Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nicole and Nina Part 1 of 5

I arrived at juvenile court on a snowy November morning to sign in as Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) for the first court hearing held regarding Nicole and Nina*, three-and-two-year-old sisters who had been placed in foster care one week earlier. Their mother had voluntarily signed custody of the girls over to children’s services and walked away. 

I approached the security guard and exchanged pleasantries while he handed me the court complaint. I shrugged off my coat and began reading it while juggling my briefcase, purse, and gloves, never once taking my eyes off the paperwork in my hands. It was a window into these two little precious, vulnerable lives, and I wanted to catch every glimpse I could.

Nicole and Nina’s biological mom was allegedly living her boyfriend who was a convicted, registered sex offender. She had refused to make him leave knowing this choice would force the girls to leave instead. She also allegedly was addicted to prescription painkillers and had a history of untreated bi-polar disorder. A man named Jason* was listed as the biological father with address unknown. No other family members or significant others were identified.

The security guard leaned across his desk and told me someone had signed in for the hearing. I scanned the courthouse waiting area as the guard pointed to a petite man with dirty jeans two sizes too big and long, gray hair pulled back into a greasy ponytail. Somehow Jason had made his way to court. That almost never happens.

Jason was seated on a hard metal chair beneath florescent lights. He held a battered pad of paper in his wrinkled fingers and an old, frayed backpack on his lap. I walked over and shook his bony hand as I introduced myself as the girls’ court appointed Guardian Ad Litem.  I couldn’t help but notice gentleness behind his tired, worn blue eyes. He was 41 years old going on 70 after living a hard life of alcohol and nicotine addiction. He coughed incessantly courtesy of emphysema. He had started drinking at age nine with his father and never stopped.

Jason lived under a bridge near the river. He was forever hopelessly in love with the girls’ biological mother whom he met at an AA meeting years before when both were trying to get clean for a minute. He learned of the girls’ placement in foster care when he called the mom the week before.

Attempting to build respectful relationships with biological parents is the single most important step in moving a case swiftly through the court process. As professionals we are not here to judge. We are here to work toward solutions. The first meeting is critical.

The first meeting is also a pivotal moment to gain as much information about the history of children in case such relationships later head south. Sometimes against our best efforts cases languish for years and by the time court moves toward adoption the biological family is long gone, taking with them important information such as family medical history and which hospital houses birth records.

Jason and I sat together for twenty minutes while I collected as much information as he was willing to give me. In return I answered his questions about what comes next. He had yet to meet his public defender who was caught in another hearing down the hall.

“Case of Nicole and Nina Moore.”* Hearing the names of the girls called out in the large waiting room was our cue that the magistrate was ready. As Jason leaned forward to stand, his backpack fell to the floor and piles of crinkled paper spilled out in every direction. They were covered with scratchy handwriting and dirt stains. He looked almost apologetic as I bent down to help him retrieve them.

“I like to write,” he said. I was surprised. I’d never met a homeless alcoholic with tired, kind blue eyes and a backpack filled with writing. He had no way of knowing that I did too and was stealing every spare minute I could to write Invisible Kids, a book I wrote in snatches of time like lunch breaks during day-long trials. 

We headed into the courtroom and took our seats at separate tables while the hearing was called to order. I pulled out my own yellow legal pad of paper and flipped to a crisp new page, ready to write down every detail disclosed during the hearing. Being charged with representing Nicole and Nina’s best interests in court, having a say in their lives and how their futures would unfold was one of the most powerful, important tasks a professional could ever have. It would never be just a job to me. It was sacred.

On that snowy, November day I had no idea what course the case would take. I could only do my very best to advocate for two traumatized little girls I had yet to meet. On my fourth page of notes I wrote their names one more time. Nicole. Nina. Then I ran my finger over the ink and silently said one word. Promise. 

Part 2 Next Week: Meeting Nicole and Nina in their foster home.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.