You do not look at all how I pictured you. You’re younger than I imagined and actually kind of attractive sitting up there with your salt and pepper, balding hair and sparkling diamond earring. I didn’t expect that. According to Henry, you are a hard-nosed judge who likes to get the cases through and move on as soon as the evidence presents. However, Kena, our new case worker, claims you have a tendency to lean toward giving multiple chances and being really hard on the process and the case workers. We only met you for a brief moment before we were escorted back to the holding area outside the courtroom, but I wondered if you could pick up on the pleading I was willing you to sense. I didn’t get a chance to say anything beyond my introduction and that’s probably a good thing because I likely would have made a fool of myself. I wanted you to see that, even though I didn’t have to be there today, I would travel to the ends of the earth for this baby that you likely read about moments before you stepped up to your bench. I want you to remember this moment every time you see Malachi’s name come up on your docket and recall how much the woman standing before you loved this baby. But I know that today all you are doing is ordering paternity testing. I don’t even know what that means. If paternity is proven, will Malachi be taken away? Will Bio-Dad be required to take classes too? What if he has family who would step in and take over custody of my son? My stress level is at an all-time high. Obviously I have no idea what is going to happen, but in true Stephanie-form, I have to prepare for the worst possible scenario so that there is still potential for me to maintain full control of my emotions when it happens. Even though I am trying to brace myself for the worst, I am fully aware that, as we continue to travel down this road, we could happen upon a tornado at any moment and there is not a damn thing I could do about it.
There has been a flurry of activity over the past couple of months and I don’t know where to start. We had a new case worker visit the house and the licensing worker came for her first “home inspection.” We’ve had two more sibling visits and of course the DNA testing.
I picked up on a different vibe from Kena than I had with the other caseworkers. She was confident, and for the first time since we picked up our son, I felt like there was someone competent and ready to take charge of this case. She showed up at my home for our first visit with paperwork in order. I had been taking Malachi to daycare three days a week without the proper authorization because I had to start working more. I took him to the same woman who helped me when Taryn was little. Ms. Teresa had a home daycare that was licensed through the state and I knew that she would be approved as an acceptable provider, and I trusted her. Kena presented with the completed paperwork and it only required my signature. She did not rummage through my house or invade any personal space; she stuck to the case and the pertinent issues. She was also the first case worker who was comfortable giving me her opinion, which I appreciated. She did not think that the Judge would ever grant custody to Bio-Mom; however, she did believe that she would be given many chances. Kena said that if Bio-Mom was following through on at least 50% of her requirements, the judge would extend the goal to reunite the family. Then she added a caveat. With a tilted head, lifted brows and what felt like a warning inflection, she said “I have been wrong before. I have personally been shocked by a judge more than once when they chose to return a child to the home after a year or more, even though the agency advised against it.” When I began to grumble about the fact that the case hasn’t even officially begun in the eyes of the judge because we hadn’t had adjudication yet, she was stern in her response. She let me know that there are many moving parts with a case this large and before adjudication can be scheduled, they had to ensure that everything was “buttoned up.” They could not move forward with the pending Bio-Dad situation regarding Malachi and they still had to exhaust all efforts to involve the Bio-Dads who were listed on the other five birth certificates.
I also had some whining to do about the visits. In the past six weeks we have shown up twice to Bio-Mom but no Ms. Williams, and I reminded Kena that Henry does not want me to be the one supervising. Nor do I want to. I added my discontent with the fact that Bio-Mom is always late and we are expected to reschedule the visit or extend our time there and I didn’t feel like this was fair to us. I was perplexed by her explanation and again shocked at the way money trumps what’s in the best interest of the child. Kena told me that if a visit does not happen during the week, regardless of the reason, the agency cannot bill the State of Illinois for that hour. So, if Bio-Mom arrives late and we don’t complete the entire scheduled time, the agency doesn’t get money for it; therefore, as a rule, if the visit does not happen, it has to be rescheduled for the same week. All I could do was shake my head in disgust. This same rule holds true to the sibling visits. If we fail at coordinating four families and six children schedules, then the agency can’t bill it. That is not acceptable to them.
