Chapter 20 – Felony Charges

Dear Judge,

You know the dream that happens right when you start to fall asleep, before you’re actually all the way out? The ones that sometimes will incorporate your surroundings. Whenever I have one of those that is not so pleasant, like maybe a death or a car accident or some other tragedy, I have a weird OCD obsession and force myself to wake up fully, sit up and acknowledge, out loud, that it was just a dream. Because that way it won’t come true and become déjà vu. I have no idea if I heard this somewhere or if I made it up in my mind, but I have to do it. The most haunting one that I can recall stirs up such a powerful response in me that my body quivers and it is almost too disturbing for me to put down on paper. I had a “dream” that Malachi was standing in the middle of an abandoned street looking for me, and one-by-one, several angry-looking men appeared on either side of him with their guns drawn. They were so intent and angry with each other that they didn’t even see him standing there right in front of them. I was running to get to him, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. As the first gun-shot went off, Malachi looked straight at me and as our eyes locked, I sat up with a scream and repeated out loud, “this is not real, this is not real.” I didn’t get much sleep that night. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing that dream and in my non-expert opinion, I believe that it is derived from the fear that I had every time I would hear about an innocent bystander getting shot in a gang incident. Even to this day, with him safe and sound in our home, when I hear of a child getting caught in cross-fire, I cringe and think about what could have happened to him if Bio-Dad wasn’t required to go through the foster-care system. What if they had just handed him over after paternity was proven. It sends a chill down my spine and brings tears to my eyes every time.

“Bio-Mom”

As we approached Malachi’s second birthday things were calm. Bio-Mom was inconsistent with her visits and I never knew when she was going to show up. Even though it was annoying every time I would expend the energy that it took to pack a diaper bag and get a toddler ready for a three-hour outing, only to find that she wasn’t coming, it was with a twinge of guilt that I found myself exhaling as I remembered that she had missed another court requirement. Although my compassion for Bio-Mom did not go away completely, it definitely made fewer appearances as time went on. I started to develop some anxiety when thinking about how I was going to describe Bio-Mom to Malachi one day. I wanted him to have the full picture of his biological mother, but also wanted him to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she loved him the best way that she could. I will have to explain to him that she was not born with the ability to be a mother. She didn’t know how to love him the way he deserved to be loved, even though I do believe she tried. My husband is one of the most logical, yet fair people I have ever met, and when he used to catch me rolling my eyes or smacking my lips with distaste when I would hear a story of someone doing something that I didn’t deem appropriate or right, he would remind me that we are all doing the best that we can with what we are given. He was right. We are all born with our own individual strengths and weaknesses, and we have to maneuver and climb through life using both of those the only way we know how. Then, in his always very calm demeanor, he would add, “Some people are barely holding it together every day, so this may be the very best they can give at this moment.” He makes me a better person in this way. Somehow, as time went on and Malachi grew, it became easier to not take things personally with Bio-Mom. Even though I started to ease up on my anxiety and feel more confident that Malachi would ultimately be a Davis, I still occasionally let the paranoia creep in that she would get custody. I did not trust the process at all.

One Thursday morning when Bio-Mom showed up 15 minutes late to the Peekaboo Room, I noticed something was different about her. Not in her physical appearance, but in her presence. She hung her coat up and maneuvered her way to us with all of her bags in tow, and when I bent down to start my departure routine by trying to calm the storm that was to come when Malachi saw her, she abruptly blurted out an uncomfortable but confident laugh, and without resentment in her tone, said, “Why don’t you just stay today because he’s just going to call for you anyway.” Our new case aide, Pamela, shared a shocked glance with me and then agreed that it was a good idea. It ended up being the best visit we had. Malachi even picked up on her new and more relaxed vibe. He didn’t physically go to her, but he did allow her to help us build blocks and even handed her a few of them so she could contribute to his creation. At one point, even though her tone was still hard and not kid friendly, she said to him, “Malachi, why don’t you give that one to your mom,” and was pointing in my direction. It was the first time in a very long time that I allowed myself to feel something resembling compassion toward her and our unique situation, and I found it hard to contain my emotions once again.

“Bio-Dad”

During one of our home visits, I learned from Kena that Bio-Dad was not being compliant and was angry with her because before he was incarcerated he was almost done with his 60 days of drug rehab; however, when he got out of jail he had to start at ground zero again. He was still mad because he didn’t think he should have had to complete any services at all. He felt like Kena had tricked him into revealing personal information about himself and then held it against him. He was unhappy because it was hard to get around to his visits and requirements without a car or bus money. Kena told me that he accused the agency of only accommodating the foster parents, and that he had to work too hard to even get to see his son once a week. Considering the obstacles I had on a weekly basis dealing with foster-parent requirements, I chose to remain silent, take the high road and remind myself that we all have our own perspective. In the end, I did not believe that Bio-Dad would be able to complete all of his services. Even though I was happy that it was one less hurdle to jump over to gain legal custody of Malachi, it made me sad for the young man who not only shared my son’s DNA, but was also once a child in a foster home himself. At one point I saw potential in Bio-Dad, but I also knew that he likely would not recognize that he had other choices in his life and continue to choose the wrong path. I knew this for sure when my husband called me in the middle of his work day to tell me he received an interesting phone call.

I was making dinner on a Wednesday evening when Daryl is normally at his busiest time in the office, and I saw his name pop up on caller ID. I cautiously answered and then just got confused. Our private agency has never called my husband regarding anything, so when he said that the CEO of the agency, Melanie, had just called him, I went into a tailspin of questions before I even knew what the conversation was about. She told Daryl that she chose to call him because I was more emotional and she did not know how I would handle the situation. She went on to inform him that the agency was on lockdown until further notice because Bio-Dad had repeatedly threatened the life of our case worker and he was “on the run.” When I asked the myriad of questions that popped into my mind, he could not answer any of them… because he did not ask any of them. I was not irritated with him for not asking the questions, he was consistent. I was really angry with the agency for not calling me. When he said “I have to go, I have patients waiting,” my heart started to triple beat and I quickly responded with “No, not yet, I need more. Should we be concerned?” In his always calm, always confident way, he said, “Well yes, that is why they called. But if we are aware and on guard it will be fine.” I was not satisfied, but agreed to let him go back to work. Of course I immediately picked up the phone to call Kena, and as expected, she didn’t answer.

Kena called me back the next day and told me what she could, or what she wanted, of the story. She was obviously shaken up, and said that it had been escalating for weeks with Bio-Dad phone calls and texts accusing her of stealing his son, manipulating him and not giving him a chance. In the end, she had pages of texts from him threatening her life, and although she wouldn’t tell me the specifics, she was adamant that they were very real threats and included the use of the words gun and knife. Kena went on to tell me that because the police had not been successful in finding Bio-Dad, the FBI was called to assist, and they believed that he was in Indiana. I was unsure if I believed the FBI part of the story because I thought that if that were the case, we would have been notified by someone other than the CEO of the agency. Given the fact that Bio-Dad had all of our information and our office address, and we had his son, I was shocked that our local police were not involved. I had so many questions, but as always, I was only given little pieces. Ultimately, Bio-Dad was arrested a week later in an emergency room in Chicago where he was assaulting his girlfriend in the waiting room. He was charged with a felony and I did not worry any more about him getting custody of Malachi. I did, however, wonder how my son would handle the knowledge of his biological father one day. It’s hard to explain situations to our children when we don’t fully understand them ourselves. I am certain Bio-Dad also loved Malachi the only way he knew how. He was born with the ability to parent inherently; however, his life circumstances prevented a certain type of growth that is essential in making the right life choices. The situation that he was born into was part of a vicious cycle that made it hard to even recognize that there was another way. It’s hard for me to grasp because I grew up loved and provided for by my family, but it appeared to me that Bio-Dad lived his life in a constant state of anger.

“Next Time”

Malachi turned two-years-old on October 23, 2014 and our case goal was still “return to home.” I gave up trying to understand why the process was so long, because there was nothing that could help me make sense of it. However, I did settle in and learned how to live with the constant invasion of our privacy and parenting. I’ll talk a little bit more about that next time.

