One morning in late January, Cassandra Jackson found a greeting card in her mailbox. It came with a Bible verse and some words of inspiration, sent by Anita Armstrong, a social worker who had come to know Jackson by working with her son, Thomas, at his elementary school.
Armstrong understood just how much Jackson needed the encouragement. After years of struggling with depression, poverty, and a series of bad relationships, Jackson seemed to have finally turned a corner in her life. Over the previous weeks, she found a housekeeping job at a nursing home and a new apartment she and Thomas would soon move into.
None of it had come easy. Armstrong knew how difficult it had been. "Press on, Cassandra," she wrote. "Don't give in to discouraging thoughts or words. Things are going to work out for you and Thomas."
But the day the card arrived, things were definitely not working out. That morning, as Jackson sat down with a cup of coffee, her live-in boyfriend said he needed to tell her something: Thomas had been sexually molested by his baby-sitter, a young woman named Alina Allen, he said.
When the cops arrived, seven-year-old Thomas recalled that, two days before, he had gone into a bedroom with Allen, who had been staying in Jackson's home. She made him perform oral sex on her, Thomas said. She also touched him. When she was done, she made him promise not to tell anyone.
Ten days later, Allen was indicted on two counts of rape, one count of kidnapping, and one count of gross sexual imposition.
But the case against Alina Allen soon became the least of Cassandra Jackson's worries. A week after Allen was arrested, police were back at Jackson's East 55th Street home. Someone from the Mobile Crisis Line, an intervention and mental health services hotline, sent them. Jackson had called: She was suicidal, the cops were told.
When police arrived, Jackson apologized. "I told them, 'I'm sorry to bother you, that you guys had to come out here,'" she says. According to Jackson, she was never suicidal. She just needed to talk to someone.
Yet her life would unravel quickly from there. The next day, a social worker from the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services showed up. She examined Jackson's home, asked questions, and said she'd be back. When the social worker reappeared later that day, she told Jackson that Thomas had been taken from school. He was now in the county's custody.
On paper, it's hard to argue with the DCFS's decision. Court filings paint a grim picture of Thomas's life in Jackson's care: There were the allegations surrounding the baby-sitter, domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems. And there were mental health issues.
It was not the stuff of after-school specials. Nor was it the whole story. Like so many of the custody matters that roll through the child welfare system, Jackson's case was unique and familiar at the same time: complex and bleak, frustrating in its want of simple resolution. "It's easy to pass judgment when you're standing on the outside," says Armstrong, who was employed by Beech Brook, a mental health facility for children, but worked in the Cleveland public schools. It becomes much harder, she says, when you see the issues up close. "It's extremely complicated. And it's heart-wrenching."
Most people don't think of custody cases this way. The Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services tends to get attention only when there's a dead kid involved, when fingers wag the agency's way for not having the foresight to remove the child from the murderer's custody. The result is a caricature of how the department works: Many people think it takes an act of Dahmer-grade cruelty to warrant the county's attention.
"People assume that the county would never take kids away from parents that are acting appropriately," says Sam Amata, head of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's juvenile division, which represents indigent parents in custody cases. "And because of the folks typically involved, they don't care [if that isn't the case]. They say, 'Well, even if they're wrong, these are scumbag people anyway. That's not me. Those aren't my neighbors.'"
But for every situation in need of intervention -- the sadistic jackass who uses his kid as an ashtray, the idiot who allows a toddler to wander into the street at 3 a.m. -- there are dozens of cases where the issues are far more complex, the answers less than obvious. Cases where the line isn't between right and wrong; it's between a series of regrettable events and consequences. Cases like Jackson's.
Cassandra Jackson is a meandering, headstrong woman whose personality is full of world-weary contradictions. Suspicious but naive, she admits that she trusts too easily, a self-described "mammy-type" who mothers strangers instinctively. She can swing from tears to the well-placed cuss with striking speed. The circumstances of her life seem to constantly edge toward overwhelming her.
Inside her small, two-bedroom apartment in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, she sits at a small table in her front room. On the wall, there is a circular sign: "Lord, help me find the way through the changes in my life," it reads. Her bird, a parrot named E.E., squawks in the background.
She moved here in February, not long after the county took Thomas. There is a small, framed picture of him on the table. It's the same picture she wears inside a heart-shaped locket that dangles from her neck. (The child's name has been changed for this story.)
