My opinion early on was that either you were not interested in any part of the case that didn’t “legally” matter, or you could not take into account many aspects and facts because your hands were tied. Regardless of the reason, I had a problem with it, because there was so much more to this family than Bio-Parents proving themselves fit to take care of their children. I think that more consideration should be taken when talking about how long a child is kept in the system. I understand that there is a lot to review and this is a very complex topic, and that can take time. However, in my opinion, the longer a child is left wondering where they are going to spend the rest of their lives, the more damage that is done to them. Especially when there is mental illness, physical abuse or neglect involved in their history. Obviously, I am not an attorney or a social worker, but I feel like that’s something that the powers-that-be should at least consider. After all, what is foster care for? The best interest and safety of the children. I think that the legal processes sometimes gets in the way of the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, the kids, the foster families, and the reality of what they go through, just with day-to-day living, gets overlooked. In the end, that makes a huge impact on the very lives that the foster care system is there to protect.
“Jason and Edward”
It was about six months into the case when my mom and aunt were visiting for the weekend. We were on our way to Portillo’s for our tradition of chicken chopped salad when my phone rang and popped up with Kena’s name. I never heard from anyone regarding the case on the weekends, so when I saw her name come up on a Saturday I knew it would be interesting. I answered cautiously with “Kena?” She was clearly distraught and her voice was oozing with desperation. “Mrs. Davis, I was hoping that you and your husband could help us out. We had to remove Jason and Edward from their foster mom, Kesha. She had a boyfriend living with her who has been arrested for marijuana possession. I don’t have anywhere for the boys to go and was just reaching out to see if you could keep them for the weekend, and I will see what I can do on Monday.” My mind went immediately to the sibling visits and how emotionally out of control Jason was and how chaotic and loud it would get. Then I thought about where we would put them, especially right now with extra visitors in the house. I explained to Kena that we had company for the weekend and I didn’t really have the room, but told her that I would call Daryl and see what he thought. When I hung up the phone I knew I would say no, I just didn’t know how to justify it to her or myself. I was genuinely invested in all six of the children, cared about them and felt some level of responsibility toward them. I felt so bad about saying no that I tried to convince myself that I could make it work. However, I had a feeling that when Kena said that she would do her best to get them placement on Monday that she was not being honest. If they were in a stable home, it would not be her priority. I also knew my limitations and I was pretty close to overloaded. I did call my husband for the final exclamation point to the decision, and his response was a definitive, “yeah… uh, no.”
When I called Kena back I was relieved that I didn’t have to start the excuses, because she immediately let me know that she found someone to take both boys and it was a permanent placement. Jason and Edward were placed with a single man on the south side named Marco. The relief I felt was met with a piece of chocolate cake for dessert, but it turned a little bitter in my mouth when I realized how distressing it had to be for the boys and how scared they probably were. They likely felt rejected and were shuffled around again.
Cheryl had the June sibling visit at her house and all of the foster parents would be in attendance. It was the first time I got to meet Ms. Persons, foster-mother to Angela and Tameka, and Marco, now foster-father to Jason and Edward.
Ms. Persons appeared to be an older woman but I did not believe her age matched her appearance. I googled her when I got home and found out she was 53-years-old, but she looked more like 63. My first impression was that she was intimidating. I have been told that I have a “resting bitch face,” and so I always try not to judge someone based on if their face looks angry. Ms. Person’s face was not warm and inviting. It did not say “come and say hello to me,” instead, it said “if you approach me the wrong way, I will bite your arm off.” I persisted, and eventually chipped through her armor and she ended up being a really nice lady. She had adopted a relative through the foster system years ago and decided to do it again. She worked full-time and when she was called to take Angela and Tameka she asked specifically if there were any special needs. She was told no. Ms. Persons was informed that both girls were healthy, both mentally and physically. She knew right away that wasn’t true and when she brought it up to the case worker at her first visit over a month after the girls were placed with her, she was told that if the girls were to be “specialized” they would have to transfer to another agency, and that meant removal from Ms. Person’s home. She said that scared her because she already loved them and didn’t want them moved. So, other than the IEP that was in place at school, the girls had no additional services, and they both needed it. Cheryl was far more knowledgeable than me about the foster care system and informed Ms. Persons that she should request evaluations and additional services without specializing, that’s what the $20,000-$30,000 per month that the agency received was supposed to be used for.
