As I sit here now, in the comfort of my home, secure in the knowledge that no one can break my family apart, I find myself with a new perspective. One that I couldn’t see when I was in the midst of the storm. I have two pages of bullet points left that I wanted to tell you about, and as I stare at them and take my mind back to that place, it all seems so menial, and quite frankly, a little bit ridiculous. They were certainly important when I documented them and my goal all along was to open your eyes to how unnecessarily hard the entity that is called DCFS can be on foster parents. Like the time a young, full-of-herself licensing worker came to my home and tried to explain to my 3-year-old what to do if the house catches on fire. At the time, that really angered me. Or the time the same woman rolled her eyes dismissively and said, “You just need to put him in time out,” when she clearly had no clue what we dealt with on a daily basis. I finally complained about the young licensing worker when she threatened to remove Malachi from our home if we didn’t complete the 20 hours of continuing education for our foster license in two-weeks’ time. That was after Bio-Mom’s rights were terminated. My complaint was probably thrown into the trash can, and looking back I regret saying anything, but she really was inappropriate.
Does it suck that we had seven case workers in our four-plus years? Yes. Does it matter? I guess not. I think that I was so fearful for so long that my son was going to be ripped from my arms that I became hypersensitive. I can see it now. Someone very close to me battles depression and when the psychologist said to her, “Your perspective is off, it’s not you reacting, it’s the depression. It can control your life, how you act and react,” something clicked in me. With the fear out of my way, I see things a little more clearly now.
Bio-Dad was released from jail when Malachi was almost 3-years-old and the case worker said that he wanted to start-up visits again. I put my “holier than thou” attitude on and put a call in to Henry to see if we had any other options. He barely said hello when I started my rambling, “Clearly Bio-Dad has been given enough chances to prove himself and he failed.” Henry tried to interrupt me, but I just kept right on talking, “Malachi doesn’t know him and we shouldn’t be expected to just start visits up again.” When I finally came up for air I could picture the satisfactory grin on Henry’s face as he informed me that Bio-Dad agreed to sign his rights away, but had one request. He wanted to see Malachi one more time. I was shocked with the news and even more surprised when I found out that I was the one who got to decide if the visit happened or not. Henry was asking ME to make the decision. After discussing with my husband, we decided that we likely would regret not letting him say good-bye. It was the right thing to do.
The visit was set to happen at the juvenile court building and the case worker would be present. When I think about Malachi and his future, I know that he will have questions, so I wanted to keep some sort of line of communication open, but I was not willing to just hand over our address to Bio-Dad. I chose to make one of those hard-cover photo books from Shutterfly of Malachi’s first three years of life. The pictures and text in the book included trips he had been on, his love of trains, what he liked to eat, and other things that we loved about his personality. I ordered two copies, one for Bio-Dad and one for Bio-Mom. On the last page of the album I added an email address that I had set up for Malachi and they could communicate with him that way.
Armed with my album of Malachi, my husband for support, and the toddler himself, I headed out the door that morning with high hopes and butterflies dancing in my stomach. If the case worker was not with him, I would not have recognized Bio-Dad. His hair was cut clean, he had clothes on that fit him and he had put on at least 30 pounds. He looked healthy… and a lot like my son. Daryl and I sat at a small table in the kid’s room while Bio-Dad and the case worker sat at an identical one next to us. Malachi was hesitant and didn’t take his eyes off of us until Bio-Dad began to unwrap the present he brought. It was a Thomas the Train play set, and it was actually one we didn’t already have. The two of them put it together and communicated while the train ran around and around the track. Bio-Dad was fairly quiet and just watched Malachi with proud eyes. When it was clear that our little-man was getting tired we started to wrap it up. When we went to put the gift back in the box, Malachi had one of his tantrums. Bio-Dad just sat back and watched with eyes open wide as Malachi kicked and clawed and screamed as Daryl held him. He appeared confused, and asked me, “What’s wrong with him?” The only answer I could give him was, “He has some trouble controlling his anger.” Bio-Dad snickered and responded with, “Well, he gets that honestly.”
Bio-Dad was very thankful for the album I made and he shook our hands when we left. I expected to feel differently on the drive home, but I didn’t. It was like any other day and we headed home to carry on normally. We weren’t home for two hours when the phone rang. It was Henry informing us that all of the termination paperwork was null and void because the attorney who signed it had golfed with my husband a few times. It was a conflict of interest and it would all have to be done again. Obviously, it was just a hiccup and would be fixed, and was just another one of those things that, in the end, didn’t matter. But, in my mind at the time, it was just one more thing that was prolonging the process.
Bio-Dad sent one email a few months later and it included “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.” He asked we continue to update him with pictures as time goes on. I still go onto the email every six months or so and send more pictures with updates, but I do not get a response.
