Chapter 21 – ADHD

Dear Judge,

As I sat in my car reading the letter that, as a parent, I never dreamed of getting, I felt my hands start to tremble and my eyes tear up. I couldn’t figure out if I was angry, sad or just exhausted, but I was definitely shocked. Malachi had been attending the same home day care since he was only 8-weeks-old, and the provider assured me over and over again that the behavior he was displaying was “typical boy.” Even when I would raise my eyebrow and repeat, “You’ve actually seen another child act like this?” She would take a deep breath, look at me like I was overreacting, and say, “Oh Stephanie, I have seen it all.” So, as I was reading the letter, focusing on the words, “he is becoming a threat to both me and the other children around him,” I felt betrayed, confused, scared, and lost as to where I should turn next. She wasn’t “officially” kicking him out of her program yet, but she indicated that she would require a developmental evaluation, and that when incidents occurred, I would be called to pick him up immediately. Malachi was just 2-years-old when I read those words that sent us on a three-year journey to find answers.

When we started the long road to find out what was “wrong” with our son and get help, I found myself completely overwhelmed. Not only did I have to deal with all of our DCFS requirements, Bio-visits, teenage daughters, and my job, I found myself having to advocate for my son and jump through hoops to get answers. When he turned two-years-old I had to put aside most of my journaling because I just didn’t have the time or energy to devote to it anymore. Because I still have some Type-A personality traits and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything, I did keep a timeline of everything that happened in regards to all of our visits, conversations and requirements.

I will have two more letters for you and they are structured differently than my previous memoir accounts, because they are intertwined and I have to piece them together to make sense. Today I am going jump ahead in our story to touch on how hard it can be to get assistance from the state. If Malachi was legally my son when he was two-years-old, I would have made an appointment, took him in and focused on whatever I had to do to get it figured out. However, when your hands are tied in so many ways, it makes it a little harder to control the situation.

“Our ADHD Journey”

Malachi was always quick-tempered and would go from 0 to 10 in a hot second, literally from the time we brought him home. He was strong in so many ways, holding his head up to peer at me when he lay on my chest at just a couple of weeks old. He would eat, and within an hour he was hangry again, screaming and turning all kinds of shades of red. I remember being able to put my girls in a swing or a baby seat and do some chores, even if they cried, but I would finish what I was doing and then pick them up. Malachi was so much harder than that, and his crying was so intense that it was like he was in pain, so letting him cry was torture on all of us (and maybe the neighbors from time to time). He was only content to be laying still when he was witnessing chaos. Seriously, the more noise the better. I assumed that this was due to the fact that it was probably always noisy and a hostile environment when he was in the womb. As I mentioned previously, he was not a good sleeper. When he was being held, his body would randomly stiffen like he was flexing all of his muscles at once, and he would stay that way for minutes at a time. He reached all of his physical and cognitive milestones either early or on time. Every time I would take him for a DCFS-required developmental exam I would mention my concerns and every time I was dismissed. I also told his case worker about how difficult he could be every month at our home visits, and she would just give me sad puppy eyes that I perceived as, “So sorry for you, but not my problem.”

The bigger Malachi got, the bigger the tantrums got, and it didn’t take much to set him off. In fact, frequently I would have no idea what the trigger was. He would just start screaming and thrashing his body around. They happened mostly at home, and we would just hold him and wait it out while being careful that he didn’t clock one of us in the nose. We learned early on that he wasn’t going to be easy in public and didn’t take him out unless it was absolutely necessary, and/or we were mentally ready to deal with the ramifications, the disapproving stares and stress.

When he turned a year old, we tried “time out,” to no avail. He originally sat there for a few seconds but it didn’t last and it didn’t matter how many times I returned him back to his designated spot, “Super Nanny style,” he would not comply. It was not uncommon for it to take two hours to facilitate a one-minute time out. Same thing at bed time, sometimes it would take up to three hours, not exaggerating, to get him to go to bed. I followed all of the parenting dos and don’ts (i.e. bedtime routine, books, down-time, songs, back rubbing, etc.), I took advice from anyone who would offer it, but nothing worked. It was a little easier before he started climbing out of the crib, but once he was in a big-boy bed it was pure torture. Night after night of the same thing, and in the end, the only way he would go to sleep was if I was next to him. Even then, it would take him an hour or more to fall asleep. Naps were the same way, it was as if he could not calm his brain down regardless of how tired he was.

After I sent her the letter from the day care provider, my case worker set up a developmental appointment with DCFS at the babysitter’s request. The department appointment was the same as always, and Malachi was his charming self the entire time, smiling, laughing and flirting with the worker. Not one sign of any problem presented during our hour together. The official report said “recommend thorough developmental assessment based on foster-mother’s statements.” When my case worker informed me that she had put me on a 9-month waiting list for Lurie Children’s Hospital for an evaluation I assumed that she would continue to try other places; but she just accepted that as final answer. I did not. I realized very quickly that making that appointment was going to be an uphill battle. I made at least a dozen calls that first day and not one of them took Malachi’s state medical card or the waiting list was just as long as Lurie and an hour drive away.

Before he turned three-years-old his tantrums were getting more aggressive and frequent. He was so strong and would throw things, pull down book shelves, turn over every toy bin in his room, and hit and kick when anything didn’t go his way. Because he wouldn’t stay in time out at home or at day care we started to use the high-chair to contain him while he calmed himself, but he would get so aggressive, he would rock it back and forth until it tipped over. If we placed the high chair close to a wall so that he couldn’t rock it, he would use the wall to push off and get the same end result.

