May 1995
Reporting: by Barbara Maddux Text: by Claudia Glenn Dowling

Photograph by Grant Delin
"I knew when I met the Damms I would never forget them,"says Mary Ellen Mark, posing for Jesse Damm. "I did this story to help these children and others like them."

Doing the Right Thing

Eight years ago LIFE published a series of wrenching photographs by Mary Ellen Mark of Linda and Dean Damm and their two children--a homeless family in Los Angeles. Our readers rose to the occasion: You sent money, household goods, offers of help. You opened your hearts, and your wallets, to a family in need. As journalists, we try not to insert ourselves into our stories, but in this instance our human instincts took over. We sent your contributions on to Dean and Linda Damm.

In this issue we publish some new photos of the Damms (see page 86). Things have changed for the family over the past eight years--almost all for the worse. It's now clear to us, as it will be to you, that at least some of the money sent to them was spent for drugs.

An editor has a responsibility to play it straight with readers. We were wrong in 1987 to think that the Damms could handle receiving a large amount of money at one time. But you were right. Getting involved is always right. I will be sending a personal check not to the Damm family but to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, 332 S. Michigan Avenue, Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60604-4357--one of many organizations that spend their money well, on children who can and must be helped.

Daniel Okrent
Managing Editor



Eight years ago LIFE spent a week with the Damms, a deeply troubled family in Los Angeles. Last fall we tracked them down again: Their lives had gone from grim to intolerable. Their story now is not just one of welfare or drug abuse, or of homelessness, but of an equally desperate social problem: What happens to children whose parents are unfit to care for them?

Crissy, her stepfather, Dean, and mother, Linda, nap in the afternoon. At night, Crissy and Ashley sleep in a twin bed, Summer shares the double bed with her parents, and Jesse sleeps on the living room couch.

Deep in the desert, two hours north of Disneyland, down a dirt track through the cacti, mesquite and Joshua trees, is a former pig farm. Over the door is a sticker reading House of Pain. Here, with no running water, no phone, no electricity, lives the Damm family: Dean, 40, and Linda, 34; her two children from a first marriage, Crissy, 13, and Jesse, 12; the couple's two children, Ashley, six, and Summer, four; and seven dogs, including Dean's pit bull, Master, and Linda's chow, Rapper.

The dogs are barking. An unfamiliar vehicle is coming up the road. Dean and Linda yell to the children to hide in the canyon, and then the two wait--amid broken glass, garbage, junk furniture, tattered porn magazines and dog feces. For four months, this place has been home.

Eight years ago, when LIFE first met the Damms at the Valley Shelter for the homeless in North Hollywood, Calif., Dean Damm vowed, "We're going to get the hell out of this lifestyle and never look back." Touched by the couple's struggle to get job training and finally move into an apartment of their own, readers sent them $9,000, two used cars, toys and job offers. A plastic surgeon volunteered to remove Linda's tattoos. Actress Cindy Williams donated bunk beds. It looked like the hard times were over.
Four months later, the Damms were on the street again. The money was gone; the cars and furniture were gone, trashed or sold for drugs.

In 1989, Dean and Linda were convicted of willful cruelty to a child, because of neglect and unkempt conditions in the RV that was their home. One-year-old Ashley went to a foster home. Crissy and Jesse were placed with Linda's mother, a former security guard who lives near L.A. After serving a few weeks' time, the couple was put on probation. Before the children could be returned, the two had to take weekly parenting classes. Linda also had to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They got the children back in 1990, after having another baby. Linda, who had her tubes tied, bitterly recalls a social worker's remark: "We keep taking them, and you keep making them."

This morning's visitor is not, as they fear, a caseworker checking on them. A real estate agent, informed by the sheriff that there are squatters on the ranch, has come to clear the Damms out. Dean talks fast, saying he is turning the place into a foster home called Broken Wing. The agent leaves but says he'll be back. "This is our life," says Linda. "We go through one trial, and a worse one comes along."