Jackson can be gregarious and articulate, but she is often nervous these days. She worries about many things, not the least of which is this article: how she'll be portrayed, if it will do her son more harm than good, if it will get her fired from her new job. "What are you going to say about the drug stuff?" she asks.
She is the first to say it: She has not lived a perfect life. Raised in Michigan, she was married at 16. Not long after, her husband deserted her. Men, it seems, have long been a source of trouble. A former boyfriend called the cops on her a dozen years ago, accusing her of assault. She was never indicted, but months passed before the matter was resolved.
Then there were the drugs, which the county has made much of. "I am an ex-drug addict," she says wearily, tired of explaining a part of her life for which she will never be absolved. She got hooked on heroin as a young woman. She kicked it when she became pregnant with her son Skylier 19 years ago. But there were other indulgences over the years: marijuana, cocaine. "I couldn't understand it, people who couldn't feed their kids because of crack. I really used to look down on those people," she says. "Then it happened to me."
She's had long stints of sobriety -- 11 years, 6 years -- punctuated by disappointing relapses. One happened last October. She says she hasn't used since.
But if drugs have been problematic over the last several years, her friends never noticed. "I never knew her to do anything," says Diane Smith, who's known Jackson for almost 20 years. "I never knew her to even have a drink."
When Jackson learned that drug use was part of the county's complaint, she was eager to prove she was clean. Two days after Thomas was taken, she took a drug test at University Hospitals. The results were negative.
But Jackson is no stranger to the DCFS. Agency records indicate there have been more than a half-dozen referrals over the last 12 years. Most concerned Skylier, a rebellious kid who's been in and out of trouble much of his life. "He's smart, but he's a clown," says his mother.
When Skylier was nine, he was so disruptive -- at home, in school -- that she asked the agency to intervene. A neglect charge was filed in 1991, according to juvenile court records, and the DCFS took custody of the child for more than a year.
It didn't seem to help. As a teenager, Skylier became familiar with juvenile court, mostly for traffic infractions. He didn't mellow with adulthood. Last October, he pleaded guilty to possession charges and was sentenced to a year of probation. It didn't take. Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to two counts of trafficking cocaine and was sentenced to nine months in prison. He is scheduled to get out in November, a date that worries his mom.
"I love my son," she says. "But I think that's too soon."
Despite all of this, the DCFS didn't consider Jackson an unfit mother. It was the same agency, after all, that put Thomas in her care. Not long after he was born in 1993, the boy was abandoned by his natural mother, Jackson's sister. In 1994, Jackson was named his legal custodian. She's raised him as her own ever since. "Basically, this was the only person he has ever known as Mom," says Armstrong.
It hasn't been easy. Jackson's friends talk about Thomas in varying terms. Intelligent, sensitive, playful. But almost all agree on one description: hyperactive. As one friend puts it, he's "kinda on the wild side."
His behavior, however, involved more than just the supercharged antics of a seven-year-old. In a DCFS report completed soon after Thomas was taken into custody, a social worker noted that Thomas had "sexually acted out on two girls (recently)." Susan Gantos, a friend and former neighbor, says Thomas could not be left alone with her children. Too often, she says, she had seen a tendency to "pick on other little boys." Still, she doesn't fault Jackson. "She really loves that boy. She was always trying to get him help." Thomas needed it.
The gloomy arc of Thomas's short life turned even sadder three years ago. In the summer of 1998, a 25-year-old with a long history of trouble moved to Jackson's neighborhood. Since turning 18 in 1990, Joseph Corbett had been arrested for everything from grand larceny to aggravated assault. All of this happened in Florida. To his neighbors in Cleveland, he was just a slow, unassuming kid who fixed children's bikes.
That changed in the summer of 1998. On July 29, according to police, Corbett raped Thomas in a garage near Jackson's home. As soon as police questioned him, Corbett confessed, though he told the cops it was Thomas's idea. Thomas was four.
In November 1998, Corbett pleaded guilty to two counts of rape and one count of gross sexual imposition. The following January, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
After the rape, Jackson struggled to get Thomas help, even as she tried to deal with her own problems. For years, her life seemed to play out like a one-woman medley of urban ills: She was a single mother, underemployed, struggling with poverty and a series of strained relationships. Toward the end of last year, Jackson seemed resolved to start anew. She told Smith that her boyfriend of two years, Richard R. Johnson, had to go. She needed to get a job, a better place to live. She wanted to provide a better life for Thomas.