We had to move Malachi to a new daycare center, KinderCare, just before his third birthday. He seemed to do well with the change for a period of time. There were definitely some rough moments, particularly at nap time, but he seemed to do much better… for a short time. Five months after enrolling at KinderCare his tantrums started to escalate again. I went back to the phone and tried to get in somewhere else while we waited for the Lurie appointment, but I ran into the same walls that I faced the first time. After discussing with Daryl, we decided that we would just pay out of pocket for an examination with a pediatric psychologist and see where that took us, but we hit yet another obstacle. Several of the places I called would not see him because of his age, even though I was sure there was something wrong, it felt as if there was nowhere to turn. My case worker just kept telling me to wait until I could get him into Lurie. When I started to get frequent calls to pick him up from the daycare because they could not control his behavior I complained and insisted that our private foster agency make some calls on our behalf and find someone to help. I knew that Justin and Jay both had therapy through the state and the therapist even went to their home, but again, I was told that Malachi was too young for that and my grievance fell on deaf ears.

I finally got the name of a doctor from a friend and he agreed to see us, even though we were under the age he normally dealt with. He met with us one time and didn’t try to engage Malachi at all. He asked me several questions and had me fill out an extensive questionnaire. He reviewed my timeline, the extent of the tantrums and the babysitter documentation. Then that doctor diagnosed him with DMDD (Dysfunction Mood Dysregulation Disorder), formerly called “pediatric bipolar disorder.” He recommended that I put my three-year-old son on a medicine called Tenex. When I asked him if we could try some other options first, like occupational therapy, he dismissed me, saying, “Why wouldn’t you do both?” After researching the medicine, we were uncomfortable because studies were fairly new and not recommending for children under the age of six. He also recommended melatonin for his sleep issues, but when we looked that up it also had negative long-term effects and we just didn’t know enough to pull the trigger. When things did not improve and we were still on the waiting list for Lurie, I reached out to our case worker about the medication. She indicated that we did not have the authority to take him to the doctor that we took him to, and we definitely could not give him the medication without the Lurie evaluation and approval from the agency doctor and supervisor.

At this point I was being called to pick up Malachi early from KinderCare at least twice per week, sometimes just an hour after I dropped him off. One time, I was called before I even got home from dropping him off and when I arrived back at the facility, he was standing on top of a play table shaking and screaming with one of the teachers standing just close enough so that he wouldn’t fall. As I approached him, he held his hands out to me and grabbed on like he used to when he was in a violent fit with Bio-Mom. He squeezed me so tight that it was uncomfortable, and as I sat with him, rubbing his back, he started to calm. That’s typically how the episodes end, with him sobbing into my arms as his body starts to unravel from the tense state, but it had to be when he was ready. If I tried to approach him before he was ready I was met with more aggression.

We tried everything to get him to stay at school and comply, but nothing worked. We took toys away and reminded him that if he stayed there he would get all of his privileges. On the days we had to pick him up he would have no television time. We had a sticker chart and tried to entice him with positive reinforcement, but in the end he would say, “I don’t want my pwivwiges.” It was as if it didn’t matter what the emotion was that he was experiencing, if it was escalated in any way, he couldn’t handle it.

It was March of 2015 when we finally got the call from Lurie Hospital. He was three-years-old and we had been “getting by” for over a year using techniques I found on line to try and curb the behavior. We had two appointments with therapists at Lurie; not psychiatrists, but therapists. Not once in either of his visits did he display any of the issues that we reported. The therapists would even try to set Malachi up for disappointment to see how he reacted, but his response was appropriate each time. I told them how he had started to develop some anxiety and fears. I would spend nights on the couch with him crying and heaving because he thought bugs were in his throat and crawling on his body. He developed a sensitivity to loud noises and said his tummy hurt when he was afraid of something. His episodes would start with a low growl with his head down, and as you approached him to find out what was wrong, the growl would grow in intensity and he would tense his entire body, fists clenched and shaking. That’s when the aggression would start. Sometimes we would wake up to him standing next to the bed with that growl and that’s how we would start our day, with objects flying through the air. We would have to fight him to his bedroom to contain the mess from the tornado that was about to happen. I also mentioned his obsession with trains to the therapist, as I was unsure if this was abnormal too. I have heard of children who loved trains, but this kid took it to the extreme. He knew the different kinds of trains, the names of all of the mechanical parts, which ones were faster, and what noises they all made. Trains were a big part of our daily lives. The only thing he would sit still for was watching real-life footage of trains on YouTube. He would watch them for hours if we let him. She mentioned that often times someone with ADHD will hyper focus on one thing and that could be what we were witnessing.

Because of our accounts and the letters outlining his behavior from the daycare providers, the therapists at Lurie recommended OT (occupational therapy) for DMDD with possible ADHD. We left the appointment armed with several recommendations for the referred service, but again, we ran into extremely long waiting lists, and denials due to his insurance. We were placed on the waiting list for Loyola OT and were told that it would be at least six months. The professionals we met with at Lurie did say that we could safely use the melatonin for sleep issues so we decided to give it a try.

The night we introduced the melatonin was as if God himself opened up the skies and said, “A gift for you,” and for the first time in three years, Malachi went to sleep without any issue. We took the 3 mg gummy form that it came in, brushed his teeth, sang a song, read a book and he went to sleep. I almost didn’t believe it and had forgotten what it was like to have a normal night. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself and was almost giddy. To me, it was truly a miracle. The fact that he was getting more sleep started to improve his behavior a little and I felt hope for the first time.

