"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Charlie's Angels

About five years ago, I was in the courtroom corridor and got called in because they needed a guardian ad litem for an eleven year old charged with petit larceny and I happened to be handy. He was charged with stealing some electronic gadget from a school mate. He claimed that he had simply been given the item by a friend and didn't realize it was stolen. In court, the police produced a security camera from the school that showed the boy and a couple of his buddies taking the item from the owner's supply bin.

"Charlie" was African American, skinny, small for his age and made absolutely no eye contact. He kept his head firmly on his hand, elbow on the table, looking neither left and right. He appeared to have a speech impediment and was going to classes for the emotionally disturbed. He'd missed most of his classes in the previous month.

Charlie's mother was a junkie (I suspected meth but later learned it was meth and heroin) and was so skinny I was afraid she rip the fabric on the courtroom benches with the sharp edges of her bones. She also had a speech impediment, made no eye contact and talked nonstop as if she were tripping. Waiting for court and in the courtroom, Charlie sat silently without moving more than he had to but his brothers were running wild in the courthouse with no supervision other than mom shouting at them every few minutes. They simply ignored the shouting.

Charlie's father was unknown.

In the back of the courtroom, were Coach "Smith" and his good wife. Charlie played football on Coach's pee wee team and Coach had taken him under his wing. He and his wife had been kind enough to provide transportation for the family to court.

After court, mom was hard to talk to and Charlie was staring off into space. I wondered if he was mentally impaired. He also seemed to be listing when he walked. I exchanged telephone numbers with Coach and his wife but mom's cell was turned off. Charlie was placed on probation and ordered to return to court in about six weeks. I asked for a home study, which was granted. A home study involves having social services visit the home, run a back ground check (criminal and child protective services) on the adults living in the home, and and make recommendations for services.

I spoke to Coach and his wife in a day or so and they shared that Charlie was, essentially, running wild. The mother was stoned most of the time and so they'd tried to keep him involved by allowing him to play football, free (they paid his way). They also supplied his uniform, shoes, etc. They were house parents at a local residential treatment facility for troubled kids and used to dealing with children like Charlie. They had children of their own, still living in the home but believed they had a calling to help children as an extension of their religious faith. They were very respectful of the mother and fearful that if they said the wrong thing, she might decide to yank Charlie from the team.

Within three weeks of that initial court date, Charlie refused to go to school and picked up eight (EIGHT!) new charges. I'd like to say he was an accomplished thief but he clearly was no good at it. When asked why he stole, he would first deny having done it, then finally concede that he did it because he wanted stuff like the other kids. Mom, as I said, did not work and lived on public assistance. By all accounts, she was stoned most of the time and had undesirables in and out of the house on a regular basis. The Smiths and other families kept food in the house, something she freely admitted.

Child Protective Services was apparently okay with that. They suggested Mom take a parenting class and have a substance abuse assessment.

I showed up to court on one of the new charges and begged the Judge to place Charlie in the youth shelter until we could sort things out. His mother was furious at me but the court granted my request. Charlie wasn't any too happy about it either - he'd just turned 12 and was still a baby. He ended up staying at the shelter for several weeks waiting for his next court date. At the shelter, I knew he was safe, was getting counselling, and going to school. The youth shelter is not like a homeless shelter. It is intended as a temporary place for children to stay until the court can make a decision on their placement. They have a nurse, a school on site, counselors, they go on outings, etc. Parents are allowed to visit but Charlie's mom didn't have a car and kept missing the bus.

While Charlie was at the youth shelter, the Smiths called me and asked what they needed to do to become foster parents. They were already house parents for the local residential facility so all the background checks were done. They had to obtain permission from their employer to have a foster child living with them on the premises (which was granted) and the county fast tracked their application. When we went back to court, I argued that Charlie needed to go into foster care. Mom, understandably, was furious. Charlie was scared to death but we stepped outside and made the final arrangements for Charlie to go into foster care and be placed with the Smiths. The mother grudgingly agreed, as did social services.