It was after the evaluation where a psychiatrist had Bio-Mom and all six kids together that I really started to breathe easier. I wasn’t allowed to go in, but I did wait outside the room while Bio-Mom’s parenting was under a microscope. From what I was told, it was utter chaos and at one point she just sat on the couch that was placed in the middle of the room and zoned out. As I was processing the story, my mind had to yet again, gingerly walk that fine line between cheering that it didn’t go well, and crying for this woman and her inability to mother. The official findings were, “Mom is not able to care for her children and should be in an assisted living facility herself.”
At the next court date, Bio-Mom’s attorney would present witnesses to argue against the recommendation to terminate rights. That should have happened around March of 2015; however, Bio-Mom was due with her seventh baby around that time, so they had to push it back. Then it was canceled again because of a witness conflict. The first part of the trial actually happened in August of 2015 and the judge ruled to move forward with the termination regardless of the witnesses that Bio-Mom presented with. My shoulders dropped just a little bit more.
Just a short seven months later, in February of 2016, I was sworn in and sat to the left hand side of the judge to answer questions from all parties involved. That part of the trial was to determine the best interest of the child and all of the foster parents were present to testify. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was only confident. After answering a few questions about how Malachi was doing and what his interests were, one of the attorney’s asked me if I was willing to let Malachi see his siblings moving forward. This is stressed and pushed through every stage of fostering, but it was an absolute nightmare to get everyone together every few weeks and, honestly, I was looking forward to not having to make room in our schedule for the visits. Malachi never lived with his siblings and there was no bond at all. However, I do see the importance of him knowing who they are and maybe one day, forming a relationship. I answered the question as honest as I could when I said, “There are seven kids in this family and that means seven birthdays. I will definitely commit to reaching out once a year for a birthday celebration, and would hope that the other foster parents would do the same.” Before I could step down, the Judge had one more question for me. He mentioned that he read the file and saw that Malachi had some behavioral issues, and then he asked me if I felt like I was the right person to help him maneuver through those challenges. The question surprised me and without thinking I blurted out, “I think I’m the only one who can help him. I love him. He’s my son and we are bonded.” The judge smirked a little and wrote something down and then dismissed me. In the end, he looked at me and said, “Yes, I do believe that this child is in the right home and not only do I think that he should be adopted, I think he hit the jackpot.” I think that was the first time anyone involved in this case gave me any sort of parenting kudos. It was nice to hear and of course I teared up. We appeared back in court a month later, in April 2016, for the judge to officially terminate the rights of Bio-Mom. I couldn’t believe that the date wasn’t rescheduled for some random reason and I was elated when I woke up that morning to head to court.
Court itself was uneventful. I expected to feel celebratory and triumphant; however, I didn’t. I got to watch Bio-Mom testify and she was obviously lying and just didn’t make sense. I felt physically uncomfortable for her. I wanted it to stop. Bio-Mom was extremely difficult to communicate with and she often tried to manipulate situations and see what she could get out of you, but she was mentally a child. She was doing the best she could with what she had. She had no support, anywhere. It felt wrong to toast to her failure.
I gave Bio-Mom the same photo book that I had given to Bio-Dad. She took it, glanced at the cover, and shoved it into one of her bags. Her attorney was the one to thank me for the gesture. We still have not heard from Bio-Mom.
When the goal was changed to termination in Bio-Mom’s case, her visits were limited to once a month until the termination was finalized. We coupled those visits with sibling visits from January 2015 until termination happened in April of 2016. The majority of the visits were in a children’s play gym on the south side because it was big enough for the kids to run, and yet they could sit at a table and visit too. The facility had an entire room with tunnels and slides erupting out into a pit full of balls. I had to quickly overcome my phobia of the germs that grow in those places. Most of the time all of the kids showed up, but no one ever knew if Bio-Mom would make an appearance. She showed up about 75% of the time and when we saw her belly protruding, we wondered when the newest member of our dysfunctional functional family would appear and where he or she would go. She said she was having a girl but wouldn’t tell us the date. She whispered in the kids ears that “they’re not gonna get this baby, and we will all be together again one day.” She gave birth at a hospital downtown and when the doctor asked her if she had any other children at home and she answered that she had six, he became suspicious and called DCFS. If he had not done that, she would have been able to leave the hospital with the baby. I was surprised to find out that the hospital has no way of knowing if a mother has children already in the system.
Baby Jane was placed with a single women with two grown boys. When she appeared at the first sibling visit she seemed a little overwhelmed and the more questions she asked, the more overwhelmed she seemed to be. Jane lasted two months in her home before she threw in the towel. When Bio-Mom saw a scratch on the baby’s face and accused the new foster-mom of abuse, she said, “I can’t deal with this for two years,” and gave up on Malachi’s little sister.
Just two months later we met Stacy, the new foster-mother to Jane. You could see the love on her face and hear the adoration in her voice. She was meant to be Jane’s mother. Stacy was a single attorney who lived in the city and I liked her instantly. Baby Jane was beautiful and healthy. She was born a little premature but was thriving in her new environment.
We continued on with the monthly visits and for the most part, everyone showed up. We had visits at the zoo, at the pumpkin patch, and of course, the play gym. Bio-Mom had to stop coming to the visits when rights were terminated in April of 2016. She still had her weekly visits with Jane, but according to Stacy, she rarely showed up.