It is such an indescribable feeling to want to be able to help your child and have no way to do it. Frustrating doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. Malachi was so smart, strong, funny, and sweet, but when that switch flipped, it was like he turned into someone else. Someone that I didn’t recognize. Every tantrum was followed by a genuine hug and, “I’m sorry mama.” Then he would be his sweet self for a long period of time. The longest we would go without an episode was three days and we were always on edge, waiting for the next bomb to drop. When it would, it would be over the most menial thing, and sometimes I couldn’t even identify what it was. He had melt downs when he was happy, sad, and indifferent. The worst ones were when he was angry. It was rare that he actually hurt someone, but when he did there were consequences. We would take away screen time, he would get no “special treats” (sugar), we would put Thomas the Tank Engine on a shelf for days at a time, and he always took his consequence like a champ stating, “I know mama, I don’t get my pwivwiges today.” I truly did not believe he had control over himself during those crazy moments, but I still felt that we needed to address it and let him know that it was not okay. It’s heartbreaking to punish your child when you know they don’t have full control over their actions.

I cannot tell you how many times I pondered nature versus nurture. I know that Malachi’s biological father had severe anger issues and lack of self-control, but I truly believed that it was due to the fact that he was not so lucky in the foster-care system. I just knew that with a solid home and structure that we would be able to deter any predisposed issues Malachi might have. I thanked God that he did not have the cognitive issues that his biological mother had, but again, I don’t know the extent of her issues either. Then there was the fact that I firmly believe he was exposed to some sort of chemical when he was in the womb; did that have an effect on his behavior? A few of the professionals we have seen along the way say that it could definitely be a contributing factor but there is no test to tell us definitively.

It was by chance that I saw our local school district was having their preschool screening. I knew that they worked with occupational therapists so I signed Malachi up and we went to the screening. I didn’t expect that he would qualify for the ECE program because from what I understood of the program there had to be a “special need” that would hinder his learning. Again, he is an extremely bright little boy. I thought that at the very least, they could guide me to the right place to get some help. Of course he was perfectly behaved and charming for the screening and he passed with flying colors. They could not help me find an OT, but they did accept him into the ECE program and he would start preschool in August of 2016.

The summer before he started school had good stretches and bad ones. The daycare was giving him the melatonin at nap and with the needed sleep, his behavior was not as out of control on a daily basis. We were still eagerly anticipating that occupational therapy appointment. Again, I got on the phone and searched for some assistance. I found a therapist in Naperville who agreed to see Malachi for $100 per visit. Rather than ask for permission from my agency and get a “no,” or a, “I’ll put in a request,” I decided to just do it and ask for forgiveness later. We saw Kristy twice a week for several weeks and she actually taught me a lot. I feel that she was instrumental in helping us understand how his brain worked, and I believe that’s when things slowly started to improve. She was young and sweet and Malachi loved going to her office. She had trains and she was fun. Fortunately, she was able to see a few of his outbursts and give me some advice on how to handle them without getting hurt. The most valuable tool she showed me was “the hold.” I had to maneuver him in front of me with his back to my stomach, wrap my legs around his and hold his arms in a “pretzel” form and wait it out. She taught me how to soothe him and breathe while we tried to calm down together. Aside from the occasional head butt, his toes digging into my ankles and the occasional kick to my calf when he would break free, “the hold” worked well. I could feel his body start to calm and that is when I would release him and he would fold himself into my lap and cry. There were times when I had to hold him for so long my entire body would start to shake and I would be sore afterwards, but it was still better than letting him tear up his room and throw things. She never gave me an opinion on a diagnosis, but rather tools to help me deal with the behavior. She was expensive, but worth it.

When I told my case worker about the visits, she did not appear angry, but she did say that she would need all of the records released to her and would have to have a weekly conversation with the therapist. I asked her once again when we could get the behavior therapy at the house like he brothers had, but shockingly, she dismissed me stating that it’s just not a good fit yet. I did ask that we see an actual psychiatrist to talk about medication, and she agreed to put me on the waiting list at Lurie again. I felt like it was time to explore the medicine option considering how long we had been struggling.

When Malachi started preschool in our district we had to stop seeing Kristy because she only had morning hours and his school was from 8:30 – 11:00 am. I felt okay with it because we had finally gotten our appointment date for occupational therapy. We were scheduled for September, four weeks after he started school. We finally had to remove him from KinderCare completely because they were no longer able to handle his tantrums and I wouldn’t even get out the door before he started throwing things and thrashing around.

It didn’t take long for Malachi’s preschool teacher to request a meeting with me regarding his behavior. I had documented it on paper, but it’s different to start witnessing it first-hand. One of the hardest parts about seeking treatment for Malachi has been the fact that if you hadn’t witnessed one of his episodes, you probably wouldn’t believe me. He is such a funny and charismatic little guy that it’s hard to picture him reacting violently. His teacher was a breath of fresh air. Her voice was sweet, her demeanor calm and she genuinely wanted to help us. I allowed myself to feel hopeful once again. When I told her of our journey to get to her classroom and she responded with, “Well, we will never kick Malachi out of our classroom, we will get him ready for kindergarten and want to help,” I fought to choke back the tears and the shakiness in my voice. In his classroom there was the teacher, two aides, an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. There were approximately 12 kids in the class and I was so very grateful that we lived in such an amazing school district.

We had our Loyola occupational therapy appointment in September and his therapist, Jenny, recommended a course of OT for sensory processing integration and to help him with transitions. She noted that it was extremely hard for him to focus, and he was in need of some behavioral therapy along with her treatment. That was enough for my case worker to finally call the state and get a therapist to come to our house for evaluation. I was so elated to finally have things moving in a positive direction.

