SOUTH BEND — Brittany and David Griffith's search for a house led them to an old home on the city's near northwest side five years ago. They were convinced it was a good spot to start a family.
They knew the home, built in 1929, was a fixer-upper and planned to gradually make repairs. They don't remember the condition of the window sills, which now have peeling and flaky paint.
But they say they were never warned about lead-infested dust and paint chips.
The real estate agent never talked about it, they say. The appraiser's report noted no possible "adverse conditions," which are supposed to include lead paint. They didn't know federal law requires sellers and landlords to disclose the possible presence of lead paint in old homes and provide a pamphlet about protecting families from lead.
And they didn't think a full home inspection was needed, so they didn't pay for one.
The young couple bought the two-bedroom home on North Brookfield Street for $32,000 with a first-time buyer’s mortgage from the Federal Housing Administration. They moved in and had their first child, Atticus, three years later.
Last November, Atticus had a blood test at the South Bend Medical Foundation, and the results showed a high level of lead — 11 micrograms per deciliter, more than twice the level considered elevated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atticus had just celebrated his second birthday.
The result led to a required inspection last month by the St. Joseph County Health Department. The inspection found deteriorating lead paint on window sills, walls, doors, bathroom tiles and exterior siding.
Lead dust is usually the main cause of poisoning, the Griffiths learned. In their case, friction from opening and closing windows with peeling paint likely caused the dust — invisible to the naked eye — to fall on the floors and toys.
While crawling and playing, their son’s hands were exposed. And when he put his fingers in his mouth, the toxic metal went in his blood.
Now they can only wait to see what the full effect will be, aware of the harm lead can have on the developing brains and organs of young children. They have already noticed some delays in Atticus; the only word in his vocabulary, for example, is "mama."
“I’ve been told we’re living in a death trap and the choices we made are now killing us,” said Brittany Griffith, 30. “I feel like they’re blaming us because we chose to live in the 'hood. It’s not just bullets killing people. It’s lead.”
The Griffith family lives in an area of South Bend that has some of the highest lead-poisoning levels in the state and illustrates how, decades after the menace of lead paint first became known, the problem continues to plague certain neighborhoods and harm children.
The problem became vivid again in recent weeks, when the Indiana Department of Health released to local communities the data on lead-poisoning test results from 2005 through 2015.
It shed a new spotlight on a persistent issue that doesn't always get sustained attention.
The Griffiths' section of the near northwest side shares many of the traits often associated with lead poisoning — low-income neighborhoods with homes around a century old, a large number of rental properties and landlords who are often absentee.
Those landlords won't invest in repairs, and poor families can't afford to do so. The city, meanwhile, has a hard time tracking down many of the landlords, much less forcing them to fix code violations.
"Some renters are already in a vulnerable position because they may have a previous eviction record and criminal record. Landlords won't improve properties and are afraid renters will tear them up," said Kathy Schuth, executive director of the Near Northwest Neighborhood Inc. "Properties are selling from $15,000 to $40,000, and big-ticket items like lead abatement can cost tens of thousands of dollars."
The Griffiths learned firsthand how crippling the cost can be. Health officials told the couple to correct the problem in 60 days by repainting the inside of the home and gave them cleaning advice. But a permanent solution, they learned, would call for replacing the home’s windows and exterior siding for about $30,000.
The couple, saddled with student loans and car payments, can't afford that. And they can't easily move out of the home, which they fear will be hard to sell.
Dr. Luis Galup, St. Joseph County's health officer, echoed the view of other officials when he blamed the city's problem on the "combination of poverty and old homes" and the fact that "only a fraction of the kids in the county are being tested."
"The community was yelling and screaming that we wanted to be lead-free by 2010, and we're now in 2017," he said. "People get all enthused — just like we're hearing it now — and then they drop the ball."
Data expose problem
Testing data recently released by the Indiana Department of Health brought renewed attention to the problem. From 2005 through 2015, several neighborhoods in the city had an unusually high percentage of children up to age 6 with elevated blood lead levels.
The problem is especially striking in one neighborhood, identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as Tract 6, on the near northwest side.
Data for the decade show that 178 children — or nearly a third of the 568 tested — had blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the threshold established by the CDC. Four other nearby census tracts also had high numbers, with anywhere from 19 to 26 percent of kids tested turning up with high lead levels.
Those five South Bend neighborhoods have a combined total population of about 8,300, census data show. Of those people, more than half live in rental units, according to the data. The average median household income for those neighborhoods is $22,500.
South Bend isn't alone in struggling with persistent lead poisoning. In one Elkhart neighborhood, about a quarter of the 1,000 kids screened for the decade had elevated blood lead levels. In one Michigan City neighborhood, nearly 20 percent of the 160 kids screened had such levels.
While local officials have long known about lead-tainted homes in South Bend, they didn't know the extent of the issues in certain neighborhoods until the state provided the data, said Michael Harding, a member of the county Board of Health for more than 20 years.
"It's almost appalling and unconscionable," he said of the data not being provided earlier. "If you don't know the problem exists, you can't deal with it."
