A tragedy that money can't fix

Special report: A young girl placed in the hands of danger gets one of the city government's biggest civil-rights awards in memory. Her mother awaits an apology.

It was a victory, but to Vanessa, not a satisfying one.

Sitting in a windowless federal courtroom at Sixth and Market Streets, the 41-year-old librarian quietly absorbed the news. The City of Philadelphia had agreed to pay her adopted daughter $1 million for the harm she'd suffered while under the supervision of the Department of Human Services.

In the careful language of such arrangements, the city admitted no wrongdoing. But to Vanessa, who had taken the girl known in court records as T.J. into her home three years before, the seven-figure number spoke for itself. It was one of the city government's biggest civil-rights awards in memory.

The money, in addition to $1.85 million T.J. had received from two city-funded private agencies involved in her care, would ensure that the 15-year-old would be secure for life.

But T.J. had been hurt in ways that money couldn't fix.

At the age of 8, she had been indecently assaulted by a convicted bank robber who DHS had decided would make a good caregiver.

In hours of deposition testimony, no one from DHS expressed contrition, or took responsibility or promised to fix any of the astonishing lapses that led to this child's suffering.

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When do we hold these people accountable? Vanessa wondered. When do they see the kid face to face and say, "I damaged your life"?

Before the agreement was signed in March, the federal mediator asked Vanessa if there was anything else she wanted from the city.

"An official face-to-face apology," she replied.

The city doesn't do apologies, the lawyers responded. But it did agree to a sit-down with Vanessa, T.J., the head of DHS, and the two workers who had made key decisions in her case.

Vanessa imagined how she might begin:

"Meet T.J., 14 years old, HIV-positive, life expectancy, 42."

At library, striking up friendship with sisters

Vanessa was an inner-city librarian - and a good one. It wasn't just about books, though she had her master's degree. Having grown up in a tough neighborhood herself, she could relate to the boisterous kids who'd stream in after school, flirting and laughing. A mother of three daughters, she was part social worker, part teacher, part disciplinarian.

In the summer of 2000, in a Free Library branch in one of Philadelphia's most impoverished sections, she met T.J., then 9, and her half-sister K.J., then 12.

K.J. was as talkative as T.J. was reserved. From K.J., Vanessa learned that the girls were in foster care, and had been for much of their lives.

They spent hours at the library because their latest foster parents wouldn't allow them at home while they were working.

Vanessa struck up a friendship with the sisters, who bonded closely with this woman who seemed so interested in them. In the week before Christmas, 2000, they brought Vanessa gifts.

Parts of their story spilled out in preteen bursts. Others Vanessa would learn only later.

In 1994, when T.J. was 3 and K.J. 6, DHS, the city agency tasked with protecting children from abuse, had taken the girls away from their drug-addicted mother, who had left them hungry and alone. T.J.'s father was out of the picture.

The girls were sent to a series of foster homes. They spent time in an orphanage.

Rarely did the two half-sisters see their mother. But in 1997, they were told that K.J.'s father, a smooth-talking, broad-shouldered man named John Aloysius Lyles III, wanted to be in their lives.

Lyles was a criminal. He was on work release from state prison when he began visiting with the girls under DHS supervision.

But that didn't disqualify him as a possible caregiver in the eyes of Philadelphia's long-troubled child-welfare system.

In the interest of what DHS records called "reunification" - a misnomer, since neither girl had ever lived with Lyles - the agency began to plan for placing them in his care.

In K.J.'s case, that made some sense - Pennsylvania law favors putting children with their natural parents when possible. And even felons have rights to their kids.

But regarding T.J., DHS was taking a leap.

The department sought to place T.J. with Lyles under what is known as "kinship care." But under Pennsylvania law at the time, Lyles did not qualify as a kinship caregiver to T.J., because he was not a relative.

T.J. wanted to remain with her sister. But when the caseworkers told her they wanted the girls to live with Lyles, she balked.

"He looked mean," she would later testify.

The adults who had control of T.J.'s fate didn't share those qualms, even though they possessed far more worrisome information.

An extensive rap sheet comes to light later

On April 22, 1998, three caseworkers assigned to the sisters gathered for a meeting at DHS. Among the topics was John Lyles' criminal record.

Vanessa would learn the details only later, after she hired a lawyer who filed suit, demanded documents, and interviewed people under oath.

According to their testimony, the caseworkers had obtained Lyles' rap sheet.

It was extensive.

A 1996 robbery conviction landed him in prison. There was another robbery conviction in 1982, when he had also been convicted of reckless endangerment, terroristic threats, intimidating a witness, and assault.

He had also been charged, though not convicted, of sexually assaulting a minor in 1985.

The DHS caseworker was accompanied by two others: one from Tabor Children's Services, which was paid to help oversee the placement of the girls, and another from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, ostensibly an independent advocate for the children.

Although Lyles' criminal history was sitting on the table, he spun a tale at odds with the printed pages.

