“Jingle Bells” was playing in the background as I cut the hospital bracelet from her tiny wrist.
The discounted red holiday dress — a satin-and-crinoline concoction that was the only thing we could find left in her size — looked better suited for a doll than a newborn, and as we sifted through a bin of stockings in search of one with her initial on it — B, for Bailey — I noticed Valentine’s candies were already starting to push their way into the aisles.
When CPS asks you to take a new baby two days before Christmas, Pinterest aspirations go out the window.
My husband and I were already raising our two daughters, then 7 and 4, and were foster parents to Bailey’s 14-month-old biological sister, Ella (the girls’ names have been changed in this story to protect their identities). Although we never anticipated having four wild little girls, we soon found it difficult to imagine life any other way.
Bailey was a little ray of sunshine bursting through the storm cloud of a pending CPS case, a baby who, unlike Ella, learned to smile quickly and rarely felt the need to cry. Ella regarded her new sister with skepticism, offering confused but gentle kisses and taking cues from our biological daughters on how to act now that she was no longer the youngest.
I, too, worked to adjust to my new role as a mom of four, which included sleeping in two-hour increments, researching minivans at 4 a.m. and searching constantly for my keys, which were invariably still in the front door where I had left them the night before. It was juggling work and day care and doctor’s appointments and visits with their biological parents and counting to make sure four kids were in the car before we went anywhere. It was chaos, but for the most part, it was happy chaos.
Shortly after Bailey was born, she and Ella were appointed a new CPS caseworker, who stood in our living room on a brilliant winter afternoon and told us the department’s plan had changed from family reunification to nonrelative adoption — in other words, CPS thought the best outcome for the girls at that point in time would be for us to adopt them.
Plans can change, and we were only nine months into a possible 12- or 18-month-long case, but to us it was a confirmation of something we already knew — that these two little girls who happened to share a last name with the little boy who inspired me to be a foster parent in the first place would complete our family.
The best-laid plans
The girls’ caseworker didn’t visit again for four months — caseworkers are expected to see children monthly — but she called before the next court hearing in April to tell us CPS’s plan of nonrelative adoption remained the same. She told me to feel free to bring a recent picture of the girls so we could show the judge how well they were doing.
On April 15, 2016 — almost exactly a year after Ella arrived at our door — I confidently walked into court in my business-casual skirt and top, my hand clutching one of the professional family photographs we had recently taken, four little girls beaming in brand new Gap outfits against a Hill Country sunset sky.
No one asked to see my picture.
From a bench in the courtroom, I watched as the caseworker and her supervisor stood to address the judge, saying that because the girls’ biological parents were doing so well, CPS was changing the plan back to family reunification. They also asked the judge to grant a six-month extension in the case so that the parents had more time to finish what they needed to do.
My head was spinning. We hadn’t seen the girls’ caseworker in months, and nearly all of my calls, texts and emails to her had gone unanswered. How could she speak to the best interest of the girls if she hadn’t seen them? And why would she tell me the plan was for us to adopt if she knew it had changed?
By the time I left the courtroom, I was frantic. There were two calls I needed to make.
Calling for backup
The first call I made was to CASA of Travis County to find out how we could get a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, added to our case. A CASA is a volunteer appointed by a judge to look out for and speak to the best interests of an abused or neglected child.
“Our job is to go out and get all of the information we can and present to the court the best, most informed recommendations that we can possibly develop in order for the judge ultimately to make a determination as to what happens with this child and this family,” said Laura Wolf, executive director of CASA of Travis County. “We do all of that work by relying on and recruiting, screening, training, supporting and guiding community volunteers to be those advocates.”
While legal parties such as CPS and the lawyers for the family might have their own obligations and motivations, a CASA’s sole job is to say what they think is best for the kids, offering another set of eyes and ears in a case.
Because there are not enough CASAs to serve every child who needs one in the county, the priority typically goes to children who are at least 5 years old and their younger siblings, if they have any; cases that are being transferred to Travis County from other jurisdictions; and any child who is involved in the juvenile justice system.
“If there’s any other case that doesn’t fall into the criteria that the judge really feels like, ‘Oh, this case is a mess and I foresee some real challenges, I need a CASA on this case,’ we will also take those cases,” Wolf said.
I asked the girls’ attorney to make a request for a CASA, which she did. The judge approved. Within weeks, CASA was on the case.
Defining our rights
The second call I made the day of the hearing was to Denise Hyde, an Austin attorney who is a well-known advocate for foster parents in the city. If you are considering getting legally involved in a CPS case, Hyde and her partner, Rob Galvin, are the team you want.
Hyde, who has three generations of adoptions in her family, said her interest in family law is personal.
“I was going through a divorce and realized I needed to find something to do that would take care of my daughter and me, and I’d always been interested in the field of law,” Hyde said. “She started kindergarten and I started law school all in the same week.”
In her early days as a lawyer, Hyde accepted court appointments and realized she wanted to specialize in the area of child welfare. Now she’s a regular fixture at foster parent trainings around town and also chair of the Austin Bar’s Adoption Day Committee.
