I have been the mother of three for four months now and I struggle to come up with a word to describe the chaos I now call my life. It’s a lot more work than I anticipated. As if it wasn’t enough to have a newborn, a busy pre-teen and teenager, I feel like DCFS is my fourth child and the most stressful one of all. Yes, I could make the caseworker coordinate an aide to take my baby to all of his visits and appointments, but it’s not at all in my realm of comfort to let a stranger cart him around. There are Bio-Mom visits, sibling visits, screening appointments, licensing visits, medication logs, paperwork and once-a-month home visits. Not to mention the nagging concern that something is not right with my little man’s health. I have had him at that useless clinic three times now because of this breathing and skin issue and with annoyance in her voice the doctor tells me the same thing every time, “he is fine.” Still, it doesn’t sit right with me.
“January Bio-Mom visits”
We had one visit in January and even though it was only one hour long, it felt like four. Ms. Williams, the aide for the agency, met us there, and when she introduced herself to me I knew immediately it was the incompetent woman who let Jason call me after the courts decided he would not be placed in our home. I hesitantly asked her about him and her response was one of disappointment when she sighed “Girl, I just don’t know about that one.” I sat at the desk while trying to get a little work done while Ms. Williams and Bio-Mom tried to comfort my screaming son. It’s an indescribable feeling to sit and listen to your baby cry and want to be soothed, and not be able to step in. Of course there were a few moments when I tried to intervene but was met with looks of disapproval and annoyance. It was a bitter cold January and every time I would bundle Malachi up and take him to Oak Park, I would worry about his labored breathing, so it was really disheartening when we arrived for THREE visits in January and no one showed up. When I called Nina to find out where Bio-Mom and Ms. Williams were, as usual, I only got her full voice mail. I later found out that Bio-Mom had canceled because she was sick and they were “so sorry” that they didn’t call and let me know.
It was mid-January when Malachi developed a small cough. Typically I wouldn’t be concerned about such a small thing, but again, I knew something was not right. It was the last Saturday in January when I finally decided to take him to the hospital because his nose started bleeding. I have a few friends who work in different emergency rooms and I knew that it is sometimes frowned upon when parents automatically rush to the ER with something trivial. I had to push those feelings down deep and go with my gut. I was going to get to the bottom of this and if that meant spending my day in the germ-infested hospital then that is what I would do.
Armed with my cell phone, diaper bag and an extra phone charger, I marched through the double doors of that hospital with a “mama bear” attitude and was not going to leave without being fully confident that Malachi was fine. Thankfully the ER close to my home is clean and everyone was overly friendly. I put a call into the caseworker but of course there was no option to leave my message. After an examination, chest x-ray and a horrific blood-draw, we waited for what felt like an eternity for the doctor to come back in. When he finally re-entered the cramped room and informed me that Malachi would be admitted with pneumonia, my first reaction was shock and fear. Admitting him? Pneumonia? He was so little and he barely had a cough. Then I felt relieved because finally there was an answer. Then the anger came. How is it that I have made numerous phone calls and forced my way into three visits and this was not identified? I knew something was wrong and now I felt as if I should have pushed harder.
After discussing what little history I had about prenatal care and his birth, we figured out that the type of pneumonia he had was caused from untreated chlamydia. It turns out that the eye cream he was sent home from the shelter with for conjunctivitis was actually to treat a sexually transmitted disease. My three-month old son had an STD. I didn’t even know this was possible.
After putting him in his over-sized Snoopy hospital gown they hooked him up to an IV through his hand and we waited. Nina’s voice mail was still full so I called directly to the agency and left a message on the emergency line. I did not get a call back. I was grateful, though, because I did not want to deal with Bio-Mom in that environment. Daryl and the girls brought me dinner and a game to help pass the time and later we “slept” with him on my chest in the chair next to his cage-like hospital crib.
We were released from the hospital on Sunday late afternoon and were told to follow up with his pediatrician later in the week. There was no way I would take him back to that clinic and asked if they had any recommendations for a doctor who could treat a Medicaid patient. It turns out that the doctor who had been taking care of us at the hospital was a resident at the clinic located right there in the hospital. I wouldn’t have a consistent doctor, but anything was better than where we came from. I would call and transfer his records as soon as possible.
As I was catching up on some much-needed sleep on Sunday evening, my cell phone rang and it was Melanie, the CEO of our private agency. She thanked me for taking such good care of Malachi and asked if there was anything she could do to help. I unloaded. I proceeded to tell her about the visits and how I had been taking a baby with pneumonia out in the bitter cold for appointments that no one showed up to. I voiced my frustration with not knowing much about Bio-Mom and her condition and about how very hard it was to reach my case worker. I didn’t even let her answer before I went on about how it’s been close to four weeks since my daughter’s iPod was taken and I still don’t have it back. I told her about listening to my son cry constantly during visits and how I was not given the option to step in and give advice on how to soothe him. Her response was kind but guarded. She apologized for the trouble I was having with Nina and informed me that starting this week we would have a new case worker named Tara and she would be calling to check in with me and schedule my next home visit.
I didn’t hang up the phone feeling like I got solid answers, but at least I was able to alleviate a bit of the pressure building up in the form of knots in my neck and shoulders.
We continued to live our lives and fall in love with our son. He was growing so fast and changing every day. He started to follow my voice and watch me when I would walk across a room. I wondered how the visits were going to go when he started to call me mama or when he could visibly prefer me over her. I pushed it to the back of my mind and allowed myself to move forward with our daily grind as normal as possible.