"I saw where she lived previously, and I saw her effort toward finding a new home," says Armstrong. "I think she tried to do all the things she was supposed to do."
It took no small effort. Years before, Jackson was diagnosed with depression and mild agoraphobia, a fear of being in open, public places. She saw a psychiatrist once a month and took Zoloft, medication for the depression, but she hadn't seen steady work since Thomas came into her life.
Around the beginning of this year, she found a housekeeping job. She explained to Thomas why she wouldn't be around: She needed to work so they could move into a nicer place, so he could go to a better day care, so he could take karate lessons. "I told him, 'You've got to be good in school, so that Mommy can go to work and not have to worry about you,'" she says.
At about the same time, a young woman named Alina Allen contacted her. Jackson knew her from her old neighborhood. Allen, who had a child of her own, often baby-sat for families on the street. "She would come over to my house," says Jackson. "There was always lots of kids with them. We would sit in the yard, on the patio, playing cards or Scrabble, or take the kids to the beach or the movies."
Allen told her she needed a place to stay for a while. She offered money, but Jackson had another idea. She needed somebody to watch Thomas while she worked. Allen could stay for free if she made sure Thomas got to and from school.
"She had to get a job, so she had to get a baby-sitter," says Smith. "What are you going to do? It's a Catch-22 . . . She thought she was doing something right."
But even as Jackson tried to scrape together a better future, she couldn't escape her past. One day, she got a call from Johnson, her ex-boyfriend. He also needed a place to stay for a few days. She relented. "That's Cassandra," says Smith. "She is always trying to take care of everybody. That's her problem."
Then came the morning in late January. Jackson was sitting down with a cup of coffee when Johnson said he needed to tell her something. According to his account, he came downstairs two days before while Allen and Thomas were in the room. As soon as he appeared, they went upstairs. When he went upstairs, they went downstairs. Eventually, he pulled Thomas aside. "What's going on?" he asked. "What are you two doing?" That's when Thomas told him about the sexual contact with Allen.
When Jackson heard the story, she grabbed the phone and rushed into the next room. She called Thomas at school. Had Alina done something to him? she asked. "Yeah, Mom."
Thomas told police what happened when he arrived home from school: Two days before, he had gone into a bedroom with Allen. She made him perform oral sex on her, he said. Then she touched his private area. When she was done, she made him promise not to tell anyone.
Allen has denied the allegations, contending that Thomas frequently fabricates stories. "Thomas tells lies," she said in a call from county jail. "There's a lot to do with it, a lot on Ms. Jackson's part."
Her trial was to begin on July 18. But she didn't show up after being released on bond. A warrant was issued for her arrest, and she was taken into custody. The trial has yet to be rescheduled.
Sexual abuse cases troll in murky territory, and the waters of this case are particularly cloudy. Allen is a mother herself, with no prior record. She's had few problems with other children she's cared for. Even some of Jackson's friends find the situation hard to fathom. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me," says Gantos. "I was going to have her baby-sit for me."
The situation was muddied further when Johnson went AWOL. Jackson kicked him out of the house the day after Allen was arrested. No one has seen him since. "He has not been located -- not yet, at least," says Roni Ducoff, an assistant county prosecutor.
All of which gives way to speculation. Johnson is a man familiar with controversial allegations. In 1991, his picture flashed across the nation's television screens on America's Most Wanted when he became a suspect in the 1990 rape and robbery of a University of Chicago student. He was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to 36 years in prison. Four years later, he walked out of a Chicago courtroom a free man, exonerated by a DNA test that proved he wasn't the attacker.
During the Allen investigation, detectives asked Jackson if she ever suspected Johnson of being involved with the woman. Jackson was dismissive: "Richard always said how much he hated white women." Ten days after Allen was arrested, however, Jackson asked Thomas if there was something he hadn't told police, something about Allen and Johnson. "He said, 'Yeah, Mom, I saw them doing it.'"
Jackson was frantic, upset that her son had kept the news from her. "Why wouldn't he tell me?" she asks. "That's what the worst is out of this whole thing . . . I feel less than a woman, less than a mother."
She called the detective assigned to the case. She wasn't in. She called Armstrong, the social worker who had been working with Thomas at school. She wasn't in, either. That's when she dialed the only other number she could think of: the Mobile Crisis Line, which is run by Mental Health Services Inc., a private nonprofit group that contracts with the county Mental Health Board.