He claimed his recent prison sentence had been for insurance fraud, a nonviolent crime.

He told the caseworkers one of the assaults happened when he beat up a gay man who had propositioned him.

And he said that the child-sex charge was a misunderstanding over a fight with his neighbor.

The workers accepted his story.

They had obtained a printout of charges and convictions. Had any of them walked a few blocks to the criminal courthouse and pulled Lyles' public files, they would have learned that he had just served more than two years in state prison for robbing a PNC Bank branch to buy drugs.

He'd handed a teller a note that said, "Give me 7 $20 bills or I will shoot."

They would have seen that in the 1982 case, Lyles had robbed a man of stereo equipment after holding scissors to his throat.

Had they looked at public records in the child-sex case, they would have learned that Lyles had been accused of forcing a 6-year-old stepson to perform oral sex on him. The child recanted before the case came to trial.

And by reviewing the public court file in the bank robbery case, they would have discovered something else: that Lyles was HIV positive.

The caseworkers mulling T.J.'s fate did not check any of that.

Two of the three would later testify that it wasn't their job.

The DHS caseworker, Jody Houlon, was later asked if she had an obligation to look into the child-sex charge. "No," she testified. "I don't do that. I'm not a criminal social worker."

In fact, Pennsylvania guidelines state that in background-checking prospective caregivers, arrests on child-sex charges should be vetted irrespective of convictions. Experts say it is common for child abusers to avoid criminal prosecution.

Over the next year, something happened that made DHS's ultimate decision all the more baffling.

In July 1999, as the agency was preparing to place the children with Lyles, an arrest warrant was issued charging him with raping and assaulting his girlfriend, Denise Jordan. It was his second domestic-violence charge in six months.

Despite Lyle's violent history, the DHS supervisor, Carol Hochstrasser, testified that it was acceptable under DHS rules to place the children with Lyles.

"I think there was an assumption that people change," she said.

In August 1999, DHS workers discovered T.J. and K.J. had been beaten at the foster home where they had been living.

A day later, carrying their belongings in plastic trash bags, they were brought to live with Lyles.

Grim details emerge, then worse news

Over time, Vanessa pieced together the grim details of the sisters' lives. Then, in 2001, during one of their regular library chats, she heard the worst of it.

Just after Christmas in 1999, K.J. confided to Vanessa, Lyles had called T.J. up to his bedroom, rubbed cocoa butter on her, and sodomized her. She was 8 years old.

T.J. told no one, not even her older sister, for more than a year. By that time, the girls had already left the house.

Lyles couldn't pay the rent, and the sisters ended up in a shelter for a while. DHS lost track of them, then finally put them in another foster home.

There, workers told the girls that Lyles wanted to visit them. T.J. seemed scared, and K.J. asked her why.

"Dad raped me," T.J. whispered.

K.J. didn't want to believe that her father would do such a thing.

But then, "I looked at her in her face, and I started crying," K.J. later testified.

She crawled into bed with her little sister and held her.

Sitting in the library, Vanessa listened to the story, and wept.

The girls had a new private social worker, and for some time, the worker had been pushing Vanessa to think about taking in one or both of the children. Vanessa wasn't sure she could pull it off.

But when she heard about the assault, something clicked.

Her working-class parents had taken in her father's troubled daughter from a first marriage - an abuse victim - when she was 14.

She decided to begin the process of becoming the girls' foster parent.

"There's no continuity in these kids' lives," Vanessa told the worker. "I would like to be that continuity, that constant."

The worker replied: "That would mean the world."

Vanessa and her husband, a computer technician, began the process of getting certified as foster parents.

Ironically, that included a thorough criminal background check.

DHS doesn't take steps to test for HIV

Along with raising her children and working, Vanessa devoted herself to the sisters, who had become separated and were bouncing among foster homes and institutions.

In the spring of 2001, Vanessa invited T.J. to her house to fix her hair for her fourth-grade graduation.

During the ceremony, Vanessa and some of her cousins whooped and clapped as the principal called T.J.'s name. The foster parents did not attend.

She also helped T.J. prepare for the criminal case. DHS had concluded that Lyles had assaulted T.J., and he was charged by the district attorney.

In July 2001, as they prepared for a preliminary hearing, Vanessa and T.J. sat with prosecutor Gina Smith. Vanessa glanced over at some paperwork - and then looked again.

The papers said Lyles had AIDS.

"Am I reading this correctly?" Vanessa asked.

Smith replied: "Yes, you are. That's confidential, and we can talk about it later."

Reeling, Vanessa decided that there was no reason for T.J. to know.

That began another painful twist in the ordeal. DHS did not take steps to get T.J. tested for HIV, despite requests from both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer.

DHS representatives claimed they needed permission from her biological mother, which they never got.

By the time Lyles finally went on trial in January 2003, the test still hadn't been done. It wasn't ordered by the judge either, for legal reasons.

As a result, Lyles' lawyer argued that Lyles couldn't have raped T.J., because if he had, she would be HIV positive.

