Monday, April 22, 2013

Nicole and Nina Part 5 of 5

By the time Nicole and Nina moved to the Warren’s foster home they had been in the custody of Children’s Services for six months. They hadn’t seen their biological mom since they were removed from her care. They’d had weekly visits with their biological dad, Jason, who was making steady progress toward achieving sobriety and stability. During these six months, Nicole and Nina lived in two different foster homes. Nicole had turned four without any fanfare and Nina turned three in much the same way.

According to the ‘court clock’, their biological parents had six more months to make steady progress toward reunification. Adoption Safe Families Act (ASFA) is a federal law passed in 1997 to prevent kids from languishing in foster care. Children's Services can file for permanent custody if children are in temporary custody for 15 out of 22 months. At the two year mark, Children’s Services must be ready to move kids out of temporary legal status to something permanent. Children’s Services can file for permanent custody to sever family ties and make the children available for adoption. It can file for custody to be returned to parents or custody given to approved relatives. In the case of teenagers where there is no family and little chance for adoption, Children’s Services can file for Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (PPLA) which really is long term foster care. This is the legal status for kids who ‘age out’ of the system at age 18.

Days after Nicole and Nina moved into the foster home of Darryl and Beth Warren, I drove an hour north, away from the urban core and into wide open country fields. The tiny town the girls had moved to had only a handful of traffic lights. I found their new foster home easily. It was a modest orange brick house with large front and back yards. It was a completely average home; nothing fancy and nothing worrisome.

I knocked on the door and moments later a tall, thin woman with long red hair opened it.

“Holly, come in. I’m so glad to finally meet you,” Beth exclaimed as she held out her hand. I shook it with the same enthusiasm she had. We had talked so often on the phone I felt like I knew her.

Nicole and Nina each had baby dolls in little strollers and were pushing them around the living room when I walked in and said hello. They both completely ignored me and went on with their play.

I was thrilled. They appeared comfortable in their environment and didn’t seem to be worried when they saw me. Sometimes the sight of a caseworker or GAL causes a foster child to believe something bad will happen. Once I was GAL for a five-year-old boy who always went to get his little suitcase from under his bed every time his caseworker visited because he thought she was going to take him away. With as often as they moved, I was starting to worry Nicole and Nina might do the same thing. Happily, it seemed like they wanted to pretend I wasn’t there and I did not blame them.
In an adjoining room, Beth and I sat down to talk about how they were adjusting. Nicole was still awake most nights and had trouble sleeping. They had seen the doctor earlier in the week. Nina was given antibiotics for pneumonia and Nicole was treated for a skin condition. Beth’s concern and empathy for the girls was evident in every word she spoke. Compassion radiated in her eyes. When a fight broke out between the girls over a play diaper bag for their baby dolls, Beth immediately got up and intervened in a gentle but firm way. She seemed to understand Nicole’s anger and forceful personality and worked with it. Beth was the kind of foster mom I wished every child had.

Darryl walked in from the garage out back and introduced himself. He exuded the same kindness as his wife. We talked for a while as they showed me around the house including where the girls slept. By the time I left I was confident that the girls were going to be just fine. No matter how long they lived with the Warrens, whatever they soaked up would stay with them long after they left.

For the next five months, the caseworker and I worked diligently to monitor the girls’ placement as well as Jason’s compliance with court orders. Nicole and Nina continued to do well but they both struggled with intense temper tantrums, especially Nicole who was easily ‘set off’ by minor issues. The caseworker referred Nicole for therapy while Beth and Darryl continued parenting the girls with a tremendous amount of love and a healthy set of boundaries.

Nicole and Nina were also introduced to a large church family who gave them their first sense of community. Although Nicole and Nina weren’t baptized and not permitted to be without parental consent, they played in church groups and enjoyed fun times with new friends. Through these frequent events, they came to know a couple by the name of Kevin and Debbie. Kevin and Debbie didn’t have any children and weren’t looking to adopt. Kevin and Debbie were good friends with the Warrens and spent quite a bit of time with them. On Sundays after church they often went out as a group for breakfast and developed a little ritual. Each week Debbie asked Nicole if she was sunshine or a raincloud.  In response Nicole would giggle or scowl depending on her mood. Over time, Nicole was more sunshine than raincloud.

In time, Nicole and Nina developed wonderful relationships with them. As a result, Kevin and Debbie offered to be backup babysitters for the girls and had their background checks completed so they could watch them on occasion. Soon thereafter they offered to watch Nicole and Nina every Friday night so Beth and Darryl could go out. It was hard to tell who was happier with the arrangement: the adults or the children.

Five months later, Nicole and Nina were returned to the custody of Jason after expanded visits including overnights and weekends. Jason had maintained his sobriety and kept his home orderly and maintained for the girls. He had sufficient income because he received disability due to his chronic health condition. Their visits with Jason went well and they had grown in their relationships with him. Jason had joined in Nicole’s therapy sessions and got a positive report from the therapist. Beth and Darryl had been open to communication with Jason and he had talked on the phone with the girls often as well as visited them in their foster home several times.