The visit itself went pretty good. Angela’s behavior was clearly better when Ms. Persons was around. Angela was always doing her own thing, but that particular visit she did her own thing without any aggression or outbursts.
Marco was a surprise to me in many ways. He was a larger man, probably 6’3” and 260 pounds. I introduced myself and when I went to shake his hand, I thought he was joking as he gave me his left fingertips like he was the Queen of England waiting for me to kiss them. Then when he opened his mouth I knew it wasn’t a joke, he was just extremely “soft.” I am not exaggerating, even a little, when I say his tone was barely above a whisper. In fact, I had to stop trying to have a conversation with him because I literally could not hear him. He didn’t seem to understand me either. I would be waiting for a response to a question, and he would just look at me with a half-grin on his face without muttering a word. The boys seemed to be attached to him already and appeared happy, but I just didn’t get how they could communicate with him. If I’m being completely honest, I wondered if Marco was a bit delayed himself in the cognitive department. I wondered how he got through the process of obtaining a foster license to begin with. His demeanor and presence was not one of an authoritative figure to me, and I wondered how he would manage the handful that these boys could potentially become. On the way home I put a call in to Cheryl to find out what her opinion was of him. Let’s just say that we agreed. We both hoped that he was just having an “off” day.
Kena’s home visit before court was spent filling me in on Bio-Mom and Bio-Dad and their services, and educating me on what to expect from the adjudication hearing.
Bio-Mom was inconsistent with all of her services, from visits with her kids to her parenting classes. She was dangerously close to being kicked out of the parenting class for not showing up and not participating. Bio-Dad was keeping up on his classes, but she did not have the results of his first drug test yet.
Kena let her guard down a little on that particular visit letting me know that she didn’t plan on being with the agency much longer. I met her revelation with sadness because, even though I didn’t always like what she had to say, she was at least getting things done. She informed me that a case worker only makes roughly $33,000 per year. That was shocking to me. She had so many lives in her hands and so many responsibilities, yet she only made $33,000 per year. It became clear to me why the turnover was so frequent. It also made me wonder once again what the agency did with all of that money they got for this family.
The first person I recognized as I entered the small holding area outside the courtroom was Bio-Mom. She looked nicer than normal today, dressed in black leggings with a white long-sleeved shirt and a black vest. Her hair was straightened in a normal style and was not even sticking out anywhere. She greeted me with a smile and a friendly nod. I sat three rows behind her in the church-pew style seating. As I sat down, I saw Kena emerge from the court room with a few other individuals I didn’t recognize. She looked nice as always, wearing black pants and a turquoise shirt. Her hair was in a neat pony-tail with her natural curls surrounding the top of her head. She greeted me with a hug and then went to sit next to Bio-Mom as she pulled out her trusty note pad.
When my eyes found Henry I almost let out a giggle. He had his hair in its usual style with a big swoop sprayed high up in the front, but it was his outfit that had me confused. Now, I am the first one to admit that I am not a fashion guru; however, I seriously wondered if he even looked in the mirror before he left his house. He had a black suit on with matching wide-rimmed glasses, a checkered dark-purple, light-purple dress shirt on with an even darker purple shimmering tie. It was a lot of different purples for one small man. When he walked you could see bright, blood-red shiny socks that peeked out of his polished shoes. For a brief moment I wondered if it was mismatch day like the kids have at summer camp, but quickly dismissed the idea. He looked surprised to see me and put out his hand to greet me, “Hello Mrs. Davis, did I know you were coming today?” I tried hard to look away from the dizzying shirt and tie while I firmly shook his hand and said “I don’t know Henry, but I’m here just in case this trial actually happens today.” He politely asked me to meet with him privately in a conference room just outside the courtroom. I followed him into the tiny room that only housed a small table and four chairs while reminding myself that I need this man on my side and I should avoid conflict. I just kept repeating to myself, “no matter what, keep ALL opinions to yourself and be polite.” Since this court date was supposed to happen twice before and ended up being canceled, Daryl did not take the day off work, and I knew Cheryl was going to be late, but I really wished I had someone with me.