Chapter 19 – Case Notes

Dear Judge,

I haven’t released a letter to you in a while and I struggle to explain why. Aside from the first and last paragraphs, my accounts of everything that happened throughout our journey were written as they happened, one at a time, and I edit them for posting. The main reason I have procrastinated so long on this one is because it makes me sad. Reading my thoughts from so long ago completely exhausted me. I’m not sure if the state of the world today contributed to the melancholy I felt when I read my own words, or if I am truly embarrassed about how negative they are. I’ve had a few people question my motives in regards to publishing my story, and I hadn’t thought about it since I originally decided to journal to you, but their inquiries started to get to me. In the beginning, my goal was solely to get the weight off of my shoulders, and then it became, “if I can help just one person know that their feelings are normal in this process it would be worth it.” Then I asked myself why all of the sudden what someone else thought was affecting me so greatly. One of the lessons that is important to me to instill in my children is to always be proud of who you are. There are people in the world who will question you, or just flat out not like you for one reason or another, but as long as you are kind and confident in your actions, and doing your very best, it doesn’t matter and it’s okay. I have come to the conclusion that when I read some of these chapters back, and start to edit them, I don’t really like the person who wrote them. It’s almost as if I don’t recognize myself and the woman that I am typically proud to be. Then I get sad and put it away for another day. Having said all of that, I decided to leave the chapter alone and publish it as it was written. I believe that someone will benefit from my words, the ones I’m proud of AND the ones I am not.

Dear Judge,

The word exhausting doesn’t even come close to describing the stress I started to feel on a daily basis. The constant mental ping-pong that went between “there is no way that she could handle all six of the kids,” to “but what if they let her try,” was unbelievably draining. Henry would say “Again, I just don’t see it happening,” but Kena would say, “She’s doing everything she’s supposed to and will eventually get to see them all at once.” It was a vicious cycle that sucked me in and made me lose all logical perspective. I had cried so many times I felt as if I didn’t have tears left. I was annoyed with myself at how little control I had over my reactions and I started to feel numb to the sadness. It became a dark shadow that loomed over my head.

“Monitoring Notes”

It was at the sibling visit where we met Sharon that I learned there were no “real” case notes from the aides who monitored the visits. She said that the only thing she turned in to our agency was a form that stated how long she was at the visit and who was in attendance. When I asked if she at least gave a verbal report, her response was, “only if they ask, which sometimes they don’t.” My mind wandered again to Ms. Williams and her supervision of Bio-Mom visits. I always found it odd that she didn’t take notes of any kind, but when I would ask Kena if she knew about an incident, she always said yes. I did not understand why no one would be documenting details and in true “Stephanie form,” I started to obsess over it. I was under the impression that if Bio-Mom attended all of her classes and got an apartment and some help, it would appear on paper that she could handle six kids. Even though that didn’t make sense, it is what it seemed. That is why the details of the visits were paramount, because they would prove that she couldn’t handle it. There was no doubt in my mind that it would be dangerous to every one of the kids. I went home after almost every visit and wrote notes, or I would type them in my phone as they took place.

Once again, I felt helpless. I was certain that no one was documenting the details of the visits and it was wrong. As I sat in my haze of uncertainty, feeling sorry for myself one afternoon, I called Henry to complain about what I had learned from Sharon. Of course he picked up the phone right away, “Public Guardian’s office, this is Henry.” I would always shutter as I pictured his face when he heard my voice, and grinned at the thought that he regretted answering the phone, maybe thinking, “Ugh, her again.” I explained that I was concerned about the lack of record-keeping and how important I felt it was that the judge heard all of the crazy details that happened at the bio-visits, and he just listened quietly. I felt like the more I talked, the more I wanted to say. I went on with example after example, “Who is documenting that Bio-Mom never asks me about his care? Is it being written down somewhere that she falls asleep and if she’s not sleeping she is playing on her phone? How about the time she left an open bottle of hair-dye in the middle of the Peekaboo room? I think the judge should know that Malachi knocked over her paper cup of hot coffee when she was not paying attention. Does anyone write down that she smells so bad that it lingers in the air after she leaves? I want him to know that I have to bathe Malachi after every visit because he smells so bad. It should be documented that she doesn’t know how to change his diaper and he inevitably ends up peeing up his shirt after her attempt. Does the judge know that she never asks about his daily routine? She didn’t even notice when he started walking, and she is very aggressive when she speaks to him.” I ended my rant with some statistics from my own records, “From August 12th through February 7th Bio-Dad had 25 visits scheduled and only showed up for 11. Bio-Mom only missed 5 visits, but she was only on time ONCE.” When I finally came up for air, Henry snickered as if he were entertained and said, “Well, that’s quite a bit of information Mrs. Davis.” My response was sharp and very confident with, “Oh, I have a lot more, would you like me to go on?” He defended the agency, stating “I’m sure there are records kept Mrs. Davis, that is their job,” but when I questioned why he didn’t KNOW that for certain, as Malachi’s attorney, he stuttered and said he would check on it. I cringe when I look back on how much I sounded like a mad-woman when I made my next revelation. It was as if an actual light bulb appeared on the top of my head. With an excited and overly-energetic urgency I said, “Wait a minute Henry, what if I submit MY notes to the judge?” Before he could even speak an objection, and without coming up for a breath, I added, “Hear me out. I understand that I am a biased witness and anything I say can be deemed as that. However, if I submit it anyway, he has no choice but to read it, right? Maybe, just maybe, it would prompt him to ask a few more questions.” There was silence on the other end of the phone and I wondered if his forehead was being propped up by his hand while he rolled his eyes, and he finally sighed, “Well Mrs. Davis, off the record, I cannot tell you to do that, and I cannot take the notes from you; however, if you really want to, you could make a formal submission to your case worker and she would have to present it.”

A couple of days later I received the following response from one of the supervisors at our private agency regarding the visits being documented:

Mrs. Davis,

 

There definitely was miscommunication regarding the matter of case notes. All of our case aides document visits accordingly. Your case worker can assist with the details.

 

Thanks!

 

I never heard from anyone else regarding the matter. I did, however, email all ten pages of my case notes to Kena to be submitted for court.

 

“Court Dates”

 

Henry told us that the next court date was scheduled for February 10, 2014 and I knew it would be a “status” hearing. The agency would present their recommended goal; either “return to home” or “terminate parental rights (TPR),” and then submit their documentation regarding the status of the goal. Then the judge would make his comments and set another court date. I knew that the February court date was too soon to shoot for a TPR trial so I wasn’t really affected when I found out it was cancelled due to some scheduling conflicts. After a few more cancellations, there were literally only two court dates that actually transpired in 2014 and both were continued with the goal of “return to home,” because there was not enough documentation to change the goal to terminate yet. When I asked Kena about the goal not being changed, she was always guarded with her response citing, “Bio-Mom is doing enough to continue her efforts to gain custody, and I cannot say what the judge will ultimately rule, every case is different.” Henry’s answer was always the same, “Listen, I just don’t see this case ever ending with Bio-Mom getting custody, but she is owed a chance to prove herself,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

 

When I approached the topic of my notes being submitted to the judge, Kena said that he did accept them and thanked me for my input, but if I wanted to submit any more case notes, I would have to include an original signature instead of an emailed copy. I’ll never know if he actually read them or what his thoughts were, but I did feel triumphant that it was actually on the record.

 

“Marco and Ms. Persons”

 

At that time, I had only met Ms. Persons face-to-face two times, but we did speak on the phone at least once every couple of months. I was the squeaky wheel to our agency and attorney, so Ms. Persons would call me when she had something to complain about to see if it was something I already had the scoop on. I was always happy to fill her in.

Ms. Persons had a growl to her voice when she was calm, but when she was angry that growl was deeper and accompanied by several smacks of her lips. When she was really heated, there was no time for pleasantries, the moment I answered the phone she would start with a moan and a smack, “ooh, girl, I don’t even know what to say I’m so angry. I’m so tired of these people in my house and calling my phone all of the time.” One particular Friday afternoon when she began her sentence that way after I picked up the phone, she continued her rant with, “I can’t even believe this is still going on, what is wrong with these people?” She never really understood or grasped the whole “make-up visits” thing. Regardless of how many times I explained it to her, she still refused to get that it was a rule. She called upset because she had to make up three of Bio-Mom’s visits in one week because she hadn’t been showing up. “I mean what do they expect from us? This is a huge inconvenience. I work full time and the girls have school every day and they want me to squeeze in three visits in one week?” No, “mm, mm mm, mm” that is just not right. Angela always comes home upset after her visits, ‘mm, mm mm’ and then I have to calm her down every time.” She was insistent that she was told there would be no make-up visit if it was Bio-Mom’s fault. I explained to her once again that the agency cannot bill the state of Illinois for the visits if they didn’t happen; therefore, they will do whatever they can to reschedule, regardless of whom it inconveniences. Her response was always the same snarl, “Well, that’s not fair.” All I could do was agree.