Malachi continued to have behavioral issues in his preschool program and would frequently have to be held down for 30 minutes or more. There were several times when the teachers could not physically hold him, and they had to call the principal to do it for them. There were also days when he made it through without incident. I called the therapist that Malachi saw at Lurie and asked if she could pull some strings and get me bumped up on the waiting list for the psychiatrist to try medication. The best she could do was a December appointment. I took it and counted down the days. We also had a meeting in December with the school, and at their prompting we formed an IEP for Malachi. There were several things in place to help him transition through his morning. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t, but I was so happy to have people helping me figure it out that it made it easier to deal with. They went the extra mile every day with my son, making charts to use at home, sending different breathing techniques, accommodating him to go in to school before everyone else to transition him into the classroom, and reporting to me every day how he did and what they think might help at home. They were truly a gift and I will never be able to put into words what that program did for us, and continues to do for us. My case worker was kept informed of all of his plans and required a call or email from the teacher with any changes. There are no logical reasons why this bothered me so much, but it infuriated me every time the case worker would contact my son’s teacher to get an update after I already informed her myself.

Since I didn’t have any options for him during the afternoon, and I still had a job to do, I reached out to an awesome woman who I have known through a local women’s group I belong to, and asked for her help. There are certain people in life who were meant to care for children, and you can identify them fairly quickly with their confidence and the way they communicate with ease with the youngest of our population. My sister has always been one of those people and she is amazing with children. I saw the same qualities in Monica that my sister possessed. I knew that she kept children at her home and had heard nothing but great things. I also knew that she was trustworthy and sweet. What I didn’t know, was if she could handle what presented with my particular child. There were already two places that couldn’t handle him so I had my doubts. I explained the entire ordeal to her, and I don’t know if she sensed the fact that I was literally moments from breaking down in an all-out sob, or if it was because she truly meant it, but it was without hesitation that she said, “Bring that baby here, we got this.” Monica was yet another brightly-wrapped and unexpected gift during our journey and I don’t know what I would do without her. She keeps him three afternoons a week and he loves going there. Because he is happy there, the melt downs are rare. Don’t get me wrong, she’s seen them, and she handles it with ease. I chose not to tell my case worker about Monica because I was just tired of it all; he’s my son and I’m tired of asking for permission to do what I know is right. It was the first time I took that kind of risk with the agency.

When Tami, the behavioral therapist that I had been waiting on for three years, finally arrived at my house on a cold Wednesday evening that winter, I thought she looked to be just a few years older than my daughter. I liked her right away, but as our visits progressed I wondered what her true objective was. Her first visit was getting background information and asking a myriad of questions about how we ran our household and how we handle Malachi. She had seen his older brother and concurred that they did have some of the same behavioral challenges. It started to feel as if she was more interested in giving me therapy as opposed to Malachi. She would frequently ask me, “How do you feel about that?” “What kind of support do you have?” “Do you often feel overwhelmed?” “Is your family supportive?” I was uncomfortable with her line of questioning and always tried to steer the conversation back to Malachi. She recognized that the school had already given me many of the suggestions that she had in regards to taming the outbursts, but again, she would often lecture me on how my reaction could affect Malachi. She reminded me several times that my state of mind had to be right in order for his to be right. I’m not going to lie, it is VERY hard to deal with the behaviors that Malachi has sometimes. They do occasionally get the best of me and sometimes end in me screaming at him and slamming doors. There are times I have to remove myself from the situation and lock myself in the bathroom to calm down before I continue “the hold,” or corralling him to his bedroom. I frequently have to force myself to do the same breathing techniques I teach him. Other times, as I hold him down while he sobs, I silently cry right along with him. I do not know that there are many people alive who could deal with these ongoing episodes and not melt down themselves from time to time. At the same time, I am fully aware of how important it is for me to hold it together. If I don’t keep it together, how can I expect him to? I’m the adult. I didn’t take offense to Tina’s personal inquiries until I got our first evaluation and she listed the number one goal as, “ongoing support to strengthen the bond between foster-mother and child.” My bond with Malachi is just as strong, if not stronger, than if I gave birth to him, and I love him so much it blinds me at times. He is definitely a little quicker to pull it together for his dad, but sometimes there are moments he can’t even get him to listen effectively. She also believed that Malachi was confused about his home environment because of the role his biological mother and siblings still played in our lives. I didn’t disagree with her on that topic, but did not think it was a contributing reason for his behavioral problems. Her second goal was “promote understandings of Malachi’s biological and current foster home.” She wanted to start to explain our current situation to him on her terms. My initial gut instinct was to say, “Back off bitch, no way in hell you are going to take over explaining ANYTHING to my son, who do you think you are?” But instead of that route, I pulled the plug on the whole thing. The agency (my case worker and her supervisor) fought me on it, but I was insistent that if they sent Tina to my home again, I would not answer the door. I fought for a home therapist, and I got it. I brought this woman into my home after years of asking and complaining. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that Malachi was at an age where he likely was getting confused with Bio-Mom whispering in his ear, “I’m your mom and you’ll be with me again one day,” like she did to all of her kids, but I know my son better than anyone and I knew what I was doing in that regard. He is fully aware that his story is special and unique, just like his sisters entry into this world. He likes to tell anyone who will listen all about it, the grocery store check-out clerk, his soccer coach, or random strangers in a waiting room. Malachi is not shy and loves to talk to people, and when he runs out of train things to talk about, he’ll randomly say, “This is my mom. I grew in someone else’s tummy but she loves me forever and we are a family,” and then he moves on to the next topic. If, by some strange and crazy psychotic moment, Judge, you decided to give Bio-Mom back her rights (they had been terminated at this point in our story but he was not adopted yet, which I will cover later), then I would deal with that. I was 99% sure that wasn’t going to happen so there was no way I was going to allow someone else to teach my baby about OUR family. Bye-Bye Tami.

