She arrived on a Friday night wearing a polka-dot party dress that was two sizes too big, her hair just washed in a bathroom sink by the CPS caseworker who had been watching her for six hours as calls went out to see if any foster homes could take her. The caseworker had wanted to make her look more presentable, so that when she arrived, we wouldn’t turn her away.
As we filled out placement paperwork in spring 2015, Child Protective Services offered few details but did say the baby was born premature at just 1 pound, 8 ounces and fought for her life in the neonatal intensive care unit for her first three months. The next three were spent with her biological family, who had, according to CPS, violated a plan that was made for them, prompting the department to take custody and put the now 6-month-old baby, Ella (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), in foster care.
Ella was beautiful but stoic, as if already weary from her tumultuous introduction to the world. Other than her party dress, she had few belongings. The items she did have had been hastily stuffed in a trash bag. I ran to the store to get necessities — diapers, formula and wipes — and then we spent the rest of the evening trying to determine the likes, dislikes and quirks of a little girl we had only just met.
In the days that followed, my desk calendar was awash in a rainbow of color-coded appointments, and new characters popped in and out of our lives like a mishmash of exploding jack-in-the-boxes. Some made themselves known only before court hearings, appearing at the last minute in a whirlwind of paperwork, while others visited so regularly they became woven into the tapestry of our everyday lives.
For the next 12 to 18 months, we were told, Ella would likely be with us. What a judge would decide after that was anybody’s guess.
Getting to know you
Ella had been with us for only three days when I first told her I loved her. I was laying her in her crib on her pink-heart-dotted sheet when it just slipped out. Instantly, I felt embarrassed, like an overzealous teenager on a second date.
Who was I to say “I love you” after just three days? But then again, if I didn’t say it, who would?
The truth was, we were all falling in love with her.
I could see it in the way my husband, Patrick, would hold her, her tiny soft cheek pressed against his stubbled one, the same way he had always cuddled our two biological daughters.
I could see it in the way our oldest, then 6, would rush to greet her, speaking in a soft, tender, high-pitched voice I didn’t know she had.
And I could see it in the way our 3-year-old would linger by her bouncer, giggling at her expressions and insisting she help with every task, from changing diapers to offering bottles.
In fact, it was because of our daughters that Ella learned to crawl, and then walk, when she did. Ella simply couldn’t bear not keeping up with them. When she took her first steps, she used them to walk not to me but directly into their waiting arms.
Ella was slow to trust people, but once she decided to let you into her small circle, she rewarded you with the tightest hugs, her arms wrapped firmly around your neck like a little koala bear, and the deepest belly laughs.
Once she could talk, she referred to me by only one name: “Mama.”
A small circle
In addition to our family and the staff at her day care, Ella’s circle included Becky Zeeck, an occupational therapist with Little Tesoros Therapy Services who had been working with her since she was discharged from the neonatal intensive care unit. One day, Zeeck arrived for her weekly appointment with Ella to learn that she had been put in foster care and went through CPS to track her down.
Because she knew Ella, Zeeck, 67, could to shed light on some of our concerns and frustrations. She told us the reason Ella would drink a full bottle and then almost immediately throw the entire thing up was because she, like many preemies, struggled with reflux. She worked with Ella on her muscle tone, giving her instructions and positioning her like a warm yet stern grandmother. When Ella first arrived, she had seemed so fragile to me, but as I watched her work through a difficult session with Zeeck, I realized I was wrong. She wasn’t fragile. She was strong. She was a fighter. Just like she had been since the day she was born.
I had met Ella’s biological parents at weekly visits at the CPS office, and while they would sometimes offer advice or make comments about her appearance that made me defensive, in general they were kind and cordial. And I could tell they really loved Ella.
I knew in my head that reunification with biological family is always CPS’s No. 1 goal and that adoption does not become an option in most emergency placement cases, which occur when a child like Ella is removed from a home and needs a place to go immediately. But still, as I placed a framed picture of her on my desk at work next to the one I kept of Steven, the little boy I met as a child who inspired me to become a foster parent in the first place, my heart couldn’t imagine a time when she wouldn’t be part of our family.
Until a few days later, when I received a call at work from Patrick, who was working from home that day.
“A CPS investigator just knocked on the door,” he said. “We’ve been accused of child abuse.”
Nobody wants to come home to find a CPS investigator at their door, but the idea of allegations being made against us simply had never crossed my mind.
As it turns out, false reports are common.
“It does happen frequently,” said Adrian Lopez, a CPS investigator I shadowed for a different story who was not associated with our case or the allegations. “Sometimes, even if it may be a false report, if we can’t determine if it was a false report by making calls, then we have to go out and make contact with the child, make sure the child is safe.”
Last year, CPS, housed within the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, completed 166,753 investigations that confirmed that 58,664 children were victims of abuse or neglect in the state.
Abuse allegations typically come in through calls made to a statewide intake line and are categorized as Priority 1 or Priority 2 reports. For Priority 1 reports — situations in which a child appears to face an immediate risk of abuse or neglect that could result in death or serious harm — investigations must start within 24 hours. For the remaining Priority 2 reports, like ours, investigations must start within 72 hours.
We will never know who made the allegations against us or what exactly they were aside from them being related to Ella’s medical care. Reports can come from anywhere — frustrated, concerned or malicious family members, law enforcement or even people who might otherwise have privileged communications with a client, such as lawyers, health-care professionals and clergy.
By the time I got home on the day we learned about the allegations, the investigator had left to go see Ella at day care; she interviewed us at our house the next morning.