The angriest I ever heard her was when she called to complain about Marco. I could barely understand her when I picked up my end of the phone and had to ask her to repeat herself several times. She went on to tell me that the girls had to make up two visits in one week and Kena had told her that Marco (Edward and Justin’s foster father), would be transporting them for the agency. The fact that this was not her main complaint was baffling to me, but she had more to say. Ms. Persons was always very adamant that no one know where she lived. She was a single woman on the south side of Chicago with three girls and was not comfortable with people knowing where she lived, which was one of the reasons she never hosted the sibling visits. Marco had picked up the girls on a Saturday morning at 10 am and when they were dropped off, they burst through the front door screaming that their mom was in the car. When Ms. Persons opened the door to look for Marco, he was running to his car that was parked in front of the neighbor’s house. Bio-Mom was sitting in the passenger seat. She did not give me an opportunity to speak and went on a rant that changed topic as quickly as a blink.

“We are on our ninth case aide. That’s nine people that know where I live, and now this man is going to bring Bio-Mom here to my house? ‘Growl, growl, mm mm mm’ How am I supposed to teach these girls not to trust strangers when they have just anybody come here and expect me to release them every time? I knew it all along. I knew that Marco and Bio-Mom had some sort of thing together. I think they might even be sleeping together and this is all some sort of plan that they had. Nobody will listen when I talk about it. Now Bio-Mom knows where I live. SHE KNOWS WHERE I LIVE, STEPHANIE. I have all of these meetings at school and nobody will get me the help they need outside of school. All anyone is concerned about are these Bio-Mom visits. Stephanie, I know a lot of people would take these girls and mistreat them, and they don’t deserve that. I don’t want them taken away from me. These are my girls. I am just so done with all of this.”

When I was certain she got everything off of her chest, I calmly said “Ms. Persons, those girls are so blessed to have you in their lives, and believe me, I completely understand how frustrating it is. We just have to wait it out and move forward, it is our only option.” I asked her if she could be mistaken about Bio-Mom being in the car and her responsive growl back was coupled with some defensiveness when she said “Mm, MMMM, girl, there is no way I am wrong. Why didn’t he pull into my driveway? There were no other cars there. Why didn’t he come to the door, and why was he running back to his car? No, there is no way I am mistaken. I saw her and my girls told me.” I didn’t have the energy to dispute her claim, but I did not believe that Bio-Mom and Marco were romantically involved. I was, however, grateful that I wasn’t the only one who let this process make me a little paranoid. The only thing I could do was listen to Ms. Persons and advise her to talk with Kena. She would always listen to what I had to say regarding what I knew about the case from Henry, but my words of encouragement were met with a dismissive growl.

“Kena-Bio-Mom visit”

If Kena could not make it to my house for her monthly home visit, she would supervise one of Bio-Mom’s visits with Malachi, arrive early to talk with me and mark it down as a home visit. We were in the Peekaboo Room waiting for Bio-Mom and discussing the details of the case when she casually said to me, “I have the best foster parents, Marco volunteered to drive the girls to their visits next week, wasn’t that so nice of him?”  I was careful not to start spewing my negativity about Marco and instead chose not to say a word. Then she mentioned that her supervisor thinks it might be a good idea to extend Malachi’s visits with Bio-Mom to two hours to give them a better chance to bond. I had to remind myself to breathe and not to speak until I was calm. When my silence was too much for her to bare she slumped her shoulders down and stared at me with pleading eyes and said, “Mrs. Davis, please don’t do this to me. You know my hands are tied regarding these visits. Do you think that one hour a week is enough for a mother to bond with her child?” I knew I had to respond but did not want to. I picked Malachi up and started playing with him as I spoke because I knew that I would be calmer with him in my arms, and without looking at her I said, “I just don’t understand why you can’t tell the judge exactly what happens when she’s here. She will not try to bond with him, that’s why it’s not happening. You have the parenting coach’s expertise confirming that. She will not try, it’s not about how long she spends with him.” Since I was able to communicate without my body trembling, I decided to take it one step further and stared her straight in the eyes and added, “Listen Kena, please don’t be offended but I do not ever want Marco transporting or supervising any of Malachi’s visits.” She looked puzzled and said, “Could you elaborate?” I hesitated and put Malachi down and without any change in my demeanor or tone simply said, “I would prefer not to.” What I wanted to say was “Seriously Kena, you are a smart woman. Have you ever even spoken to the man? He is obviously not all there,” but thankfully I was able to control myself. I was saved by the bell as her phone rang and she excused herself to answer it.

When she returned she only said “You are such a natural nurturer Mrs. Davis.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to her compliment. Was it even a compliment? It didn’t matter. Instead of responding, I asked how Bio-Mom was doing on all of her requirements. My heart sank again when she informed me that she had finished all of her classes. This meant that she currently only had counseling and the weekly visits with her children as services. I reminded her that on our last home visit she told me that the domestic violence counselor stated that “she would likely never put her children before a man.” Kena could only shrug her shoulder and say, “well, she marked the requirement as complete and released her.” She went on to tell me that she is working on scheduling a visit with Bio-Mom, all six children, and a psychiatrist to witness how she does with all of them together, and she would be in touch with me regarding a date. I literally felt so depleted that I didn’t want to hear any more. I switched gears and asked how Bio-Dad was doing. I knew he had been released from jail but hadn’t heard when or if visits were going to start up again. Kena said that she was also working with his attorney to schedule visits because Bio-Dad would not return any of her calls.

Bio-Mom was 45 minutes late at that point and I asked if we could call it quits, but she said that we had to wait the entire hour, and when I looked at her with my mouth open about to speak, she interrupted me with, “yes, Mrs. Davis, it’s a money thing.” Ten minutes later when the hour was almost up she said we could start to put Malachi’s shoes on, and as we approached the hanging cubbies in the front of the big open room, Bio-Mom sauntered in, tripping through the door with all of the bags she was carrying. Malachi immediately started clinging to me and crying. Kena whispered to me that this would be enough to charge the hour and to just continue putting his shoes on. Bio-Mom tried to take him from my arms, but his protests got stronger and louder. She glared at Kena and said “See, this is what happens. He doesn’t want me.” She kissed the back of his head and walked out the door with Kena chasing after her. I drove home feeling beat down and helpless. I tried to cry to release some of the tension, but I couldn’t muster up one tear. I wondered if I would feel differently if Bio-Mom was actually fit to take care of him. Then I asked myself if I would have thought anyone were fit to take care of him.

“Next Time”

We are the ones taking care of Malachi. Loving him was the easy part, providing for him was my privilege, but why was it that we had no say in what was in his best interest? I will never understand why that doesn’t matter. It’s such a confusing and blurry line. There has got to be a better way. Next time I’ll tell you about Bio-Dad and the “man-hunt” that ensued.

Chapter 18 – Visits Winter 2013-14

Dear Judge,

Have you ever walked away from a situation wishing you had responded differently? Or come up with a great response to an ignorant comment two hours too late? In retrospect, as I edit these letters to you, sometimes four full years after I wrote them, I see how blind I was a lot of the time. I remember how hard it was going through each situation or circumstance, and I can still see my point and validate it. However, now I can see the other side of the coin a lot clearer. Even now, I am still learning from the chaos that was my life for so long. The jury is still out on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

“Bio-Mom Visits”

When the agency finally pushed hard enough that we had no choice but to remove me from the Bio-Mom visits, I came up with a solution that would help both Malachi and me in the transition. Next door to our chiropractic office was an open-space concept play room called “The Peekaboo Room” where toddlers could take their shoes off and run and play. I offered to pay for the room for Bio-Mom to visit with Malachi every week. Surprisingly, Kena agreed to my proposal without hesitation. So, I was able to maintain some level of control with driving him to and from the visits, and I would be right next door if something went wrong.

I visited The Peekaboo Room with Malachi a couple of times before the first visit so that he was familiar with his surroundings. I introduced myself to Rachel, the woman who ran the front desk, and explained the basics of our unique situation. He loved it there; it was right up his alley… loud and bright and full of noise. Toward the front of the room there were a couple of couches for parents, but the remainder of the big, bright space was all for the little ones. The room was open with a few enclaves for a play kitchen, a doll room complete with cribs, high chairs and swings, and one that housed a toy lawn mower, vacuum and some other “wheeled” activities. Malachi’s favorite spot was off to the far left corner where there was a yellow, red and blue little tyke bus slide. He would go up under the steering column of the “bus” part and down the blue slide over and over again. It kept him so busy that we bought him one for Christmas, but at home it turned into something he used as a catalyst to climb other things!