We met with Dr. J, the psychiatrist a Lurie Children’s Hospital in December, and she did give him a diagnosis; however, she would not tell us what it was because we were not legally his parents yet. True story. Even though we had been his parents for four years, she could not give us the medical information about our son. It took another three weeks for that approval to come through. In January she informed us that Malachi did indeed have ADHD and she wanted to medicate him with Focalin. We were willing to try just about anything at that point and agreed. It only took another month to get all of the “legal guardians” to sign off on it.

I could bore you with the specifics of what happened when we started to crush the little blue pill into a spoonful of applesauce every morning, but really all you need to know is that it did not work. AT ALL. We spent the next three months adjusting the dosage and going from an instant pill to a time-released pill, but in the end, it just wasn’t working. In fact, both the school and we agreed that it made him worse. He may have had more impulse control, but he was weepier and became frustrated at things that didn’t typically phase him. He couldn’t handle if a line wasn’t cut straight or something wasn’t organized the way he thought it should be, and these were not typical behaviors of my son. He also turned into the Tasmanian devil when he was coming down from the dosage.

Instead of jumping through the countless number of hurdles it would have taken to get a different medication approved for a four-year-old, we decided to continue on the course we were currently on. We tried the medication and it felt wrong the entire time. I don’t judge the parents who use it though, and if it worked, believe me, we would be taking advantage of it as well. The occupational therapy and the ECE program were doing amazing things for him. That, coupled with the changes we made at home, was working. He was doing better every day, every week and every month. I researched foods to avoid with ADHD and we really try our best to steer clear of them. We put restrictions on screen time. We have systems in place to help him through the rough spots that seem to be less and less all of the time. The case worker tried to tell me that we had no choice but to try another medicine and had to follow through with what he doctor recommended, but we ignored her and just continued on our own course. She never addressed it.

We are currently in our second year at the same preschool with the same amazing team of teachers. The IEP is in place and our goal is to have it gone by the time he finishes kindergarten. We still have some challenges, but Malachi has made huge strides toward managing his emotions. When there are episodes, they don’t last as long and he is growing leaps and bounds when it comes to identifying his feelings and asking for help. Sometimes he will bring me a toy he’s playing with, and with a crinkled forehead, pursed lips and heavy breathing will say, “You should take this because I need a break from it because I’m getting frust-er-rated.” Then he hands it to me and wraps his little arms around my neck and gives me a giant hug. THAT is the kind of behavior we work towards. When I pick him up every day, the teacher gives me a thumbs up most of the time, and occasionally looks at me and says, “I can’t believe this is the same kid.” There are also times when she brings him to me with a sheepish look that I know means that he had a rough day, but they are far and few between now. On those particular days he climbs into his car seat and says, “I know mom, I don’t have my privileges today, but tomorrow I will do better.” I give him a kiss on the forehead and say, “I know you will buddy.” We are so proud of him and know that his future is bright, maybe not easy, but bright.

There are so many lessons I’ve learned throughout our foster care journey that I couldn’t even begin to list them all. We have grown as a family and as individuals, and we know how extremely blessed we are. I am definitely less judgmental and more empathetic. I have seen first-hand how people who don’t have access to affordable healthcare have to struggle and are disregarded. I don’t know the answers, but I know there has got to be a better way.

I will have one more letter for you Judge. It will be about how we ended the “DCFS” chapter of our lives and started living without looking over our shoulders.

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.




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.


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.


*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.



*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’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.


august 2013

*Names have been changed

Chapter 8 – Meet Bio-Mom

December 2012

Dear Judge,

I pride myself on being a good person. Not any better than anyone else, just your normal run-of-the-mill, try to do the right thing, kind person. I have my quirks and I certainly have many areas that need “tweaking,” however, I can generally be trusted and relied on. As I sit in the car doing my self-taught yoga breathing while trying to force my body to move toward the building, I remind myself yet again that Malachi is not mine. He is hers. We are here to meet her and to let her hold the son she gave birth to just six short weeks ago. I am here because this is what I signed up for and I will put any negative or selfish feelings I have aside and be here for this woman because it is the right thing to do. It could be possible that because of the insane heaviness and extreme fatigue my body is feeling, I am being overly dramatic; however, I feel like this is a defining moment for me and how I handle the next couple of hours could make or break me. This is about her. The other mother. The original mother. The mother who is fighting to get her kids back. To get my son back. The moment I allow my brain to think of another woman cradling him like only a mom can do, I literally feel as if I am going to vomit and have to physically shake the thought out of my head. I have no idea what to expect because one person tells me she doesn’t understand a thing that’s going on and then another informs me that she is starting to pull it together and took the first step towards getting custody back by getting a steady job.

