CHICAGO (MCT) — The poem Joshua Travis read to other teenage alumni of the state’s child welfare system described in his own words how his mentally ill mother killed his 3-year-old brother.
Amanda Wallace waved goodbye and hanged him from the transom of their West Side apartment.
“What was your brother’s name?” one of the teens in the group asked him afterward.
“His name was Joseph,” Joshua recalled telling the young woman during the encounter four years ago. “Joseph Wallace.”
Her face turned pale. The death of Joseph Wallace had led to reforms that resulted in the young woman’s sister being taken from her family’s home. For Joshua, it was another moment of understanding his brother’s place in state history.
Joseph Wallace was murdered on April 19, 1993, after courts removed him from foster care and returned him to his mother, who had a history of mental illness. Amanda Wallace later committed suicide in prison. Although the case is well known for prompting reform, few people remember that there was another child in the home that day, a toddler lying on the floor who would find himself shuttled through a foster care system that his brother’s death was helping to reform.
The child’s death sparked an uproar across the country and helped spur Illinois to overhaul its troubled Department of Children and Family Services.
As the agency struggles again with high caseloads, staff shortages and troubling child deaths, Joshua is fiercely protective of the system-wide reforms that followed his brother’s death. He doesn’t want to see them jeopardized.
Joshua, who was 15 months old when his older brother died, is now a 20-year-old sophomore at Illinois State University. By all accounts, he is a survivor and thriving. He brought the national “No Hate” campaign for gay rights to the campus in Bloomington last year and formed his own student leadership group.
Joshua credits the hardworking, single woman who adopted him when he was 5 for “saving me.” The memory of his brother, he said, motivates him to try to live a life with meaning.
He agreed to speak to the Chicago Tribune to try to ensure that Joseph’s legacy isn’t forgotten.
“I don’t want him to have died in vain,” he said.
Maria Travis always wanted a child of her own. Approaching her late 30s, the Park Forest banker decided to adopt.
She met Joshua in late 1996. By then, the boy had been shuffled among 10 different foster families and group homes, she said.
Travis shook her head as she recalled the little “wild child” she first saw rolling around on skates at a party to introduce prospective parents to DCFS children. He sailed right up to her and asked if she had quarters for the arcade games. As he skated off, Travis asked a caseworker about the boy.
“She told me his story,” said Travis, who had seen television coverage of the Wallace case. “The caseworker said there’s plenty of kids here. You don’t have to go this route. It’s too hard. She told me not to do it, and that’s the wrong thing to tell anyone in my family.”
A short time later, just before Christmas, Travis arranged to meet Joshua at Hephzibah Children’s Association in Oak Park where he lived. She brought art supplies and tissue boxes for them to decorate together as a project. It didn’t go exactly as planned.
“He wouldn’t sit down. He was walking on the couches and running around the room,” she said. “Everything was just so broken. They had no real plan for him. He was already being labeled a throwaway at 5.”
Travis said she prayed through her tears for guidance while driving back to her Park Forest home. By the time she pulled into her driveway, her mind was made up.
“I just knew he was supposed to be my kid,” she said.
She fitted Joshua’s bunk beds with Scooby Doo sheets and decorated the walls of his room with an ABCs border.
She and Joshua both remember the first time he called her “mom.” After hearing her cough from another room, he anxiously called out, “Are you OK, mom?”
A judge made the relationship official in August 1997. Joshua Justin Wallace became Joshua Justin Travis. Maria Travis later wrote a letter of thanks to her adoption agency.
She signed it simply, “Joshua’s mother.”
By then, Joshua already knew that his biological mother, Amanda Wallace, had killed his brother. He would learn the rest of the story as he grew older.
Wallace had a long history of emotional problems, violent outbursts and suicide attempts that included setting fires and eating light bulbs. She spent her formative years in foster homes and mental hospitals. Still, Joseph was repeatedly returned to her despite her threats to kill both children.
After hanging the boy, she called police from a pay phone down the street.
When officers arrived, they found the toddler Joshua unharmed on the kitchen floor near his brother’s body.
The death provoked an immediate public outcry for change. Once focused on reuniting children with their families, Illinois now emphasized putting the “best interest” of the child first. The number of Cook County judges hearing such cases doubled.