I was surprisingly calm when the day came for the first visit without me. Ms. Williams signed Malachi in while I paid the fee, we took his shoes and coat off, and I snuck out of the front door before he had even reached the slide, or before Bio-Mom arrived. It wasn’t even 15 minutes later when my phone started buzzing with Ms. Williams name across the screen. I couldn’t even hear what she was saying over the screaming voice in the background that I knew was my son. I had reached the front door of The Peekaboo Room before I hung up the phone, and the only thing I knew from the brief conversation was that he was not hurt. Malachi was standing next to the slide in full-on hysterics. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him, including me for a minute. I squatted down to his level and calmly said his name over and over again until he could recognize my voice and focus enough to see that I was there. When his eyes caught mine, his chubby little arms reached out and found me with such force that I fell to the floor. He was shaking and wet from sweat. He sobbed with his face buried into my neck while trying to calm his breaths with big heavy gulps of air for at least two minutes, and when he finally slowed down enough that the gulps were decreasing in intensity, he still held on for dear life. His grip did not loosen for a couple more minutes. I don’t know how I didn’t cry, but I held it together and stayed calm for my baby. There were approximately a dozen other mothers there with their toddlers and I could see them trying to focus, not only their attention, but that of their children, in another direction. Of course my primary interest was Malachi, but Bio-Mom stood in the background looking hurt and angry. Her 5’5,” 140 lb. frame was wearing a very worn, black and red flannel shirt that was probably a size 2X, with several layers underneath that. She had blond hair extensions in that looked like they hadn’t been combed in weeks, and they were laying long over her left shoulder with a black stocking cap snug on the top of her head. She was holding a little toy broom and dustpan in her hands when she threw her arms up in the air, and in an extremely flustered and condescending tone said, “Well, there she is, there she is. I hope you’re happy now, there’s your mama.” I felt bad for her, but felt worse for my baby boy. I just could not figure out what it was about her that he could not get past. He was such a friendly baby and would usually go to anyone with ease. I had never seen him have an aversion to anyone but her. It took ten minutes for him to calm down enough to be able to sit on my lap breathing normally. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I was not going to leave him again that day. I also knew that removing him from the situation was not the answer either. I asked Bio-Mom to sit down next to us and grabbed some blocks. I started to place them on top of each other and encouraged Malachi and Bio-Mom to help me. Just when the tension was starting to ease, and we were all starting to breathe normally again, Bio-Mom decided that she was going to try to move him from my lap to hers. Her arms started to reach across the small area of carpet between us, and she said in her non-gentle voice, “Okay, come on now.” Knowing that it wasn’t a good idea and not wanting to create more tension at the same time, I playfully said “Maybe not yet.” At that point she declared, “I got this,” and went straight for him anyway. I was not going to make a scene and play tug-of-war with Malachi, and since my only other option was to go with it, I acted as if it was no big deal, hoping that he would be open to going to her. He wasn’t. Thankfully, Ms. Williams stepped in right away when it was evident that he was heading toward another panic attack. She said, “Okay, that’s enough for today.” They were already out the door before I could get Malachi’s shoes and coat on, so I was able to ask Rachel at the front desk what happened. She said that as soon as Bio-Mom walked in Malachi started pacing and looking for me, and when she approached him, he started crying. She picked him up anyway and he started to scream. It continued to escalate the more they tried to calm him and that is when Ms. Williams called me.

The following day I received a call from a parenting coach named Laura. She was already coaching Bio-Mom with the four older children and was going to start coming to the visits at The Peekaboo Room. She asked me a few questions about the visits so far and I filled her in on Malachi’s aversion to his biological mother. I told her about the fact that she doesn’t put any effort in to bonding with him and gave her several examples.

The following Thursday, Ms. Williams and Laura came early to get her acquainted with Malachi before Bio-Mom showed up. He instantly took to her and we played all together for 15 minutes before she asked me to tell him good-bye and head next door. I knelt down and kissed him on the forehead and walked out with no problem. He just kept on playing. It was like déjà vu from the previous week when fifteen minutes later my cell phone buzzed with Ms. Williams name again. My heart sank as I ran next door and calmed my son down again. Bio-Mom looked the exact same as she did on the last visit, down to her flannel and stocking cap. She was calmer this week and had a blank stare on her face. She did not mutter a word. Laura had us build the blocks again after Malachi calmed down. Only this time she was literally telling Bio-Mom what to do, “take your hand and reach over to gently touch his leg,” she instructed. Indeed, Bio-Mom would reach across and touch his leg. Then Laura said “Ok, now rub it gently and say ‘Are you having fun?’” But when she went to follow through with the step it was like she was some bad actor in a really uncomfortable scene. There was absolutely no ease with her actions and she was quickly forced to retract when Malachi moved his leg away. She sat there for the next 20 minutes and watched while I played with our son and Laura made small suggestions to get her to engage. She asked me to include Bio-Mom and show Malachi that it was okay. He did play the remainder of the hour, but did not stray far from me. Bio-Mom left first that day and I was able to have a conversation with Ms. Williams and Laura. Laura did not believe that Bio-Mom was going to be able to bond with Malachi without my help. She said that I would have to be in attendance at the weekly appointments. She confided in me that she was disappointed in Bio-Mom’s progression with the older kids and said that sometimes she just didn’t show up. The conversation turned personal when Ms. Williams said “we were talking and think it’s so sad that you guys remind us of the movie ‘Losing Isaiah.’” I had seen that heart-wrenching movie and did not appreciate the comparison. Since Malachi came into our lives, the thought of that movie made me nauseous.

That was the last time I saw Laura. Kena said that they canceled her services. My protests fell on deaf ears. I reminded her of what Laura said about me needing to be there if Bio-Mom was ever going to bond with Malachi and she said “I’m sorry, it’s just not good for the case.” I got the same response from her supervisor and from Henry. Bio-Mom missed the next four weeks of visits due to illness. That’s all I was told.

“Bio-Dad”

The first visit downtown at the courthouse with Bio-Dad was a rough one for me. I knew that Malachi would be fine with Ms. Williams and Bio-Dad, as he typically did well with them. But I did not like the fact that someone else was driving him into the city, and I didn’t like that I had no idea where to picture him in my mind. I had Ms. Williams pick up Malachi from the office so that we could be closer to downtown and I could stay busy with work. He let me buckle him into her car without fuss and they drove away. The two hours that they were gone were filled with some angst, but I did get a lot done. When Ms. Williams walked through the front door with my son on her hip, I let out a big sigh and hugged him tight. He was smiling and babbling and happy. Ms. Williams said it went well and he spent the entire hour at a small train table in the Green Room and had a pretty good meltdown when they had to pull him away from it.

After that first visit at the courthouse, Bio-Dad did not show up for a couple of weeks. I found out later that he had been arrested and subsequently incarcerated for a period of time to be determined. The agency was limited in what they would tell me, and all I got out of Henry was that it was for assault. I asked Henry if Malachi would have to attend visits at the prison and he said it was up to the individual case worker and agency to decide that. Of course I went straight into pleading for him to step in and help me so that we wouldn’t have to subject him to prison visits, but he said that we should wait and see what the agency decided before making any assumptions. Luckily, when Kena and her supervisor discussed it, they decided against prison visits for Malachi, but not before letting me stress about it for three weeks.

“December 2013 Sibling Visit”

I woke up to Malachi vomiting at 4:00 am the morning of the sibling visit. I knew I should cancel but then we would have to coordinate our schedules again to reschedule, and that was always a painful process. He didn’t have a fever, so I decided to move forward.

The visit was scheduled to start at noon and I felt like things were looking upward when Malachi fell asleep for an early nap at 10:30 am. Even though it was futile to clean up my house in preparation for four hours with eight adults and nine kids, I still felt the need to start with a clean slate. It was 11:00 am and I was sweeping the kitchen floor when Tim, the aid who transported Justin and Edward, called to say that he, the boys and Marco were sitting outside and wanted to see if they could come in an hour early. After a very long pause on my end and with a heavy sigh I answered, “I guess. But you’re going to have to keep it down because Malachi is napping.” I wish I was the type of person who could have said “No, it’s not okay, come back in an hour.” But I’m not. So instead, I used passive-aggressive behavior, which usually works out for everyone… said no one ever. Marco had driven himself to my house before, and he knew how small it was, so I was confused why he had Tim drive them for the second month in a row.