During my home visit in December of 2016 the case worker told me that Bio-Mom was pregnant again. She went on to say that because she hadn’t been showing up for any of her required meetings or court dates, she had to “hunt her down.” She intended to go to every address Bio-Mom had ever listed in her paperwork. The case worker found her walking out front on the sidewalk of the second house she went to. Bio-Mom was holding the hand of a five-year-old little girl saying it was her god-daughter and she was walking her home from school. The case worker saw the VERY pregnant stomach and asked Bio-Mom if she had anything she needed to tell her, and she just answered no. When asked if she was really going to deny the obvious pregnancy she said “what pregnancy?”
Stacy had agreed to keep the baby so that Jane would have a biological sibling in the house. She and the agency just had to wait for the new little one to arrive and for the birth to be reported to DCFS. Bio-Mom showed up for a February 2017 court date with no pregnant belly. The case worker asked her where the baby was and her response was, “what baby?” The agency looked for birth records and found nothing. They could not get hospital records without a subpoena and all anyone had to go on was the word of the case worker who had seen her pregnant. So they waited.
I had an appointment in mid-February downtown at Lurie hospital for Malachi and when we were coming down the long escalator to exit the building I saw Bio-Mom coming into the building with something very obviously hiding in the front of her winter coat. When she saw me, it was like a deer caught in the headlights. She stuttered and said, “Oh, hi Stephanie.” She did not look down at Malachi at all until he said, “I grew in your belly.” At that moment a woman and little girl approached us. She introduced herself and said, “Bio-Mom is the god-mother to my daughter,” and then she introduced her little girl. I knew it was a baby zipped up in her coat. It was moving and lumpy. I took a deep breath and just went for it, spurting out, “Can I see the baby?” She stuttered again, hesitated, and fumbled with her coat zipper while saying, “This isn’t my baby, it’s hers.” At which time the little girl said, “No, it’s not. That’s your baby, Bio-Mom.” I pretended that I didn’t hear and she repeated it again. I caught the little girl’s mother give her the “shut-up” death stare in my peripheral vision. Bio-Mom barely unzipped her coat and I saw a very tiny little head with a blue hat on. I looked at the woman and asked his name. It was her turn to stammer now, but she managed to spit out, “Ezrah.” At that point, Bio-Mom zipped him back up in the coat and said good-bye. She did not address Malachi when she left.
I immediately got on the phone to Stacy, who then called the case worker. In the end, there was absolutely nothing they could do. There was no proof of any wrong-doing for the security guard to get involved. Not to mention we had no idea which floor or office they were there to visit. For a moment I regretted not snatching him and running. Obviously, that would have been a bad idea, but maybe I could have followed her, or asked a security guard to follow her. I just knew that now there would be enough evidence for further investigation, but I was wrong. My word was not enough. So they waited some more.
Eight months later, when Stacy was about to give up on Jane’s biological brother and foster a second child from another family, she got the call. Apparently, Bio-Mom had left Ezrah in a homeless shelter, unattended for hours. The workers running the shelter called DCFS and they took the baby into custody. He was malnourished and extremely tiny for his age. It turns out that Bio-Mom somehow used a fake name when she gave birth and that is the reason there were no records.
Fast forward six months and Ezrah is thriving. He is one of the most beautiful babies I have ever seen and he steals the heart of everyone he meets, especially Stacy and Jane.
I am in close contact with Stacy and the two youngest of Malachi’s siblings. He knows that they are his sister and brother and frequently asks to see them. Unfortunately, we have only seen Jay once since our adoption of Malachi, but we have spoken on the phone a couple of times.
If you have followed my letters from the beginning you know that I started with adoption day. It was May 18, 2017 and it was truly a magical day in my life. Head back to Chapter 1 and read all about it.
Well Judge, I’d like to say that it’s been a pleasure, but that would be a lie. Maybe instead I could say, “It’s been enlightening?” Every hill and road-block was worth it in the end. Malachi is worth it. Would I foster again? My answer changes daily. When we are going through a particularly hard spell with Malachi and his ADHD I would say “no, I don’t think I could handle another child with special needs.” But when we are strolling along and enjoying the awesome little person that he is, I would say, “Yes, there are many children out there who need good homes and have no one.” My husband, regardless of the day, would say “absolutely not.” Without hesitation, I can say that I have no regrets.
Malachi really has changed our lives for the better and strengthened our family bond. He keeps me on my toes and makes me feel younger. He teaches me constantly and I thank God he is in our lives, I can’t imagine being without him. He is where he was meant to be and we love and adore him in a way that can’t be put into words.
I wish that I could read everyone’s perspective who was involved in our journey. I do believe the agency prolonged our case for money, but I understand why. I don’t think that you, our judge, is interested in the details of every case, and I understand why. I don’t think that Malachi’s attorney had enough time to devote to each case, and I understand why. I believe that someone should stop Bio-Mom from having more babies, but I understand why no one can. Just because I understand it doesn’t make it right.
*Names have been changed*