She had called the crisis line before: to ask questions, to seek advice, to talk to someone. When she explained what had happened, the crisis line worker asked if she was suicidal. By her own account, Jackson gave something of a mixed answer. "I told her, no, I got to be here for my baby," she says. "But I'm in enough pain where I thought about it."
The crisis worker told Jackson she was sending the cops to her house. Jackson said that wasn't necessary, especially since Armstrong had called her back on another phone line. "I said, 'Look, my other caseworker is on the phone. I just needed to talk to somebody about it. I'm fine now.' She said, 'I'm still going to send the police, and you can tell them what your son told you.'"
When police arrived, Jackson was contrite. She felt bad about wasting their time. She told them the same story she told the hotline worker. They told her to tell the detective on the case. Then they left. They never filed a report.
But the crisis worker had also called the county's Department of Children and Family Services. Sarah McGuire, the hotline's program coordinator, said she could not comment on Jackson's call, but says state law mandates that workers contact the DCFS if they believe a child is in danger. "If we're dealing with a parent, and we have concerns about a child because of the parent's mental state, that could be a reason to report."
DCFS social worker Sally Weindorf showed up at Jackson's house the next day. The two women had met three years before, when Thomas was abused by Corbett. Weindorf examined the house, asked Jackson questions, and told her she'd be back. When she returned later that day, she told the mother that Thomas had been removed from school. The county had taken custody, at least temporarily.
Several days later, on February 12, an emergency hearing was held before Juvenile Court Magistrate Dana Chavers. The agency's reasons for seeking custody read like the Hit Parade of bad parenting:
Jackson had failed to protect Thomas from "inappropriate sexual behavior," the complaint said. Besides the allegations against Alina Allen, the boy said he'd watched a pornographic film with Johnson the previous year.
Jackson had also been suicidal, the DCFS alleged, placing a call to the mobile crisis line "necessitating police involvement." She had a substance abuse problem, admitting to crack and marijuana use in the past. And much of the drug use had taken place in the presence of the child.
Then there was her living situation. She had no permanent, stable housing, the county alleged, and she kept her current place in "deplorable" condition: "Specifically, there were rodents and rodent feces in the kitchen and family room, holes in the walls and disconnected furnace pipes."
Finally, the county said Jackson had mental health issues, including depression and agoraphobia, and that she refused to take medication.
Chavers awarded temporary custody to the county. Thomas would be placed in a foster home. But the final disposition still had to be made, and Jackson still faced two counts of abuse and one of neglect. (The county's complaint doesn't specify what incidents prompted the charges.) There was the possibility she could lose Thomas permanently.
At a preliminary hearing in April, Jackson's lawyer struck a deal. If she agreed to plead guilty to one count of neglect, the county would drop the abuse charges. Jackson hated the idea of a guilty plea, but Robert Brooks, her lawyer, warned of the consequences if she fought and lost.
"The charges she was facing, if she had been found culpable, would have resulted in the possibility of the child being permanently removed from her care," Brooks says. Instead, the plea paved the way for eventual reunification, hopefully in a matter of months. For the time being, Thomas would remain in a foster home.
James McCafferty, the acting director of the DCFS, says the agency did not remove Thomas because of one or two isolated incidents. "The issues in this family aren't just sexual abuse. There have been referrals over the years . . . There are mental health issues and substance abuse issues."
Few cases provide the agency with a simple choice. Most raise potential problems, irrespective of the decision. Says Armstrong: "Children and Family Services, they've got a job to do, and their priorities are multiple. They strive for family permanency. At the same time, their reason for existing is to protect children . . . They're damned if they do, damned if they don't."
Even some of Jackson's supporters say they understand the agency's concern, given Thomas's history. "From their perspective, this child is in the care of this mother, and this [sexual abuse] has happened twice," says Brooks. "That's not to say that she was at fault for any of this, because obviously she wasn't, but there was some concern about how closely she was monitoring the people who were coming into this child's life."
Adds Jackson: "If I'd been a social worker and looked at the situation that was going on, I woulda took him too."
Still, the allegations upset her. The county, she felt, had painted her as someone incapable of caring for her child. Wasn't she making improvements in her life? Didn't she reach out when she was supposed to? She's the one who called the police on Allen. The one who called the crisis line. "I just wanted to talk to somebody, to tell them about what my baby told me," she says.