I hung up the phone and approached the front door to see Marco towering over Tim, Justin and Edward with a very small pink hat with a large pom-pom on the top. The four of them came in and sat down in the living room while I continued to prep for the impending storm. The phone rang about ten minutes later and it was Sharon, the new aid transporting Angela and Tameka. Thankfully, she was not coming early, but was just confirming the address. Unfortunately, it woke up Malachi.

The girls arrived promptly at noon and we were off and running. Sharon was a very gentle and sweet woman who was really good with special needs children, so she was chosen specifically for our visits and Angela. Cheryl, Darrin, Josie and Jay came next and the visit was underway.

Since it was cold and rainy outside I tried to organize the day with snack, a craft, food, a game and then a movie. I printed off pictures of each child and pulled out all of my scrapbooking stuff so that we could make a Christmas card. Easy, right? Not so much.

The noise level was insanely high right out of the gate and I had no control over anyone. Angela and Tameka were having a particularly hard time getting along that day and we had to separate them repeatedly. Every time Angela would have an outburst about someone screaming or “bothering her,” or when she would open my refrigerator or cabinet to look for food, I would remind myself that this environment is hard for me, and I didn’t have autism. It had to be torture for her.

It was only 12:30, thirty minutes into the visit, and Jacob had cried at least twice, Angela didn’t want anyone even looking at her, Malachi was whining and crying pretty much all of the time, and Tameka was like a broken record with “Excuse me mom, excuse me mom, excuse me mom,” and when one of us would say “yes, Tameka,” she would forget what she had to say.

When I finally got everyone to the table to make their Christmas card, my instructions were simple, make one card for someone special and use anything you see on the table. Be creative. I had several red solo cups on the table filled with markers, glue sticks, colored pencils, stickers, and other fun scrapbooking stuff. Every child at the table chose to make their card for their foster parent.

The day before the visit, Daryl had glued the arm together on an old antique rocking chair that we recently had reupholstered. Because it wasn’t dry I wrapped the chair in a long, thick neon orange moving strap that we had in the garage, and I put a piece of paper on the back that said “broken,” and then I placed it in the corner of the living room behind the couch. Cheryl, Sharon and I were standing behind the kids at the table helping when needed, and I looked up to see that Marco had finally moved from his chair in the living room, pulled the rocking chair up to the table and sat on it. I was so confused, and I’m sure didn’t come across very friendly when I said “Um, Marco, that chair is broken. Thus, the reason for the neon orange rope and note that says ‘broken.’” He didn’t stand up right away, but instead, slowly looked down to the left and then to the right, looked up at me and said “oh.” When he still didn’t get up, I added “So… you might want to choose another seat or stand?” He said “ok,” stood up and went to stand behind Justin and Edward.

I could feel myself focusing on the chaos, the noise, and the insanity of the moment and had to take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Angela was really enjoying the craft but wanted to use some scissors. I didn’t have any child-safe scissors, so I let her use “adult” ones with my help. It took all of my patience and energy to focus on the task at hand, but in the background I heard Marco’s faint whisper, plus an added lisp that I had not noticed before, “Stephanie… Stephanie… Hey Stephanie… Stephanie.” I slowly lifted my head to look up at him with contempt in my eyes, and he whispered in his soft, almost ridiculously melodic voice, “Justin needs a glue stick.” I felt my heart rate increase, sweat start to form throughout my body, my ears got hot, and the walls start to close in from that simple little request and I felt like I was going to blow. But instead, through gritted teeth and an added growling element to my tone, I answered, “Marco, there are about a dozen glue sticks on the table directly in front of you. So why don’t you just reach your arm out and grab one for him, yeah?” I don’t remember who made the recommendation, but someone mentioned that I might need to take a break. I decided to heed the advice and take a time-out in my bathroom.

When I rejoined the group, feeling like a child, things had calmed down. While Marco and Tim supervised a viewing of “Monsters, Inc.,” Cheryl and I filled Sharon in on the ins and outs of our case. We told her how it took 18 months from the time the kids were removed from Bio-Mom to even have adjudication. We vented about how the information we get contradicts other information, how the visits rotate around Bio-Mom and her schedule, and how we were constantly inconvenienced to make sure all of the requirements were met. Sharon had been a case aid for 20 years and she was shocked that Angela, Tameka and Justin did not have any services in place. All four of the older kids could use some therapy. Justin’s emotional outbursts could be part of something bigger, and Angela and Tameka are both on the spectrum and should be getting some sort of occupational therapy, amongst other things. She asked if we were paid for having the visits in our homes and when we told her that we submitted for reimbursement but were denied, she scolded us for not pushing harder and insisted that we should be compensated. When Cheryl and I explained to her that we believed the agency was only driven by money, she confirmed that we were likely right. Agencies can’t run without funding and a family of six kids equals a lot of money.

When Angela appeared in the kitchen looking for food, we peeked into the living room to find that the only two watching the Disney movie were Tim and Marco. Tameka was playing with clay on my couch, the boys had Lego’s everywhere, and Jay and Joy had disappeared downstairs where Daryl was watching the football game with Malachi and Darren. Angela opened the refrigerator again and when I told her to shut it she started chanting, “Why is she on my brain so much, why is she on my brain so much?” Then she went for the butcher block of knives on the counter, but luckily Sharon was able to stop her in time. The familiar overwhelmed feeling started to creep back into my body and I snapped out, “okay, it’s time for everyone to go. I’m calling this one. Let’s go,” and I waved my arms in an aggressive motion toward the door.

“Next Time”

So, in retrospect, I can see how I contributed to some of the chaos that surrounded our lives. For one, instead of acting like another child at the sibling visit, I could have stepped up my game and held it together and I wish I had.

Likely, Malachi felt the tension that was between Bio-Mom and me, though I really did try to act normal when we were together. The fact of the matter was there was nothing normal about it. Not only did I completely fail Bio-Mom, I missed the point of why I should not have been at the visits from the very beginning. I let my fear take charge for so long that I had, indeed, significantly affected the bonding between Malachi and his biological mother. I do regret that. Their bonding and her gaining custody were two different things and I am ashamed that I didn’t see that until it was too late. But of course, hindsight is 20/20.

Bio-Dad is a different story altogether. I’ll tell you more about that next time.

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*Names have been changed

Chaper 17 – Happy First Birthday

Dear Judge,

I don’t know if it’s how I was born or the result of my life’s journey, but I am always preparing for the worst case scenario so I can be fully ready for anything that comes my way. There are many issues that accompany that characteristic, but one of the biggest is the anxiety and worry that something is going to go wrong at any time. So, when I start obsessing over something, I have to remember this trait, and balance what I think “might” be happening with what could be a non-issue. Not the greatest quality for a foster parent. When Malachi started exhibiting behaviors that were foreign to me, it was hard for me to accept that it was “normal” for a boy to behave that way. However, it could be the case, right?

“One-year developmental appointment”

I would get notices every quarter from the Department of Children and Family Services that there was a scheduled “case review.” Basically, this appointment was a “check-up” for our private agency. The case worker would bring absolutely every shred of documentation she had on the case and prove that they were doing everything they were supposed to do regarding Malachi and his siblings. Foster parents were always invited, but the case worker encouraged us not to attend, because with a case involving six children it could run up to four hours, and it was really boring information. Ms. Persons went to the first one because she was unhappy that Angela and Tameka had to spend so much time at a dirty McDonald’s with Bio-Mom’s visits. She said it was a waste of a day off. They did recognize her concern and said the visits would be moved to a new location, but they never were. As soon as I got that notice in the mail I knew the barrage of phone calls would start coming in from our case worker asking for shot records, doctor appointment records, dental forms (yes, I had to take him to the dentist with only four teeth in his mouth), medication logs and “developmental screening appointments.”

When Malachi was about 5-months-old, I was informed that he needed quarterly “developmental appointments” with DCFS and he was, at that time, two months behind. I got an email from DCFS indicating the time and date of Malachi’s appointment. The email did not ask me if the time was okay, it was merely confirming the date and time that I was expected to show up. Fortunately, I was able to accommodate the appointment.