Linda gets ready to go into town to pick up $239 worth of food stamps. Yesterday she got her $950 check from Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Dean breaks down what he says he's spent: $450, down payment for an unregistered, uninsured, uninspected 1974 Ford van with cracked windshield; $65, battery; $20, gas; $120, used clothes at the American Way thrift shop; $40, T-shirts; $60, owed to a friend; $29, lunch at a burger place; $80, groceries. Left for the month: $86. Dean started a towing business when the children were in foster care and Linda didn't get her AFDC check. "Once they take the kids, boom, your income's gone," he says. Since that business venture failed, Dean has been salvaging deserted cars for cash.

Looking for her boots, Linda pokes through garbage in the van. "Ashley Damm," she yells. "Dean, look what that monster child did." She hands her husband a cardboard box. "She doodied in it." The six-year-old stands frozen. Her father throws the box across the yard.

Linda has 16 tattoos, including the names and birth dates of her fiercely protective older children. Jesse is not a skinhead: He got tar in his hair.

Linda and the kids make the 30-mile drive into Lancaster. Next door to the welfare office is a Laundromat. Ashley and her little sister run to the ladies' room. They fill the sink, scrub their arms and faces with liquid soap from the dispenser, dry off with paper towels and take turns flushing the toilet. At the ranch, one of Jesse's chores is to flush the toilet using stream water.

"That's wasted trip number 5,000," says Linda, getting into the van. The food stamps aren't in yet. Home two hours later--she gets lost taking a shortcut through the desert--Linda heats instant soup over a propane torch. She gazes out the door, at the night sky. "Look," she says, pointing to a cluster of stars. "It's those damn helicopters, spying on me again. Every night, they hover."

"Wake-up call," says Linda at noon. She pours a line of methamphetamine powder onto the lid of a tin box and snorts it up her nose. Linda claims she uses drugs only once a month--like most family purchases, it is timed to the AFDC check. An infection from shooting up affected her heart, Linda says. It's her excuse: "I have to use speed to keep going." Energized, she pounds a sign reading Poohs' Corner into the ground near a tree stump. It is to be a reading spot for Crissy, whose nickname is Poohs. Jesse and Ashley haven't been to school in weeks, since Dean had a fight with the bus driver. Crissy is on break from eighth grade, but her nose is often buried in a Reader's Digest or word puzzle book. "I was the same way, I read all the time," says Linda, who dropped out of school in 10th grade. "Flowers in the Attic and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were my favorites." Raised by her widowed mother in California and the Midwest, Linda has used drugs since she was Crissy's age. "Linda has emotional problems--I'm surprised she's still alive," says her mother, who put her into therapy after a suicide attempt at 14.

"I have saved my mother's life so many times," says Jesse. "She sliced her wrists, and I called the ambulance." As Dean lights the grill to cook some meat this evening, Jesse hears his mother moaning. She is feverish. Her pulse, Dean says, is slow. Abandoning supper, he loads Linda into the van and calls an ambulance from a friend's house. Jesse sits alone outside the emergency room. Dean and the girls sleep in the van in the parking lot. Linda gets antibiotics. At midnight, 12 hours after her "wake-up call," the Damms are home, supperless.

The boy bears the brunt of Dean's temper. "I'm not allowed to cry," says Jesse. "I get smacked more."

