Jackson who actually stated that she did not like animals. Bethy’s therapist, Whitney, had encouraged the girls to talk about their love for animals and had suggested Bethy start a support group for other children who had lost their pets. The girls did not feel this home was compatible with their values. Francee insisted and even stated that the girls would be able to have their brother, Nathan, stay for sleepovers on the weekends. Lydia Harootunian was present when this was stated.
The girls were under a lot of pressure in making this transition and resisted. Raechel became upset and left the shelter to go for a walk to be alone with her thoughts. Bethy was concerned for her sister because the area is a bad neighborhood and followed her out the door to keep her safe. Another girl at the shelter who had grown close to them, Stephanie, also followed to keep both of them safe. They walked a short distance and became unsure of where they were in the unfamiliar streets. Some boys that Stephanie knew found them and promised to show them the way back. They also offered them vodka and marijuana. Raechel and Stephanie declined, but Bethy was convinced that she needed to appear “tough” in order to not be taken advantage of and partook. My children were raised with strong moral principles and sheltered from this sort of thing, and my daughter did not recognize peer pressure when she encountered it. Afterwards, the girls returned to the shelter of their own volition unharmed.
Francee was incensed. She informed the girls that now they had no choice in the matter and would be forced to move in with the foster family. The girls were heartbroken, especially Bethy. She loved her therapist, Whitney, dearly and did not want to leave the other staff at the shelter. Tiffany, a Seguin worker, promised Bethy that she could have a pet at the Jackson’s house even though the couple was opposed to it. She stated “If I say you can have a dog, you can have a dog.” This was witnessed by myself, Bethy, Raechel and Lydia Harootunian. Francee informed me that Seguin was required to provide me services that consisted of therapy for domestic violence (because of my husband) and animal hoarding. She said that she didn’t believe hoarding was an issue with me because everyone knew that my husband had brought the animals. But because this was the way the case had been presented, the issue needed to be addressed. They also would provide job-training and job-placement at Roosevelt University.
There was a court date on December 9, 2011. I expected this to be more “stipulating” but was shocked when we moved immediately to trial. I had not realized that by stipulating I had given up my right to trial by jury. Mr. Sanders had never informed me. Judge Rena Van Tine stated that they needed to move quickly because Bethy was coming of age and would leave the system. They needed to take full custody immediately. Bethy turns 18 on February 22, 2012. Judge Rena Van Tine placed the children in state custody and ruled that I was “unable” only because I did not have my own home and was unemployed. The goal of the court was return the children home to mom within 12 months. Francee assured me that this was for the best and that the girls could now go to college, and the state would pay for it. I was disheartened to say the least.
The girls went to the foster home on December 17, 2011. I was initially not allowed to know their location and missed Christmas with them. Raechel had an asthma attack and was admitted to the hospital on December 21, 2011. Lydia Harootunian and I visited, and while we were there, Mrs. Jackson informed us that she sits on Bethy when “she gets on my nerves.” I was very disturbed by this. Mrs. Jackson informed us that she weighs 200 pounds, and Bethy is very slightly-built. This woman outweighs my daughter by a good 70 pounds. She could very easily injure my child. Our first visit with the girls occurred two weeks later. It was arranged to take place at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Dawn Price and I arrived and found this meeting place to be unsuitable. There was no indoor mall and nowhere to rest or buy refreshments. When the respite worker, Lucia, arrived with the girls, we decided to drive down the street to Pizza Hut. We sat there on wooden benches but there was no restroom. I had to walk Katie to the corner gas station across busy traffic to take her. Lucia informed us that the girls only received respite relief two times weekly.
Our next visit was at the Chicago Ridge Mall. Mrs. Jackson dropped the girls off, and Lydia Harootunian and I enjoyed hours with them. When Mrs. Jackson picked them up that night, she again mentioned that she “sits on Bethy when she gets on my nerves.” She explained that she was 62-years-old, retired, and bored. Initially, she had approached Seguin with fostering a baby. Seguin had then suggested that she take my three girls because she had experience with special needs children working at a school. She expressed that she was finding it difficult dealing with an older teenager in the house. She also stated that this was too far for her to drive and that we were now permitted to pick up the girls at her house in Plainfield.