The thirty minute drive downtown was not a problem, but the parking situation did raise my blood pressure. I can parallel park, but I don’t like to, and I certainly couldn’t squeeze into the spots that were available. I ended up parking in the lot that was designated DCFS, but it was just as stressful as street parking. It was less like a parking lot and more like a small dirt field surrounded by a chain-link fence with a very small entrance and exit. There were no designated spaces and it appeared that the cars were parked in a zig-zag pattern. I couldn’t tell where I was supposed to drive, let alone leave my car. I finally chose a spot as close to the exit as possible and hoped that I wasn’t blocking anyone in.

The facility was located on a picturesque street with more mature trees than you would expect for downtown Chicago. There was a bright-green, grassy median down the center of the entire block with a small fence surrounding it. The beauty was instantly gone the minute I was buzzed in through the double doors. The smell of old urine hit my nose and I made a conscious effort to breathe out of my mouth right away. There was uniformed police officer to my left seated at a little card table and straight ahead was a reception area that was shielded by a thick layer of glass. There were parental rights and child advocacy posters randomly hanging on the dismal white walls. Rather than take the risk of the woman with the gun telling me I was going in the wrong direction, I chose to turn left toward the police officer only to have her guide me to the reception window. After signing in, I pushed the stroller to the waiting area that contained a few stand-alone fabric chairs and two black leather couches. On the first visit I sat next to a couple of older social workers catching up on some work gossip, and they instantly shifted their focus to my cute little man. One of them asked to hold him and with a high-pitched grandma voice said, “Oh my goodness what a precious baby, and he is smiling and alert, are you the foster mom? You are doing such a great job, we don’t see too many babies coming in like this.” The comment struck me as odd, but I accepted the compliment as we were called back to the long corridor leading to the meeting room.

The girl we met with was named Bridget and she appeared very young.  She had dark hair with clear green eyes and skin as white as the walls. Her demeanor was very soft spoken but confident and graceful. She chose her words carefully and was slow and deliberate with her delivery. The small room we were escorted into was jam-packed. Along the wall immediately to the right were a line of folding chairs, the back wall contained a kid’s kitchen play-set, a folded mat, two overflowing toy boxes, a play baby crib and high chair. The wall on the left contained two book shelves with games, puzzles and bins full of blocks and other educational toys. Finally, directly to my left was an over-full desk like the one my eighth grade teacher had, taking up the entire length of the wall. In the middle of the room was a kids table and chairs. There was no room for the stroller so I had to leave it in the hallway. I sat down in one of the folding chairs with Malachi on my lap and waited for instruction. The majority of the first visit was spent talking about my little man and his likes and dislikes, watching him smile and assessing his strength. I felt like she was observing my interaction with him. When she asked me if I had any concerns, I mentioned the fact that he did not sleep well at all and had a very difficult time soothing himself. I told her that from the time we brought him home, his body was almost always stiff. He wasn’t that newborn that was comfortable curling up on your chest for long periods of time. It took effort to make him relax. I mentioned that Daryl and I were not convinced that he was not exposed to some drug in utero. I informed Bridget that this is something I bring up on a regular basis to our case worker. She made her notes and said we would just watch this behavior as he grew.

The next two visits went pretty much the same way. Each time Bridget confirmed for me that cognitively and physically, he was developing in the upper percentile of his peers, and I would let out a sigh of relief. She was always impressed with his strength and agility. She would observe him throwing a ball, picking up a small object, and a few other small tasks. Bridget liked for me to get involved as much as possible, so I would build blocks with Malachi, play peek-a-boo and do a small puzzle. She asked questions the entire time we played and learned that he loved to be outside, to read books, but still did not know how to calm himself down or put himself to sleep. As he grew, his behavior became more intense. It was as if every emotion he was feeling was met with such a zest that he couldn’t contain himself. If Malachi was happy, he was emoting that with 110% energy. If he was hurt or angry, it was met with that same intensity, only louder. His temper was so explosive for such a little person. It would typically happen when he didn’t get his way, which was normal, but he would sometimes scream, shake and cry for an hour or more for no visible reason. She asked me if I was overly concerned about the behavior and I indicated that I was; however, most people assured me that I was dealing with typical “boy” behavior and I just wasn’t used to that because I had raised two girls. Ms. Theresa, Malachi’s babysitter, had raised three boys and she did her best to reassure me that his behavior would get better, and it was just that “XY” chromosome factor. But then again, even she would shake her head sometimes with his temper. Bridget always took notes but never said much beyond the fact that he was developing normally. I always felt like she was observing me as well and would ask questions about Bio-Mom and Bio-Dad, the visits and the process. I wasn’t sure if she was just being friendly or if it was part of the appointment, and I always kept my guard up when talking with her.

Toward the end of our fourth appointment, Bridget handed me a clipboard with a questionnaire on it and seemed embarrassed when she asked me to fill it out.  She apologized and said that it was a new DCFS policy and all foster parents with children under the age of five had to complete it. When I started reading through the invasive form, I understood why she hesitated. The questions were fair enough, but the way they were worded was so negative and aggressive that I felt uncomfortable even reading them. I can’t remember them all, but a few were worded something like this:

“I often get angry and resentful because my life has changed so much after my foster child came”

“I feel distraught and alone when I can’t get my foster child to stop crying”

“I often feel like my foster child hates me”

“I often want to hit my foster child when they misbehave”

“I am depressed and regret the decision to become a foster parent”

Then I was instructed to check a box that said “always, never, sometimes, or I don’t know.” There were two pages of questions and not one of them said “I love my foster child” or “my foster child has enhanced my life.” There was NOTHING positive on that paper.  I wanted to discuss it with Bridget but chose to remain silent and check “NEVER” for every question.

Of course there were certain days when I wondered what in the world I was thinking when I jumped on that DCFS-crazy train, but not because of Malachi himself. I mean, he was challenging at times, but he was my son and I love him. It was the system, the way it was structured, and the way I was treated that I got so frustrated with, not caring for my son. But there were no questions about that, only negatively worded statements that, to me, were looking for someone with hate in their heart for their foster child.

I drove home obsessing over the questionnaire. It was so hard to piece together the puzzle that was the foster system. There were so many moving parts, but none of them were communicating with each other effectively. I was curious as to what someone was trying to accomplish with those questions. If they were trying to piss off a foster parent or two, they accomplished their goal. Of all of the things that needed to get changed within the system, and they chose to pay someone to come up with a questionnaire like that. Just another frustrating moment.

“Turning One”

As I sat going over the checklist for Malachi’s first birthday party, I allowed myself a few minutes to ponder how much the last year had changed our lives. There were the obvious ways that included lack of sleep, busier schedules, fewer dinners out and no more last minute excursions. Then there was the state of Illinois and our private agency stressors that were just too many to even articulate. But what I wanted to focus on was the fact that this little man changed our lives for the better in so many ways. His smile could lighten up our moods and his laughter was the best medicine ever. He had such a massive and exciting personality for such a little person, and we took great joy in watching it evolve every day. It didn’t matter what emotion he was displaying, it was abundantly clear how he was feeling. I did not think that we were “missing a piece” in our lives before him, and I really try to stay clear of cliché sayings, but it really did fit to say that he completed our family. He challenged us in ways that made us stronger as a unit, and he showed us happiness that brought us together on another level.

Malachi’s first birthday party/sibling visit was a success. Marco was there with Justin and Edward, but he didn’t drive himself, which was curious to me. He rode along with Tim, the agency aid who transported the boys. Marco greeted me with his backwards left hand “shake” and his soft whisper “Hello Stephanie.” What stopped me in my tracks this time was his jacket. My 9-year-old daughter had the same exact one. I know, because I bought it at the girl’s clothing store “Justice” just months prior. It was a pink and green floral-patterned, zip-up hoodie that fit his larger frame a bit snug. Marco and Tim sat alone the entire visit and didn’t really communicate with anyone. Kena brought Angela and Tameka because Ms. Persons wasn’t comfortable driving outside the city, but when she asked a few months prior if she could ride along with the transporter, she was told it was against the rules. Cheryl and Darrin were there with Jay and Josie, and about 15 minutes in, Cheryl whispered in my ear, “Tomorrow we discuss the fact that Marco is here with the transporter and whether we tell Ms. Persons, and more importantly, what in the world he was thinking when he bought that jacket.”

The party itself went very smoothly. We had Mickey Mouse cakes, hats, music and even an appearance from the big mouse himself. Malachi had always been consistent with the fact that the more chaotic his surroundings were, the calmer he was. He wasn’t sure what to think of the life-size version of his favorite character trying to give him a high-five, but quickly warmed up. Luckily the weather held out and the kids were able to decorate pumpkins outside and run around the back yard.