Pork chops, unrefrigerated for 48 hours, are grilled the next day. Jesse is not allowed to eat, punishment for not cleaning up the yard. All of the dishes are dirty, so Dean serves the meat on a Frisbee he picks up from the ground. Last year someone tipped off the sheriff that children were unsupervised, with no food, and the three older ones--Summer was off with her parents--were put in foster homes. The Department of Children and Family Services returned the children three weeks later but refuses to discuss the reason. Jesse's foster parents wanted to adopt him. The family that cared for the girls wanted to keep them, too. "I liked it. They had a Jacuzzi," says Crissy. Linda guiltily urged her two oldest children to consider returning to foster care: "You'd have a normal life, new clothes, a swimming pool, kids to play with." But they wouldn't leave her. "They want to protect me," explains their mother, when Dean is out of earshot. Before meeting Dean in Colorado 11 years ago, she had left her first husband because he beat her. Dean has been arrested twice for beating her, and last July she was arrested for stabbing him with a penknife. "The times Dean's been in jail have been the happiest times in my life," says Linda. "I wonder why God lets people like him live." She once sought a safe house for battered women and says that Dean now keeps one of the kids with him at all times as insurance that she doesn't run away. "I tell Crissy, 'Just hold on a little bit longer, until we get enough money to go,"' says Linda. But her most recent job--as an "actress" for a telephone sexline last year--didn't work out. While Crissy and Jesse dream of life without Dean, who has no legal claim to them, they question their mother's ability to care for them--she sleeps for days after frenetic, drug-induced activity.

"Are you going to make it out of bed today?" Dean asks his wife in the afternoon.
"I was thinking of making it to the couch," she says. They both fall asleep.

Ashley and Summer like to play beauty parlor and school. Dean favors the little girls. They are his own.

The little girls play make-believe. Ashley tells the story: "Summer called the cops on my boyfriend because he punched me in the nose and he killed and murdered my babies." Linda opens her eyes, closes them. "Those girls need a bath," she says.

Dean sees Crissy holding a container of soup. "Oh, so you guys are going to eat my Cup O’Noodles, too, huh? Think again, Blondie." Crissy hands him the soup, and he slurps it down. "Social Services is supposed to be out here tomorrow, and this place has got to be clean," Dean announces, ordering Jesse to move trash from one pile to another. "Jesse! Get that goddam grin off your face before you wear it permanently on the side of your head."
"Daddy, a white car is coming," shrieks Summer some time later.
"Goddammit, Jesse, you didn't clean up the front yard," Dean shouts at the boy.
A social worker who has handled the Damms for a year introduces a new caseworker. They explain that Dean and Linda can try to avoid losing the children again by enrolling in a program called Family Preservation. It is cheaper for the state to help the Damms find housing, to counsel them in grocery shopping and in child rearing, than to put the children in foster care. Spot checks will be made to see that the children are fed and going to school, that the parents are drug-free.
"Hey!" Dean yells at Crissy and Jesse after the caseworkers leave. "I'm not some goddam burn. Must be real nice making Mom and Dad look like we don't take care of you .... The only reason Social Services is out here is because you two don't keep the yard clean and yourselves clean."
Crissy and Jesse keep their faces blank.
Ashley says, "I brushed my hair today."
Linda buries her face in the chow's fur.
"You guys have took my self-esteem and stomped on it. You guys are going to end up getting taken away." Dean looks at Jesse. "You are going to juvenile hall, Bud." He glares at Crissy. "And you, Blondie, will end up in a foster home. You don't clean up? Too bad. Goodbye."

Crissy and Jesse are close and realize that separation from their parents would probably mean they would be separated too.

"Dean," says Linda, cleaning her nails with a metal sliver, "I want a normal life."
The next day Dean is angry: "They're doing everything they can think of to take my kids from me. It interferes with my sleep. All they got is allegations--how would they feel if someone said, 'We know you're molesting your daughter.' I'll contact the radio programs. I'll get a petition. Find me another sock, Jesse, and my shoes. We're going in there [to DCFS] and make them think we're kissing their ass. Put up a front." Dean heats water over a fire the day after. Linda scrubs clothing in a Coleman ice chest, then bathes Ashley and Summer in the tub with water siphoned from a vat outdoors. "The moon's black and dirty, and the sun's yellow and clean," sings Summer. "I'm as clean as the sun." Dean finds Crissy at the kitchen sink, shaving her legs with a disposable razor. "I don't want you playing with that unless you're slitting your throat." He laughs.