Charlie couldn't read. He was illiterate. He was very underweight. What he amounted to was a feral child. He had no table manners. Didn't understand having to be on a schedule and wanted to sleep when he wanted, eat when he wanted, etc. He'd never had chores and lied constantly. The Smiths literally had to put things under lock and key because he stole everything that wasn't tacked down. They considered getting a security camera. He'd even steal things he didn't want. He wasn't disrespectful to the Smiths, but it was slow going.

In the beginning, Charlie was allowed to go home with his mother for weekends and for longer periods of time during holidays. Unfortunately, when he would come home to the Smiths his behavior would have deteriorated. He'd be moody, angry, steal more, sometimes he even got mouthy. And he lied a lot. They'd find things he'd stolen hidden away in his room. Stuff he didn't need or want but he stole anyway. He also horded food.

We next went back to court for a foster care review and I was concerned about Charlie's regression and what I suspected was lack of supervision when he was with his mom. By this time, she'd lost custody of two of her remaining three boys. Mom was upset with me because I told her that I was going to ask that any further overnight visitation be stopped. I was going on a hunch and that might not have been enough to pursuade the judge. Charlie, honestly, didn't seem to care one way or the other. But it was hard to tell if that is what he really felt or he just had a hard time expressing himself.

Mom was not one of my biggest fans. She still isn't.

While we were waiting to be called in, a police officer walked by and struck up a conversation with Charlie. I was nearby so I overheard it and realized that this officer had picked up Charlie multiple times in the middle of the night wandering the neighborhood (which was horrible) while he was visiting his mother. He urged me to do what I could to keep Charlie from going back to his mother. Personally, I think Charlie had another angel on his shoulder, that day, and the Court agreed with me upon hearing this information. Overnight visits with the mother stopped. Eventually, social services even stopped unsupervised day visits.

Over time, the Smiths made sure that Charlie got tutoring. They kept him involved in sports, got him to speech therapy, kept him in counseling, and provided supervision between him and his mother. They were saints. Charlie started growing. He was filling out, getting bigger. Getting cocky. He pressed hard to go visit his mother but without fail, when he saw his mother, his behavior completely deteriorated.

Mom continued to get new tattoos. Wouldn't work. Wouldn't get a substance abuse assessment. Wouldn't get a psychological assessment. Lost her Section 8 housing for misconduct. She rarely came to Charlie's school activities or games. As often as not, she would say she was coming and not appear.

After a child has been in foster care for about a year and a half, the federal government says they must have a permanent plan. That could be adoption; living with a relative; returning home; placement in a residential facility because of a severe impairment; independent living; or "permanent" foster care.

Adoption was not a good option because Charlie had three brothers and a relationship with his mother and grandparents. Moreover, at his age, finding an adoptive home would have been disruptive and difficult.

No relative stepped forward.

"Independent living" is available for kids who are sixteen years old but Charlie came into the system so young that he hit the year and a half mark when he wasn't even fourteen.

"Permanent" foster care is not like regular foster care. It is a contract between social services and a specific foster family that ensures they will keep the child until he or she turns eighteen. They don't have parental rights but it is the next best thing. Permanent foster parents can't have the child just yanked from their home and have the legal right to consent for the child to marry or join the military. It is very similar to the types of rights you might see with a grandparent or aunt who has legal custody of a child. Normally, kids don't go into "permanent" foster care until they are a little older than Charlie was.

So anyway, when the year and a half mark came about, the Smiths didn't appear to be an option to become permanent foster parents. As house parents, they lived at the residential facility, albeit in their own house provided by their employer. At that time, they didn't have their employer's permission to have Charlie there, permanently. Moreover, if they took him on as a permanent foster child, and he acted up, they would probably have lost their job - which would mean they'd lose their home, too. So they were faced with allowing Charlie to go back home to his mother, or risk losing their livelihood and home if they became permanent foster parents and Charlie acted up. And about that time, Charlie was doing a lot of acting up.