The Illinois General Assembly in June 1993 created an independent inspector general’s office for DCFS to investigate and recommend systemic reforms. More services for mentally ill mothers also were initiated.
Even earlier, in December 1991, a federal consent decree mandated reforms, such as caseload standards, but many hadn’t gotten off the ground.
“The public discussion about this case triggered a real commitment to bringing new leadership and resources to the child welfare system,” said Benjamin Wolf, lead counsel on the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois lawsuit that led to the consent decree.
“People were furious and rightly so. I think for the first time people really realized how bad the system was.”
The reform efforts that followed included improved worker training and supervision as well as reduced caseloads.
The reaction to Joseph’s death is viewed by many experts as an explanation for why the number of children entering foster care in the state skyrocketed from 23,000 in 1993 to more than 51,000 in 1997.
Today about 15,000 children are in foster care in Illinois, according to DCFS data.
Still, in recent months, the Tribune has reported about rising caseloads, staffing shortages and two recent child deaths that raised questions about whether they could have been prevented.
Richard Calica, the agency’s newly appointed director, told the Tribune he is working hard to reorganize the agency to provide more front line investigators and caseworkers.
Jess McDonald, a former DCFS director hired in 1994, was credited with implementing many of the reforms.
“No one in the system, or around the system, will ever forget the tragedy of the Wallace family,” McDonald said.
“Can we as a society accept that we all share this responsibility? I am not sure, but I hope so and I hope we have all learned important lessons.”
Maria Travis began to learn some lessons shortly after Joshua came home with her.
She realized he had faked knowing how to read by memorizing words and phrases, she said. His “wild child” behavioral problems continued. She had him tested academically and emotionally, and the two attended counseling together.
His education began in private schools, where he was trained in classical music and often performed as a singer. Worried that Joshua’s studies had begun to suffer when he was in the eighth grade, his mother got rid of their television — at least for a while.
In high school, Joshua participated in student council, a math club, scholastic bowl and the gay-straight alliance. On family vacations, he and his mother cruised the Nile in Egypt, toured the Taj Mahal in India and visited national monuments in Washington, D.C.
But there were still plenty of rough patches. Joshua was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had bipolar characteristics, both he and his mother said. The medication, he said, often kept him up at night and caused drastic weight gain.
He and his mother argued often over Joshua’s behavioral issues. She had him briefly hospitalized three times, with the last incident occurring during his freshman year in high school.
“I felt like I was a teenager having mood swings and, because of my family history, everyone thought something was wrong with me,” he said. “I felt like my heart was literally sinking. I didn’t feel like myself. So I finally said, ‘I’m done with this medication.’ And they realized I was fine.”
By his junior year of high school, Joshua was medicine free, he said. He has lost a lot of weight and begun exercising and watching his diet.
Now, when he’s not working as a cashier in the ISU student dining center, the anthropology major often can be found studying in a lab filled with skulls, bones and a full skeleton nicknamed Sticky. His academic minors are criminal justice and biological sciences.
After college, Joshua dreams of participating in an agricultural field study while backpacking through Europe.
He has read about how anthropologists helped identify the remains of fallen soldiers and the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It would be rewarding, he says, to bring closure to grieving families.
“He’s a very good student,” said ISU professor Fred H. Smith, who chairs the anthropology department. “He’s not the best student in class, but he’s very serious and hardworking. He’s never missed a class.”
Joshua still misses his brother. He knows that Amanda Wallace was sentenced to life in prison for Joseph’s murder and that on July 31, 1997, she attempted to strangle herself in prison with a strip of cloth from her robe. She died three days later at the age of 32 after being taken off life support.
At times Joshua admits he hates Wallace, but mainly he feels pity, he said. The identity of his father isn’t known.
Joshua and his mother suggest Wallace belonged in a mental hospital rather than in prison.
“She was so ill,” Travis said, momentarily breaking into tears. “I wish she could know Joshua came out OK. I’m honored to have played a part in that.”
Joshua said he feels Joseph’s presence in his life more than ever.
One day soon he plans to visit his brother’s Northbrook grave and tell him all about his life, and say thanks.
Joshua continues to be aware of recent problems besetting DCFS, the fear from some critics that things may be sliding backward again. He said he would try to prevent that from happening — mainly by keeping the memory of his brother alive.
“I’m extremely proud that his legacy has helped people,” he said. “I guess I’ve kind of become the big brother.”