Two weeks prior to Malachi’s first birthday, Bio-Mom showed up to the visit with a chocolate-chip cookie and size 2T, used underwear in a Jewel bag for him. Taryn was with me that week and got to meet Bio-Mom in the flesh. It was interesting to watch them interact with each other because Bio-Mom was actually comfortable and confident when talking with my 9-year-old daughter. Somehow, Taryn’s presence put her at ease and we ended up having a nice visit as we sang happy birthday to Malachi and exchanged pleasantries without any tension. Before she left, Bio-Mom reached deep into one of her bags and pulled out a card with no envelope for Malachi and said “you can read it if you want to.” Pictured on the front of the card was a chunky baby with puckered lips, a scrunched up face and a party hat on, but when I opened the inside, all that was there was the pre-printed “happy birthday.” I handed her a pen and asked her if she wanted to sign it. She sat down and wrote “I love you son, we will be together soon. Mom.”

“Next Time”

I have such strong feelings about the way the foster-care system is run and how jaded the people in it are; however, I find myself becoming increasingly more negative and defensive, and less flexible and caring. I love my son and what he has brought to our family and I wouldn’t change my decision, but I feel like I’m starting to lose my ability to understand or care where someone else is coming from. It’s so hard when your feelings are so exposed and vulnerable. I’ll tell you about more frustrations next time.

*Names have been changed

Chapter 16 – More Bio-Visits

Dear Judge,

There is something about a cobblestone street that calms me. If the car is going slow enough, the sound of the tires rolling over the bricks is almost hypnotic. As I sat on the bench outside our office one Thursday morning waiting for our 9:00 am visit with Bio-Dad, I knew that the street was contributing to my short-lived moment of peace. The sun was shining bright and there was a perfect breeze. The hustle of the day was just starting with commuters bustling to the train with briefcases in hand, mothers pushing strollers, dog-walkers with their little blue bags, and diners sitting outside the restaurant eating their breakfast across the street. Their lives all seemed so normal in that moment as I sat there holding my son wondering if his bio-parents were going to show up for their weekly meetings, secretly hoping that they wouldn’t. I pondered how very “not-normal” we were. Normal is such a relative word. I mean, you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. I usually took pride in the fact that we weren’t “run-of-the-mill,” but oh how I would have loved to feel traditionally normal at that time.

It was that same street where my husband ran into Ethel, the foster-mother who assisted during our training classes. They caught up briefly and Daryl filled her in on Malachi and how shocked we were about the process of fostering. The comment that Ethel made to him that stuck out the most was that when her private agency gets a call with a new child needing a home, they don’t use the child’s name internally. Instead, they use the term “bed,” meaning, they might say to someone “we have a 9-year-old bed who needs a placement.” I don’t know why that shocked me so much, but it did. I understand how hard it would be to watch children be displaced, abused and neglected day in and day out and somehow find a way to disconnect, but they are people, not things. Little, innocent people who deserve to be called by their name.

“Kena & Cheryl”

I hadn’t spoken with Cheryl, Jay’s foster mom, since court. Sometimes we would talk almost daily and other times we would go weeks without a peep. But as soon as either one of us had a home visit, a call with the attorney or some Bio-Mom information, we would fill each other in right away. Cheryl had just had her home visit with Kena and called me on her way to work the next morning. In summary, Kena said that Bio-Mom was in a shelter and doing very well. She was going on job interviews and was probably going to get to see all of the kids together coming up in the next few months. She said Bio-Mom was attending all of her classes and the parenting course even reinstated her. What Kena told Cheryl was completely contradictory to what Henry informed us at the courthouse. She said that, in her opinion, and with the wording he used, it sounded as if the judge was leaning toward “return to home” when talking to Bio-Mom. After a moment of pause to take in what she said, I asked her to repeat it and then asked her if she was certain that’s what Kena meant. Cheryl confirmed that her reaction was the same as mine and she asked Kena to repeat herself, and she did, word for word. We discussed who would benefit more by lying to us, Henry or Kena, but it just didn’t make any sense at all. I am typically a “go for the underdog” kind of girl in most situations, so it is a foreign feeling for me to root against someone, but I am ashamed to admit that I secretly wanted Bio-Mom to fail.

“Bio-Mom visits”

It was true that Bio-Mom was following through on more of her commitments. Even though she was late almost every week, she was indeed showing up for her visits with Malachi. He had started walking so she didn’t have to hold him anymore and that made the hour a lot easier. I was told by Kena that my presence at the visits was indeed making the case a little stronger for Bio-Mom. She echoed Henry’s sentiment about Bio-Mom’s attorney being able to say that my presence was limiting her chances of bonding with her son. Until different arrangements were made, I was told to at least stay out of sight. Daryl’s private office was to the left of our waiting room so I would shut myself in there and hide until the hour was over or I was called to help. Ms. Williams was always there and that eased my mind a little because as much as she was an advocate for Bio-Mom, she was definitely protective of Malachi.

Daryl’s office, where I hid out during the visits, was well within ear shot of everything that happened, and it also had a window with blinds that I could peek out of if I really wanted to see what was going on. Since the weather was nice outside Ms. Williams did everything she could to convince Bio-Mom to take Malachi out, but she was not a fan and preferred to stay inside. Before each visit I would fill the waiting room strategically with toys, books and things for Malachi to keep busy with for the two hours he was there, and his crying began to decrease a little more as time went on. He still had many episodes with Bio-Mom and I would occasionally be called to help, but they were not near as traumatizing.

Even though Bio-Mom was showing up, she was still not engaging him at all. She didn’t talk to him unless it was to scold him and she fell asleep at least once almost every week. I would hear Ms. Williams say “you’re going to have to wake up if you want to finish this visit.” She still did not ask me any questions about him and I stopped filling her in. She did occasionally bring him food but I asked that she not give it to him during the visit because, to be honest, I had no idea what it was. She would hand me a triple-bagged Jewel-type grocery bag that was oozing with grease ON THE OUTSIDE, filled with five or six big balls of wet foil with a half-inch of drippings in the bottom of the bag. I only attempted to open one foil ball one time, and I think it was sweet potatoes, but I really can’t be sure. I know that it was just Bio-Mom’s way of extending an olive branch and she was proud of the fact that she cooked for her baby, and I thanked her as if I were going to feed him the contents that day. As usual, I felt bad for my behavior when I threw the bag away, but there was no way I would put that food inside the body of anyone I loved.

One particular visit in September I mentioned to Ms. Williams that Bio-Mom was wearing some bigger clothing and I was suspicious that she may be pregnant again. Ms. Williams confirmed that she had the same suspicion but when she asked Bio-Mom about it she denied it. Kena also mentioned that she was questioning a “baby bump.” During that same visit, Malachi had an exceptionally big temper tantrum and while she was trying to detain him, he hit her in the face. Surprisingly, she didn’t lose her cool but she did say, “You want to beat me up today, your daddy beat me up last night and last week it was some other man. Why do you all think you can just beat on me?”

A few weeks later Bio-Mom showed up at the visit visibly uncomfortable and said that she wasn’t feeling well. After she spent at least 30 minutes in the bathroom, Ms. Williams brought Malachi to me and said she was going to check on her. Ms. Williams knocked on the door and Bio-Mom said she’d be right out. After another 10 minutes she walked out of the bathroom and straight out the front door without speaking a word to anyone. After Ms. Williams left, I casually walked into the bathroom and could not believe the mess that lay before me. It was everywhere, and I cannot even say for certain what it was. It looked like some sort of blood but a bit darker and grainier with definitive blood mixed in occasionally. It reminded me of the consistency you get when you take a band aid off and rub the glue residue on your skin until you can roll it and it dissolves into sand-like bits. But it was the color of an older blood mixed with a brighter shade. It was all over the front of the toilet, the back, the pedestal, and the seat cover. It was on the floor and the walls and the sink. I snapped some pictures but deleted them because it felt wrong that I had taken them to begin with. I couldn’t stand opening up my camera roll and seeing them. As the weeks evolved and Bio-Mom started wearing regular clothing with no protrusion in her mid-section, I can only assume that she had a miscarriage and the scene in our bathroom was just a remnant of that.