Throughout all this, the Smiths insisted Charlie was a good boy. Frankly, I wasn't sure I agreed. I worried that it was too late for Charlie.

The Smiths prayed about it, alot. So did I. On my own time, of course.

When we came to the hearing to decide what was going to happen to Charlie, I had few good options. I managed to get the court to delay a decision for a short period of time hoping, in my heart, that the Smiths would see their way to becoming permanent foster parents. I girded my loins with the resolve to fight for adoption rather than send him home. I honestly believed that if Charlie returned to his mother, he would end up in jail or dead. I was skeptical that the court would grant my request, but sending him to live with his mother was not something I could agree to. Better to have the court overrule me than feel like I was a party to stripping that child of any chance at a decent future.

On the eve of the next hearing, the Smiths made the decision to become permanent foster parents. I wanted to cry in relief. The mother didn't really object. The Court ordered that Charlie would stay with them until he is eighteen.

That was two years ago.

I think knowing that he would be staying with the Smiths, permanently, was what turned things around for Charlie. He continued with a tutor and is caught up with his peers, academically. He is in regular school - the same school that one of his brothers also attends. He attends regularly and has a good shot at being on the varsity football team, notwithstanding that he is only a rising sophomore.

I saw him in court, today. He is a big boy, strong, handsome, with a smile that melts you heart. He showed no sign of a speech impediment, made regular eye contact, stands up straight and was charmingly polite the way only a teen aged boy can be. His mother had a new set of tatoos - paw prints marching across her right shoulder. She mainly glared off in the other direction and I noticed that she and Charlie didn't really interact. No touching, no talking. Mrs. Smith respectfully allowed Charlie to interact freely with his mother and grandmother, who also appeared, but I noticed that he tended to sit near Mrs. Smith, given the opportunity.

A group of us all sat around passing the time waiting to be called by the Judge and he shyly admitted that he had a crush on a little girl at school. His mother snapped, "Why would you want to be with a girl your brother already had?" which resulted in a very uneasy silence falling on the courtroom corridor. Charlie looked embarrassed and filled the silence by softly saying, "I just think she's cute. We're just friends, anyway."

Remember, he is just sixteen. His brother is fourteen.

I spoke to Charlie, alone, and asked him how things were going. He just beamed and said, "Perfect." Mrs. Smith assured me that he doesn't steal things, anymore, and that his grades are good. When we went inside the courtroom, Charlie joked with the Judge about being on the football team and they shared some inside yuks because it turns out the Judge went to the same high school. And didn't make the team.

Because he is in permanent foster care, Charlie doesn't go back to court for a year. Since I am closing down my practice, I asked the court to allow me to withdraw. Charlie looked alarmed when I told him (before we went into the courtroom) but in all honesty, I don't see him much. The people carrying the heavy water for Charlie are the Smiths. God bless them.

When Charlie found out I was moving to Oklahoma, some day, he showed interest because his foster brother is a freshman in Kansas. Frankly, considering that I once wondered if he was mentally retarded, I was impressed that he understood that they were neighboring states. Ahem. I'd forgotten that a football fan like Charlie would know all about the Oklahoma Sooners.

I've been closing down my cases and letting them go as they come up on the docket. I don't know why, but this one was particularly hard. I hugged Mrs. Smith when I left and thanked her, for the hundredth time over the years, for giving that boy a future. And I bawled all the way home - from happiness or sadness, I don't know.

No pictures, this time.


Anonymous said...

You made me cry. Bless you for what you've done.

Penny said...

Bless the Smiths.

I wish I could post his picture (but I can't). Big, handsome, smiling young man. Charming, even. And he worships the ground the Smiths walk on.

Anonymous said...

Amazing story!

Thanks for a great job in the telling of it!


Terri said...

You have the most heart-wrenching stories. I don't know how you have done what you do for so many years. Bless you and the Smiths!

Miriam said...

I was in tears at the end of this post too.

Bless all of Charlie's Angels

Stephanie D. said...

God must have some really big plans for that boy. Bless everyone involved in his life.