I hosted one more visit at my house and there was one at a McDonald’s on the south side. The one at our home was cut short when Angela started to get aggressive and the aide who brought them decided it was best to end early. We still signed off on four hours so that the full-time could be billed. Daryl was home for this event and met the kids for the first time. When Angela kept disappearing downstairs to try and turn on “Chuckie,” either Daryl, Cheryl or I would fetch her. When it was my dear husband’s turn he was met with a different response than Cheryl or I got. He took the remote control out of her hand and prompted her to come up the stairs. When she ignored him and he put his hand on her shoulder to guide her in the right direction, she began to scream “don’t touch me, don’t touch me.” He jumped back, hands in the air as if he had a gun held to his head and I came to his rescue when I heard the outcry. His face indicated his shock and he looked at me as if to say “what the hell just happened?” That was the last time Daryl tried to help with the other children at the sibling visits. The rest of the visit went the same as the others with Justin extremely emotional, Tameka squealing with delight at her “brudders” presence, Edward studying everyone and soaking it all in, and Jay being the sole focus of his three older siblings.
The next sibling visit was held at a McDonald’s on the south side of Chicago. I assumed that there would be a play area if we were expected to remain there for four hours with six (seven with Josie) children. I was wrong on that assumption. What were we going to do for four hours in a dirty, small and smelly McDonald’s? It was ridiculous. Edward and Justin were a no-show so we left a message with Kena’s voice mail and all departed after 90 minutes of torture. I had developed a few possible scenario’s in my mind as to why Angela behaved the way she did with my husband, but her behavior at this McDonald’s was completely erasing those thoughts. She was very friendly and flirty with every man that she could get in front of. She would sashay over to them, bend down at the table where they were eating with her hips tilted to the side and a for-real bat of her eyelashes say, “Hello, how are you?” We pulled her away each time as quickly as we could and made a note to ensure Kena was aware of this behavior.
My first licensing visit was the first time I realized that, as foster parents, we really are viewed as babysitters. Lana was a very friendly lady with such stunning blue eyes that I suspected they were tinted contact lenses. She was tall, thin and had a shaved head with perfect accessories to match her clothing. She was like a fashion plate. Before she sat down she pulled a sheet of paper and pen out of her stylish briefcase and said “okay, let’s tour.” She checked the smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors that had to be on every floor. She counted the windows in the bedroom, opened the drawers of Malachi’s dresser and asked for the dimensions of the room itself. She peeked in the closets that we kept the medicine and cleaning supplies in. I felt like she was my parent and I was the child who just finished doing my chores. When we sat down at the dining room table she pulled out a packet of paperwork that was so thick I felt like I was at a mortgage closing. Then the questions began.
“What do you feed him? Do you have a fire escape plan? Do you have any space heaters? A pool? Any pets? Does he ever sleep with you in your bed? I need a copy of your car insurance and driver’s license. Do you keep him on a schedule? Have you or anyone in the home done any illegal drugs? Do you drink? How much? Do you smoke? Does anyone outside the home watch him and have you provided their Social Security numbers to the agency? Do you put his picture on social media? You cannot put his picture on social media. Do you discuss the case with anyone outside of your home? You cannot discuss the specifics of this case with anyone outside the home. Do you keep the medication log? You cannot even give him Tylenol without logging the time, date and dosage and for what reason.”
It went on and on with the most trivial questions you could imagine. I wondered if anyone actually follows all of these rules. After I initialed several pages and signed the document, Lana stood up and shook my hand, thanked me for taking great care of Malachi and gave me some of her cards in case I knew of anyone who would be interested in becoming foster parents. She explained that the licensing visits would be quarterly and she would call to schedule the next one later.
