For the last year, Sondra Sykes, 44, worked hard to prove she was a good mother who deserved to get her four youngest children back from foster care. She had several strikes against her: no job, a criminal record and, most worrisome for social workers handling her case, she was mentally ill.
Los Angeles County has seen foster care rolls shrink in recent years as more children have been adopted or reunited with their parents. Among the remaining cases, some of the most challenging involve mentally ill parents. Nearly a fifth of the 4,468 children removed from their homes by L.A. County social workers last year had a parent who was mentally ill or impaired, according to county records.
Last month, social workers faced a worst-case scenario when a mother with a history of mental health problems decapitated her 4-year-old son in Highland Park and then killed herself.
Social and mental health workers had investigated Yolanda Tijerina, 43, nine months earlier after the principal at her son's preschool reported her erratic behavior. Lars Sanchez was left in his mother's care after investigators closed the case in a matter of days, deciding the home was stabilized and Lars was at "low" risk. County leaders have since called for increased monitoring of mentally ill parents.
But county social workers who respond to reports of abuse and neglect caution that while they ask about a parent's mental stability, such problems alone are not grounds to remove a child or force a parent to seek help.
"If they don't want treatment when we knock on their door, and their mental health issues are not serious enough that it puts the children at risk, we have to walk away," said Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director with the Department of Children and Family Services.
Local social service agencies have begun to work more closely with mental health officials to reunite families separated because of a parent's mental illness. Of the 7,346 foster children the county attempted to return to their families last year, about 44% had parents with mental health issues, county records show.
When mentally ill parents are stable and in treatment, Sophy believes it is best for children to be cared for by them. "Children belong with their families," he said. "It's a longing they will have if it's not dealt with."
Sykes is one of more than 200 women who have sought help through the Women's Reintegration Program, created last year after studies showed mentally ill female inmates at the county jail had been incarcerated an average of eight times.
"We were saying, 'It's really important that you take your medication' and they were saying 'I don't have a home and my kids are not living with me,' " said Dr. Kathleen Daly, the county Mental Health Department's director of adult justice, housing, employment and education services. "We were not addressing their needs and until you do that, you can't address the treatment."
Sykes -- who was first diagnosed as bipolar in high school -- lost custody of her four youngest children in December 2007. The children were sent to foster care after sheriff's deputies were called to Sykes' home in South Los Angeles to involuntarily commit her to a hospital at her psychologist's request. At the time, Sykes said she had run out of anti-depressants, had trouble sleeping and drank some wine to help her sleep.
After losing her children, Sykes was arrested April 1, 2008, for making criminal threats against her sister. She pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to six months in county jail. She then moved into a halfway house in South L.A. and a county social worker referred her to the reintegration program.
About 90% of women in the program have children, many in foster care, county staff said. Because so many are trying to regain custody of their children, the county offers a support group and classes in parenting, relationships, life-planning and job skills. Among mentally ill parents trying to get their children out of foster care last year, about 84% had parenting issues and 58% had substance-abuse issues, according to county records.
Sykes met regularly with a psychologist and psychiatrist, who prescribed Lithium to stabilize her mood and Benadryl to help her sleep, and started attending weekly substance-abuse and relationship classes.
Therapists accompanied her to court, and helped her avoid outbursts by instructing her to scrawl her emotions on a legal pad. They worked with her public defender to win supervised visits with her children, who had been placed in a foster home in Lancaster.
The social worker assigned to her case began noticing improvements in the way Sykes handled herself, and volunteered to work weekends so Sykes could visit her children.
"Sondra would walk in the rain to get to a visit," said social worker Elizabeth Tesseo. "She really cares for those children and they really care for her."
In January, a judge ruled Sykes could be reunited with her children -- if she could find a four-bedroom home. A month later, with financial help from the county, she had signed a lease. In late March she became the first mother in the reintegration program to be reunited with her children.
When 16-year-old Stedman, 14-year-old Lexus, 9-year-old Ronnique and 4-year-old Ronniesha arrived to claim their rooms, Sykes said they seemed not just bigger, but more reserved.
Sometimes the children were defiant, saying they did not have to obey their mother because she had abandoned them.
"No, you're not going to blackmail me," Sykes told her children, using parenting skills she'd been taught. "You still have rules. You still have your bedtime and you have to do your homework."
Despite the tensions, Tesseo noticed an improvement in the children's attitudes. Lexus made the honor roll with a 4.0 average. Ronniesha insisted on sleeping in their mother's room.
"It's almost like they never were taken away," Tesseo said. "They're very close with her."
Sykes has continued to attend monthly counseling sessions. She is on track to complete the family reunification process by Sept. 26, a department spokeswoman said this week.