After the interview, the investigator — who was calm, thoughtful and professional in our interactions — took pictures of Ella and requested a variety of documentation. Not long after, the allegations were “ruled out,” meaning “staff determines that it is reasonable to conclude that the abuse or neglect has not occurred based on the information that is available,” according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Lending a hand
If it weren’t for Grace Kelsoe, our stint as foster parents may have ended the day we learned about the allegations.
Kelsoe, a case manager for our foster care agency, Helping Hand Home, was by my side when I was at my very worst, looking more like a red-faced cartoon character with steam coming out of my ears than a mature, 36-year-old wife and mother. Many of the words I said that day were not fit for small ears.
“We wear many different hats, and we do many different things every single day. We are like therapists to our foster parents at times,” said Kelsoe, 27. “The best way to help the kids is to help the parents. Anything we can do to help the parents feel sane on crazy days, that’s what we need to do.”
Most foster parents get licensed through private agencies like Helping Hand Home that work in partnership with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to find foster and adoptive homes for children.
Though there are a lot of players in CPS cases, including caseworkers, supervisors and lawyers, typically agency case managers like Kelsoe are the only ones invested in the foster parents. Case managers also ensure that foster families get paid; as a foster home with a basic-level child, we received $23 a day.
When you see horror stories in the news about abusive foster homes, many times it’s because an agency wasn’t properly vetting or supporting its families. That’s why Helping Hand requires more than the state minimum for foster parents. They must be 25 years old instead of 21, for example, and put in more training hours than the state mandates.
“For us, it’s having the peace of mind that we know our families so well that we feel like we trust them with these children,” said Kristi Duck, director of Foster and Adoption Services at Helping Hand Home. “You’re not just another family on the roster. We’re going to know your name.”
On any given day, Kelsoe might be placing a child in a new foster home at 3 a.m., taking an abused infant with four broken bones to his first doctor’s appointment or even babysitting toddlers in her office, as she was on a recent weekday, because they hadn’t started day care yet. There is a program through the Texas Workforce Commission that will pay for a child to attend day care if their foster parents work full-time, but it can take weeks for it to go into effect after a placement.
Unlike CPS caseworkers who may be juggling 35 cases or more, Kelsoe’s caseload typically stays under 15. She’s learned to handle most anything. Because she’s so close to her sisters, situations where siblings are separated are always the hardest for her.
“You meet the kids and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are so worthy of love and care. I’m so sorry you were denied that your whole life, but we’re here now and I hope we can help,’” she said.
Not long after the accusations, we were dropping Ella off at her weekly visit with her biological parents when I noticed something in her mom’s hands: an ultrasound picture. She was pregnant. With another little girl.
Compact cars and sippy cups
I wasn’t sure I could handle another baby in the mix.
Three kids was a good number for us. Things were hectic but happy. The feeling I got when the five of us were together was like changing out of stilettos into slippers after a night on the town. Like eating potato soup at Mom’s kitchen table. Like coming home.
Four simply wasn’t part of the plan.
But I was also thinking about sisters. What it meant to grow up with sisters. To raise sisters. To be sisters. I’d watch the girls singing along to the “Elmo’s World” theme song — Ella because she loved it, and our biological daughters because they knew their dance moves would make her laugh — and try to picture them separated. Impossible.
Then again, taking the new baby in — if we were asked — would mean four little girls under the age of 8 under one roof. Life would become a real-life “Cheaper by the Dozen.” I couldn’t even fit four car seats into my Toyota Yaris. And Ella and her sister would only be 14 months apart, which meant double the diapers, double the strollers and double the sippy cups.
Of course, you don’t make life decisions based on compact cars and sippy cups.
The trees turned from green to brown to bare, and before we knew it, Christmas was approaching and the baby was due.
I was pulling into our cul-de-sac after a rare night out with a girlfriend, thinking about the new baby and when she might debut, when a shooting star sailed through the sky above our house. No kidding — just like something out of a movie. Later that day, she was born.
Maybe it had been a sign. Maybe it had been a coincidence. Either way, I decided that if they asked us to take her, we would say yes.
No one had asked us yet, though — there was also a chance the baby would go home with her biological family.
Just before Christmas, we got a call. The baby was ready to be discharged from NICU, and CPS had decided where she should go.
In the next installment of Heartbreak and Hope: A judge decides who will get permanent custody of the girls.
Read the previous installment: A little boy, a promise and a foray into fostering
Becoming a foster parent
In order to become a foster parent, you must be 21 years old, have a valid driver’s license and proof of automobile insurance, be a U.S. citizen or legal resident, have a high school diploma or GED and be able to pass criminal history, child abuse registry and FBI fingerprint checks. You do not have to be married to become a foster parent.
The foster care training process can be rigorous. A sample of what was required of us through Helping Hand Home: a fire and health inspection, CPR and first aid classes, background checks, tuberculosis tests for each member of our family, photos of our home, photos of our family, a copy of our home’s floor plan, an evacuation plan in the event of emergency, verification of our finances, a copy of our house rules, a drug screening for adults in the home, a detailed home study completed by the agency and more than 45 hours of in-person training, typically held on Saturdays.
There are more than a dozen foster care agencies in the Austin area that offer training, including Helping Hand Home (helpinghandhome.org), DePelchin (depelchin.org/austin), A World for Children (awfc.org), the Bair Foundation (bair.org), SAFE (safeaustin.org), Angelheart (angelheartkids.org), Starry (starry.org), Arrow (arrow.org), Settlement Home for Children (settlementhome.org), Presbyterian Children’s Homes (texas.pchas.org) and Upbring (upbring.org). The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services also has resources available at dfps.state.tx.us.