“Paternity DNA court hearing”
It was Tuesday, April 16th when Daryl and I drove downtown to the Cook County Juvenile court building to lay eyes on two potential Bio-Dads. After entering the intimidating large building and getting through security we made our way to the courtroom that Howard had given me. The waiting area outside the courtroom reminded me of the schoolhouse on “Little House on the Prairie.” There was a center aisle with approximately six rows of seats on either side. When we sat down we only noticed one other person present. He looked to be in his late teens and he was sitting in the front right corner with his knees pulled up to his chest while sucking his thumb. Clearly this wasn’t one of the potential Bio-Dads, but what was he doing there? He was dressed nicely but never actually turned fully to look at us when we sat down. Kena arrived next and confirmed that the young man was indeed one of the potential Bio-Dad’s. He was a 19-year-old thumb-sucker and could potentially be my “baby daddy.” Daryl and I exchanged a glance of “WOW.”
Bio-Mom came next and she was on her cell phone leaving a message for who I assumed was potential #2. She was pleading, “please come, its courtroom number 2L.” She sat down without acknowledging us or the quiet young man sucking away in the corner, and kept glancing back toward the entrance to see who was walking in.
He finally strolled in just moments before we were called into the courtroom. He sat three rows behind Bio-Mom and when she turned into a giddy school girl and went to sit next to him, he completely ignored her, rolled his eyes and moved to another seat. The first stereotypical word that jumped into my head was “thug.” His pants were belted below his butt with a button-up shirt that was just long enough to show about an inch of his boxers. The pants were so low I wondered how he displayed such stagger in his walk without falling forward. The second thing that I noticed were two tear drop tattoo’s below his eye. I knew that this symbol was significant of a gang member, but couldn’t remember what it was supposed to mean. His hair was in dreadlocks that were nearing the end of their life and his skin was a deep brown. He was not a bad-looking kid if you could get past the tattoos everywhere and the fact that he looked as if he literally just rolled out of bed.
We were all ushered into the courtroom and I realized this was the first time I have EVER been in a courtroom. It looked just like the set of “Night Court” with the Judge sitting up higher than everyone else. There was a witness-box to his left with a court stenographer placed just below him. We sat in the last of three spectator rows and just in front of the viewing area were two desks on either side. Henry sat at the desk on the left and a man I assume was Bio-Mom’s attorney sat at the one on the right. It was extremely disappointing when, after introductions, we were asked to leave the room. I have no idea what was said in the courtroom that day, but I knew that I had to bring Malachi back within the next two weeks to get his DNA tested.
We waited outside the courtroom wondering if one of these young men were indeed Malachi’s father. Waiting out the next however many weeks was going to be torturous. Henry and Kena both think that the tests will come back negative considering the amount of people she had brought forward as family. However, I had a gut-feeling that one of them was Malachi’s Bio-Dad and it scared me to my core. The thumb-sucker seemed to have the same bumpy-shaped head as Malachi, but droopy-pants had the same skin color. That was all we could come up with.
Prospect #1 walked out first and Daryl followed behind him as he quickly tried to exit and said “excuse me, I am Daryl Davis and I am Malachi’s foster-dad. I just wanted to meet you, shake your hand and let you know what kind of man is looking after your son if it proves that you are indeed his father.” Thumb sucker just looked at him blankly and said “okay.”
Prospect #2 exited next and went straight to sit down. Daryl approached him with the same introduction and hand shake. He did not stand or shake his hand at first, he just shook his head as if to say, “this girl is crazy,” pointed over his shoulder to Bio-Mom, and said “this is all her fault.” Daryl’s response was, “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. As a father, I would want to know who was taking care of my child, so I wanted to make sure we met.” The tattoo-stained young man stayed seated and said “thanks.”
It was just three-days later that I took Malachi to the same courthouse and had the inside of his mouth swabbed for his DNA.
I would like to say it was nice to meet you Judge, but nothing about this particular obstacle has been nice. I wonder if sometimes you think about your cases beyond what you see in the manila folder in front of you. I wondered if you picked up on my telepathic message. It turns out that my gut was right and one of the young men we saw in court that day was indeed my “baby daddy.” I’ll tell you about it next time.
*Names have been changed