Those who know Jackson are also confused by the process. "I was shocked," says Thomas Minor, pastor at Community of Faith, Jackson's church. "She always appeared to be a very careful and loving parent."
Gantos calls the complaint against Jackson -- the deplorable housing, the drug abuse, the failure to protect Thomas -- "bogus."
"She did everything she was supposed to do," she says. "My kids love her. No way would I ever think she would ever put them in any harm."
It's no surprise that Jackson's friends have rallied to her defense. But even the county has validated many of Jackson's counter-arguments. From the beginning, she maintained that several of the allegations listed in the initial complaint were off base. Though she admitted to past drug use, she never used in front of Thomas. "He even told them, 'The only thing my mommy does is smoke cigarettes and drink coffee,'" she says.
Concerns about housing and domestic violence were similarly misplaced, she says. Even before Thomas was taken into custody, she had leased a new apartment. And the domestic abuse claims stemmed from a fight between Jackson and Johnson two years before. No charges were ever filed, and Jackson ended their relationship shortly after Allen's arrest.
Last month, the county recognized as much. In a semi-annual review of Jackson's case, the DCFS noted that she didn't need drug or alcohol treatment, since there was no evidence she was using; that domestic violence wasn't an issue, because she wasn't involved with anyone; and that housing was not a problem, since she'd moved into a new place. The results of her psychological review are pending.
"I think we're moving slowly because staff wants him to go back and stay there permanently," says McCafferty. "They don't want to disrupt him again from the environment, because it's harmful to a child every time you take him out."
Sadly, the one thing everyone can agree upon -- that Thomas needs help -- has yet to happen. Six months after being removed from Jackson's care, he "has adjusted to his foster home," notes the DCFS's review. But he had not had a single counseling session for sexual abuse.
"Ms. Jackson has done everything that's been asked of her in order to be reunified with her child," says Brooks. "The county, on the other hand, has not even undertaken to provide the child with counseling that one would assume would almost be automatic."
Jackson likes to get out, since the little apartment is so quiet. There is no one to come home to anyway. Even the bird is gone. She sold it to pay bills.
It will be this way for some time. If all goes well, Thomas could be coming home in six months, though there remain questions about whether she's able to protect Thomas, she's been told.
She gets to see him every other Thursday at the DCFS's Metzenbaum Center. The visits are supervised. They can't go to McDonald's together. They can't get ice cream. Thomas won't talk about the foster home, but there are hints. He admits that he cries a lot. His foster mother once told Jackson that every time she does something around the house, he is quick to remind her, "My mommy don't do it that way."
She knows he is confused. "Mom, hurry up and take care of your business," he tells her. "I want to come home tonight."
"Baby, it's not that easy," she replies.
Jackson seems to brighten after seeing him, but friends still worry about her. "She's passed the stage of crying over him. Now she's just trying hard to get him back," says Smith.
Still, they know she's lonely. She seems to have withdrawn into her own world. "In the past, she was very energetic, very outgoing," says Reverend Minor. "I've noticed that the impact of this has caused her to be more introverted . . . I hope it doesn't turn into something chronic."
The summer has been hard. She gets animated talking about all the things she loved to do with Thomas. Picnics, movies, going to the pool. All the stuff she doesn't do anymore. "My life," she says, "is a great big zero without my baby."
Most days after work, she takes the paper or a magazine to the bar down the street. The place serves beer in the can and offers three eggs and toast for 99 cents, but she sticks to Pepsi. Sometimes she brings her own coffee. "Theirs is awful."
She started coming in the spring. For two months, she sat in the corner alone, reading. Slowly, she got to know the regulars. On a Friday afternoon in early August, she acts as if she owns the place. A guy at the bar gives her a hug when she walks in. So does a lady in spandex shorts and a Cops T-shirt. On a television in the corner, reruns of L.A. Law play over the din of the afternoon crowd.
A month ago, the owner, Roy, took out the jukebox and put in a karaoke machine. Now Jackson doesn't leave the place without singing at least one song. It's usually something slow, like "The Rose" or "Killing Me Softly."
Today, it's "Unchained Melody," the maudlin Righteous Brothers tune. Roy calls out her name. She strolls up to the front part of the bar, takes the microphone, and the music begins. As she stands there, the gold pendant with Thomas's picture dangles from her neck. She unconsciously touches it as she sings.