Three days later squad cars pull up at the ranch just as Dean's van runs out of gas. The Damms are trespassing and must leave immediately. The deputy arrests Linda--she didn't show up at her court date for stabbing Dean last July. Jesse sneaks back to the house to salvage what he can. He grabs a bag of food, kicks out the windows. He forgets blankets, clothes. The dogs are abandoned.

After Linda is released from jail, the Damms sleep in the van. A voucher from the South Antelope Valley Emergency Services puts them up in a motel the next night. Jesse and Crissy watch The Wonder Years. Summer and Ashley gravitate to the soap.
Ashley had a bad dream one night in the House of Pain: "There was this lady, and her son says, 'Mom,I don't like Dad.' And the father says, 'I don't like kids anymore. Will you give them away?' And the mom says, 'That's not a good question. Shut up.' And then Daddy says, 'Shut up. Shut up.'And the mom says, 'F you."

The Damms drifted after LIFE's days with them last fall. And then Crissy--who had already been sexually molested four times, most recently at age nine by a "family friend" who went to jail--confided to one of Linda's acquaintances that Dean had fondled her. The woman told Linda. It was the final straw. "We all acted normal for a day," says Crissy. Then Linda sneaked the children out of the house and told the social worker what had happened. Crissy tried to explain to the little ones. "They were crying--it's their dad and everything," she says. She and Jesse are now in separate homes with several other foster children. The little girls are together with a foster mother and her two girls. Ashley is being tutored to bring her up to first-grade level. Summer is getting her baby shots and has had three root canal procedures.

The four children meet every other week at the Department of Children and Family Services office. Dean is allowed to see his girls, not the others. "He's not supposed to, but he shows up early and says, 'You sure look pretty in that dress,"' says Crissy. "I hate him." Dean sleeps in an armory and calls Linda every day at the shelter where she's living, the same one at which LIFE first met the Damms. Her spousal abuse conviction requires that she stay 100 yards away from Dean. "My mom has to go to court and stuff. Then she's going to get us a house, and me and Jesse and Ashley and Summer will live with her," says Crissy confidently. Linda missed her first two scheduled visits with the children. She hates to hear them cry on the phone. And when she looks at pictures of them, she says, "I see the pain in their eyes."


Fear can be part of any childhood. So can disappointment, sadness, anger--even danger. But not filth. Not utter chaos. Not nights and days of such uncertainty that the compass of childhood gets broken and the safety of true north is lost. So the first, hollow question that comes to mind about the Damms is, How could this have happened? If four children are trapped in a burning house, why can't we just break the door down, grab the children and get them the hell out?

Because sometimes a bucket of water is all it takes to put the flames out. Sometimes the rescued children are less safe on the street than they were inside. Sometimes the fire looks worse than it is because it is magnified and distorted by the window through which we see it.

Bad parents are the fire. Caseworkers are the bucket of water. Foster care can be the night on the street. And the distortion of the window keeps outsiders from knowing the difference between danger and safety.

But sometimes a fire burns out of control, and children must be saved from it. The legal standards for taking children away from their parents are abuse, abandonment and neglect. Then come the definitions. Is it abuse when children grow up poor? No. Starving? No. Starved? Yes. Are homeless parents unfit? Not necessarily. Are latchkey children neglected? Not usually. Can drug-addicted parents reform? Sometimes. Every social worker, every judge, every advocate, can tell horror stories of the wrong call being made. So when is enough enough? "It's kind of like baking a cake," says Judge William Maddux of the Circuit Court of Cook County, III. "You just kind of feel it." The fearful difficulty of knowing when children need saving is one of the reasons why so many are left with their parents, even when staying means peril. Another is that love remains tied to blood, in our minds, as something more than a promise, if less than a guarantee. A third is that federal law mandates a preference for preserving the family, and for a magical combination of services from drug rehab to career training, from food subsidies to counseling--that can keep children at home.