Henry dryly gave me his “this is what will happen today” speech and then asked me how the visits were going. I filled him in on the no-shows, the crying with Bio-Mom and how hard it was to get Malachi to engage with her. I told him that I do my best to work with her but she could be difficult. He clasped his hands together after pushing his glasses up his nose, and as he sat back and crossed his legs I caught a glimpse of the screaming bright red socks and had to hold back my amusement. He was without emotion when he said, “Well, Mrs. Davis I’m not so sure that you giving Bio-Mom parenting advice is the direction we want these visits to take. If Bio-Mom needs help with her parenting it is the case worker’s responsibility to get her the guidance from a professional. When trial to terminate comes, we want to say that we gave her every chance to prove herself.” I politely told him that I report everything to Kena and that I don’t give Bio-Mom advice, I am merely helping my son when he is upset. I explained to him that the things I show her are specific to Malachi, not to parenting in general, and if I don’t help her understand him, he is the one who suffers. I did understand his point, but I couldn’t just sit back and watch her fumble with my son and not step in, even though she ignores me most of the time. I had gone back and forth about letting a transporter take him to the visits so I didn’t have to subject myself to the temptation and stress, but again, it just was not in my controlling nature to let that happen until I was forced to. I did believe that I would eventually have no choice. Cheryl was always there to let me know that I was crazy to endure those weekly visits and I did agree with her. Sanity is overrated anyway. There is so much out of my control in regards to Malachi’s care that I wanted to hold on to everything that I could.
Henry and I were interrupted by a knock at the door because they were ready to start. I followed him into the courtroom with Kena, Bio-Mom and her attorney, Bio-Dad and his attorney, and a couple of women I did not recognize. We all stood in front of the handsome judge sitting up on his pedestal and waited for him to address us. I still found myself shocked at his appearance as he peered up above his reading glasses and recited “everyone please state their full name and who they are in connection with this case.” I learned that the two women I did not know were DCFS workers there to testify because they were present when the children were originally removed from Bio-Mom. I was surprisingly calm when it was my turn and did not stutter or hesitate when I explained who I was. The Judge asked me how Malachi was doing and asked if he needed anything. I responded that he was doing exceptionally well and needed nothing except for this case to be over. Okay, I didn’t actually say that last part. He thanked me for taking care of Malachi and excused me to wait outside again. He also excused Kena and one of the DCFS workers while the other one testified. I waited on the bench with Kena and we talked about how Bio-Mom and Bio-Dad were doing on their services. I learned that not much had changed. She showed me a list of the services that Bio-Dad had to complete and stated that, in her opinion, he would get overwhelmed very quickly. The services I could see at a glance were anger management, parenting, drug counseling and rehab, domestic violence, psychiatric analysis and a few more. When I asked her if the drug test came back positive she looked up from her paper with an expression that I read as “of course,” and said “what do you think?”
Cheryl arrived and joined us along with the other DCFS worker who was waiting her turn to testify. The conversation that ensued with the worker was curious and explained to Cheryl why Jay removed his shirt all of the time. The woman explained that every time she was called into Bio-Mom’s home, someone was naked. One time it was one of the children, another time it was more than one of them, and on another instance it was even Bio-Mom herself.
The worker, and then Kena were called to testify as Cheryl and I waited for the “permanency” part of the trial to start. We used the time to catch each other up on the boys and our individual lives. It was 4:00 when everyone came out of the court room. The first one out was Bio-Dad and he did not look happy. He was walking with his shoulders back and his chest puffed out looking straight ahead with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. “Well he looks like a hot mess” was Cheryl’s comment. Bio-Mom and her attorney went to a far right corner and whispered with sour faces as well. Her attorney reminded me of an older, burnt-out actor with his very obvious toupee and Botox injections. His facial expression never changed. Bio-Dad’s attorney rushed to his side as they discussed something with very serious faces. She was an average-looking woman with a dark-blue pant suit on and a button-up shirt with Birkenstocks and socks. She had sandy-brown hair that was cut in an Ellen-DeGeneres style and she wore no makeup. She appeared to move and speak with a care-free attitude. I always admire that in someone. She was clearly doing her best to calm down her client.
