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`Now Say Goodbye to Diane'

They were homeless, and she took them home. They were sick, and she helped heal them. Two and a half years later, she lost them forever. The story of Diane Hendel doesn't offer easy answers about the 450,000 American kids in foster care. Instead, it raises the question: What's best for the children in a case like this?

By David Finkel
The Washington Post Magazine, May 4, 1997

Diane Hendel stands outside the courthouse in downtown Washington, wondering what to do next on a day when the sunlight feels suddenly gray and her life seems suddenly to have ended. She is shaking. She is dizzy. She is drowning in noises -- the noise of arguing lawyers, the noise of the judge announcing his decision, the noise of her walking alone out of the courtroom -- interior noises all, too many to think, and yet she does at last have a thought: She will have a goodbye party. Immediately. With one rule. No one can say goodbye.

But first, she needs to steady herself. She sits on the rim of a fountain. She needs to cry. She lowers her head and covers her face. She needs to stop. What time is it? 11? Noon? She needs to go. The kids will be back soon. She has to tell the kids. How will she tell the kids? She drifts to her car and begins dialing in numbers on her cell phone, calling friends, saying she has until tomorrow morning, saying: come over and stay as long as you can, saying: and no goodbyes when you leave, no tears, no gifts, no cameras, no pictures, no maudlin glances, no extra hugs, nothing traumatizing, no anything out of the ordinary. But, please. Come, she says, and heads from the District toward an Arlington neighborhood of aging brick houses, one of which has been bulging for the past 21/2 years with the complicated lives of one woman and two children. In she goes. And soon enough, the people who have been closest to those complicated lives begin to arrive.

Her friend Hope shows up with lasagna.

Her Uncle Gerry brings chicken.

Her cousin Betsi brings so much food that Diane puts an extra leaf in the table, and then another, and now come more people, with more food, and eventually, just as Diane hoped, the house becomes filled with a commotion that is at least distracting and occasionally joyous, all of it aimed at two children who are, as Diane will put it later, "being adored." They are twins. They are 31/2. One, a boy, was the first born. The other, a girl, is the one who, upon seeing Diane after court, said, "Mommy, why are you crying?" "Because," Diane managed to say, not yet ready for this explanation, "you're going to live with your other mommy," and that's how she ended up telling them. Simply. Straightforwardly. Gently enough for the moment to pass, and now the twins are running around a back yard that once was empty but now is covered with their toys, and now they are running through a house that once was empty and now is covered with their drawings and with photographs of them, and now in the nearly gone light they are crawling into their beds, and now in the darkness Diane is packing their suitcases, and now in the middle of the night they are calling out for Diane to come to them, and now in the morning they are dressed and ready to go.

It is 8:30. They are due downtown at 9. Sharp. Judge's orders. Time to go. No, Diane says to her friend Erik when he brings out a camera, but he takes half a dozen pictures anyway, and those will be Diane's record of this: her lips tight, her eyes swollen, her hands clasped around a child's forgiving shoulder, her cheek resting against the top of a child's head. She stays that way for another moment. Okay. Time. Start the car. Pull away. Off they go. Goodbye to their toys. Goodbye to their drawings. Goodbye to their bedroom. Goodbye to the house. Goodbye to everything. Just like that. And then, goodbye to Diane. Who leaves the children, as ordered, so they can say hello a moment later to their new mother, who is the woman who conceived them, and abandoned them, and was charged with neglecting them, and now, 31/2 years after they were born, and 21/2 years after Diane took them in with the hope of adopting them, has been declared legally fit to take them with her to a new place, a strange place, their true home.

Just like that.

Goodbye.

Hello.

In the American system of child welfare, there are roughly 450,000 children in foster care awaiting some kind of permanence in their lives. Among them are about 2,700 from the District of Columbia, a number that for a time included the two in the care of Diane Hendel. It is not often that two lives can accurately stand in for hundreds of thousands of others, but within any particular child welfare case are a number of shared experiences: abusive or neglectful behavior, hurt, pain, family upheaval and, ultimately, some measure of hope that the child welfare system can come to the rescue.

By now, the successes and failures that accompany such hopes have been well-chronicled. The mechanics of the child welfare system seem simple enough -- there's a complaint, followed by an investigation, followed by well-intentioned efforts aimed at producing a happy ending -- but the reality of those mechanics, as revealed by the case of Diane and the twins, is rarely simple at all. As soon as a complaint is received, a virtual industry of social workers, lawyers, judges and administrators goes to work, and no matter how pure the intentions are, the process often deteriorates into chaos. A central goal of child welfare is permanence and stability for the child, but cases routinely become so mired in complications, and legalities, and indecision, and nastiness, and the necessity of trying to understand a specific moment of horror in the larger context of societal issues, that the focus can shift from the search for permanence to the mere passage of time. Months pass. Years pass. Rather than resolution, there is drift, so much so that nationally, on average, a third of the children entering foster care will be there in excess of two years, creating, instead of stability, an ambiguity that can be damaging.

In the District, this chaos is even more pronounced. Children are routinely in foster care in excess of four years, and meanwhile, the system that is supposed to be saving them is so decayed that it has been taken over by the federal courts and put in the hands of a federally appointed receiver. This happened two years ago, and though it was intended to bring improvements, the day-to-day feeling at the moment among child welfare workers is "dysfunctional paranoia," according to Judith Meltzer, a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and a court-appointed monitor of the city's foster care system. Meltzer isn't the only one to describe it this way. There is general agreement that the system is infected with mistrust, backbiting and second-guessing, as well as the more typical problems of foster care systems everywhere, such as high caseloads and overworked employees. "All the problems that exist in the District exist elsewhere in the nation," Meltzer says, trying to put this in context. "The thing that gets to me is all the problems exist in the District."