The prosecution asserted that her HIV status was irrelevant.

A medical expert testified that it was unlikely that a single incident of penetration would lead to HIV transmission.

After a four-day trial, Judge Rayford A. Means Jr. acquitted Lyles of the rape, aggravated assault and sexual assault. The judge convicted him of indecent assault, indecent exposure, reckless endangerment, simple assault, corrupting the morals of a minor, endangering the welfare of a child, and simple assault.

Lyles was sentenced to three to six years in prison and 17 years' probation.

For T.J. and Vanessa, the trial's ending was a relief, if an imperfect one.

She could handle T.J., but not her half-sister

Somewhere along the way, Vanessa came to a difficult decision. She would become a foster parent to T.J., but not to K.J., who had behavioral problems.

K.J. was crushed. Vanessa hated the unfairness of it all, but she didn't see another option.

In June 2003, T.J. arrived at Vanessa's crowded but tidy home. She and her husband were officially her foster parents. But by then, they had already decided to go further. They would adopt her.

"She needs people, period. She has nobody," Vanessa thought.

T.J. would share a bedroom with one of Vanessa's daughters, whom she had already grown to think of as a cousin.

"No more trash bags," Vanessa said. "You will never have to move again."

Their joy was short-lived.

The next month, T.J. sat with Vanessa and her husband on a couch and listened to a doctor tell her she was HIV positive.

The three sat in silence, floored.

Vanessa looked at T.J., and realized that she didn't - couldn't - grasp the implications.

A few weeks later, Vanessa was sitting in her living room with a new DHS caseworker, Ava Ashley. Ashley told Vanessa that documents describing Lyles' criminal record - including the 1985 child-sex abuse arrest - were sitting, like a rebuke, in T.J.'s file.

"It was there, it was always there," Vanessa remembers her saying. "You didn't hear this from me, but I think you should sue us."

'... somebody who wanted to take them'

The federal civil-rights lawsuit was filed on T.J.'s behalf in December 2003. It alleged that DHS had a pattern and practice of failing to screen caregivers.

Tom Johnson, the former sex-crimes prosecutor who represented T.J. with his partner, Daniel Childs, saw a simple and troubling explanation for why the girls were placed with a violent felon.

"They wanted to get these two kids off their docket really badly, and they had somebody who wanted to take them," he said. "And that was enough for them to disregard all these red flags that were screaming, 'Don't do this.' "

These days, T.J.'s older sister, K.J., is living with one of her former foster families.

On Oct. 18, 2004, Vanessa and her husband formally adopted T.J.

A November 2005 psychological evaluation found her to be plagued by feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem, and self-doubt. But T.J. has thrived in her new home, maintaining a B average at a private school. She is learning to play the guitar. She wants to be a veterinarian.

Physically, she has remained healthy enough to do without, for now, the drug cocktail that helps protect people who are HIV-positive against developing AIDS.

Her doctor, Richard Rutstein of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia - a pediatric AIDS expert - estimated that she could remain off the drugs for between two and seven years, and could live on them for another 22.

The March settlement agreement between the City of Philadelphia and T.J. required that DHS officials meet with T.J. within 30 days.

That meeting never happened.

Arthur C. Evans Jr., who was appointed acting DHS commissioner in October, said in an interview this week that he was willing to meet.

But Evans said he could answer no questions about the case or whether the city had fixed anything as a result of it.

He said lawyers had advised him that talking could jeopardize the city's position in a related lawsuit. The city has agreed to pay T.J. another $2.5 million if it wins a separate action against insurance companies.

The defenders' association acknowledged in a court filing that it failed to conduct an independent investigation into Lyle's background. It paid T.J. an $850,000 settlement. A lawyer for the organization declined to comment.

Tabor paid T.J. $1 million.

William Haussmann, Tabor's executive director, said he could not comment on specifics.

The initial DHS caseworker, Houlon, no longer works for the agency. Through her husband, a lawyer for the city, she declined to comment.

The second DHS caseworker, Jody Diggs, is now a supervisor at DHS. She was never disciplined in connection with the case, Evans said.

She was instructed by her superiors not to comment for this story, a DHS spokesman said.

Hochstrasser, the DHS supervisor, retired in 2004. In a telephone interview, she said: "We made the best decision for the child that we thought we could make, and unfortunately it turned out very badly. Nobody could be sadder about what happened to this child than we are."

As of July, DHS was still placing children with kinship caregivers who have criminal records, according to public records.

A DHS program evaluation of Concilio, an agency contracted to monitor kinship care arrangements, said:

"In two cases the kinship parents had significant criminal records and they - Concilio management - feel like they are 'stuck' with the cases."

To Vanessa, that is unforgivable.

"How is that possible?" she asked.

"I just don't get the sense that DHS cares about these kids at all. I wonder if they understand that they affect lives, or if they just look at these children as files of paper."


Contact staff writer Ken Dilanian at 215-854-4779 or kdilanian@phillynews.com.