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Ex-drug addict now helps reunite families Des Moines Iowa

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on Tue, 08/21/2012 - 21:42
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DES MOINES, Iowa -- No matter what they've done, no matter what they've been through, troubled young parents can't shock JoAnna Davis.

Davis once loved crack cocaine more than she loved her daughter. She was forced to choose between them seven years ago, and, for a time, she chose crack.

The Iowa Department of Human Services took her 11-year-old daughter away in 2005, after Davis left the girl with a friend during a cocaine binge. That experience and other people's encounters with the department led Davis to denounce state social workers, who she said were callously breaking up poor families.

"They have abused their power and treat our children like an undercover slavery," she declared at a church-hall meeting she helped organize. "Our time is now to take back what the devil has stolen from us!"

But the prospect of losing her daughter forever pushed Davis into sobering up and regaining custody. Eventually, she would thank God that someone reported her to the state. Her change of heart became complete when she went to work for the department. She now travels central Iowa, mentoring parents who have lost custody of their children or are on the brink of it.

Davis works in the department's "parent partner" program: Iowans who have managed to regain their children from foster care advise families now going through the traumatic process.

The agency is considering expanding the program statewide, which would make it the largest such effort in the country, said Wendy Rickman, a department administrator.

Davis, 41, tells troubled parents that if she could straighten up her life and regain her child, they can, too. She can tell them about the 17 years she worked as a stripper, dancing at clubs in Des Moines and around the Midwest. She can recall being so addicted to drugs that she became a prostitute and a thief. She can talk matter-of-factly about being sexually abused as a child, dropping out of school in ninth grade, bearing two sons by 17 and having her nose repeatedly broken by a man she trusted. She's lived in nice apartments and slept in abandoned garages.

"A lot of things happened to me, but the great thing is, none of it goes to waste," she said in a recent interview. "I used to be such an angry person, but I'm so happy now. I'm an over-comer. I'm victorious."

Her anger was on full display in 2009, when she helped lead protest meetings against the Department of Human Services. Davis stood up and hurled venom at state officials during rallies at inner-city churches.

A video from one rally shows Davis standing in front of a wooden cross, gripping a microphone with one hand and thrusting the index finger of her other hand in the air to punctuate her points. She spoke in a preacher's cadence, her voice rising in pitch and volume as she denounced DHS as "the enemy."

Davis compared social workers to drug dealers, peddling evil. "This corrupted system called the Department of Human Service sees only one thing -- guess what? Profit in people, our children," she said. Members of the crowd called out, "That's right," "You go, girl" and "Amen."

Helping families

Rickman, the DHS administrator, attended those rallies to demonstrate that the agency was willing to listen to critics. She saw the power of Davis' testimony. "Boy, she was good at it," Rickman recalled. "She could really get a room moving."

Rickman dismissed the claim that social workers had evil intentions. But she agreed that too many young children, especially black children, were being removed from families and placed in foster homes. Black children in Iowa are nearly four times more likely than average to be placed in foster care.

Those numbers can't be explained away by poverty alone, Rickman said. Removal of a child is a last resort, because it can devastate everyone in the family. Department leaders knew they needed to find better ways to help families avoid that fate while still protecting children from abuse and neglect. But they never figured their critics' ringleader would help them do it.

Denise Moore, who helps run the parent partners program, remembers getting a call from Davis a few months after the church-hall rallies. Davis asked to meet with Moore at a coffee shop. Once there, Davis said she wanted to join her program. "She explained, 'Look, I realize I was on the wrong side. I really want to help families. I just didn't know how to go about it,'" Moore said. "She realized she'd been going down the wrong path."

Rickman was stunned when Moore told her about Davis' change of heart. "When I heard that JoAnna wanted to be a parent partner, I was like, 'Oh, holy buckets!'" Rickman recalled. "I didn't know how I felt about that."

Drugs 'ripped my whole life apart'

Davis said her trip down the wrong path started when she was molested by another girl when she was about 4. By the time she was 13, she was running away from home. By her late teens, she'd lost custody of two young sons. At times, she said, she made thousands of dollars a week as a stripper nicknamed Jojo. But by her mid-30s, that part of her life was over, and she was struggling to raise her daughter, Chelcie, while addicted to crack.

Chelcie was in her late elementary-school years during the worst of it. "There were times when she knew I was getting high, and she'd bang on the door and say, 'Mommy, come out of there. Why are you doing this to our life? I just want to die,'" Davis said. "She would say things like that, and she was like 10 years old. I was so caught up in the drug, that I couldn't hear that little voice."

When she'd come down from the high, Davis would tell her daughter how sorry she was. "I think Chelcie got tired of all the 'Sorrys,'" Davis said.

Chelcie was 11 when DHS took her away. She spent several weeks in foster care, then was placed with Davis' mother for about eight months. Davis sank further into drugs, moving to Omaha and making no effort to win back custody.

Davis' mindset shifted when she received a notice that the state intended to sever her parental rights permanently.

She panicked, took a bus back to Des Moines and threw herself into an addiction-treatment program. She'd gone through treatment before, but never with such a serious incentive to succeed, she said. "I was ready."

She appreciates now that department administrators had the backbone to attend her protest meetings. When she heard about the parent partners program, she embraced the idea.

"I finally found a purpose," she said.

One mom's story

Davis works with about 25 families at a time, one of the largest caseloads among the 100 or so mentors in the program. She visits new participants about once a week for the first couple of months, and encourages them to call her cellphone any time when they need advice or a sympathetic ear.

She goes with them to court hearings, support-group meetings and sessions with their state social workers. She advises them on how to share their views respectfully, without seeming angry. And she encourages them to remain patient while getting themselves straight.

Some parents resist her help, at least at first. Megan Moss was one of them.

Moss, 28, lost custody of her two young children in December 2010. Someone had reported that she'd been taking methamphetamine in front of the kids, and state social workers decided they were unsafe with her. She couldn't argue the point.

Davis tried to reach out to her, but had no luck. "She ignored my phone calls for a good month," Davis said. Then one night at 11 o'clock, Moss found herself wandering the streets during a snowstorm. She had no one to talk to.

She called Davis from a pay phone. "JoAnna," she said, "I'm in trouble." She wanted to clean up her life and earn her children back.

Within weeks, she was in treatment for addiction. Then she went to a halfway house for several months. She now has a modest, subsidized duplex in Des Moines, and she regained custody of her children last fall.

Davis continues to stop by Moss' home a couple of times a month. On her most recent visit, she didn't even reach the doorbell when Moss' kids, Treyven, 4, and Nevaeh, 7, burst through the front door with a cry of "JoAnna's here!" They wrapped their arms around her legs and waist as she reached down to hug them.

The two women sit at the kitchen table to discuss how Moss is faring. They talk about setting schedules and rules for the children. Davis helps Moss focus on what needs to be done to prepare for the coming school year.

A state social worker also makes regular visits, but Moss said their relationship feels official. With Davis, she said, it's different.

"It's like having a friend stop by to see how you're doing," Moss said. "JoAnna can relate to me, and she helps me understand DHS perspective on things, even when I don't want to hear what DHS has to say."

By Tony Leys, The Des Moines Register