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Race, Politics Hit Custody Battle

August 11, 1998

CHICAGO (AP) _ ``Give the baby back!″ a white motorist yells as he slowly drives past the neighborhood ward office of Alderman Edward Burke.

In front of the office, a black minister pushes an empty baby carriage back and forth to symbolize his belief that Burke and his wife are trying to steal a black child.

The Burkes, who are white, want to adopt Baby T., a 2 1/2-year-old boy who was placed in their foster care after he was born with cocaine in his system. Tina Olison, the child’s mother, wants him back.

Race isn’t the only thing twisting this case, however. Olison claims that in trying to be reunited with her son, she must overcome not only her own troubled past but also the influence the Burkes wield in Chicago.

Anne Burke is an Illinois appeals court judge; her husband is an ex-cop, a lawyer and a powerful political insider, influential in slating Democratic candidates for judgeships.

Olison, 36, is a recovered drug addict who has lost all three of her children to the state’s child welfare agency.

Now she’s fighting the Cook County State’s Attorney’s effort to permanently end her parental rights. Her case, which goes to trial next month, is being watched by many blacks who consider the Burkes’ custody of Baby T. a cruel irony because the alderman fought bitterly with the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.

``Ed Burke has never done anything for the African-American community,″ said the Rev. Al Sampson, taking a break from his lonely vigil with the baby carriage at Burke’s ward office. ``The Burkes should go to Ireland and adopt an Irish kid.″

Since shortly after birth, Baby T. has lived in the Burkes’ spacious brick home in a blue-collar neighborhood of mostly whites and Latinos, where there are few blacks, if any.

The Burkes, both 54, have four grown children of their own and had another foster child before Baby T. Anne Burke said terms of their foster care license forbid them from discussing any children in their custody.

Olison began drinking in junior high, and by the time she graduated from high school she was downing a six-pack of beer and a fifth of hard liquor a day. Next came drugs.

Her first two children were raised by their grandmother, where they were placed by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

But when Baby T. was born, the grandmother refused to take him, in order to force Olison into a drug rehab program.

Olison doesn’t complain about how the Burkes have raised Baby T.

``Anne Burke seems like a loving person,″ she said. ``I’m sure she loves him, but she acts like it’s her child instead of mine.″

More to the point, she says, is whether she’s getting a fair chance to prove she can be a good parent.

Olison has completed an 18-month drug recovery program, and unannounced tests by the state have shown her clean since. She continued outpatient therapy and now holds two jobs, as a certified nursing assistant and with a catering company.

The Department of Children and Family Services officially intended to work toward returning Baby T. to his mother, and Olison’s attorney, Anita Rivkin-Carothers, said Olison has done everything the agency asked her to do.

But in July 1997, the Burkes indicated an interest in adopting the child.

``That’s when the system stopped working,″ Rivkin-Carothers said.

``The Cook County Democratic political machine went to work within the juvenile court system″ to help the Burkes, she said.

Three months after the Burkes expressed their interest in adoption, DCFS changed its goal for Baby T _ recommending that the boy stay with his foster parents.

The agency said it based its about-face on a report by an independent team of social workers who accused Olison of verbally harassing them when she felt she may lose all rights to her child. One psychologist described her anger as ``intense and menacing.″

Olison doesn’t deny being angry when she ``felt they already had made up their mind. ``But I didn’t jump up and slap someone, I didn’t act out.″

Rivkin-Carothers, convinced her client had no hope against the Burkes in a Cook County court, appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Supreme Court responded by appointing a judge from Republican Will County to hear the case on Olison’s fitness.

When asked about the allegations of political influence, Burke spokesman Donal Quinlan said he would convey the question to Burke, but there was no response from the alderman.

Olison and her attorney are not the only ones implying that the Burkes’ power is influencing the case.

Patrick Murphy, who as Cook County Public Guardian is the child’s legal protector, said he found the independent social workers’ report on Olison ``insubstantial.″ He has reversed his support for adoption and arranged for an independent assessment of the mother.

DCFS responded by unsuccessfully trying to have Murphy removed from the case. When a top DCFS official wrote him a letter accusing him of negligence, Murphy responded that never in his 30 years in the juvenile justice system had the agency initiated contact with him.

He wrote back: ``I presume that the letter is in response to pressure placed on you.″

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