Homelessness, asthma force family to give up children

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News
  • Malik Cole is among 24,000 Detroit kids with asthma, which can be triggered by traumatic experiences
  • Malik Cole’s family has been without a home for about a year and sometimes sleeps in the car
  • Throughout a year-long ordeal of homelessness, Malik’s mom carried his inhalers in a backpack
  • Siretha Lattimore turned her kids over to state protection workers in part to help Malik’s asthma

On a cold Monday in late October, Siretha Lattimore decided to turn her children over to state child protection workers.

Siretha Lattimore tries to cheer up her son, Malik Cole, 9, who lives in a foster home so he can get the needed care for his asthma. Lattimore and Dwayne Cole could not afford a home and decided to turn over their four children to the state.

The temperature in Detroit had dropped into the 40s overnight, too cold for 9-year-old Malik, who has asthma, to spend another night sleeping in the family’s car. His chronic breathing difficulties had worsened.

“It just takes a lot out of him, and I don’t want nothing to happen to him to get pneumonia again,” Lattimore said.

About two-thirds of Detroit children are dealing with adversity of some kind — extreme poverty, homelessness, broken families or other problems. There is scientific evidence that these experiences are making it difficult for Detroit kids to breathe, and Malik Cole is one of them.

“I can’t have air. Or it feels like somebody is choking me,” Malik said of his asthma. “... I feel like I am dying.”

Hardships boost asthma rate for Detroit kids

Malik Cole is among 24,000 Detroit kids with asthma. A sweet boy whose favorite school subject is science, he has been raised in a nuclear family with his mother, father Dwayne Cole and siblings Jaretha Cole, 11, Shamika Cole, 7, and 4-year-old Jaden, who has autism. But Malik’s childhood has been marred by struggle.

Dwayne Cole, 40, works full time for an auto parts manufacturer, but the family has been without a home for about a year. They lost their rental home after they purchased a car and got behind on their rent.

Cole earns about $12.25 an hour, Lattimore said — about $24,500 annually, or $2,250 monthly before taxes. The family gets food stamps but no cash assistance. Lattimore said caring for one child with severe asthma and another with autism makes it impossible for her to hold a job.

“Because of our finances ... we had to choose between ... getting a vehicle to keep his job” and making the housing payment, the mother explained.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health examined the number of adverse childhood experiences faced by children in the nation’s 18 largest cities. They looked at parents’ answers on the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health to questions about whether their child was affected by extreme poverty, crime or other stresses.

More than 50,000 Detroit kids have had at least one such experience, and more than 77,000 are affected by two or more such experiences, the researchers found. For example, Detroit has more children — 34 percent — living in extreme poverty than any of the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Extreme poverty is defined as a family of four living on about $12,125 or less annually.

Detroit’s children are the least likely among kids in the country’s 18 largest cities to avoid stressful experiences that can help trigger asthma. About 34 percent of Detroit children face no stressful experiences, compared with a national average of 52.1 percent. Philadelphia had the next lowest measure with 40 percent of kids facing no traumatic experiences.

Malik appears to be one of the children affected by stressful situations. Throughout a year-long ordeal of homelessness, Lattimore carried Malik’s inhalers in a backpack and met regularly with Elizabeth Milton, an asthma home educator. Milton works for Better Life Learning, a Birmingham-based company hired by the family’s Medicaid health maintenance organization to provide case management for kids with severe asthma.

Siretha Lattimore, right, and her 9-year-old asthmatic son, Malik Cole, examine an inhaler during a meeting with asthma educator Elizabeth Milton in Detroit.

During a meeting at a Detroit community center in early October, Milton examined Malik, noting that his shoulders were hunched and he had dark circles under his eyes, signs he was struggling to breathe. She told Lattimore how to step up Malik’s medication and explained when to go to the hospital.

“If (his) lips or fingernails turn blue or gray, that is a 911 situation,” Milton said. “If it’s faster to go in the car, because unfortunately (Detroit’s EMS) response time is low, then you get in the car and you go to the nearest emergency room.”

The family started living in shelters, but most limit stays to 30 days. Then they lived in “transitional housing,” a shelter that required $400 a month for one room with a half-bath. They had only a microwave for cooking, but stopped using it because cockroaches were getting inside, Lattimore said. Cockroach feces, a known allergen, were aggravating Malik’s asthma.

Experts: More solutions needed to curb urban asthma

“When we was in the shelter, it made it (worse) because of the mice, roaches and the deplorable conditions that was in there. It wasn’t safe,” Lattimore said.

The family struggled to pay $100 per week for their room, partly due to the expense of restaurant meals. They also have the expense of a storage unit where they keep all of their possessions. If they missed a weekly payment at the shelter, the electricity in their room was shut off, Lattimore said. Eventually, they were evicted from transitional housing.

“One of the biggest problems this family is facing is that she doesn’t want to go to a shelter without the father, and there are very few places for families,” Milton said. “Siretha wants to keep the family together.

Lattimore estimates it would cost about $700 monthly for housing that meets the minimum needs of a family of six, slightly less than 40 percent of their pre-tax monthly income. The family has been on a waiting list to receive state emergency assistance for a down payment, damage deposit and other requirements.

“I’ve written a letter to (the state) trying to let them know about the issues,” Milton said about the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“I explained to them about conditions at the shelter that they were in so they could get some help for this family. They just weren’t responsive immediately for this family.”

A relative took in the children for a while, and the parents slept outside in the car. But the relative found it too stressful to care for the children because of their special needs, and they soon were no longer welcome.

“Ms. Lattimore’s story is not unique, unfortunately,” Milton said. “There are families that are dealing with a lot of psycho-social stressers.”

At a playground near his school on Oct. 26, Malik sat listlessly on a swing, watching his feet brush the ground. Asked if he felt sad, he nodded his head.

“He’s taking it real hard, but he’s not showing it yet until it happens,” said Lattimore, who told the children of her decision earlier that day to surrender them to state child welfare officials.

Soon, the children were bundled into the family car. The kids wore their winter jackets and carried their school backpacks. Jaretha hugged her stuffed bear.

Siretha Lattimore and Dwayne Cole have a family photo taken before turning over their children, Jaden, 4, Shamika, 7, Malik, 9, and Jaretha, 11, to state child protection workers in October. The family had been sleeping in their car, making Malik’s asthma worse. The kids now live in separate foster homes.

Then Cole, Lattimore and their four children entered the state Department of Health and Human Services office together, knowing they soon would be separated.

The children now live in four separate foster homes, while Lattimore and Cole have found separate beds at shelters on opposite sides of the city.

During a Monday visit at a playground, Malik sobbed and begged his parents to keep him with them. Clinging to Lattimore and Cole, he said he didn’t want to go home with his foster mother, who waited nearby in her car.

“It’s going to be soon,” Lattimore said, reassuring Malik that they would be reunited. “The days (will) fly by quickly”.

“It’s too long!” Malik wailed.

The family’s housing challenge, and the question of when they will be reunited, will be considered at a Thursday hearing in the family division of Detroit’s Third Circuit Court.