Part One: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids, then imprisoned them on toxic Treasure Island

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by Carol Harvey

In 1999, San Francisco cops pounded on Liz Washington’s door and burst in with their hands on their guns. “It was like they were going to be in a shoot-out,” said Liz. Flourishing an unreadable paper that she could not identify as a warrant, they snatched her three children, literally grabbing her nursing infant from her arms. This brutal act began the chain of events that ended with the family’s long imprisonment on Treasure Island.

Liz Washington
Liz Washington

Liz and her four children are ill with severe breathing problems she believes are caused by mold and asbestos in the walls of the subsidized former Navy townhouse they rent from The John Stewart Co.

She has furthermore concluded that 15 years of drinking polluted water flowing through 70-year-old island pipes into her kitchen and bathroom taps resulted in her entire family’s stomach and digestive complaints. Her two sons suffer severe gastrointestinal problems that have required multiple hospitalizations and noninvasive surgical de-compactions.

In an interesting trifecta, since arriving on the island, her formerly healthy family developed signs of hypothyroidism, which can be traced to contact with a group of chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). During the Navy’s 70-year occupation of Treasure Island, this seagoing arm of the U.S. military employed capacitors, electric motors and transformers broadly in its infrastructure and vehicles. Low flashpoint PCBs, with their excellent insulation and coolant properties, were wrapped around wires and mixed into building material.

The history of the human race can be writ large with the sentence: “What do we do with this stuff when we’re done with it?” The Navy was no exception. Without fully grasping the toxic properties of PCBs, the Navy tossed these poisonous materials into burn pits located in soil on a place they called The Old Bunker Area (now Site 12), where ammunition had been stored.

Incinerating them rendered these toxins even more lethal. Then, from the 1950s to the ‘70s, the Navy constructed family housing on top of what was essentially a toxic dump.

Without fully grasping the toxic properties of PCBs, the Navy tossed these poisonous materials into burn pits. Incinerating them rendered these toxins even more lethal.

In 1993, the first Bush president, George H.W. Bush, ordered all U.S. bases closed and cleaned of radiation and chemicals. The City seized this opportunity to solve its ongoing housing crisis, when in 1997, four years later, the Navy decommissioned Treasure Island.

Neglecting to inform them the island was deadly, City authorities invited homeless, low and middle income San Franciscans to move into the former Navy families’ low-rent townhouses. When her family members began to become ill, the unsuspecting Liz discovered she was one of their marks.

Since that moment of recognition, Liz, her daughter and two sons have longed to wipe the chemicalized and radioactive island dust from their feet and make their getaway. Due to circumstances beyond their control, however, they are trapped on the island. Liz reported that Child Protective Services, with an agenda of its own, has “kept a lasso around our ankles.”

Neglecting to inform them the island was deadly, City authorities invited homeless, low and middle income San Franciscans to move into the former Navy families’ low-rent townhouses. When her family members began to become ill, the unsuspecting Liz discovered she was one of their marks.

Escaping gangs, they became homeless

Liz enjoyed a happy childhood in Chicago. When she started her family, she foresaw that teenagers in that city are at risk from Chicagoland’s gangs. Taking a calculated risk, she moved to San Francisco because it was considered relatively gang-free.

The affordable housing crisis here, however, was dreadful. Liz soon became homeless, a condition that propelled her and her family inevitably toward Treasure Island.

Homelessness

In 1999, Liz reached out to San Francisco’s Connecting Point and the Homeless Prenatal Program for assistance with a housing search. Instead of helping her find a home, workers from those nonprofits sent the police and an ambulance to the Single Room Occupancy Hotel she and the kids’ dad had paid for. At the door, officers waved “a faxed paper with faded writings on it, claiming it was a warrant.” But she could not read the print because the words were so faint.

I asked Liz, “When the police came and took your kids, what did they say was the reason?” “Because we were homeless,” Liz answered, still outraged after 15 years. “I was told that it’s illegal to take kids away from their parents because they’re homeless,” she cried.

Sixteen years later, the ruthlessness of Homeless Prenatal and Connecting Point employees calling the police to take her kids still cuts Liz to the heart. “It was their job to help us.”

Every time she retells the story, she cries. I had to ask her to describe the scene, and hearing her weep brought me to tears.

I asked Liz, “When the police came and took your kids, what did they say was the reason?” “Because we were homeless,” Liz answered, still outraged after 15 years.

“They took Kevin,” her nursing baby. “I remember him crying,” said Liz. “I was screaming.”

Liz’ 25-year-old daughter, Sandra who was nine at the time, took the words out of her mom’s mouth as if to save her from the pain. “‘Not my baby! Please don’t take my baby away!’”

Liz managed to choke through sobs, “Given the fact that they took my son Kevin at the time he was still nursing, it was the cruelest thing.” Kevin was just a toddler, about one year old. “There wasn’t even a social worker present when they took my kids. It was just a whole bunch of police officers.”

Onto the homelessness charge, the police slapped a second accusation: ‘Your kids are not in school.’ Exclaimed Liz: “Wait a minute! My daughter WAS in school.”

Nine-year-old Sandy, who was smart and “super-excited” to be attending Rosa Parks in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, wondered: “Why was I being taken away from my family? I was just starting school, and I had all these new supplies. It was going to get great, and – you know – things were going to work out. And, THIS happens.

“We get taken away to a police car, wondering, ‘When? What? How? Where? Why?’ and not understanding anything,” said Sandy, extending helpless upturned palms.

“I was bawling my eyes out.” Her older brother Kenny, all of 11 years old, “was the rock. Kept us together and made sure we were all right.”

“Why was I being taken away from my family? I was just starting school, and I had all these new supplies. It was going to get great, and – you know – things were going to work out. And, THIS happens.”

Technically, Kenny wasn’t in school. The police theft of the children stymied the family’s plans to retrieve from storage the next day Kenny’s immunization papers required for seventh grade enrollment.

Instead, “that night was when all of the police and the ambulance came to the hotel room that WE – not Homeless Prenatal Program or Connecting Point – paid to stay at, and they came and they took my kids,” said Liz.

The police drove Liz’ children, Kenny 11, Sandy, 9, and Liz’ infant son to San Francisco General Hospital. They were admitted to the Foster Care Unit. Liz remembers somebody telling her three confused little ones, “Give your mom a kiss and send her on her way.”

She refused an offer from a police officer to return her to the hotel. “I got on the 33 bus, and I cried all the way back. I thought sure that I was going to have a nervous breakdown that night.”

She didn’t hear from the social worker for a week. For the next three weeks she didn’t know where her children were or whether they were safe. CPS contacted none of her relatives, nor gave anyone information.

When children are taken, their parents can never visit them in the foster care home. In fact, they are not allowed to know where their kids are located. Two-hour visitations, therefore, had to be arranged at a CPS office in a Third Street mall in the Bayview.

“It was awful,” said Liz. She was unable to nurse her infant son, Kevin, in this public place. She feels this damaged their relationship. “We are not as closely bonded as a mother and child should be. They pretty much broke it.”

Because Liz works on the relationship with her teenage son, spending time together and talking, “Things have gotten really good between us.” He opens up and expresses his feelings more, and he draws pictures of superheros. “But I think (our bond) would have been more connected had they not stepped in and did what they did.”

In the summer of 2000, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and City Supervisor-to-be Chris Daly helped Liz find housing at the Warfield, a Taylor Street Tenderloin Hotel.

For over a year, she was separated from her children.

“I can tell you this,” said Liz, through tears. This type of situation is “the cruelest! It’s something that never goes away. It’s seriously traumatic.”

“How did you end up on the island?” I asked.

“We were told by Child Protective Services that, in order to get my kids back, we’d have to find a place to live.” While she was renting a room at the Warfield during summer 1999, the emotional upheaval of losing her kids caused her to miscarry a boy. Liz, however, became pregnant again.

Through morning nausea and weight gain, she frantically searched for housing. Then Treasure Island popped up on a Section 8 list at the San Francisco Housing Authority.

Liz believes that city agencies like the Housing Authority entice homeless people to the island with full knowledge of the contamination.

“They sent us out here knowing all this was going on, but they wrote in their own codes that people who have Section 8 shouldn’t live in these types of conditions.” California building regulations specify a rental unit must be clean, safe and habitable, free of mold, asbestos and lead.