Shortly after Nicole and Nina returned to Jason, I transferred the case to another Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). My book, Invisible Kids, had been released and I was suddenly catapulted into a world of media and marketing and publicity. I was exhausted after spending every spare moment I had writing it and it was beginning to take a toll on my own three kids. I knew it wasn’t fair to them or the kids on my caseload. My oldest child was 12 when the book came out. One night I overheard her tell my husband she thought it would get better when I was done writing the book but it was only getting worse. She was referring to my stress and the late nights. That was all it took for me to realize something had to change. Besides, I was afraid I would drop a ball on a case and I couldn't imagine how I would feel if something happened to a child on my watch.

The hardest thing I ever did as a GAL was quit and see my caseload scattered onto the desks of other GALs. They were all competent, good people but handing over my cases was tough. I loved my work and I loved the CASAs I supervised but I also felt drawn to write my book. I didn’t exactly think through where it might take me and I wasn’t prepared to lose what I loved so much. Still, the loss came and hit hard, leaving me bewildered and not just a little afraid of what was ahead.

Nicole and Nina returned to Jason and initially did well. They were both in preschool about a half mile away which enabled him to attend AA/NA meetings in the morning while they were gone. Nicole remained in therapy through the transition home and Jason continued attending with her. My biggest concern upon their return was his lack of support system.  Who would he call to get one to school if the other was sick? Jason didn’t drive and walked them to school every day. How were they going to get to school in bad weather? Jason was parenting two busy preschoolers who were dealing with yet another adjustment. While the system had ‘shored’ him up as best it could, there would always be a gap.
Within three months, Jason was increasingly exhausted. His emphysema worsened and he had difficulty walking the girls to preschool without getting winded. The girls got lice and he couldn't seem to get rid of it although he apparently tried. He was increasingly frustrated with Nicole and Nina and yelled often. Around that time, the biological mom contacted him and wanted to see the girls. The court had told Jason not to permit contact. The biological mom was ordered to file for visitation prior to contact. She was still on drugs and living with a sex offender. Jason later admitted he allowed her to visit two different times. Although he wasn’t supposed to, this infraction wasn’t enough to remove the girls from his care. Jason’s health continued to spiral downward and the girls’ absences at school began to pile up.

The court terminated their case on the girls, finding that Jason had done all that was requested of him to the best of his ability and it was good enough. There was no imminent risk of harm that necessitated the girls’ removal from him. All of the legal parties including the Children’s Services caseworker and GAL agreed. Still, the case that was no longer my responsibility continued to nag me. I had to let it go. There was nothing I could do.
A full year had passed when I opened my email one morning and received a message from Beth Warren. The subject line was in all caps. It read: NICOLE AND NINA ARE HOME with a long trail on exclamation points.

One Sunday morning after the case had closed in court and Children’s Services and all the professionals were gone, the couple from Darryl and Beth’s church, Kevin and Debbie, woke up with an open day before them and a desire to see the girls. On a whim, they decided to drive down into the city to find them. They had met Jason one time when he was visiting and the Warrens had brought him to church. They knew his name and easily found his address as well. They knocked on his door and he opened it, looking haggard and worn and breathing heavily. The girls heard the voice of their friends from church, squealed with delight, and ran to greet them. Upon seeing the girls’ excitement, Jason invited Kevin and Debbie in to visit. They talked for several hours and exchanged phone numbers. They visited several more times over the next couple of months. On one such visit, Jason pulled Kevin aside while Debbie played with the girls. Jason confided the stress of caring for Nicole and Nina proved to be too much for him. His health was deteriorating and he barely had the energy to get out of bed. He also admitted he had started drinking again. With tears streaming down his face, Jason asked Kevin if he and Debbie would be willing to take custody of the girls. He could hardly take care of himself.  He had no family. There was no one else to help him. He didn't want his girls back in the system but just couldn't take care of them the way they needed and deserved.
Before long, Kevin and Debbie sat in a courtroom alongside of Jason and the girls. Beth and Darryl accompanied them as well. The magistrate formalized the adoption arrangement and with the pound of the gavel, Nicole and Nina were officially adopted by Kevin and Debbie.
Later that night, Debbie and Kevin tucked six-year-old Nicole and five-year-old Nina into their beds. Nicole put her two hands on Debbie’s cheeks and pulled her head close.

“Me and Nina are adopted, right?” she asked.
“Yes, you are adopted now and you are going to live here forever,” Debbie told her.

“I get to stay forever?” she questioned.
“Yes, you and Nina get to stay here forever but you can still visit Daddy Jason too. He loves you just like we love you,” Debbie assured her. Nicole’s brilliant blue eyes bore into Debbie’s as if to search for the truth. Seconds passed before Nicole smiled.

“That’s like sunshine,” she whispered in Debbie’s ear. Then she giggled. Debbie hugged her tight.

"That's right," Debbie said. "It is like sunshine. There will be many sunshine days ahead but some raincloud days too. No matter what, I love you."
That night was the first night Nicole slept soundly for a solid ten hours. When she awoke, she ran into Kevin and Debbie’s bedroom.

"I am sunshine today," she announced.

Today, Nicole is ten and Nina is nine. Nicole loves animals and all things purple. Nina excels in sports, especially soccer and basketball. Neither like math but both love to read. Jason visited often after they were first adopted then gradually dropped off after he moved six hours away. He still calls on occasion. There are sunshine days and raincloud days.

Thank God for sunshine.

*As always, all names have been changed to protect identity.