With so many fates left to hope, interpretation and changing circumstance, it's no wonder that it's difficult to codify what "enough" means. One thing is clear: It's taking too long to decide. Children in foster care now spend an average of 29 months in the system; 10 percent spend five years or more. Common sense (not to mention most experts) suggests a year or less would be more appropriate. Says Michael Weber, director of the Program for Community Protection of Children in St. Paul: "If the parent's fickleness, if the court's delays, if the system's inability to arrive at a decision, means the child who goes into foster care at six weeks is now four and a half and has been in five foster homes, that's the crime." Richard Gelles of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island is less moved by the specter of innocent parents losing their children than he is by the specter of innocent children losing their lives. He points out that half the children who die from abuse are killed after they've come to the attention of Child Welfare Services. 'We have to make a choice about which model to follow," he says. "Are you less tolerant of false positives or false negatives? I'm willing to accept certain numbers of false positives to reduce the appalling number of deaths."


The decision to end unfit parents' rights must be made more quickly. Once it's made, children should not languish in legal and emotional limbo, waiting for adoption--and often becoming less adoptable in the process. Either foster families must be prepared to adopt, or adoptive parents should be lined up in advance. Lutheran Social Services of Washington and Idaho is a tiny, private child-placement service where director Linda Katz simultaneously shepherds children into foster care and parents through a range of services. The parents have a set amount of time (18 months) in which to clean up their act; they know that their kids are with foster parents who want to adopt. If parents are found unfit and then contest adoption, Katz walks into court with their records: "We show the judge that we've given the parents every opportunity."

Despite the many imperfections in foster care (some foster parents abuse not only the children but also the paychecks they get for raising them), it's still hard to believe that a $100 billion cut in federal funding will help. Not even the staunchest defenders of the foster-care system now think it can stand its current burden--some half a million children, almost double the number of a decade ago. And there are countless children, especially teenagers, who are impossible to place through either adoption or foster care. Hence the question of institutional care, which has bedeviled both sides of the political aisle, making the Gingrich Republicans sound strangely pro-"big government" and the Clinton Democrats sound oddly pro-"family values." It's the question that has brought the word "orphanage" back into our lives.

Before Newt Gingrich made the inflammatory link between orphanages and welfare and the debate became political, group homes were already on the rise in this country, partially because of crack. These homes are expensive. A child on welfare costs the state (before the enormous administrative overhead) $1,460 a year; in foster care, $3,650; in a group home, $36,500. That's a staggering price tag. But so is the price, in counseling, unemployment, welfare, even court and prison costs, that the state will ultimately pay for a half million or more children who have grown up abused or neglected. At their worst-crowded, impersonal, understaffed, even dangerous--these group homes explain the bias against institutions for children. At their best-well-staffed, well-funded, designed for children older than nine and for long-term, consistent care--they can restore hope. At their best, too, they demand that the word "orphanage" be redefined.

As must the word "orphan." Dictionary meaning notwithstanding, an orphan is not just a child whose parents are dead. There are all kinds of orphans, because there are all kinds of death: death of spirit, of responsibility, of emotion, of hope. A drug-addicted mother who puts her next fix before her child's next meal has orphaned her child; so has an abusive father who puts his need for sexual gratification before his child's need for common dignity. And for a child, it's possible that this manner of being orphaned is searingly worse than the more traditional one. Saying "My mother died" may be easier than saying "My mother made this scar."

Advocates of children speak about the shortage of programs, resources and money to address such problems. The most important shortage may be of love. There is only so much of it to go around, only so many families willing to take in troubled children, and yet most child-care workers would agree that every child needs to find one consistent, unique source of love. That source will and must differ from child to child: Those who reject all institutions for children must be doing so reflexively--or, worse, politically.

If there is love under a roof, it shouldn't matter how large the roof is. Love is not money, although finding it may cost a lot, a fact that we seem almost willfully stupid about facing. Nor is love just physical safety, although that's a start. Love is affection that transcends adversity and time, and children can't grow up to give it unless they've grown up knowing it.