“We’re talking about these children and these families and their future,” said Hyde, who keeps in her office a basket she needlepointed with the word “joy” that’s filled with Christmas cards and graduation notices from families she helped create through adoption. “It’s generations. It’s not just what’s here today or tomorrow. It’s much bigger than that.”
During an hourlong appointment in her downtown office, Hyde walked me through what the process would be if we decided to get legally involved in the case. Foster parents typically have no legal rights but may file for an intervention, which makes them a legal party, if they have had a foster child in their home for at least 12 months. Ella had been with us just over a year at that point. Hyde was measured and informative, offering a timeline of when we would need to file but also cautioning me on the risk of trying to fight biological parents.
“We turn down a lot of cases where the (biological) parents are doing what they need to be doing,” Hyde said. “We understand the heartbreak, the concern and the worry. But if the parents have done what they need to do to get these children back, generally speaking this system works because parents are given (that) opportunity.”
Dare to dream
A few days later, I had a dream.
I was standing in a field in front of two chalk-lined lanes, and next to me was the girls’ biological mother. CPS had told Ella, who was standing on the other side of the lanes, to run to the person she wanted to live with.
Spectators holding bags of popcorn and jumbo-size pickles cheered as though we were at an elementary school field day. Ella looked our way and started to toddle.
She toddled and toddled and toddled. Then, she ran right into my arms, where I squeezed her tight and wouldn’t let go.
I woke up slowly, eyes still shut, savoring the knowledge that everything was right in the world. She had picked me.
And then I realized it had been a dream. That nothing was right. And all of a sudden my eyes were wide open.
What she didn’t know
Time was ticking down. By early fall, it was clear the girls would be going back, on a trial basis, to their mom.
We could choose to intervene and fight the decision in court, but because all the parties agreed on reunification by this point — including people we trusted, like our CASA — if we took it to trial, we could spend tens of thousands of dollars and still lose.
We’d have to trust the system and give their mom a chance, a chance I could admit she deserved after doing everything CPS had asked.
But it was so hard. Especially since our caseworker discouraged communication between their mom and me.
How would their mom know Ella can’t fall asleep unless her sound machine is on, but that the wave setting is too intense — that she has to have the babbling brook so she’s lulled to sleep with the likes of flitting minnows and thirsty deer?
Or that she won’t eat dinner unless Elmo is sitting in her highchair with her so he can sample everything on the menu?
Or that she’ll never tire of singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but she likes it best when you sing it in a deep voice like Darth Vader?
And how would she know that Bailey loves Cheerios but will eat exactly eight before she excitedly flings the rest of the bowl on the floor?
Or that she’s so proud of her newest accomplishment, sitting up by herself on the floor of the playroom, because it makes her feel like a big girl like her sisters?
Most of all, how would their mom know how much we love them, too?
Visitors to the Circle C Child Development Center who happened to peer through the window of the toddler classroom on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2016, might have been shocked by what they saw.
Five adults, standing inside a room decorated with jubilant frogs and little-handprint rainbows, sobbing.
We were fortunate to get the girls into this day care, a place where the staff had nurtured our biological daughters as they grew from toddlers into kindergartners and had loved Ella and Bailey with the fierceness they deserved.
They had fretted with us about Ella’s early health issues, celebrated with us as the girls achieved new milestones and worried with us as the case turned a direction none of us wanted it to go. On the day the girls walked through the doors for the last time, they cried with us, too.
A few hours later, as a van pulled away from our house with Ella and Bailey inside, it felt like my heart had been packed in a suitcase and stowed alongside them. How could you raise one baby for 17 months and another since birth and watch them disappear around the corner and out of your life?
I had never known heartbreak like this.
I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between saying encouraging things to our biological daughters like, “It’s for the best!” and, “We always knew they might be leaving!” and locking myself in the bathroom so they wouldn’t see my tears as I tried to figure out how I would ever get over the magnitude of this loss.
And then my phone rang. It was Ella and Bailey’s mom. And she had a question.
In the final installment of Heartbreak and Hope: Family members contemplate an unlikely alliance.
Previously in this series
In Part 1, Finan explained how a little boy she met as a teenager inspired her to become a foster parent. Part 2 chronicled the family’s first months with a new foster child. Look for the final installment next week. Read the series at mystatesman.com/fostercare.
How to help
Carrying Hope: After watching foster children arrive to her door with nothing, reporter Kristin Finan co-founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Carrying Hope, that makes Hope Packs filled with comfort items and essentials for children who are entering the foster care system. Learn more at carryinghope.com.
CASA of Travis County: Court Appointed Special Advocates of Travis County is in need of volunteers to advocate for abused or neglected children. In order to become a CASA, you must be 21 and pass extensive reference, Child Protective Services, sex offender registry and criminal background checks. You may not be a current foster parent or be in the process of adopting a child from Child Protective Services. If you are an attorney, you may not concurrently be appointed to any cases involving Child Protective Services in Travis County. Learn more at casatravis.org/volunteer.
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.