Matt Scotten, a spokesman for the state health department, said "it was only recently that we began analyzing the data at the census tract level. This was done as part of a special project designed to calculate risk."
Several factors locally have aggravated the problem, including the loss of money to help repair homes.
Starting in 2006, HUD sent a total of $5.5 million to the city Housing Authority to repair lead paint hazards, with the city, county and community organizations pitching in matching funds and in-kind services. In all, more than 420 homes and apartments were repaired over the years. For homeowners and landlords, the program paid 90 percent of repair costs and up to $12,500. The county health department used a portion of the money for lead testing and community outreach.
In addition, the state several years ago granted the county $568,000 to pay for lead testing. But that money dried up in 2012. And the area's application for continued HUD funding was rejected in 2016, said Chuck McMannis, who directed the city's lead program.
But he's optimistic the federal money will be awarded this year.
"With the publicity we've gotten, I think our chances are pretty good," he said.
During the years the authority ran the lead program, about 100 homes in South Bend were abated by Greentree Environmental Services of Portage, Ind. The firm stopped doing projects when the federal money dried up.
"Someone's got to pay for it, and I would say the squeaky wheel gets the grease," said Greentree's president, John Casey, referring to the federal attention Flint, Mich., has received over its water crisis.
Another blow in the battle against lead: The staff at the county health department has been reduced in recent years due to funding cuts. Today, it only provides services, such as home inspections, for cases in which children's blood lead levels are at least double the CDC's recommended level.
The University of Notre Dame has been called to help. Students and faculty are researching the city's lead issue this semester, and homes will be tested this summer.
There's also the issue of getting children tested, which remains a challenge. More than 3,000 children in 2011 were tested countywide, according to the CDC. But only about 650 were tested in 2015.
Hundreds of children used to be tested annually by the county's Women, Infants, and Children program, but screenings stopped last year when the federal funding ran out.
Dr. Tim Durham, a pediatrician at the South Bend Clinic, believes the medical community can do a better job. Doctors at the clinic typically will test children at least once before the age of 2, Durham said, but he's not sure pediatricians across the city are being vigilant.
"We have to educate physicians to keep testing and looking for lead," he said. "That's what we haven't done in this county. We've gone from thousands of tests per year to less than half of that."
Chris Davis, 59, and his fiancee, Deirdre Janssen, 38, moved from Roselle, Ill., to South Bend in 2011 to be closer to family.
The couple rented a three-bedroom home, built in 1872, on Harrison Avenue. The home was riddled with peeling paint and problems such as a rotted porch overhang and leaky kitchen sink. But it was an affordable house. And at the time, they weren't aware of the lead problem in the house.
The California owner of the home refused to give a local management company the money for repairs, Davis said. The home was then bought in late 2013 by Ray Hicks, another Californian.
Davis says he has never heard from Hicks. And neither has the city's Code Enforcement Department, which has fined him $7,000 for violations.
Last August, the property was tentatively bought in a tax sale by a Philadelphia company for about $18,000. Unless Hicks pays about $20,000 in back taxes and fines, the property will change hands this August.
Owners from outside the region are commonly fined for violations, but they often disappear and ignore fines, said Randy Wilkerson, director of city code enforcement.
"We do roughly 24 hearings a week," he said, "and at least one-third of them are absentee property owners who won't show up."
Using a records database, the department recently discovered Hicks moved in 2013 from California to Texas.
"It took us 15 minutes to find him, and it's not something we can do with every property owner," Wilkerson said.
The Tribune was unable to find a phone number for Hicks.
Acting on the advice of health officials, Davis repainted the home's interior two years ago, after the couple's two children, Christian and Julieanna, were tested with elevated blood lead levels of 9 and 8 micrograms per deciliter, respectively.
Christian, now 4, was tested a month ago with a higher level, 11 micrograms.
The kids attend the Head Start preschool program at Muessel Primary Center. While Julieanna has done well in school, Christian has behavior problems that Davis blames on lead poisoning.
"My son has no attention span. He has anger issues at school. He's been suspended because he ran and bit the teacher," Davis said.
He believes the neighborhood is "full of slumlords" and "they get to walk away."
"But I get to deal with my child having all kinds of ups and downs in class," he said.
The couple is also worried about their 3-month-old son, Gabriel, who was born two months premature. Janssen wasn't tested for lead when she was pregnant, and she now thinks it might have caused the premature birth.
"My doctor couldn't figure out for the life of her why Gabriel was born early," she said. "With everybody knowing how bad the lead problem is, they should be more aware of the need to test people."
When they can afford it, the couple plan to move out of the home.
The Griffith family is similarly frustrated.
After Atticus tested high for lead in his blood, the health department gave his parents a vacuum with a filter to trap lead particles. And to counter his absorption of lead, Atticus was put on a diet with high levels of vitamin C and iron.
But Atticus isn't reaching milestones for his age. He still can't hold a spoon and dislikes solid foods.
His parents feel trapped in the home.
“It’s really frightening,” said David Griffith, 28. “I feel like the choices I made to be close to my work, afford my life here and save money are the ones causing him harm.”