“Settling in”

I turned 40-years-old three weeks before we brought Malachi home and was used to getting my eight hours of sleep per night. I would literally make plans around the fact that I needed that full night. The newborn thing hit me hard. Very hard. He had just turned 6-weeks-old and we were nowhere near a set schedule. The voice of the woman at the shelter rang in my ears frequently when she said “good luck with that” in reference to his loathe of sleeping. The most I got was a two-hour stretch and the weekend reprieve from my husband. Mac was the strongest newborn I have ever witnessed, holding his head up the day we brought him home, and when he was awake he wanted to be heard. I continued to study him day in and day out. I was starting to understand what his different cries were and came to know every crease in his tiny body. I was falling in love with my son the same way I fell in love with my daughters. As much as I tried to keep those walls up, there was no denying the bond that had been created already. I spent a lot of midnight hours rocking him and making plans on how to walk that thin line of falling in love with our “son” and guarding our emotional well-being in the event we had to return him to his mother.  I had every intention of doing my best to foster her as well and I reminded myself of that often. Somehow I thought that the more I said it the more it would ring true and start to feel natural instead of forced. I made the decision early on in the licensing process that if I had to return a child I loved back to his mother that I would have a relationship with her. The kind of bond that made it comfortable for her to call me if she needed help of any kind. I was anxious to meet her and get the process started but every time I called Nina, our case worker, to inquire about the visits, I just got her voice mail with no return call until it was finally full and I couldn’t leave any more messages.

When she finally called me back it was only because Malachi was missing a required examination that was supposed to be done before he was placed in our home. She informed me that the appointment was already set for two days from now. Even though she tried to scurry off the phone without any questions I was able to ask about bio-mom again and the soft-spoken and clearly overwhelmed case worker barely spoke in a whisper when she informed me that bio-mom had a steady job now and it was hard to get a set schedule. Without thoroughly thinking it through, I decided on the spot that I would extend the first olive branch and invite Malachi’s birth mother to join me at his DCFS exam if she wanted to go. It could be beneficial to learn some of his familial medical history and she could provide that. Ultimately, it was just because I was so annoyed with waiting and wondering who she was I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted to pull the Band-Aid off and get it over with. Nina thought it was a great idea and called back within the hour to confirm that bio-mom would indeed meet me at the appointment in the DCFS office downtown Chicago.

I spent the next day obsessing over all of the different scenarios that could play out. Was she going to be receptive to me or bitter? I knew that she has some mental illness, although I was not legally allowed to know her diagnosis. I had imagined all kinds of stories that had her with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and every other personality disorder you could imagine. I remember the green-eyed woman relaying to me compassionately that “mom in this case is very confused, doesn’t understand what’s going on, and is under the impression that this whole thing is going to be over in a couple of weeks.” With so many variables I decided that I would have to be okay with having absolutely no idea what was going to transpire. This is something that I personally struggle with, big time.

“DCFS Examination Visit”

After underestimating the time it takes to pack a diaper bag and get ready to leave the house with all of the added elements, I was running a few minutes late. I didn’t have time to sit in the car and give myself a pep talk, but it was essential today.

My legs felt like concrete when I tried to lift them to depart the car. Somehow I was able to maneuver them out the door and began my stroll to the building with nausea taking up residence in my stomach with each step. I felt old. I felt tired. I felt anxious and sad and excited. As I walked through the back entrance of the facility, a hospital-smell hit my nose – hand sanitizer and bleach with a little hint of barf thrown in. Considering the squeamishness I was already experiencing I scanned the interior for a bathroom sign, but there were too many people, so I sought out a bench that was nearby and sat down to regroup. That’s when I saw Nina at the big circular information desk in the middle of the corridor.

I swallowed the golf ball in my throat and stood up with all the confidence that I could muster and moved. I looked directly past the case worker and saw her. My heavy legs did their job, but I’m not sure how. The entire walk towards them I reminded myself that regardless of how much I was falling apart on the inside I had to keep it together and forge forward with fortitude and fearlessness.

Of course she looked nothing like I thought she would and I was trying not to stare at her. Her entire demeanor appeared as drained as I felt. She looked beat down. Her skin was a caramel color, she was about 5’5” with her hair combed straight and completely over to one side like an 80’s side pony without the scrunchie to hold it in place. She had freckles and dark bags under her naked-looking small eyes. She appeared very young even though the binder told me that she was 32-years-old.  She had on an oversized, well-worn, big black coat with what appeared to be dandruff all over it.

I don’t know at what point in my life I became a hugger, but I am. I haven’t always been one and I can typically sense when someone is not comfortable with the affection, but it doesn’t stop me. I still go in for the squeeze, it’s almost become a habit. I sat down the car seat carrier with arms stretched out before I even realized what I was doing. Was I really going in for the hug now? I was. That’s when the smell hit me. The offending odor was coming from that coat, but I had already committed to the embrace and couldn’t turn back. She didn’t say a word and did not attempt to return my gesture, but instead gave me a one-handed shoulder pat and went straight for Malachi. During my failed attempt at being dramatic with our introduction, Nina had found out that we had to go to the fourth floor and so we headed toward the elevator without speaking. Bio-mom carried Malachi in his baby seat and I carried the diaper bag. Once inside the elevator I tried to break the awkward silence by complimenting bio-mom on what beautiful children she had. She ignored me.

The elevator emptied directly into the waiting room and it was filled with children and parents or guardians. I found myself looking at each person, one-by-one wondering what their story was. Are they a foster parent? A bio-parent? A case worker? A grandmother, Aunt, Sister? Since I am Mac’s guardian I was the one to approach the reception desk and provide his medical card and fill out the paperwork. Nina and bio-mom stayed in the waiting room as she held our baby and just stared down at his face. I sat in the only seat available directly across from bio-mom and became fixated on the fact that she had picked up my son, removed his blanket and had his face directly against the foul-smelling, dandruff-flake-coated coat. I wanted her to leave now. I was uncomfortable and regretted the invitation. If it were anyone else holding him I would insist that they remove him from that offensive fabric and clean him with a baby-wipe at once, but since it was her I wasn’t sure what my boundaries were. Is he my son right now or is he her son right now? We are co-mothers? What are the rules? I began to sweat and shift in my seat. The chair next to me opened and Nina made her way over and explained to me that she had to leave. Like now. I completely missed my opportunity to abort the entire operation when she asked me if I was comfortable handling this alone and I automatically, without even thinking, said “of course.” What I should have said is “no, my body is completely numb, I think I might throw up and do you see the nastiness that my baby is laying on right now. I can’t do this.” But I didn’t.

The moment Nina walked away Malachi started to fuss. So here we are, just me and bio-mom sitting in a DCFS waiting room approximately 6 feet directly across from each other separated only by a small table full of magazines. She made eye contact with me for the first time and asked for a bottle. I noticed that she was missing a front tooth. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or momentary insanity, but the fact that she was missing a tooth threw me for an unexpected loop and I just blankly stared at her for a considerable pause before I snapped back and started to dig in the diaper bag for the bottle. I was trying to recover from my inappropriate reaction to the tooth thing and bio-mom decided to, at that very moment, display her first sign of mental illness.

I am fairly confident that I looked a bit mad myself as it happened. My mouth was agape, brows were lifted and eyes pleading to anyone who would make eye contact. Bio-mom decided to start chanting to our baby in a deranged high-pitched tone, “I know. You want the titty, I know. You want the titty. I’m sorry I can’t give you the titty right now. They won’t let me give you the titty.” I am not sure if the next part was created in my sleep-deprived mind or if it really happened, but I swear she looked at me with piercing eyes and took it one octave higher with “My baby wants the titty and he can’t have it.”

While recovering from the outburst, I said a quick prayer that we would be called back to see the doctor before she made any other comments about her body parts. I waited out the rest of the time pretending to thumb through a magazine while secretly watching her every move.

The nurse who finally called us back into the room was a jolly woman with very large breasts. The reason I can recall the size of the woman’s chest with certainty is because bio-mom made sure to mention it while she was weighing the baby, “wow, my kids would have loved to breast feed if you were their mother.”  I felt myself shrinking with every word she spoke. I quickly wondered which one of my past mistakes was allowing karma to bite me in the ass so hard right now.

I let bio-mom handle the maneuvering of the baby and I was surprisingly okay with it. I do understand that she birthed him and I am a mother, so I sympathize with how hard this had to be for her as well. I wanted to give her this time; however hard it was. She was very aggressive with the way she handled him, paying no attention to his head flopping from side to side, but I made a conscious decision to let it go and told myself it would all be over soon.

The nurse handled bio-mom’s inappropriate breast-feeding comment with ease and came back with “how many children do you have?” Her answer was very curious to me and at that point I knew I was overanalyzing everything that spewed from her mouth. She said “I have six and you can have any of them but this one, this one is all mine.” What does this mean? She doesn’t want the other five children? Who says this about their kids? But then again, who announces in the middle of a full waiting room that their baby wants the titty.

When we got to the examination room the nurse wasn’t sure who to address her questions to and it turned into yet another uneasy exchange. I would answer the question and bio-mom would follow-up with a giggle or a curious snort and add her own commentary as if to say “he is my baby too and I know what’s going on.” When the nurse asked “how is he sleeping,” I answered “he is not a good sleeper at all,” bio-mom was right behind me with that awkward giggle saying “yep, just like Tameka.”  Another question was met with “yep, Jay did the same thing,” and yet another follow-up of “Oh yeah, I remember Justin used to do that too.” I understood her need to flex her parental muscle and it made me feel bad for her.

It was a long wait between the nurse and the doctor and I was going crazy trying to think of ways to relay to this young mother that I was not against her, I was only here to help her, but I could not come up with the words or find the right time to ease it in. I was also trying to convince myself that it was true. It was Malachi himself that actually broke the awkwardness of the situation between his two mothers when he became agitated and started crying. After several failed attempts to calm him, bio-mom said “he must be tired.” I concurred and asked if I could show her how he likes to be comforted.  When she slowly handed him over to me I immediately welled up with tears and had to fight back a big-old melt down. He is so comfortable in my arms, this is where he belongs and I automatically feel calmer with him closer to me. I put his blanket between my left shoulder area and his face, stood up and did the “mom-sway” back and forth a little, while cradling his head in my right hand and whispering “shhhh” in a rhythmic way.  He immediately nestled in and fell back to sleep.

I didn’t want to hand him back to her but knew I had to. As I made the exchange, I was careful that his blanket was shielding his face from that funky-smelling coat. I suggested that she remove the nasty sheath before I handed him back to her so she didn’t get hot, but she ignored me again. I filled the silent moments with whatever I could and told her that I met Jay at the shelter and how stunning both Daryl and I thought he was. I explained to her that he didn’t want to talk to us but instead just looked at us. She gazed at the floor, lost in thought as she whispered her response, “he was probably scared.” My heart softened toward her and I felt sad again. She must have felt it as well because this was the moment she started to open up to me. Without making eye contact she said “I trusted the wrong people.” I quizzically answered with “I’m sorry but I’m not quite following what you’re saying.” After looking at me for a good 10 seconds she came back with “My neighbor called DCFS and stole my money, she stole the money that comes with my kids.” The only response I could muster was “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” She went on to say that she brought Malachi home from the hospital for one night and the neighbor heard him crying so she called the DCFS hotline and turned her in again. She turned her attention to Malachi and said “I almost got away with you.”