This, then, is the backdrop for the case involving the twins and Diane Hendel, but what makes the case especially instructive is that there is another element to it as well, less frequently chronicled but central to almost every child welfare case in Washington and across the country. It is a guiding principle in child welfare known as family reunification, which suggests that almost any child, whatever the reason for removal, can in time return home. Not only can but should, and if at all possible must, and with enough intervention will. It is a principle rooted not so much in science as in the belief that there is something inherent in the shared blood of a family that makes it an elixir, that it is somehow magic and glue.

It is not that. If it were, there wouldn't be the precipitating events of child welfare in which mothers discard children in hospitals, and fathers burn children with cigarettes, and mothers trade children for drugs, and fathers abuse children for sex. That's the depressing reality of shared blood in child welfare cases, but reunification is the hope anyway, entrenched as the first step for a child in foster care by both federal and D.C. policy. Explaining the best rationale for reunification, Meltzer says, "I think we know that kids need families, and really, in the long run, they'll do better with their own family than if they are given a substitute. No matter how great the adoptive family, kids, I think, want to be with their own families. So I think it's in a child's best interest to give a second chance, and a third chance, with all the supports."

However, she goes on, "the question of time is the difficult one," and that's what has been happening lately in child welfare, a widening acknowledgment that perhaps, in the pursuit of resolution, reunification efforts have gotten out of control.

How much time is enough time? How much time is too much time? How many chances does a birth parent deserve while a child is adrift in the limbo of foster care? Whose interest comes first -- a child's or a parent's? The law says that a reasonable effort should be made at reunification, but what, really, is reasonable?

These are the questions of the moment, largely in reaction to what reunification has evolved into. Cases that might be resolved in months stretch on and on "because what we do now is we work and work and work with the biological parent," says Tom Wells, executive director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, "and if that doesn't work we ask for relatives, and then we work and work and work with the relatives, and if that doesn't work . . ." In addition, so-called "permanency plans" that chart what precisely should happen to a child, which by federal statute and D.C. Superior Court rules are supposed to be finalized within 18 months, often aren't finalized until much later, and even then it can be several years more before a plan is actually implemented. There are other options for a child -- adoption, for instance, or permanent placement with relatives -- but in almost all cases none of these can come into play until it is clear that the birth parents are absolutely beyond rehabilitation. So they get not only second and third chances, but fourth chances, fifth chances, more.

Partly for these reasons, the Clinton administration and members of both political parties in Congress have lately begun looking at ways to speed the process of resolution along. Noting that nearly 100,000 of the 450,000 children in foster care in the United States are likely never to be reunified with their birth parents, President Clinton promised last December in a speech promoting adoption, "We will double the number of children we move from foster care to permanent homes, from 27,000 a year today to 54,000 by the year 2002."

Many of those, no doubt, would come from the extreme cases that have come to define the excesses of reunification -- parents, for example, who hurt, even kill, a child are sentenced to probation and then ask for their other children back. But it is more than the extremes that have people wondering about the wisdom of reunification, it is the very routine.

"Three and a half years?" Marilyn Benoit, a child psychiatrist who is executive director of the Devereux Children's Center of Washington, a residential treatment facility, says when she hears the bare outline of the case involving Diane Hendel and the twins. "And then the biological mother gets the children back?

"You have now disrupted the emotional development of those children," she says of the length of time involved. "You, the court, have created a new abandonment. You have deliberately interjected separation and loss into their lives. What we know that does is disrupt development. You have depression. You have regression. You undermine a sense of trust. You introduce a sense of powerlessness. Children that age, what they want to develop is a sense of mastery, and you have done everything to thwart that, and you have really compromised that child's ability to move on."

To hear such a stark judgment is to wonder how such a decision could be made. And yet to know that it was made, and then to assume that it was made not with maliciousness but with good intentions, is to realize how complicated the pursuit of reunification can become, and to understand that no decision is as simple as it would appear to be at first glance.

To chronicle any child welfare case is difficult because of privacy issues; to chronicle the case of Diane and the twins in particular is especially so. To protect the twins' privacy, they won't be named. Because the birth mother didn't want to be interviewed, she won't be named either. Because people in charge of the child welfare system say they were told by an attorney for the birth mother that they would be sued if they discussed her or her children, they won't say anything at all. The social worker wouldn't be interviewed, the court-appointed lawyer representing the children's legal interests wouldn't be interviewed, the attorney who represented Diane Hendel wouldn't be interviewed. Further complicating the matter is the breakdown of the District foster care system itself, which resulted in the federal receivership and which makes everyday decisions, difficult under the best of circumstances, that much more so.

Nonetheless, as introduction to the complexities of a decision, some basic things about the case can be said:

The children, according to medical records, have "multiple medical problems and difficulties related to [their] preterm birth[s]." They were born 12 weeks premature. Each weighed less than 2 pounds. "Pregnancy was complicated by multiple substance abuse." They tested HIV-positive at birth, but subsequently tested negative, a conversion that is not uncommon in babies. For their first few months they were unable to breathe on their own and had to be mechanically ventilated. They spent six months at Howard University Hospital, and then another eight months at the Hospital for Sick Children, and then, when they were 14 months old, they went home with Diane, who finds herself one day saying, "They were on oxygen. They were both still, oh goodness, not much more than 10 pounds." She is talking about the first time she saw them, when they were 7 months old, and she was a pediatric nurse at the Hospital for Sick Children, and they had never been outside except for the day they were transferred from one hospital to another in an ambulance, and she lived alone and drove around in a sports car. And now she drives around in a minivan, with two children's safety seats still buckled in it even though three weeks have gone by since she turned over the twins.

She is downtown, on H Street NE. She pulls into the parking lot of the massive building that houses the city's child welfare system, turns off the engine and sits for a moment, breathing rapidly and patting her chest over her heart. "Very anxious," she explains. She is about to visit the children, her third visit since giving them up.

"I have one hour."

She goes into the building, escorted by a social worker who will monitor the visit. Soon after, the birth mother arrives with the twins, and an hour later, exactly an hour, back out Diane comes.

Calmly, she describes the room where she and the children met: an old couch, two old armchairs, a vinyl kitchen chair, no tables, stained carpet, fluorescent lighting, a couple of bags of trash, empty food wrappers, a pair of sneakers without laces, some graffiti on the walls.

Less calmly, she describes how the twins behaved:

The boy "was wearing sandals. He's not supposed to wear sandals, everybody knows that. He's supposed to be wearing special shoes for support, sturdy high-top shoes, and he was in these cheap plastic sandals."

The girl "spent most of the time climbing over and hanging off of the armchair, saying she was an acrobat."

The boy "spent half the time running around the room and half the time in my lap."

The girl "asked me to cuddle her, and asked me to wrap her in a blanket, and said, `I'm a baby.' "

"They keep calling me Mommy. What am I supposed to do?"

And then, the end of the visit:

"Fifteen minutes," the social worker announced when there were 15 minutes left.

"Ten minutes."

"Five minutes."

"It's time to get ready."

"Now say goodbye to Diane. We're going to wait here for a few minutes and your mommy's going to come get you."

"Don't leave me," the girl said at that point, wrapped in the blanket.

"I have to," Diane said, betraying as little emotion as possible, which was the suggestion of the child psychologist she consulted, an expert on attachment disorders.

"Can I drive away with you?" the girl said.

And now, driving away alone, Diane says, "That's what the last 15 minutes was like. But they didn't cry when I left. Last week, [the girl] was crying so hard and screaming, they had to physically hold her back."

"You know, they're available," is how this began for Diane: one sentence, said offhandedly to her by another nurse after they had walked out of the twins' hospital room, where Diane had held them for the first time. "When I held her, she just fit," is how Diane remembers that. "When I held him, he was wiggling, but with him there was this enormous compassion because he seemed to have so many problems." And Diane at that point, heading toward 40, was in search of something to feel compassionate about.

She had grown up while moving around the country, had made it through a restless adolescence, had bummed around overseas, had married briefly, had tried transcendental meditation, had gotten a nursing degree, had gotten her first job as a respiratory nurse at the Hospital for Sick Children, had bought her first home, had by all appearances settled down as she closed in on the middle part of her life -- and yet, at night, home from her job, alone in her house, came the familiar awareness that there was more to have, more to feel. Kids, she had been thinking, perhaps kids, and she'd begun contacting various private agencies about adopting a child, preferably older, maybe from Brazil or Russia or Africa. Expect to pay $20,000, one agency told her. Couples only, said another. And then came the twins. "I just absolutely fell in love with them," she says. She thought about it for maybe a day. Young, not old. Two, not one. Both ill. Both with problems that, well, who knew? She called the Department of Human Services to ask a few questions. "And when I called DHS, it was, `You can have them.' "

There was no hint of the birth mother, not then, except in court papers charging her with neglect. Officially, she was somewhere else, gone away. It was the same for the father. The twins had been declared abandoned within days of their births and thus belonged to whoever it is that abandoned kids belong to. The courts. The system. Their lives were the hospital room. Occasionally, Diane says, an elderly relative would visit them, and of course the nurses would be in and out and Diane would come by on her breaks, but for the most part they were by themselves in a room costing the city hundreds of dollars a day, and the expectation was that they would remain there indefinitely. "It was so sad," Diane says of this. "They were in a room with no TV, no radio, no toys, just lying there." Even worse was the larger realization that "no one wanted them."

So, yes, she said to DHS, she wanted to take them home, she wanted to adopt them in fact, she was ready for them immediately, and even with that it would be another six months before she could get them out of the hospital.

There was the mandatory background check -- fingerprints, references, house inspection, medical records and so on. There were 10 weeks of training classes, at the end of which she was certified to be either a foster or adoptive parent. There was the necessity of formal court approval. It went before the judge once. Twice. A third time. From start to finish in this process, the twins went from 7 months old to 13 months old, but at last Diane had a court order in hand, which she rushed to the hospital. "Give me my kids," she remembers saying, insisting, demanding. And? "I got them the next day."

Day one: Diane showed them the house, the yard, their books, their toys, their room, and, at night, against the darkness, rocked them to sleep.

Day two: The boy began wheezing, badly enough for Diane to first try treating him with a misting device called a nebulizer and then to take him to the emergency room, beginning a pattern that would define many, if not most, of their days.

