Peoria Journal Star

Foster family battles DCFS child abuse charges
Woman says she spent days naked n mental unit at Peoria jail

Monday, September 1, 2003


PEORIA - At first, Verlie Hicks was frightened and confused when she was arrested, held naked in a mental health unit at the Peoria County Jail because she refused to remove braids from her hair, and falsely accused of burning a baby in her care with cigarettes. Now she's angry and is looking for a lawyer.

"I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I lost 25 pounds in one week. I went to the hospital," she said, where doctors treated her for irritable bowel syndrome caused by stress. "I went through a lot."

Hicks, 28, was arrested last fall on a charge of aggravated battery to a child. No charges were filed against her by the Peoria County State's Attorney's Office, meaning the criminal case was dropped, though she did not know it until a few days before the July court date.

She and her husband, Steve Hicks, 44, said they had been licensed foster parents for more than three years when she was falsely accused of injuring the baby.

After local child welfare officials decided the charges were unfounded, a caseworker from the Children's Home called and offered them more foster children, the couple said, with bitter laughter. They declined, they said. Foster parents should know what can happen to them, Verlie Hicks said..

Verlie Hicks own daughter, 10, an A-student in school, was taken away and placed in foster care with a grandmother. Steve Hicks was barred from their home. They spent $3,700 on a lawyer to get their daughter back in their care, money they could ill afford, they said. Steve Hicks is a construction worker. Verlie Hicks is studying child development at Illinois Central College.

Their ordeal is not over. In September, they will attend hearings before an administrative law judge to get their names cleared with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, where theyre still listed as child abusers.

DCFS spokeswoman Marjorie Newman said agency records show both are listed as child abusers, for the substantial risk of physical harm, because children in their care had cuts, bruises or welts. Some type of abuse took place. The child was not harmed, but could have been.

The agency has nothing in its records about cigarette burns or ringworm, she said.

Verlie Hicks said the agencys record keeping is faulty.

I never abused a child in my life, especially a baby, she said, adding, They failed to listen to me, just put me in jail.

The couple said their story began last fall when the Childrens Home, which places foster children for the DCFS, asked them to take four siblings, a 1- year-old, a 2-year-old and two brothers, ages 8 and 12. The two older children had behavior problems, they said.

One night, the couple and the older children saw a television news program about foster children in Chicago that had been locked in a basement, Verlie Hicks said. A few weeks later, the 12-year- old reported to a caseworker that he had been locked in a basement and deprived of food.

That triggered an investigation, which proved unfounded, they said, but investigators found marks on the babies, and accused the couple of burning them with cigarettes, even though neither one smokes and smoking is not allowed in their home.

The marks were from ringworm, Verlie Hicks said, which the children acquired at a day care center. But before she could produce the records of doctor visits and treatments, the couple was told to report to the Childrens Home for a conference and to bring the baby. The other children were going for a parental visit.

The Hickses then were taken to the Peoria Police Department, questioned separately for more than three hours and told falsely that the other had confessed to child abuse and neglect, they said.

Verlie Hicks said she kept trying to explain that she had doctors records to prove the baby had ringworm, but police wouldnt listen. She was arrested and taken to jail. She believed her husband also had been arrested, though he had been released.

At the jail, when she refused to unbraid her hair, braids she had just paid to have done, jailers took away all her clothing and gave her only a small blanket that did not completely cover her body, she said. For more than two days she was locked in a cell without a toilet or sink, she said, adding they said she was on a suicide watch.

She is seeking a lawyer, but finding the money to pay for a consultation has been difficult, she said.

One officer, she said, called me a black (racial slur), and used an obscenity to tell her to shut up when she asked to go to the bathroom.

Another officer who recognized her name and knew her husband gave her a jumpsuit to wear and let her use the telephone, she said. After about 40 hours in jail, she was released on a recognizance bond.

Sheriff Mike McCoy said he doubted parts of Verlie Hickss account of her stay in jail, but will investigate if she complains.

Inmates who refuse to take braids from their hair, which may be secured with rubber bands or contain metal, both of which could be used as weapons, are isolated, jail superintendent Steve Smith said.

Suicidal inmates are stripped of their clothing and given a blanket designed to prevent them from tearing it into strips to harm themselves, Smith said. It gives you pretty much full coverage.

A nurse interviews inmates and determines their mental state, McCoy said.

There are certain rules and regulations you enforce, he said. Jail officials do not tolerate racial slurs or insults toward inmates, he added.

Verlie Hicks said the nurse never asked her about suicide or any mental health issue, and she never threatened to harm herself.

It was because of my hair, she said, adding the nurse threatened to shave her head.

Mary Hixenbaugh, an activist with the watchdog group Keeping Families Together, said the Hickses story does not surprise her.

"You're guilty until youre proven innocent when you deal with the DCFS. And the police follow DCFS instructions," she said.

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Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice