When Social Worker III from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) called to tell me that Bella was going to spend two nights with her father instead of one, my heart started to pound its way out of my chest.
“I wish DCFS would give us a little more notice about these changes,” I said. “I didn’t have a chance to pack extra clothes or her medicine. And on top of that, my father drove five hours to spend time with her this weekend. If we’d known in advance, we could have made other arrangements.”
“She has to spend the extra night with her father starting immediately, because we’re recommending reunification,” said Social Worker III.
“You’re supposed to provide me with a notice fourteen days before the hearing, and I have not received anything. The hearing is ten days away,” I said, my heart beating faster.
“I can fax you the notice,” she said.
“Never mind,” I replied through clenched teeth.
“I’m also calling to invite you to a team decision meeting [TDM] to create a safety plan for Bella,” said the worker. “You don’t have to attend, but if you want to come, you can be part of the baby’s safety plan. We’re meeting Monday at ten at my office with her parents.”
According to DCFS, TDMs convene a child’s family members, service providers, and caregivers in an effort to build consensus around decisions affecting the child’s safety and well-being. But now that I was a veteran foster parent, I saw TDMs as the beginning of the end of my placement with a child. Two years earlier, I had attended a TDM for the first child I had tried to adopt from foster care, at the end of which Mark and I knew our chances of adopting her were slim to none.
Depleted, I hung up the phone and walked from my office, a converted garage behind the house, into the bedroom where my father was watching TV, to tell him the news. He had closed his medical practice the day before to visit with Bella for what could be the last time. We had suspected that our days with her might be numbered. Bella was just ten days away from her eighteenth month in foster care, the maximum allowed for children under age three. At this point a Superior Court judge needed to decide whether Bella should reunify with her birth father or be placed on a track leading to legal guardianship or adoption.
Over the last several months, Bella had cast her spell over my father, snuggling to sleep with him when he came to visit and asking to talk to him on the phone. I’d listen to her say, “Hi, Grampa. How are you? I love you.” His voice took on a gentle, melodic quality whenever he talked to her, as if he were spreading love on his words and feeding them to her one by one.
“Man, this is criminal what they’re doing to that little girl,” he said.
~ ~ ~
During the sixteen months Bella had been with us, she had gone from being a depressed and frightened ten-month-old who was overweight and eerily quiet to a vibrant two-year-old who had friends at school and expressed a full range of emotion. In those early months with us, when her hair was so dry and brittle that it seemed burned and a dimple above her eyebrow made her look perpetually worried, she demonstrated some textbook symptoms of attachment disorder inability to make eye contact and limited expressive communication. But after about three months with us, she began to blossom.
To promote her development, I had engaged every resource available to Bella as a ward of the court. I took Bella to weekly play therapy for more than a year and even had her evaluated for speech delay. Bella had turned out to be highly social, intelligent, and affectionate, and I feared reunification, if managed poorly, would cause her to regress, undermining all of the progress she had made over the last year and a half.
For more than a year, Mark and I had been confronting the possibility that she might be taken away from us and placed in her father’s custody, and yet at each quarterly hearing, the judge miraculously ruled in favor of keeping her in foster care with us. Each time I had left those hearings feeling like the heavens were smiling down on the three of us, but in actuality, divine intervention had played no part. Raul, Bella’s birth father, had been the one sabotaging his chances at reunification. At first, he was trying to live with Bella’s mother, a longtime drug addict who had, at first, refused services from DCFS, including rehab and drug testing. More recently, Social Worker III had found a large stack of paperwork in his freezer and piles of dirty dishes in the refrigerator, which had led to a last-minute recommendation against reunification. As a result of all Raul’s missteps, Bella had been with us for sixteen months.
I knew the goal of the system was reunifying children with their family of origin; Mark and I had attempted unsuccessfully to adopt another child out of foster care. Although we were heartbroken when that child reunified with her father, we had been willing to try again and risked the emotional cost, because we wanted to be parents and because we wanted to do something good for someone else. In our eyes, the system had worked well for the first foster child, in part because we were part of the system.
~ ~ ~
I checked in for the TDM with the security guard at the DCFS office, because the receptionist, a large black woman in her sixties, was hiding behind a desk, talking on a cell phone while game shows played on a television overhead.
Bella’s father Raul, a lean black man with a short gray Afro who looked younger than his fifty-five years, arrived a few minutes after I. “That social worker called me just now and wanted to know how long I’d be,” he said, laughing. “You know when the social worker’s calling asking where you are, they want to get moving,” he said.