"Nebulizers every three hours, around the clock," she says of what certain stretches were like with both children. "Vomiting. Diarrhea. Pneumonia after pneumonia after pneumonia. Constant ear infections. Hospitalization. I was home with one or the other, sick, a minimum of one to two days a week, every week, for 21/2 years. Minimum. Sometimes I was out a week, a week and a half."

She knew the children were sick, of course. But it is one thing to take care of sick children in a hospital, and it is another to have them at home, especially when they are part of a child welfare system that, despite promises of support, was increasingly in turmoil. She remembers asking for a list of medical specialists who would take Medicaid and being told that no such list existed, that she would have to find the doctors herself. So she did. She remembers finding a day-care center for special-needs kids, far from her home but with two openings, only to be told that she would have to figure out their transportation. She did that, too. And so on and so on, she says, because every day seemed to bring a new conflict with DHS. About? "Everything." For instance? At one point, she says, DHS stopped paying the kids' day-care bills, just stopped, which led to the day-care center saying the kids would have to leave, which led to Diane missing so much work she was in danger of losing her job, which led to her using her credit card to square the $3,100 debt, which led to phone call after phone call from her to DHS pleading for reimbursement. "They would say, `The check has been cut.' They would say, `The check is in the mail.' They would say, `The computer's broken.' They would say, `Somebody has to sign the check, and there's no one in the office.' This went on for months."

Never did she back down. In a system used to foster parents who ask few questions, she asked every question, insisted on answers, wouldn't let up. "I was -- not intentionally -- but I was in their face, demanding help, all the time, from the very beginning," she says. "I didn't really understand that wasn't the way most people do it."

And yet, in spite of the frustrations, she says, "It was wonderful."

Because one day, the kids were no longer afraid of going to ordinary places like the grocery store, which, at first, had seemed so overwhelming to them.

Another day, they no longer hid in their room when she vacuumed.

Another day, they stopped throwing tantrums when she touched their faces, which she did in order to get them to open their mouths so she could teach them to eat solid food. She taught them: to eat, to drink from a cup, to stand, to walk, to dance to goofy music, to stack blocks, to recognize letters, to turn pages of books, to exist outside of a hospital room. For all of this, they called her mommy. And why not?

"Here is a woman who took on a very exquisite role," Miriam Toporowicz, the children's pediatrician at Georgetown University Medical Center, says. "She took two children who were extremely ill, very very fragile, a lot of complications and had been abandoned, and what she did was she raised them, she cured them, she made them healthy, she made them happy.

"I could never understand that people didn't kneel down and thank her for what she did for those kids," she says.

And adds: "The truth is she behaved like a mother, and that was her undoing." Maybe that's true, Diane says. Maybe she did act like a mother because that certainly is how she felt. "I felt as if I couldn't be any closer if I had birthed them myself," is how she describes it. "I know them so well. I know every inch of them. We've been through so much." All along, her intention was to adopt them. She remembers telling DHS that when she first called about the children, and she remembers people specifically involved in the case telling her to be neither anxious nor in a hurry, that considering the status of the birth parents the children would one day be hers.

Gradually, however, she became aware that the birth mother had reappeared, that she wanted the children as well and would do whatever was necessary to show she could care for them. That she, in other words, would start behaving like a mother. And with that awareness came a further one, that the ground was shifting.

As best Diane can recall, the birth mother first became a presence several months after the children's release from the hospital, and though it was a sporadic presence at best, not at all steady, the goal to resolve the case nonetheless became reunification. "It doesn't matter if she's homeless, it doesn't matter if she lives in a car, it doesn't matter if she has AIDS," she remembers one of the lawyers involved in the case explaining to her at one point, exaggerating somewhat for effect. "As long as her urine tests clean, the children belong to her."

The goal was reflected not only in conversations Diane found herself in but in objectives set forth for both Diane and the birth mother to achieve.

The birth mother's objectives included maintaining her sobriety, visiting the children regularly, being able to identify and provide for their medical needs, and maintaining appropriate housing.

And Diane's were to continue to care for them, while referring to the birth mother as "Mommy."

Even so, Diane didn't think she would really have to give up the children. They went to sleep with her every night, they woke up with her every morning, they continued to call her mommy every day. "Just take care of the kids," she says was the advice she kept getting from some of the people involved in the case. "Don't worry."

This advice is part of what those in charge of the city's foster care system won't talk about. They won't say it happened or didn't happen. Neither will they say anything about the appropriateness of how long it took for the case to be resolved. Instead, they simply say, in the most general of terms, that there is no such thing as a neat case, and to underscore this they offer glimpses of what goes on every day in their pursuit of the legal standard of making a reasonable effort toward achieving reunification, which, as the glimpses show, does indeed turn out to be based on decisions that are messy and depressingly complex.

"We are not God," a foster care supervisor named Pablo Ruiz-Salomon is saying one day when the glimpse is of something called the Intensive Reunification Unit, a unit formed three years ago to deal with the most stagnant cases of all. "We are making awesome decisions about people's lives. I mean, the impact is absolutely enormous," he says, and around the room half a dozen social workers nod in agreement. It is a distinctive unit they are in, different from the regular reunification units because, unlike most social workers, who have to take on whatever comes their way, these social workers have the luxury of limited caseloads, which allows them to spend proportionally more time with the families they are trying to reunify. They can do more and try more, they say, and consequently have more successes -- except that when they detail those successes, the sense of an even larger failure becomes overwhelming. Gretchen Bartram tells about a case in which, thanks to intensive reunification, a mother finally learned the necessary skills to get back her handicapped daughter, who turns out to have been separated from her mother for 12 years. Betsy Lowry tells about an HIV-positive mother with five children who, thanks to reunification, has all with her except for one, who turns out to be sick with AIDS and would be home as well except for the requirement of a telephone for emergencies, which the mother lost when her bill one month somehow hit $700. Priscilla Fothergill tells about the case of a drug-addicted mother who disappeared from her children's lives for several years, but now, thanks to reunification, is off drugs, in a shelter, working on her high school equivalency diploma, getting around by bus and regularly visiting her children -- who, it turns out, couldn't be happier about this turn of events. "These children love their mother," Fothergill says, and that, the others agree, is the constant in every case. "Name it," says Ruiz-Salomon: Beaten, burned, molested, starved, abandoned, abused, they want to be back home. "So we have reunification."

Another glimpse:

This time it's a unit called Families Together, which is the city's attempt at keeping families that are intact, but at-risk, from disintegrating in the first place. More intensive than even intensive reunification, this unit has social workers who deal with no more than four families at a time, who are on call for each family 24 hours a day for up to two months, who are required to wear beepers at all times so they can respond immediately to every crisis, every problem, every question. "Our families, it's multi-generational neglect in many cases," Gabriella Teh, the unit supervisor, says of the need for such a program. "When you talk about parenting skills, they don't have anything they know to go back to." And so the social workers teach them: Don't hit your kids. Don't scream at them. Don't threaten them. Don't leave them alone. Make sure they go to school. Bathe them. Immunize them. Feed them. And while you're at it, clean your house and pay your bills. "They're basic things," she says, "but if they're not done, they lead to neglect of children."

Another glimpse:

This time it's a training session for new social workers, who, with shut eyes, are in the midst of an exercise in which they are trying to imagine what it must be like to be a child in their care: "I'm going to move you to a new home with a new family," their instructor is telling them. "You will have 30 minutes to pack a cardboard box . . . We're getting ready to leave . . . We're walking out the front door . . . We're walking away from your home . . . Look back . . ." Now they are learning how quickly a family can spiral out of control: A father loses his job, the instructor tells them, speaking hypothetically, and when he comes home, for the first time in his life, he gets mad enough to hit his small daughter, who is injured when she falls into a wall. You meet them at the hospital. He's apologetic. It's never happened before. You make a defensible decision to send them home. Except the father, instead of going home, goes out on his own, gets drunk, wrecks the car and ends up in jail, and the mother gets so angry that, later, when the child begins whining, she loses control and slaps her across the face, hard enough to break her nose. Back to the hospital. This time, you have to remove the child and place her in foster care, no doubt about it, but when you tell the child this she begins screaming and won't let go of her mother's leg, and the following day you get a panicked call from the foster parents who say they can't keep her because she has been behaving in a sexually inappropriate way, and when you look into this it turns out she was molested by one of her relatives, and so you have to find another foster home, and launch a sex-abuse investigation, and deal with a father consumed by anger and a mother consumed by guilt and a child who of course thinks all of this is her fault, all with the goal of reunification. This is what can happen, the instructor says, and now one of the students asks, "I'm just curious how long we go on working with the mother. Two years? Four years? Six years?" "How long do you wait?" is the instructor's best answer, because there is no official answer, only instinct. "That's a decision you're going to be making."

Another glimpse:

This time it's an orientation for prospective foster and adoptive parents, which has brought 30 people to the third floor of the building on H Street. They are typical of the city's foster parents: middle-aged, African American, and largely from Prince George's County. They fill out forms and are told, among other things, that in matters of adoption, race plays a role. "We try to place the child with his or her own race, and once that fails then we'll move out of the race," a social worker named Michael Carr advises. Following that, they are asked to consider becoming foster parents to teenagers with babies ("We really need you"), or emergency foster care parents ("We desperately need you"), or respite foster parents who are on call around-the-clock to cover for regular foster parents ("We're in desperate need"), or adoptive parents to the children hardest to place of all, "children who are special needs, children with AIDS, children who have been severely burned." Followed by out-and-out begging. "This is Kenneth," says Carr, passing around a stack of photographs. "He's 11. Behavioral issues. Emotional issues. If anybody's interested, please let me know . . . This is James, 7, fetal alcohol syndrome, partly blind, needs help with feeding and bathing . . . This is Teressa, 10, emotional issues, emotionally fragile . . . This is Val. Again, emotionally fragile . . ."

Another glimpse:

This time it's Diane.

She is thinking about race. That the kids are black. That she isn't. Could that, somehow, have been part of why things didn't work out?

Now she is thinking about how her relationship with DHS evolved, from rescuer to hinderer, after the reemergence of the birth mother, reaching a point where the bond she had established with the children was considered not as beneficial but as a barrier to successful reunification. To which Diane says, "It never occurred to me that being a foster parent would mean treating them any less than as if they were my own children."

Now she is thinking about when the relationship reached the point where there were intimations that maybe she was making the kids sick on purpose in order to hold onto them. The children's pediatrician dismisses such intimations; social workers never took them seriously enough to remove the children from Diane's care. Nonetheless, Diane says, "I think to this day they do not understand how medically fragile those kids were the first couple of years."

Now she is thinking about how, in the final months before reunification, DHS took the step of securing the birth mother an apartment and paying all of her expenses so she could become established enough to care for the twins. That, she says, is when it became clear that, in spite of the time that had gone by and the bonding that had taken place, she wasn't going to prevail. "The only thing I can say is I didn't know how to play the game," she says. "I am cursed by a certain naivete, I always expect good motives, and I had no business dealing with DHS with that kind of attitude."

Now a friend stops by, Jan Sakol, whom Diane met at the Hospital for Sick Children when one of her patients was a little girl named Tye. Like the twins, Tye was premature, sickly and considered abandoned; like Diane, Jan was in search of a child to become hers. The difference is that Tye, this day, comes too, holding the hand of Jan, who is in the final stages of adopting her, and that's how things worked out for them. "Hey, honey," Diane says to Tye as they walk up to the house, and now the three of them head off to a nearby McDonald's where Tye and the twins used to climb around the playground equipment, and now a few other mothers show up with children who used to play with the twins, and now Diane, surrounded by friends, watching the kids, profoundly lonely, says, "I've got to get out of here," and now she is back home, thinking about a decision she made at the end of her 10 weeks of training classes, when she was asked, pro forma she thought, what agency she wanted to oversee her case.

The question is asked of every prospective foster and adoptive parent. There is the option of choosing DHS, and there are additional options of choosing one of several private agencies, such as For Love of Children, that have contracts with the District to oversee the care of up to 500 children.

Jan, who once worked for the city as a nurse and found DHS to be a place "in chaos," designated For Love of Children.

Diane put down DHS. Which she now sees as her biggest miscalculation of all.

"I just didn't understand the way the system works," she says, "and I didn't think it could be so bad."

In fact, it was so bad that, not long after Diane made her designation, a federal judge took control of the entire foster care system and put it in the care of a general receiver answerable not to the city but to him. "It's a sad day . . . for the District of Columbia," U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said in announcing his decision, "and an even sadder day for the children . . . who for years have been waiting for the District to perform as it promised, as its own laws say it is obligated to do."

The decision, the result of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, was intended as remedy. But two years later, some aspects of the system are widely thought to be just as bad, if not worse. Consider a recent status hearing in front of Hogan to go over the improvements the receivership is supposed to be making. "Plaintiffs report that we regret we don't have much to report," says one of the attorneys, beginning 10 minutes of sniping and bickering, and at the end of the hearing, the lawsuit, which is known as 89-1754, which means that it was officially filed in 1989, which means that it is approaching its eight-year anniversary, still seems a long way from resolution. There are a dozen people in the courtroom this day, including one 65-year-old man who stands and shakes his head. His expression is absolutely rueful. "Nothing's simple," he says. This is Jerome Miller, the receiver appointed by Hogan to rescue the system, who to Diane has become a kind of Wizard of Oz figure: unseeable, unreachable, unfathomable. She has tried to reach him to plead her case directly but has never gotten further than his assistants. It turns out, though, that he and Diane have things in common. Her hope was to save the twins, and his is to save the other 2,700 neglected children in the system. She came out of the experience disheartened and debilitated, and, so far, so has he.

For instance, it took him, by his own calculations, eight months just to figure out exactly what he had inherited, including such basic things as the size of his budget. First Hogan told him it was $56 million, he says, then DHS said it was actually $52 million, then one of his own financial people said it was well over $100 million and perhaps as much as $130 million. "We finally agreed it was about $90 million," he says.

He is still not sure precisely how many people work for him. For a while he thought it was 650, then 720, but now, after directing all of the employees to come in one day and sign for their paychecks in order to receive them, he thinks 670 is about right.

On a more personal level:

His employees, however many there are, seem to despise him.

He felt himself getting so many dirty looks, he decided to abandon his office in the H Street complex.

His new office, a few blocks away, has been broken into.

He has suffered a series of mild strokes.

His blood pressure is dangerously high.

His wife wants him to quit.

He finds the District government so untrustworthy that he says of it, "I thought I'd seen everything in terms of sabotage and patronage in government, but I've seen nothing like what I've seen here. It's just circles within circles."

And then there's the matter of the plan he has come up with to restructure the foster care system, which is scheduled for review by Hogan at another status hearing on May 6.

It involves decentralizing foster care and spreading it out to the neighborhoods of the city through a network of local organizations called collaboratives, which social workers worry will undermine their importance. Miller has denied this again and again. The social workers, he has said, would remain at the center of the system but would be supported by people, active in their communities, who in theory can better know what's occurring behind the closed doors along their street, along their hallway, of the home next to them. If there's a problem suggesting neglect, they could meet quickly, ideally within a day, and try to come up with a plan to handle it that wouldn't involve removing children from their parents. If the birth parents need to be taught things, perhaps they could be the teachers. If the parents need someone to watch the children for a while, perhaps they could do that. If the children do have to be removed, perhaps they could recruit foster families in the neighborhood so the children wouldn't have to be shipped away from their friends and school and whatever else might be constant in their lives.

Of course the plan is more complex than that, but the overall effect, Miller says, would penetrate every aspect of foster care, including reunification, about which he is as conflicted as anyone else. On one hand, he agrees, cases shouldn't drag on indefinitely. "The overall goal has to be permanency," he says, "and it seems to me if you cannot establish a permanency plan in a certain amount of time -- I'd say under a year -- then you have to walk one way or the other." But he also worries that limiting the number of chances a birth parent can get to improve, particularly a mother who is single and black and from the inner city, is to facilitate a kind of social engineering that he fears could become genocidal.

This concern is one of Miller's core passions. It first formed when his career was as a reformer of juvenile justice systems in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which were beginning to burst with young black males who, as he saw it, were being removed from society in numbers so staggering as to be annihilating. And now, a generation later, so it could be with young black mothers, he fears -- not that they will be locked up, but that welfare reform will put them in such dire circumstances that they will have no option but to be neglectful, first losing their children in vast numbers to foster care and adoption, and then losing their place in society entirely. "I think unless we're very careful in the next decade, we're going to do to the single black mother what we've done to the single black male," he says of this, and then finds himself wondering: Is there any issue in child welfare that's easily resolved? Maybe so, he allows himself to think from time to time, but then, invariably, along comes a reminder that he's deluding himself, such as a meeting he attends one night in an effort to convince some of his harshest critics that, after years of such colossal failure, his plan is worth trying.

His audience this night is the local chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and there is tension from the start.

When he walks in, many in the audience are holding copies of the weekly Washington City Paper, out that day with a critical cover story titled "A Leaky Receivership" that is accompanied by a photograph of Miller's tired face. When he stands before them and begins detailing his plan, they respond with occasional groans and muttering, and when they do that he responds by deviating to the subject of vile faxes about him that have been spilling out of the machines at H Street, which he calls "rumormongering and craziness."

This is followed by Pablo Ruiz-Salomon, of Intensive Reunification, standing up and saying to him, "We were never the enemy. We are not the enemy."

Followed by another social worker saying, "We're taking risks by being here. We don't know if Dr. Miller will determine that he's going to take names of everyone and fire those who open their mouths."

Followed by Miller saying, "I want to stress, I did not seek this position, and I don't particularly like it."

Followed by another social worker yelling at him, "This is disgraceful," and another social worker chastising him for making them "stop everything we were doing for the children in the District of Columbia and come over and sign to get out pay stubs. It was mass chaos!" and another social worker saying of a unit called Residential Placement, "I find it to be a complete disaster."

"And I find the Residential Placement Unit to be one of the most effective and best . . ." Miller starts responding, which leads to so much hollering back and forth that no one can hear anything, which is followed by Miller leaving, enveloped not by applause but by people who won't let him go.

They follow him into the elevator, and as he stands silently, watching the floor numbers as the elevator descends, a woman pleads with him to pay attention to what they were saying; and now, outside, she peels off and is replaced by another woman who begins crying as she tells him how overworked she is, how bad the caseloads are, how hard it is, how they need support, that he's got to help the children; and now she peels off and is replaced by another woman who keeps grabbing at his leg in a way that makes him wonder if she is trying to pick his pocket, or maybe is holding a knife and is going to stab him, so he begins walking faster, which causes an envelope, pushed at him during the meeting and shoved into his pocket, to fall to the sidewalk. Which the woman stops and picks up and holds out to him, and now, as he keeps walking, she yells at his retreating figure, "You can at least turn around and respect me!"

He turns. Sees her extended arm.

"I don't even know what it is," he tells her, exasperated, and now he is in his car, heading back to his office.

He goes down a hallway, points to a recently patched section of drywall and says that's how the break-in occurred. They didn't come through the doors, he says, which are protected by sensing devices, but through a neat rectangle sliced out of the wall, at night, while he was at home hosting a Christmas party for his staff. He says they went through his files and took a boombox and his Rolodex, and to this day he has no idea who they were.

Now he is talking about his strokes and what an MRI showed. "They were way by my brain stem," he says. "But that comes with age."

Now he is talking about his blood pressure. "It shoots through the sky these days. But I don't like talking about that. It gives people hope around here."

Now he is talking about his detractors. "The resolution will come in the doing," he says, momentarily optimistic.

"If we get things done."

Is there a better word for any of this, then, than "if"?

If people knew what to do after conception, if they didn't scream at what they produced, if they didn't hit, if they didn't scar, if they didn't abandon, if they didn't neglect, if they were better able to control the various environmental factors that can sometimes push a person over the edge, there wouldn't be any of this. There wouldn't be Families Together. There wouldn't be Intensive Reunification, much less Continuing Reunification, much less regular run-of-the-mill reunification. For that matter, there wouldn't be reunification at all, not as a practice, not as a theory. There would be certainty. But of course it does happen, and as a result an entire industry created to deal with it can only wonder what to do in response: What is enough? What is too much? When is it okay to give up?

So, "under a year," suggests Jerome Miller, trying to define reasonableness.

"I say give a mom six months to change or show she's making an attempt," says Sister Josephine Murphy, who runs St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, which takes in some of the District's most severely abused and neglected children. "I know what they say, blood is thicker than water, and it is, but we're adults, and at some point we have to have the guts to say, `This is it. No more.' "

"Maybe it's not three months after birth, maybe it's not six months, but it's sure as hell by 18 months," says Doug Besharov, who has studied reunification for the American Enterprise Institute.

Certainly, they all agree, it shouldn't take 31/2 years. As Miller says, "If we start talking about more than a year, we're already outside the ballpark. You're already breaking the bonds."

And yet it happens; it happened; and six months after the children leave, Diane comes up against a day that shows how ambiguous, and unknowable, the pursuit of permanence and stability ultimately is.

It is a day preceded by Diane wondering about everything that has been going on. There has been no contact for months. She has been wondering: What has happened? She has been wondering if the birth mother knows that the boy likes chocolate milk and the girl likes skim milk. She has been wondering if the birth mother knows that "they're not supposed to drink more than one glass of juice a day because juice is empty calories and they've been so underweight." She has been wondering whether the birth mother knows the boy "likes socks that don't match." She has been wondering about bedtime. "Because they were so insecure, we had a bedtime routine they could count on": bath, followed by pajamas, followed by reading time, followed by tucking them in in the same order, first the boy, then the girl, because "if I did it wrong they'd make me start over." In six months, she has moved from depression to mere sadness, but she hasn't been able to get beyond that. And then one day, tired of wondering, she does something extraordinary. She calls a private detective.

Who for $50 gets her the birth mother's address.

Which she gives to Jan.

Who is now on her way there, just to see.

Tye, hers now, the adoption final, goes too, sitting in the back and asking every so often where the twins' house is. "That's where we're going," Jan tells her.

"But where is it?"

"We're going to find it."

They drive on, toward a neighborhood well beyond the city, and Jan says she is doing this not so much for Diane but for Tye, who misses the twins terribly. "My wish is for Tye to maintain friendships with them. My wish is to have closure, to know that the kids are doing okay," she says. As for Diane: "There's an inner core of her that's just not there. She has up days, and she has down days. The last couple of days have been down. This morning, I was talking to her on the phone, and Tye gets up in my lap and giggles, and it's hard to have a conversation with a 3-year-old giggling in the background.

"You have to get to know Diane's personality," she goes on. "She can become very intense. Her intensity gets in the way sometimes of what she's doing. The system in the District is so crazy that, if you're an intelligent human being, you can't tolerate it. I tolerated it because I fell in love with Tye and knew I wanted her and didn't want her to go back with her parents. That's me. Diane is someone who thinks she can change the world. She would fight the system every step of the way. You don't fight them, if that makes sense. You just say, Yes ma'am. She had four or five social workers, and she never said yes ma'am to any of them. She never let the system be right. It definitely had an impact. I'm sure it had an impact. What these social workers did to get the kids back to their mother is above and beyond."

She keeps driving. The address is on a piece of paper resting on the ashtray. When she's getting close, she says she hopes that when she knocks on the door the twins will answer and scream, " `Tye! Tye!' . . . And if that doesn't work, I'm hoping that Tye says, `I have to go pee pee, Mommy.' " Anything to get inside, even for a minute.

There it is.

She parks. Readies herself. Walks with Tye to the door. Knocks. Waits. The door opens.

Much later will come word that the birth mother was so unsettled by this moment, fearing it was an attempt to snatch the children from her, that she will pack them up and move. But for now, Jan and Tye go in. The door closes. It stays closed for 50 minutes. And when she and Tye come back out, she is so stunned that for a time she's unable to speak.

"The twins were not there," she finally says.

And then: "I'm glad I went."

And then: "I'm not the same person now as I was before I went in the apartment. I had my prejudices. And she counteracted those prejudices. She really is doing a good job."

And then: "I sense in her someone who has come through a lot, has not worked through all of it but is really proud of how she's come through it and how well her kids are doing."

And then: "She really hates Diane. I mean, hates Diane."

She keeps driving.

Could this be? Could this really be? "Where are we going?" Tye asks.

"We're going to Diane's house."

And then: "This won't be easy."

Diane is home. Outside. Cleaning the minivan. Jan hugs her. They sit on the porch. It is just after noon, a sunny day.

"You're not going to like what I have to say," Jan begins. "I did not get to see the kids. The kids were ice-skating."

Diane says nothing. Just leans forward to hear more.

"I went in there wanting to come back and tell you it was an awful apartment. I can't."

Ice-skating, Diane is thinking. Ice-skating!

"She seems awfully nice," Jan goes on.

"Good," Diane says.

"I know that's not what you want to hear."

"I don't care," Diane says.

"I know."

Diane looks down at her hands.

"The apartment is nice," Jan says.

Silence.

"If you're ever near her," Jan goes on, "she'll have you arrested."

Silence.

"She had pictures taken at the holidays of the kids. They look beautiful."

"Good."

"I don't know what else to tell you."

"So where'd it come up that she'd have me arrested?"

"She said if you ever came and knocked on her door, that's what she would do."

Diane looks at her.

"She wants no part of their past life," Jan says.

"That's too bad."

"She doesn't want to give you any credit for what you've done," Jan says.

"Three and a half years," Diane says. "I don't know how you can deny that from the kids."

"She said she gave all their baby toys away."

"They don't have any history," Diane says.

"That's right," Jan says. She looks at Tye. Who giggles. "She said she had never heard the name Tye before."

"Well," Diane says, looking at Tye, too.

"I feel awful," Jan says.

"They're gone," Diane says.

"They're gone," Jan says. "And they were really lucky to have you for that time."

"Yes," Diane says, and there is nothing more to say than exactly that, not now, and not later, when Jan is gone and Tye is gone and it is Diane, just Diane, alone in a house where once she said hello to two children, and once she said goodbye, and any number of times in the blur in between, she found herself wondering what it was like to be the children themselves.

She wondered: How long must a year seem? She wondered: How long must a day seem? It is something she wonders still, along, now, with a new question:

How long does it take to become invisible?

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