At the age of 6, Lanetta Haynes, along with her four siblings, was removed from the South Side home of her mother due to her mother’s addiction to drugs.

It was an event that would shape not only Haynes’ childhood, but her professional career as well. It was the impetus for her to become a child welfare advocate with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Cook County.

Haynes and her siblings were placed in the custody of their grandmother. However, because of her age and fading health, her grandmother was unable to adequately care for all five children.

After a few months, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services removed Haynes, her younger brother and two younger sisters and placed them in foster care, leaving her older sister behind.

“They reasoned that since my sister was 10 she could live with my grandmother without putting too much pressure on her physically,” said Haynes, now 30. “Meanwhile, the rest of us were like stair steps-my brother was 4 and sisters were 3 and 2-and we were fortunate to find a foster mother that would take us all in.”

Haynes spent 12 years in the foster care system, most of that time with the same foster mother. She was a South Side retired school teacher. However, throughout this juncture Haynes said that she and her siblings experienced abuses of the system by their foster mother and a perhaps indifference and malaise by the child protective program. This left them susceptible to abuse.

“There was physical abuse in the home of my foster mother for most of the time we were there,” Haynes recalled. “Our foster mother did a lot for us. She clothed us, fed us, helped us with our schoolwork, but she used to threaten to ‘place us back in foster care’ if we got out of line. She would reprimand us physically as well.”

One of the flaws in the child welfare system Haynes became acutely aware of at that time was the lack of case worker involvement after her foster mother moved the children to Denver.

The system then, as now, is flooded with case workers with heavy case loads and little time to thoroughly address each case. Consequently, children like Haynes slip through the cracks, and abuses are not discovered until later.

“Caseworkers would come out and check on us very sparingly,” said Haynes. “I think we were hurt by the fact that our case was a bit lost in the bureaucratic shuffle between Chicago and Colorado. Consequently, little was really done about the abuse as it was occurring.”

Eventually, what was going in within the home of her foster mother was discovered, and Haynes moved in with a neighborhood woman for whom she babysat. Her three younger sisters and brother were placed in the care of her foster mother’s daughter.

“By that time I knew I wanted to become an attorney to advocate for people who didn’t have a voice,” said Haynes. “These children are shuffled though the system by no fault of their own, becoming wards of the State of Illinois. They sometimes get placed in happy homes with families that truly care for them and other times they are not.

“I want to assure that the ones that do not have the opportunity receive the attention from the state that they need.”

Haynes attended Northwestern University and then graduated from the Loyola University-Chicago School of Law. She began working as an attorney with the City of Chicago, sorting out cases involving traffic violations.

Shortly thereafter, she began working for Life Span Center for Legal Services and Advocacy. The agency is a Chicago-based non-profit that provides advocacy services for victims of domestic violence.

In 2005, Haynes joined the board of directors of CASA of Cook County. CASA trains volunteers to serve as mediators between the courts and the children within the child welfare system.

The volunteers gather information about their child’s biological parents, foster parent or housing facility, and make a recommendation to the court regarding which provider would be in the best interest of the child.

“As of 2008, there are 16,000 children in the child welfare system in Illinois, 7,000 of them in Cook County,” said Haynes. “We at CASA want to serve as advocates for as many of these children as we can. I know what they are going through. I’ve been there. It’s a scary thing to be a child and not feel as though anyone really wants you.”

Last year, CASA served 547 children, with volunteer case workers handling two or three at a time. The volunteers visit the child’s home, the home of their parents, their teachers, their case workers and present their findings to the court and to CASA.

They all receive a rigorous year-long training to become official CASA volunteers. Haynes became the executive director of CASA of Cook County in September 2007.

Each of Haynes’ younger three siblings has also prospered despite the adverse circumstances of their youth. However, her relationship with her older sister is strained.

“We did not grow up together and experience the same things, so I’m not as close with her as I am with my younger brother and two sisters,” said Haynes, who has no children of her own but does have three nieces. “I would at some point like to rebuild that relationship.”

Nevertheless, she continues to work in the capacity that has brought her full circle with her past. She hopes to advocate for up to 53 new children this year.

Step out for CASA

On May 29, the CASA of Cook County is sponsoring the "Put Your Foot Down Run and Walk" in Lincoln Park. It is a fundraiser for the organization. For more information contact CASA of Cook County at 312/433-4928 or www.casacookcounty.org.