I nodded my head in agreement.
“She schedules things for her convenience,” I said, knowing that I had reached my limit of things to talk about with him. Our dislike of Social Worker III was our one reliable topic of conversation.
Luckily, Bella’s mother arrived a few minutes later. At thirty-five she was ten years younger than I, but looked older, ravaged from a life of drugs, violent boyfriends, and a childhood spent in foster care. Since starting recovery, she had gained so much weight that I could not tell she was pregnant, except that she had told me several months ago she was expecting a boy. She fell back onto the couch next to me, exhausted.
“When’s that baby coming?” I asked her.
“Oh, my God, two more months,” she said, heaving a sigh. “We had a baby shower this weekend.” I was surprised and a little ashamed that I thought she would not have family or friends or the personal desire to celebrate a new baby. Every baby deserved to be celebrated.
“It seems like you haven’t been pregnant that long,” I said. “I can’t believe it’s been seven months already. Do you have a name yet?” I asked.
“I don’t know what I’m going to name him,” she said. “I’ve had so many kids, I can’t come up with anymore names.”
I wondered if this child, her sixth or seventh, would remain in her custody since all the others had been taken away.
Raul, mellow and quiet as usual, listened to our conversation, but I assumed she had broken his heart when she had married, and gotten pregnant with, another man.
Finally, after thirty minutes, the facilitator, a short woman in her forties—a Latina with long black hair styled in a long shag and dressed head to toe in black—invited us into a conference room with a high ceiling and a white board on the front wall. The supervisor, an Asian man in his early forties at the head of the table, averted my gaze, which gave me a glint of satisfaction. A week earlier, I had sent an irate e-mail to the regional administrator above him, requesting a new social worker, which must have been brought to his attention after all.
The facilitator stood at the front of the room next to the supervisor while Social Worker III sat at the side of the table. Bella’s father sat on the same side of the table between Social Worker III and Bella’s mother. Crossing my arms against my chest, I took a seat at the foot of the table, as far away from the social workers as possible.
“Thank you all for coming,” said the facilitator who introduced herself, but did not pass out any business cards. She explained that the purpose of the meeting was to establish a safety plan for Bella upon reunification with her father. Facilitator seemed superficially cheery to me, smiling and nodding her head nervously like someone who wanted everyone to like her. She wrote three columns on the white board: “strengths,” “concerns,” and “next steps,” and said, “Let’s look at strengths.”
“The parents are compliant,” said Social Worker III. “They have completed all of their services, and they get along even though they are no longer a couple.”
When the facilitator asked me about strengths, I said, “Bella has been establishing a rapport with both of her parents over the last sixteen months. She is more familiar with them and is more willing to go to her mother now than before. She has always been pretty comfortable with her father.
“Since the overnight visits began at Christmas, she has handled most of these fairly well,” I continued.
Over the last three months, I had told Social Worker III about how Bella returned from these visits, once crying inconsolably, and multiple times so exhausted that she would go down for an afternoon nap and wake up the following morning. Revisiting those disclosures in this meeting could alienate Bella’s birth parents, and I could not risk their thinking I was trying to indict them in front of the authorities. I wanted to sabotage them, but if I wanted to maintain my connection with Bella, I needed to cultivate a relationship with her birth parents.
Bella’s mother talked about her participation in Narcotics Anonymous, clean drug tests for the last several months, as well as completing a residential drug treatment program, parenting classes, and individual counseling.
“I will do anything to get my daughter back,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m doing supervised visits and we can do that for as long as you want.” She dabbed at her tears with a tissue to keep her makeup from running. She continued talking about the little boy she’d had with Bella’s father and the effects of her limited contact with him over the last year and a half. “I can just tell he’s missing me,” she sobbed. I started to feel sorry for her.
“So what is the plan for the parents after reunification?” the facilitator asked Social Worker III.
“The father has complied with everything,” said Social Worker III. “The only things I want him to do are to continue play therapy with the baby and to attend something like a ‘Mommy and Me’ or ‘Daddy and Me’ class where he and the baby can interact with each other.”
Under “strengths,” the facilitator wrote on the whiteboard: COMPLIANT. ALL SERVICES COMPLETED. CONTINUE WEEKLY THERAPY. DADDY AND ME CLASS.
“I know where classes are around here that he could take, but I don’t know what’s near where he lives,” said Social Worker III.
I sighed, shook my head, and rubbed my eyebrow. How in the world was Bella’s father supposed to fulfill his obligations, when he did not know where to go, what was expected of him, or what class he was supposed to attend?
“Other strengths?” the facilitator asked me.
“The child has been part of my family for most of her life, and I would hate for her to lose that connection and healthy attachment that has been created,” I said, knowing full well that DCFS did not give two hoots about attachment. “Her therapist thinks it’s important that the foster parents remain involved. I don’t want to impose anything on her parents or make them do something they don’t want to do, but I hope that we can remain in contact with her after reunification. We’ve done that with another child we used to foster, and it’s worked really well, especially for the child,” I said.
The facilitator stood still without writing anything on the whiteboard.
“We’ve already discussed that,” said Bella’s mother. “I’m so grateful to Yasmin because she has really loved my daughter,” she said, still teary. “Nobody else…” Her voice broke and she struggled to catch her breath. “Nobody else has done that,” she said.
For the first time that morning, I wanted to cry instead of explode in anger, and yet the only person in the room acknowledging the love and connection Mark and I had with Bella was the least capable of helping us remain connected. Because of her history, Bella’s mother would have to fight her way through court to get visitation rights, and full custody would be out of the question. But this was no time for me to be gentle and cry. Now that the reunification order had been issued, I was in a state of high alert, DEFCON 1: nuclear war imminent.
“Any concerns?” the facilitator asked me.
“I have no concerns,” I said. The supervisor looked askance. Over the last year and a half, I had already informed Social Worker III about every one of the parents’ missteps, and it had gotten me nowhere. Now was not the right time to remind everyone how unstable the birth parents were.
“I have some concerns,” said the supervisor. “The father is going to be caring for a toddler, which is a lot different from caring for a school-age child who is so much more self-sufficient. There are diapers to change, and the child needs help with everything from eating to getting dressed.”
“You have support? People to help you?” asked the facilitator, nodding her head yes.
“I have adult children,” said the father. In addition to Bella and her brother, he had five other children who lived with someone else, two or three were in their twenties by now.
“I want to help out more too,” said Bella’s mother. I believed her but she was pregnant and caring for two other children already. What she could do was limited, and what the court would allow her to do, based on her record, was going to be even more limited.
“I have similar concerns,” said Social Worker III. “The baby is used to being in a car, now she’s going to be traveling on the bus. The father is always out. I’ve been sitting in my car until eight-thirty at night, waiting for him to come home.”
Where are the kids? Who is taking care of them at that time? I thought of Bella asleep on a bus after her bedtime, and my heart ached.
“I have a suggestion,” I said. “Maybe Bella can continue at her preschool. The principal of the learning center had said they would be interested in keeping a spot open for her. It’s a dual immersion program with instruction in English and Spanish, and she’s doing very well there. They also offered financial aid.” I knew that DCFS had child-care subsidies that they could use when they wanted, and I regretted volunteering the learning center’s limited scholarship money even though the program director had confirmed they would make that available for Bella, if needed.
Bella’s father nodded his head without making eye contact with me and said nothing. Maybe he didn’t want to pursue that opportunity because he lived in East L.A., a two-hour bus ride in rush-hour traffic to Bella’s school in Santa Monica. Maybe he thought I would have the school spy on him while Bella was in his care. Whatever his reasons, I counted another lost opportunity for Bella; meanwhile, the facilitator did not write anything on the whiteboard about the learning center.
“The child will be confronting big changes,” said the facilitator to the father. “Your son was always in your care, right? The baby has been raised by other people, and now she’s going to have a completely new environment. She will cry; she won’t sleep; she will act out.”
The social workers all smirked and glanced at each other, nodding their heads while Bella’s birth parents sat stone-faced.
“Have you thought about how you’re going to say good-bye?” the facilitator asked me. “You need to give her permission to leave,” she said.
I drew in a breath to give myself time to think. I was not intending to say good-bye to Bella. I was determined to see her graduate from kindergarten and medical school. I wanted to sit in the front row of her ballet recitals and her wedding. There was no place for Mark and me in this post-reunification safety plan, even though we had been Bella’s safety plan for the last year and a half. We were the ones who had given Bella a stable and predictable environment after she had been neglected, and under our care, she had flourished. Everyone had witnessed it: Social Worker III, Bella’s therapist, Bella’s teachers, and all the other professionals involved with the case; and now, DCFS was establishing its safety plan without us or considering the consequences for Bella. My father was right; this was criminal.