“So, I just try to tell people, ‘These people, Yeah! They can be very brutal and not apologize for it one bit. They have it in their minds that they’re helping families when they have not helped.’”

Liz believes that city agencies like the Housing Authority entice homeless people to the island with full knowledge of the contamination.

When Liz bussed over the Bay Bridge to show her kids their new roomy townhouse on this quiet island so different from the noisy city, a Navy officer was sitting next to her. “He was like, ‘Oh, are you getting a place over here? Don’t do it. There’s radiation on the island.’” She listened and, “Of course, I took that to heart.” It really frightened her.

“If I didn’t have these people (CPS) breathing down my neck, I would have kept on looking for something else.”

In retrospect, Liz didn’t have a choice. She was torn but was unable to act on the fear she felt.

“Homelessness was really spiked up high back then,” she mused. “I couldn’t just say, ‘Well, OK, maybe I won’t take the place because this naval officer said that it had radiation on it.’”

The dice had been thrown. Liz’ family had already been accepted for the Treasure Island rental. The social worker had arranged for Section 8. Season of Sharing and several other organizations provided funds to cover the $2,400 security deposit.

If she had changed her mind, she wouldn’t have gotten her kids back. That was the most important thing to her.

A month or two after she moved onto the island, CPS released the kids into the custody of herself and her partner. Her youngest child, Isaiah, was born on the island Nov. 25, 2000. He is now 14. “So, here we are,” she said.

Liz did what a lot of people do. She pushed radiation fears to the back of her mind until 2009, when there started to be some talk.

Developing dread

After arriving on Treasure Island and during the nine years following their move-in date, all five members of the Washington family, Liz and her four children, began to experience a constellation of unfamiliar – and worsening – sick symptoms: chronic fatigue, dandruff they couldn’t heal with special shampoos, dizziness, headaches, nosebleeds, insomnia, anxiety attacks and more.

Liz has deduced that the strange symptom clusters they all continue to endure were brought on by breathing, touching or drinking the radiation and chemicals the Navy dumped on the island. These poisons gush through kitchen and bathroom taps and shower heads and catch a ride on dust particles gusting about in the island’s high winds.

Liz has deduced that the strange symptom clusters they all continue to endure were brought on by breathing, touching or drinking the radiation and chemicals the Navy dumped on the island.

Though Liz was confused about the exact source, the symptoms seemed to divide themselves into three major groups: breathing difficulties, severe gastrointestinal distress, and swollen lymph nodes with weakened immune systems.

Breathing problems

Liz and her four children began to suffer from runny noses, wheezing, coughing, constant colds, sinus congestion, labored breathing and shortness of breath. One son developed full blown asthma.

Gastrointestinal upsets requiring hospitalization

Everyone developed puzzling gastrointestinal problems – excruciating abdominal and lower intestinal pain with chronic constipation.

Hypothyroidism caused by exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Liz suspects her entire family has hypothyroidism because its symptoms manifested in them all: intermittent swollen lymph nodes and weakened immune systems with more colds than in the past. Liz has developed intractable high blood pressure, kidney problems and gout attacks.

When her foot pain flares, she cannot walk or work. She eats raw cherries which seem to dissolve the uric acid that builds up in her toes. The family’s ever-present gastrointestinal difficulties can be caused both by PCB-engendered hypothyroidism and the island’s polluted water.

During summer 2005, Liz took her children to Chicago to visit her father. Two weeks into their month vacation, her sons’ stomach problems vanished. Other parents have reported complete cessation of symptoms after taking their kids off-island. But, like Liz and her children, when these families return, the diseases’ unwelcome manifestations simply recur.

To be continued.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is so atrocious, I cannot even fathom how devastating this whole scenario is! I cry for the pains Liz and her family have suffered. I want to contact Liz and create a movie out of this to benefit her family. My name is Lynda. Contact me at LyJJ.LLG@gmail.com.

    • I agree Lynda. We are victims of CPS as well and our lives have been completely and permanently devastated and destroyed by them in every single aspect. I love the word fathom as I use it almost everyday since 2008. I am not sure if it's a word but I also say Unfathomable. That is what it is and I think we would have to make up a word to describe it any other way. My prayers go out to this poor family and all other innocent victims of CPS and their reign of evil and terror.
      Oh, by the way, we live in Denver Colorado.

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