Lydia and I began taking the girls every Sunday to malls, Walmart, and McDonalds in Plainfield, Illinois. During these visits, my girls related tales of abuse to me. They told me Mrs. Jackson was “fake” and only acted nice when other people were around. They told me that Mrs. Jackson seemed to hate Bethy. She not only sat on her but constantly said hurtful things. “You’re bad.” “You’re little brother sounds like he was a nice little boy and he had a disability so he went to Heaven. But if you’re not good, you won’t go there, and you’ll never see him again.” “Forget about your dead pets. They’re only animals. Animals have no souls. They don’t exist anymore.” “It’s been months since your little brother died. Get over it.” “She’s sick and needs help.” “I need to get rid of that oldest one.” Also it was a good thing that they were now practicing fire drills because “You never know what that oldest one might do.” They were not allowed to listen to pop music because “It’s white girl crap.” They “had better not be talking about the foster home to teachers or counselors at school.” She would also rush at the youngest with autism in a full body charge with arm upraised as if to strike her.
I reported these abuses to Francee and the girls Public Guardian, Mr. Weiss, by email on January 16, 2012. Nothing was done. Francee actually said “Ms. Price, Bethy’s losing it.” I said “Raechel backs her up.” Francee said ” Raechel will go along with anything Bethy says.” I said “No. Lydia Harootunian and myself were both informed by this woman that she sits on Bethy. And my mother and I have heard her yelling at Katie in the background when she doesn’t know we’re talking on the phone. Katie is constantly made to sit and not even allowed to walk around the house. Francee dismissed this and stated she didn’t “have any more time to spend on the girls,” and blew me off.
I told Raechel to call Francee on her private number and tell her that I would go to the media if the abuse was not stopped.
On January 17, 2012, Bethy was admitted to the psych ward of an undisclosed hospital. I was not informed of this by Seguin. Bethy had gone to an Aunt Martha’s clinic to get a refill on the Prozac she had been forced to take ever since September 8. She has been on Prozac and Depakote. Dr. Gupta insisted on talking with her about her little brother’s death. Bethy had tried desperately to save him by passionately performing CPR until the paramedics pushed her away. Bethy refused to speak with her about this. The doctor told her “Your brother died a long time ago (only 4 months). Get over it, and move on. You need to think only of yourself.” Bethy told her not to say such things about her little brother. The doctor insisted, and Bethy left the room and sat in the waiting room. Dr. Gupta said “If you walk out of the room, you’ll be sorry!” She then called police and had them “escort” my daughter to an undisclosed hospital. My daughter was not allowed to inform two persons on the outside of her location, nor was she allowed to contact her mother. She was only allowed to contact her sister, Raechel, who relayed messages to me.
I was very angry. Seguin had promised me that Bethy would never again be subjected to incarceration in a psych facility because she suffered from normal grief. They had betrayed a sacred trust. I called Francee, and she refused to reveal Bethy’s location or allow me contact. I traveled to Seguin in Cicero, Illinois with Lydia and spoke with Francee’s supervisor, Jenny Blazejewski, who also would tell me nothing. Francee called Lydia and informed her that our visitation with the girls was halted. Raechel copied the number from the caller I.D. when Bethy called, and a person sympathetic to me traced the number and discovered Bethy’s location — Scott-Nolan Hospital in Des Plaines, Illinois. I called and asked to speak with my daughter. Nurse Suzanne refused to allow it as per Francee Henley and Seguinâ€™s request.
Raechel relayed messages from Bethy. Bethy said that Francee stated “This is all your mother’s fault. If she hadn’t talked so much to everybody, this wouldn’t have happened. She screwed everything up. Now I have nowhere to put you. No one wants you. When you’re released, I might put you in a homeless shelter.”
I contacted Springfield and was assisted by Andrew Martinez. I also contacted the Abuse Hotline and filed a request for investigation by the Office of the Inspector General in person in Chicago. An investigation was begun. Seguin notified me on this same day, January 31, 2012, that a meeting was being held in Maywood regarding Bethy’s treatment. My mother, Lydia, and I attended. Mr. Sanders (my Public Defender) was conveniently absent as was Francee Henley.
At the meeting, my mother voiced the wrongdoings of Seguin against her granddaughter. The coordinator warned her that we were all there to “support” Bethy, and if there was another outburst we would be asked to leave. She stated that we were there by invitation. I corrected her and said “No. We’re here because we have a right to be.” She was silent a moment and then conceded “Yes, you do.”