“I have a question,” I said. “How am I supposed to minimize the trauma for this child as she undergoes this transition?”
The supervisor, facilitator, and Social Worker III went silent as they searched each other’s gaze for answers.
“Talk to the therapist,” said the supervisor, unwilling to make eye contact with me again.
“You can take her out to dinner or have a party,” said the facilitator, smiling and nodding her head. “Or give her a picture,” she said, her voice rising to ask a question.
“We have a very nice photo album in the works,” I said, trying to tamp down my anger. All of these options were inadequate. These social workers ordered reunifications every day, and they had no idea how to do it in an orderly way to ease the child into a new environment. I thought about all the times we had taken Bella out to dinner, and she had crawled under the tables or tried to scramble into the kitchen. Dinner out was not a practical way to say good-bye to a two-year-old.
“You know, we had a huge birthday party for our former foster child last weekend,” I said, “and we invited Bella’s father and brother. I had time to notify our guests that Bella would reunify with her father and to treat the party as a farewell for her. But I didn’t have any time to prepare Bella, because DCFS called the day of the visit saying she needs to spend a second night. I didn’t have a chance to pack extra clothes for her or her medicine, because there was no notice.”
“Well, that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” said the facilitator, rising from her seat to signal the end of the meeting. “I’ll pass out these surveys and be back in a minute with copies of the safety plan for everyone.”
Clenching the survey, I closed my eyes and stood up to leave the room without getting a copy of the safety plan. “That’s all I have time for,” I said and burst out of the room.
Later that night I tossed and turned and broke into a sweat while I tried to sleep, my thoughts in a continuous TDM loop. Talk to the therapist! I kicked the sheets off my feet and left the bed to complete the DCFS survey, my hand moving as if I were writing with fire.
This exercise was a complete farce. The worker did not prepare appropriate referrals for the father after reunification, and no one had meaningful recommendations about minimizing trauma for a two-year-old child who has lived with foster parents for sixteen months.
I could have written pages and pages damning DCFS, but when I ran out of space on the back of the first page, I stopped. What was the point of all this anger? Was I full of venom for these stupid social workers or the gaping hole that would be left when Bella reunified? I did not have time to parse my feelings or to waste on this survey. I needed to focus on my priorities. I may not be able to stop the reunification, but I could call Bella’s attorney in the morning to advocate for visitation rights for me and Mark post-reunification and for Bella’s enrollment in a full-time early-learning center. The hearing was only nine days away.
* * *
Six days before the hearing, Raul and I met at the community mental health center where Bella was undergoing weekly play therapy. Raul and I sat on the floor opposite each other and separated by Maggy, Bella’s therapist, and Bella who played with Barbie dolls and a convertible that made groovy music. The office, no larger than ten by six feet, with half of the wall space consumed by Maggy’s desk and the other half filled with toys and games for her patients. Maggy was the only professional involved in the case whom I trusted, and I needed someone on the inside of the system who was willing to advocate for Bella on clinical issues, since the law was not on my side.
“This is my highest priority,” said Maggy, a stylish grandmother with curly blond shoulder-length hair. “If you need to talk to me, I’ve cleared my schedule this week, and we can book some time. I’ve discussed this case with our consultants, and we’ve agreed that the best thing to do is to make sure that the foster parents remain involved and continue to see Bella once a week.”
“I don’t want to impose anything on you that you don’t want to do,” I said to Raul, “but we’re happy to remain involved, especially if it’s in her best interest.”
Her father nodded, “Mmhmm, okay.”
I felt relieved and burdened by what lay ahead. Part of me just wanted to move on and let Bella’s father figure things out on his own, because Mark and I had been in limbo with foster adopt placements for two years and were not getting any closer to building our family. I wanted so much for us to get on with our lives, but at the same time, I could not let go of Bella. She needed us, and Mark and I needed her to love.
~ ~ ~
The night before the hearing, working late in my office behind the house, I heard Bella crying. I ran for the door and in the darkness saw Mark’s silhouette carrying her to me. “I tried for the last thirty minutes to get her back to sleep, but she wouldn’t stop crying and asking for Mommy,” he said.
Usually, Bella went to sleep at eight and did not wake up until six in the morning, but she was feeling anxious, and no doubt sensing my and Mark’s heightened agitation. In her little cotton one-piece zippered pajamas and with her hair in two little pompoms, she reached out her arms to me and I embraced her. She rested her chin on my shoulder and continued wailing “Mommy, Mommy!”