Then she asked me if I had any other foster children and I proceeded to tell her about my daughters Ravyn and Taryn and then went on to explain that Malachi was our first real placement with the system.

Bio-mom’s next shocking revelation made my fight or flight response kick in. It all happened so fast. After a few moments of silence she turned to me very sharply, as if she had just discovered that I was a murderer and said “why did you call DCFS on me?” She caught her momentary lapse of whatever it was, and her face switched from a look of contempt to one of pleading within seconds. I felt like we were in a hot yoga room and so many thoughts ran through my mind in that fleeting moment. My brain shifted from “she’s gonna attack, run to the closest exit,” and “this is my opportunity to introduce that I am indeed here to help her, the window I’ve been waiting for.” After a quick reminder to stay calm, I gently said “I am only here to help you with Malachi. I did not know you before I was asked to take him. My husband and I did this because we wanted to help and that is what I want to do, help you care for Malachi as long as we need to.” She looked at me with a blank stare for what felt like an entire minute and then we both shifted our attention down to the innocence that rest on her crusty coat.

I was getting impatient when the doctor finally entered the room.  She was a black woman in her 50’s and immediately I could tell she was not the “warm and fuzzy type.” We spent most of the visit going over the past six weeks and she was very hard on bio-mom, asking her questions like “why did your children get taken away from you?” When bio-mom didn’t answer right away she asked in a more aggressive tone, “Did you hear me? I asked why the children were removed from your home?” There was absolutely no compassion in her tone or her body language, and why was she even asking these questions at all?  Bio-mom wasn’t even supposed to be here, I invited her. This obviously flustered the mentally-ill woman and I felt so bad her for her I physically got goose bumps.  When the pause was too long, the control-freak in me took over and I started to answer for her. In retrospect I am a bit grateful for the door that this doctor opened for us, she made bio-mom and me a team, if only for a moment. When bio-mom stuttered, I answered. I responded with “the paperwork reads neglect.” Bio-mom looked at me and whimpered “is that what it said? Neglect?” With sympathetic eyes and a slow nod, I answered “yes.”  When the doctor asked the ages of her other children she could not recall any of them. Because I had familiarized myself with the binder I knew the answer to each one and I coaxed it from bio-mom, “isn’t Angela 10?” “Yes, she is” answered bio-mom. And it went on and on with each child, I would answer and then bio-mom would confirm. The physical examination itself lasted minutes and my only concern was Malachi’s skin. He was extremely dry, to the point where he looked almost alien-like on his stomach, back and sometimes his face. The doctor said that it appeared to be eczema and that I should continue with the Aquaphor wash and cream twice a day.

I was more than relieved when the doctor said that the baby should be taken to his primary care physician for his shots. I did not think I would be able to let bio-mom comfort him after that trauma. I would have had to take that one over.

The doctor left the examination room and we stood on each side of the table while I started to dress Malachi. It was silent for a moment and then bio-mom shocked me again when she softly muttered “I’m not a monster you know.” I stopped what I was doing and looked at her face and tried to sound assuring and gentle but somehow it came out forceful, “I know you’re not a monster and I am going to take very good care of Malachi, I promise.” She didn’t look at me. If we spoke again in the exam room, I don’t remember it.

It was almost noon when we walked out of the building together. It was a beautiful, sunny December day. Unsure how to part ways I asked her if she knew where the bus stop was from here and contemplated offering her a ride, but my autopilot knew better and took over just in time. She pointed in the direction of the bus stop and assured me that she knew where to go. Despite my debacle attempt at hugging her at our introduction, I made a conscious decision this time to try it again, coat and all. I received the same half-hearted shoulder pat and then we walked in opposite directions.

I wasn’t even half way to my car before I started to cry.  By the time I secured the baby seat and got the car started I was in full hysterics. The kind of sob where your face gets all scrunched up and your throat starts to hurt and you make noises that sound like a pig squealing. I allowed the melt down to occur the entire drive home while having a full-fledged, out-loud conversation with myself. I can only imagine what I looked like. In between sobs and squeals and occasional psycho-laughs it went something like this:

“What was I thinking inviting her? How am I ever going to hand him over to her? What if I actually do have to hand him over to her?” What did I do? Who does this? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with her? Who opens themselves up to this torture? I love him so much already. Why do I love him so much already?”

Every once in a while I would stop short of my temporary insanity, blow my nose and start to giggle at how absurd this predicament was and then I would pick up right where I left off:

“Love him like he’s my own and then hand him over to a woman who can’t remember her own kid’s birthdays and repeats the word “titty” over and over again? Really? Schizophrenia? Bipolar? Where is she going to sleep tonight? Does she have someone who loves her? Is she crying right now? I know she’s not a monster, did I indicate I thought she was a monster? It didn’t seem like she was THAT mentally ill. I can’t believe I tried to hug her with that disgusting crusty coat on.” 

I was crying because of how much I already loved him. I was sobbing for the heartache I felt for this young mother who wasn’t born with the ability to be maternal. I was baffled at how confused my emotions were. If I thought of her as Malachi’s mother, bitterness and contempt entered my heart. If I pictured her as a young, scared mother without her children I felt nothing but sorrow. I really did want to help her, but I really didn’t want to give him up. What a conundrum, and we had only just begun.

“Next Time”

As always, with my controlling nature, I volunteered to have ALL of the bio-mom visits at our Oak Park office without thinking it through entirely. Bio-mom could easily get to us on the green-line, I wouldn’t have to drive him and sit for an hour in some germ-infested McDonald’s, and I could get some work done while spying on them at the same time. Win-win, right? I’ll tell you about it next time.


*Names have been changed.