Child Protective Services Keeps Mom Away From Terminally Ill Daughter
By Mike Hudson
"It's like a nightmare that's never ending. We both made a mistake, and we're trying to get over it. We want our life back."
Lisa Miljour had a bad night. Her mom, Donna Chew, called from Cleveland that evening to tell her that her beloved grandmother was dying of cancer. Perhaps foolishly, Miljour responded to her grief by going out and buying a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon. Her older daughters, Donella, 7, and Rubi, 5, were spending the weekend with their father. Her youngest, 19-month-old Maxine, was asleep in her crib.
Miljour's boyfriend and the father of Maxine, George Billings, came by and the couple began drinking. Soon, they began to argue, and a physical altercation ensued.
Neighbors called the cops, and two undercover narcotics detectives were soon knocking on Miljour's door. Dressed in street clothes common to Miljour's Cudaback Avenue neighborhood, they were not immediately recognized as police officers, Miljour said.
"I thought they were just some nice guys from the neighborhood checking to see that everything was all right," she said.
The situation quickly deteriorated, according to both Miljour and the arresting officers. By the time it was over, the couple was under arrest, charged with assaulting each other, resisting arrest and endangering the welfare of a child. The baby Maxine was remanded to the custody of Child Protective Services which placed her in foster care.
Despite the fact that there was no prior record of any kind of abuse in the home and that Miljour's previous criminal record had amounted to a single seat belt violation, Child Protective Services caseworker Diane Fire took a tough stand. Not only would Maxine remain in a foster home with strangers, but Miljour was forbidden from further contact with her two older daughters as well.
She could visit the girls under supervised conditions at the county welfare office for one hour each week, Fire ruled.
On her first such visit, Miljour said, she noticed that her older daughter, seven-year-old Donella, had developed a facial tic and that her hands were trembling.
"I told the supervisor something's wrong and she said it was nothing," Miljour said. "I said no, she's going to the hospital."
Donella was taken to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and finally to Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo where she was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. Surgery was followed by a series of intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Back in the middle-class Cleveland suburb of Garfield Heights, Miljour's mother and Maxine's grandmother, Donna Chew, grew even more alarmed. She dropped everything to drive to Niagara Falls and, following a court hearing, was granted temporary custody of the baby Maxine.
While acknowledging Miljour's mistake, Chew defended her daughter.
"She's always been a good mother," she said of Lisa. "She never took welfare. When her marriage broke up, she took a job at Pete's and then got hired at the Como Deli. She worked five days a week to support those kids on her own. She couldn't even afford a car. She walked to work, walked to the grocery store, everywhere and in all weather."
But it didn't matter to Fire or anyone else at Child Protective Services, Chew said. In fact, the agency took Chew to court in order to force her to return the infant Maxine to foster care. In the worst winter weather, Chew had to make the 3-1/2 hour drive from Cleveland to Niagara Falls for no fewer than seven court appearances, most of which lasted for 15 minutes or less, she said.
"We're trying to be good citizens, we're trying to do everything they say," she said. "But it doesn't seem to do any good."
Baby Maxine was taken away from her loving grandmother and put back into a foster home.
Meanwhile, Donella's condition took a turn for the worse. The grim prognosis is that the once vibrant young girl now has three to four months to live.
And Child Protective Services, in the person of caseworker Diane Fire, still refuses to let her mother see her except for the one-hour-a-week supervised visitation periods.
"It's inhuman," Chew said. "That poor little girl, in intensive care, isn't even allowed to see the mother she loves."
Miljour said that court appointed attorneys for her and Billings say that the criminal charges against them will likely be dropped at a hearing scheduled for today (Feb.11). Neither wishes to testify against the other and no one was physically injured in the altercation that tore the family asunder.
Ultimately, the fate of the children will be determined by Family Court Judge Kathleen Wojtaszek-Gariano, who must decide whether one bad night should deny a dying girl the right to see the mother she loves under any but the most restricted conditions.
While Chew said the judge seems sympathetic to the family's plight, she has little but contempt for Child Protective Services. With her mother dying in Cleveland and her granddaughter dying in Niagara Falls, the days have been hard, she said.
"They say they care about the family but they don't," she said. "We've been fighting this for four months and they've gone out of their way to make it very difficult."
Miljour said she hasn't given up hope on Donella's chances of survival. She has been in contact with the pediatric brain tumor center at the renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and hopes to take her daughter there in order to get a second opinion.
Any such plans would have to be approved by Diane Fire and Child Protective Services, of course. Currently, the family is attempting to drum up funding from other family members to hire an attorney to aid them in their struggle.
"When you don't have any money, it's like you don't have a voice," Miljour said. "But we've always been fighters, and I'll go all the way for my daughter."
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
Feb 11, 2014