“Don’t worry, big girl,” I said. “Let’s go to sleep, all right?” The three of us marched in the dark back into the house, and I put Bella in the bed where I usually slept, then climbed in next to her with my clothes on.
“You can’t go back to work now,” said Mark. “You have to stay with her in the bed, or she won’t fall asleep.”
I pulled off my pants and jacket, and Bella continued crying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” Even after I snuggled next to her between the sheets, she continued wailing, “Mommy.” I put my arm around her as she lay with her little behind in the air and her cheek on the pillow. “I’m here, Baby,” I said. “Mommy’s here and I’m not going anywhere. Mommy loves you.”
* * *
The next morning, at Los Angeles County’s Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park, I waited for Mark in the crowded waiting room and tried to focus my attention on work e-mails instead of the chaos around me in the noisy waiting area. At Dependency Court, everyone is supposed to arrive at 8:30 a.m., but they don’t know when their hearing is scheduled. I waited for Mark, but the bailiff called our case before he had arrived.
Sitting in the pink hearing room on a wooden bench in the back next to a two-foot-high pile of manila case folders, I listened to Bella’s attorney make a case for continued visitation for me and Mark post-reunification. Now all that needed to be decided was the frequency and duration of visits. Addressing me and Bella’s father, the hearing officer asked, “Can you two work this out?”
“Yes, your honor,” I replied.
“Objection!” said Raul’s court-appointed attorney.
My heart was in my mouth. What was this about? We’d already agreed. The therapist said that continued contact was in Bella’s best interest.
“Overruled,” said the hearing officer. “This is in the interests of the child. We’ll establish weekend visits no less than three hours per week for the next eight weeks. All right?” he asked Bella’s attorney.
The decision was official. Reunification could take effect that day. I left the courthouse as fast as I could to avoid contact with Bella’s family, because I didn’t know what to say to them. Great job? Congratulations? I knew they meant well, but the bottom line was that I did not think they could take care of Bella as well as Mark and I.
Race-walking across the courthouse’s first-floor lobby, I called Mark, who was in the elevator heading to the fourth floor for the hearing. “It’s over,” I said. “Meet me in the parking structure on the roof and hurry up, because her parents are probably still up there getting instructions about what to do next.”
With brilliant sunlight glaring on the parking-structure rooftop, I told Mark about the hearing.
“That motherfucker, Raul,” I said, shaking in anger. “He lied. The therapist said keeping us involved was in Bella’s best interest, and he goes around and tries to prevent it. I wanted to punch him out.”
Mark and I knew this territory all too well, that moment when all hope and denial are taken away and all the advice of attorneys and social workers is useless. But still I held on to a glimmer of hope that maybe, somewhere down the line, Bella would come back to us.
“What do you think the odds are that we’ll get her back?” I asked Mark.
“Zero,” he said.
“What do you think the odds are that we’ll stay in touch after reunification?”
“Zero,” he said.
~ ~ ~
Later that afternoon from work, I e-mailed the foster family agency that had approved me as a foster parent to ask if they had heard anything from DCFS. At almost 4 p.m., they called to tell me that the DCFS supervisor said they would handle the disposition and get back to me with details the following day, because there was some missing paperwork.
I wanted to pretend everything was normal, even though I was still on deadline with work, and I also needed to spend time with Bella. At 5 p.m., I brought Bella home from preschool and made her dinner. Then, I gave her a bath and got her ready for bed, massaging lotion into her legs and arms, changing her into a fresh diaper, and zippering her into her pajamas. Then, we went to the living room and sat in a big armchair together. Bella picked out as many books as she wanted, and I read them all to her. When her long eyelashes started to droop, I wrapped her in her blanket and put her in her crib.
I was grateful that we had one last normal night together, just the two of us and our routine. We had repeated this same ritual nearly every night since she was just a ten-month-old baby: I pulled her comforter over her and patted her back. “I’ll see you in the morning,” I said, and then as I left her room, “Let me know if you need anything; I’ll be right here.”
“My Dora,” she said, poking her head up. I picked up her Dora the Explorer doll from the foot of the crib and said, “Dora says good night,” and made a big smooch sound as I pressed Dora’s mouth against Bella’s cheek. She put her arm around Dora and laid her head down on her pillow.
The next night she was gone.