Bio-Mom showed up to all of the February visits, but she was 30-45 minutes late to each one. When she was tardy I would object to having to stay there for the full hour and was told that as long as she was there within 50 minutes we had to give her the hour or reschedule for another day during the week. None of it made sense to me. Malachi and I are inconvenienced, but she gets to be late and dictate our schedule? The visits themselves went the same as always, Bio-Mom sleeping, Malachi crying, Ms. Williams playing on her phone while I pretended to work. Our office manager, Tina, was back from maternity leave so she was present now on Thursday, so at least we could look at each other with rolling eyes, and I had someone to complain to after the dreaded hour ended. I had given up on trying to break through the barrier between me and Bio-Mom. I would wait for her to ask me questions about him and his growth or his health and when she stayed silent, I would give her the latest in his development anyway. Even though the case worker told me that Bio-Mom knew about his hospital stay she never once asked me how he was doing. One particular visit as Bio-Mom was ending her ritualistic 15 minutes in our bathroom before she departed, she stopped short at the door and said “so, when am I going to get another one of those photo scrapbooks?” All I could do was stare at her and remind myself to stay calm and not spout out what I really wanted to say using profanity and disgust. Instead, after a long pause and calming breath, muttered “you can order your own through shutterfly, just create an account and upload the pictures that you take with him here.”
“Henry and Tara”
Because I try to group all of my DCFS appointments together, I had scheduled the new caseworker and Malachi’s attorney appointment in the same day, one right after the other. Tara came first and finally I got my daughter’s iPod back after six weeks. It was the only time I met her because by the end of the month we had another new case worker. After checking all of the basics, Malachi’s bedroom, closet, medicine cabinet and basic tour of the house, she sat down and filled me in on Bio-Mom’s status. She said that she is inconsistent with her visits with the children but was attending all of her parenting, domestic, and abuse classes and complying with her other services. The agency had set her up in a shelter while they worked on getting her permanent housing. I couldn’t tell if the unassuming woman was truly just bashful or if she was afraid to tell me something, until she let out a big sigh and with one long breath and no eye contact said “well, I do have one more thing to tell you. Bio-Mom has been bringing family members out of nowhere since the beginning of this case to take over custody of the kids, but no one has proven to truly be her family; however, she does have four men who could potentially be Malachi’s father and we have to perform DNA testing in order to move forward with scheduling the adjudication trial. I have been in touch with each of them and set up a court date for the judge to order the paternity testing.” She went on to explain to me that at least two of the four would definitely show up and, in her opinion, would seek custody.
So there it was, the words spewed out onto my dining room table like vomit. I could hardly believe what she just said. I literally put my head down on the table before realizing how completely insane I appeared.
I barely had time to call my husband when Henry was pulling into the driveway. I don’t know what I expected from him but he did not match his voice even an inkling. He was a short Asian man who looked to be in his young twenties. His movements and demeanor, however, did match his dry tone and when he smiled it almost appeared forced, like when you tell a four-year-old to say cheese for a picture. My mind was so cloudy from the news I had just received from Tara that I barely recall all of the topics we covered, but there were a few key points that I was grateful to have. I found out that Bio-Mom did not have an actual “diagnosis,” but her IQ test put her just below the mark for mental retardation. She was significantly cognitively delayed. When I asked why she was given so many opportunities when there is already one psychiatric evaluation that says she can’t parent all six kids, he explained that it doesn’t “count” towards this case and she would have to have another one after adjudication. Henry clearly has a couple of memorized speeches that he gives to his foster parents. The first one is the process and how it all works, which I had heard at least three times already. The second one was “Mrs. Davis, I’m sure you understand as a mother that we have to give every opportunity for Bio-Mom to regain custody of her children. She is owed that.” When I inquired about the new information regarding a Bio-Dad he said that he had no idea about that and there would have to be a court date to establish a paternity test. I explained to him that there was already one set up and he just blankly looked at me and in his dry monotone voice said “I will have to look into that.” He didn’t specifically say anything negative about the agency or the case workers; however, he danced around it by saying “Mrs. Davis, let me put it this way, if I were to be a foster parent there is only one private agency that I would even consider using and it is not the one that you used.” At one point he mentioned that for a family of six children, our agency gets somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 per month from the state of Illinois for services. I thought I misheard him and asked him to repeat it, but he echoed the same amount. Even if it’s on the “low” side of that, where does all of that money go? I received $380 per month for a “room and board” payment, Bio-Mom was enrolled in three or four services and there was Ms. Williams who shuffled the kids to and from visits. I know from the caseworker that none of Bio-Mom’s six children had any services set up.
Daryl made it home just in time to meet Henry before he left, and as they shook hands hello and good-bye, Henry informed us that we would be required to attend a mandatory mediation with all parties involved to facilitate an easy and more efficient case. He could not tell me when the adjudication trial would be and when I asked why he just said “these things take time.” So essentially it’s been four months and the clock isn’t even ticking toward parental termination yet.
It was when Bio-Dad entered the picture that I finally got to meet you, Judge. Even though I was told I did not need to attend the court date for the DNA tests, I knew that I would not miss it. The results turned our world upside down again, and it was that event that made me turn my journal into these letters. I look forward to telling you about it.
*Names have been changed.