In the Spotlight

News & Features
Revisiting Janet's Children
By Elizabeth Stawicki
February 25, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Two and half years ago, Minnesota Public Radio brought you "Janet's Children", a report about a former crack addict and mother who had lost custody of five children and who was in danger of losing her last two. At the time, the odds that Janet would successfully meet the county's requirements to keep her two youngest children appeared bleak. But , Janet has beaten the odds:

AS OFTEN HAPPENS IN HENNEPIN COUNTY JUVENILE COURT, the judge is running late - an hour and a half late. Janet, a shorter woman with a round face, little make-up and light-brown hair says she can wait a bit longer before she goes before the judge.

Janet has waited nearly four years for this day. Judge Pam Alexander tells her she's done well. Today, Janet's two children are hers free and clear; she no longer has to undergo random drug tests or answer to anyone about how she raises her two children.

Janet's reaction?

Janet: It's a relief to not be supervised anymore, but I think the biggest piece is: if not for their intervention, I would not be where I am today. I'm nervous about the not ... direct interaction with them but I do have access to the people I've worked with so all I have to do is pick up the phone if I'm banging my head against the wall.
Looking at Janet's history, one might wonder how she could ever become a fit mother by anyone's standards. She used drugs, she chose her abusive boyfriends over her children and she worked as a prostitute. Janet's own childhood was marked by years of sexual abuse by her father who had sexual intercourse with her between the ages of 12 and 15.

By 1995, Hennepin County had permanently removed five of Janet's children and placed them for adoption. After her arrest in a drug raid, the county planned to permanently remove her remaining two children.
Janet: The biggest thing I learned is that everybody needs help and I don't have to be afraid to ask for it; there's a cartoon character - Sheerah - who I always think about who can handle it all because the reality is, I can't handle it all; not all by myself.
Alexander: Janet had a very hard uphill battle; very hard because she had to change a lifestyle she had been embroiled in her entire life.
Hennepin County Juvenile Judge Pam Alexander.
Alexander: She had to make some very hard choices; they were not easy for her because she knew no different. so we had to teach her something that was different. She was accepting of that, motivated enough because she loved her children enough to try something different, not only for herself but mostly motivated for her children.
That teaching came in the form of psychological therapy for Janet and her two children, chemical dependency treatment, several 12-step programs and parenting classes.

Still, Janet has slipped along the way. She disobeyed court orders to stay away from the children's abusive father, and urinalysis showed she had used cocaine. Maya Tester, the county prosecutor in Janet's case, says if she could, she would keep Janet's case open until the youngest child becomes an adult. But Tester also says Janet has made great progress and has, for the most part, followed the county's rules for the past year and a half.
Tester: She's maintained sobriety, she now has a job, she's acknowledging the second layer of issues which in her case was the incest, and is starting to deal with those issues in therapy, she's very bonded to her kids, they're very bonded with her; she's doing well. She had one positive urinalysis. Is that enough? Is that in the children's best interest to set all that progress she's made aside and the future they might have with her? I don't think any judge would've terminated her parental rights because of that one urinalysis.
Judge Alexander says it's easy for the public to judge Janet and parents like her solely on their past, but that is unrealistic. Alexander says termination is not always the right solution.
Alexander: To be taken away from a parent is synonymous to a death. It's also quite easy for people to say "Oh gee, just terminate her parental rights and go to someone else". The problem is we don't have a lot of people lining up out there. Even though it might be a noble goal, there are not people waiting to adopt cocaine-addicted babies and there are not a lot people lining up saying "let's have these children who have their own difficulties in my family". So our best bet is to try to rehabilitate the family they already have. And in some cases it may be successful as in Janet's. In others it may not be. However, we should give them an opportunity to try.
Social workers say Janet's children are doing well in school. Both are earning good grades and have served on their student councils.

While her two children are at school, Janet drives a van for special needs children.

She says she enjoys the work but worries how she and her children will get along once her medical-assistance benefits run out in July. The transportation company does not offer health or vacation benefits.

The emotional hurdles in front of Janet are still huge. She says she's preparing for the day when her older children will return to ask why Janet could not repair her life in time to be a mother to them. And with the children who live with her now, she must deal with the absence of their father, an abusive man who has failed to kick drugs.
Janet: They'll say "Mom, where's my dad? What's my dad doing? Can we go see him?". And right now we can't do that because we're not in a good place. And I have to keep them safe as I can. because I don't know what kind of frame of mind he's in. I think the kids get mad at me. I keep telling them that when they're a little older, they'll understand. They may not thank me for it, but they'll understand.
Janet has overcome drug addiction and other court-ordered hurdles to regain custody of her children. But this year she has set for herself the toughest challenge of all: confronting her parents with the emotional damage she suffered as a victim of incest by her father, and her mother's failure to protect her.

Elizabeth Stawicki covers legal issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at