As everyone else piled out of the court room one at a time, the tension was released and Cheryl and I were wondering if this was a break or if it was over. Kena approached us first and did confirm that Cheryl wasted her time leaving work early because they were done for the day. Apparently there was not time for the permanency part of the hearing. The good news was that disposition was done and therefore, the clock was starting to tick. Nine months from that day the Judge would be able to change the goal to terminate rights if he saw fit. We asked why Bio-Dad and Bio-Mom looked so upset and she shrugged her shoulders and said “because I had to look at them in the eye and testify that they are not doing everything that they can. I had to tell the truth and they didn’t want to hear the truth.” I wanted to hug her. We ended our conversation discussing the upcoming sibling visit and then Kena left.
I turned around to see the disco-bright purple tie and blood-red socks coming toward us. At that point everyone had cleared out of the “holding area” and so Henry sat down to fill us in. I hadn’t figured out why yet, but I frequently had a hard time following what Henry was trying to say. It’s almost as if he was trying to word everything so articulately that he ended up overdoing it and stuttering through. What I got out of the conversation was that court went pretty good. Some phrases that stuck out in our awkward conversation were, “the Judge was hard on Bio-Mom today and told her that she doesn’t get to be a mom one month and then decide the next month that she can’t,” and the Judge mentioned to them both that it did not appear that they had made any progress. Then Henry added, “Quite frankly, and off the record, I don’t believe the goals in this case are attainable.” He informed us that there would be a permanency hearing on February 10th and then another date six months after that, at which time the Judge can move to terminate rights. When Cheryl asked if we were looking at another 1.5 years of this, he said yes. I asked him if all requirements had been met by Bio-Mom and Bio-Dad could the Judge extend it even further. His response was a confident, “yes, he could and likely would Mrs. Davis. We all make mistakes and every parent deserves every chance to correct their errors and we are always looking for the best interest of the child.” I physically became uncomfortable and fought back the urge to scream to him “I KNOW THEY MADE MISTAKES, YOU’VE TOLD ME THAT 100 TIMES!”
It was his answer to Cheryl’s next question that made that all-too familiar hot feeling well up inside, and I could not keep quiet any more. I don’t even remember how the question was worded, but the response was forever embedded in my brain. “Well, I can tell you that Bio-Mom’s mental condition makes any declaration of giving up her parental rights void, meaning she is not competent enough for the court to let her make the decision to give up her parental rights.” I tried to remain calm with my response, even though I felt light-headed from the boiling anger that was making my entire body numb. “Wait a minute Henry, let me understand something, and forgive me if I am speaking out of turn, but you have told us from the beginning that every parent deserves a chance to rectify their mistakes and you have also repeatedly said that the courts best interest is that of the child. However, this woman has six difficult children, five of whom have SSI for one reason or another. They have been in foster care for almost an entire year now and you’re telling me that the woman who is being considered to gain custody of them, the SAME woman who raised them until a year ago, and damaged them beyond repair in some ways is not competent enough to give them up, but IS competent enough to get them back? I just don’t understand in what world that makes sense.” I could tell midway through my rant, by the expression on his face that he did not have a good answer for me, so I answered my own question with what I thought his response might be and said “I know, it’s the law.” He pushed his glasses up his nose with his stubby little fingers and with an under-the-breath condescending snicker said “well, um, listen, off the record I just don’t see this case ever getting to the point of return to home. There is severe mental illness and a history; however, we do have to give her the opportunity to correct her mistakes.” There was really nothing else left to say.
So you see Judge, I don’t really think that the system is completely designed to do what’s in the best interest of the child. At least not in this case. If the attorney, the case worker, and anyone else who had ever been involved thought that it was impossible for Bio-Mom to regain custody, why did these children have to wait in limbo while she was given so many opportunities? Malachi would be fine, even if this dragged on until he was 4-years-old; however, the older kids deserved more, and I believed that the system was failing them.
The visits did become harder, both with Bio-Mom and Bio-Dad. The agency did take away my choice to be present for the visits, but I tried to still keep some level of control. I’ll tell you about it next time.
*Names have been changed