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 15 – Adjudication

Dear Judge,

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.

“Sibling Visit”

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”

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.

“Adjudication Trial”

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.

“Next Time”

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.

Stephanie

august 2013

*Names have been changed