Supervisor Dave, Jenny Blazejewski, and Tiffany from Seguin were all there. Bethy was on speakerphone. Dave and Jenny performed character assassination on Bethy and Raechel. Dave stated “Bethy has learned that if she can’t get something from one person, she can get it from someone else.” Jenny stated “Bethy has influenced Raechel and coerced her to go along with her.” Tiffany said “I agree with my supervisor, Dave.” The meeting stenographer reused the minutes from the old meeting and simply inserted a few new things into it, omitting all of the negative things being said about the girls. (I have copies of both transcripts with signatures for anyone to compare). Myra and Cheryl spoke up on the girls behalf and expressed displeasure when they learned that I had been denied contact and visitation in weeks. Myra stated “Soon Bethy will turn 18, and then she can do what she wants and not what someone tells her to do.”
At the end of the meeting, I demanded to see Bethy. It is my right. Jenny Blazejewski promised me that I could see her the next day. I held out my hand and insisted on seeing a copy of the court order that allowed my daughter to be placed in Scott-Nolan. Jenny was unable to produce such a document, and Public Guardian, Brad Van Zoeren, flushed and looked down.
The next day, February 1, 2012, I cancelled my appointment with my “hoarding” therapist , Dr. Chick, in Chicago and waited for Jenny to call. She called at 9:30 a.m. and said she would be in a meeting for about 1Â½ hours and would call me afterward. She did not call again until 4:30 and stated I could not see Bethy because “She’s not stable.”
On February 9, 2012, Francee Henley called and said my visitation was now restricted and would take place at Seguin Services commencing on February 13. It would be for one hour. She also stated that I would be attending “grief therapy” at Seguin prior to seeing the girls.
On February 9, Bethy was released from the hospital and placed in a new foster home (Mrs. Kirkwood in Aurora, Illinois). Still with no phone contact with me. She attended school February 10 and expressed bitterness at having been locked up and being separated from her sisters and the rest of her family. She was once again sent to the hospital. This time, it was St. Joseph’s. She called me and this became the first of my recordings. She described lies and abuses by the Seguin agency and Francee Henley. The doctor at St. Joseph’s said my daughter did not need to be readmitted to Scott-Nolan but that the “caseworker” insisted. My daughter was devastated. She had been in there for many weeks and now was sentenced to return. She described being drugged and being in the same facility as people with true psychiatric problems who cut themselves and licked walls and ate drywall and carpet. In some of these recordings, she spoke of being restrained and subjected to strip searches and body cavity searches. This was all too horrifying to imagine, and no child should ever have to endure such things. She stated that Francee told her “It’s your mother’s fault.” Also, if I didn’t stop talking, they would “institutionalize her permanently in California” and “take your mother to court.” Francee told her and everyone that “Your mother has snapped.” My daughter is filled with despair in these recordings, and her spirit is broken. I worry about the suicidal nature of these drugs and the emotional torture inflicted by this agency. How much can 1 little girl take? Bethy stated her file lists her as “deranged.”
When I attended therapy with Dr. Chick, she stated that Francee had faxed her “photo evidence” of the house regarding the “hoarding” and reminded her that Seguin is paying the bill for these sessions.” How convenient! After I have been attending sessions since December!
I showed up for “grief therapy” at Seguin Services at 2:00 pm on February 13, 2012 with Barbara Price and Lydia Harootunian. I met Dr. Roig, the grief therapist, and introduced my party. I stated that they were my support group. She said “Oh, no. Therapy is one-on-one.” I stated “Not without my support group. Grief therapy is not court ordered and it’s not in my service plan. I’m here as a courtesy.” She stated “I don’t need a courtesy. I’ll tell Francee Henley that you refused.” I said “No, you tell her YOU refused and you tell her why.”
We sat in the lobby and waited for our visit with Raechel and Katie. They came at 3:30 pm, and we visited under the watchful eye of Francee Henley and Lucia.
I have since learned how Bethy is able to sneak calls to me. Also Francee has stated that there will be no more phone calls between the sisters and that she wants to confiscate Raechel’s cell phone and only allow monitored calls between Raechel and myself. Poor Nathan. He has not been able to see his sisters since they were at Aunt Martha’s.
As I write this, Monique Boozer of OIG called and informed me that the investigation was concluded and that my complaint was found to be without grounds. She stated that an investigator named Jose Chacko spoke with Bethy on January 19, 2012. I have a receipt proving that I filed for an investigation on January 31, 2012. If any investigator reached her, it was “in house” from Seguin. I questioned Ms. Boozer, and she declined to name the person in charge.
Written by Lydia Price of JUSTICE, Illinois
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