The added element of fighting the negative feelings I had toward Bio-Mom, coupled with the feelings of pity and sorrow I also had for her, were just as exhausting as caring for a highly-energetic toddler who did not like to sleep. I felt beaten down, guilty, and drained of all energy from every single aspect. I did not feel like the same person as when I started this journey. Instead of a woman full of eagerness to “help” and make a difference, I felt like I just wanted everyone to leave me alone to raise this beautiful baby the way he deserved.

“Bio-Dad Visits”

Bio-Dad made two appearances in two months and they were both equally as interesting. I found it ironic that as soon as Bio-Mom started pulling her shit together, Bio-Dad fell apart.

“Bio-Dad Visit #1”

Ms. Williams arrived on time for the visit and Bio-Dad walked in behind her with a cloud of funk right behind him. I had seen Bio-Dad with questionable appearance, but never dirty. The offensive odor hit my nose before I could even open my mouth to say hello. I think that Mac even smelled it because he got a puzzled, almost scared look on his face and crawled really fast to climb up my leg. It smelled like a combination of regular-old pungent underarm odor with just flat out filth that might come from a basket of dirty clothes that sat for weeks. It was so bad that I started to panic that I would not be able to endure it for the next hour. His left hand was bandaged so thick that it looked as if a small pillow encompassed the entire appendage. He did not address anyone, instead he just went to the corner chair and sat down. He wore a wrinkly t-shirt that was too tight and a pair of jeans that were, as always, down to his thighs revealing his gray boxer shorts underneath. Unsure how to break the ice I said a simple “hello” and tried to put Mac down onto the floor next to him. As my son clung onto my neck for dear life I thought “this is going to be a long day.” I was forced to endure the odor as I sat next to Bio-Dad while holding Malachi until he was comfortable enough to loosen his grip. When I asked him what happened to his hand he kind of waved the opposite hand dismissively, and very nonchalantly said “oh, I got shot.” Without really knowing how to respond to that, I just said “oh,” and put Malachi down on the floor to excuse myself. The remainder of Bio-Dad’s visit went on without my presence. Ms. Williams and Bio-Dad took Malachi for a short walk and handed him off to Bio-Mom for her hour, without me witnessing a thing.

Ms. Williams and I walked to our cars together after the visit was over and she told me that Bio-Dad was very emotional that day. First, he was angry with her because he had his girlfriend waiting in the car outside and Ms. Williams called him out and said that was against the rules. Then she said he broke down in tears when he heard Malachi say “dada.” She went on to say that they were in the park behind the office and Malachi was babbling, and out came “dada.” Her words were “I almost didn’t believe it, but he starting crying and repeating the phrase ‘he called me dada.’”

Bio-Dad was not his dad. Daryl was his dad. My husband was the one who taught him how to climb the stairs properly, took him to get his first pair of high-tops, his first haircut (which happened to be a disaster), changed his diapers, got up with him, carried him on his shoulders, tickled him, played with him, cared for him. Daryl was the role model teaching Malachi how to treat women and be a respectable man. On that particular visit, Malachi had been alive for 339 days, which was 8136 hours. Bio-Dad had seen him, at best, 6 hours of his life, and he really thought that he was recognizing him as dad? It’s strange to me that I reacted in such a defensive way and it made my heart ache a little more for the hateful person I felt like I was becoming. I am fully aware that to a bystander I looked like an asshole to take this little thing so hard. It’s endearing, right? He was touched this his flesh and blood said “dada.” Likely, he cried because he knew that Malachi would never call him that and mean it.

As I buckled Malachi in the car, I could feel myself getting more and more emotional so I said good-bye to Ms. Williams before I verbalized the thoughts in my head. I shut the car radio off and had a quick conversation with myself. My mind was racing from one thought to the next and I started to sweat from the mental exhaustion. As much as I said that I could handle the visits and the emotional roller coaster that goes with them, I wondered if I really could. Why did these Bio-People even attend the visits? They didn’t engage with Malachi at all. There was no sitting on the floor playing with toys, reading books, making animal noises, asking where his nose was. Bio-Mom appeared to show up because she had to, like it was a job that she didn’t want to be at. Bio-Dad just wanted to stare at the wonder that was his son. It just didn’t appear that they knew how to be parents for even an hour, let alone all of the time. Or did I just have a different view of what it meant to “parent?” I wanted to be with Malachi, like all of the time. I wanted to play peek-a-boo and chase him around to hear him belly laugh. I wanted to watch him soak in his surroundings and learn about absolutely everything, and I wanted to be the one to teach him about life.

“Bio-Dad Visit #2”

When neither Bio-Dad nor Ms. Williams showed up by 9:20 am one Thursday morning, I assumed the visit was canceled and no one remembered to call me again. But when my phone rang and Henry’s name popped up, I got that anxious fluttering feeling in my tightening stomach. Since Henry made the “even gang members can be good parents” declaration I had kept my distance. I answered with a very professional, “This is Stephanie.” He stuttered his response with the usual “this is Henry, Henry from the public guardian’s office,” but it was what he said next that made me lose any respect that I had left for him. I know he thought he was being funny, I didn’t lose sight of that at all. However, his choice of topic to joke about just made me realize how very ignorant he was about how it felt to be me. Of course his tone was the same as always when he delivered, “Mrs. Davis we had an emergency meeting with the judge and he has decided to grant Bio-Dad custody. Someone from the agency will pick him up from your home this afternoon.” I did not speak. I did not move. I could not process what he was saying and why he would even BEGIN to think it was funny. After a very long awkward silence he said “Well, of course I’m just kidding,” and after another moment of me not speaking, he cleared his throat and said “It turns out Bio-Dad was arrested a couple of nights ago for assaulting Bio-Mom and moving forward they are going to move the visits to the courthouse for everyone’s safety.” He told me that the case worker would be calling me soon to discuss the details. As we were hanging up Kena was calling on the other line.

Her opening comment was “You’re going to be so mad at me Mrs. Davis, I forgot to call you again about the visit being canceled.” Because my mind was still reeling over Henry’s conversation I didn’t have any words for her either, so she just went on to tell me the same Bio-Dad story that Henry did. Starting the next week I would have no choice but to have an agency transporter take Malachi to the courthouse for Bio-Dad visits, if he was out of jail by then. There was a room there called the Greenroom that was specifically designated for visits with bio-parents. She said we would discuss the specifics at our next home visit which was scheduled for the following week.

I hung up the phone and hugged my baby boy a little tighter than normal and whispered to him that I loved him. He had a cold and had fallen asleep on my chest so I just sat there waiting for the 10:00 visit with Bio-Mom to start. I had not even fully recovered from Henry’s inappropriate joke when, at 9:45, the front door to the office opened with force, and in lumbered Bio-Dad looking like someone had just dug him out of a garbage can. He was sweating profusely and hunched over holding his chest like he had just been punched. He was disheveled and breathing heavy as he forcefully fell into one of the chairs to avoid falling over. It was adrenaline that took over my body and I said “are you okay?” He said “no, no I’m not.” I asked Tina, who I forgot was even sitting at the front desk, to get him a bottle of water. As he drank the water he told me his story with huffs and puffs between every few words. He said that the police had beaten him ten days ago and then he was arrested for battery. He went on to say that when he was younger he had gang ties, and because of that, the police thought they were allowed to search him and beat him. He thought he had broken ribs. So many questions raced through my brain, but I just didn’t have the energy to ask them. He looked so young and scared sitting in front of me and though I did have a twinge of sympathy for whatever happened to him, he was not my concern in the least. Protecting the innocence sleeping on my chest was my only priority as I explained to Bio-Dad that I was informed that his visit was canceled. When he asked why, all I could do was shrug my shoulders, shake my head and twist my mouth to say “I don’t know.” I went on to tell him that the baby was sick, and I really didn’t want to disturb his sleep for a 10 minute visit. He said that he understood and only wanted to look at him. He sat for another five minutes filling me in on the attorney he was going to hire to sue the state and how he had to take a lie detector test the following day. He didn’t ask me one question about how Malachi was doing. Not one. He didn’t ask me about his illness or how he was sleeping. He didn’t ask me what he was eating or about his likes and dislikes. He didn’t ask me any questions about his son. He hadn’t seen his son in three weeks and he didn’t have one question for me.

“Next Time”

We had made it a year! Malachi was turning one-year-old and it was a Mickey Mouse themed birthday party. He was starting to hum the theme song to Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse and loved watching the show so we celebrated Mickey-style with a sibling visit too. It seemed that the year dragged on so slowly, but at the same time, it felt as if it went by with the blink of an eye. I’ll tell you about it next time.

Stephanie

 

*Names have been changed