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On the freeway, Susan Sciacca left the driver's-side window open an inch while she smoked, a cartoon air freshener dangling from her rearview mirror: Taz, the Tasmanian devil, a combination of energy and chaos. Susan, herself all energy, gravitates toward chaos: She'd been a caseworker for Children's Protective Services for five years, and was now assigned to Family Based Safety Services, the high-intensity program to repair dangerous families. "Meaty" was how she described her latest case, Angela Delacourt's: lots of issues, lots of mysteries.
On November 1, Star Thomas and her mother, Cheyenne Adams, had brought Angela, Star's seven-month-old, to the emergency room of Texas Children's Hospital. Angela had always been a fragile baby -- she'd been born with three holes in her heart, a cleft soft palate and extremely poor muscle tone -- and now Star and Cheyenne were worried about her persistent cough. They were right to worry: Angela, said the doctors, was suffering both bronchitis and pneumonia.
But an even more alarming diagnosis soon followed. Angela's chest X ray revealed two recent rib fractures, and a CT scan showed a bilateral subdural hemorrhage -- basically, bleeding in Angela's brain. The two injuries pointed toward shaken-baby syndrome. Sometime in October, the doctors believed, someone had squeezed Angela's tiny rib cage and jerked her back and forth, probably for a matter of seconds, probably to stop her from crying. Shaken babies suffer brain damage of varying kinds and degree: Brain cells can be killed directly, by the trauma itself, or indirectly, by a related lack of oxygen and swelling of the brain. It's estimated that 20 percent of shaken babies die soon after the incident; others sink into comas, or are paralyzed or mentally impaired. For once in her short life, Angela seemed lucky.
When CPS receives an especially dangerous-sounding report, the agency assigns it to the Intensive Investigative Team. The team immediately dispatched a caseworker to Angela's hospital room, and Molly Herrington, the caseworker's supervisor, didn't like what she heard. The sheriff's department considered both Star and Cheyenne suspects in the baby's shaking. Star radiated "risk factors": She was 19, a former topless dancer, unemployed and separated from Angela's father. She was low on money and prospects, without a GED or even a driver's license. Worse, the investigator didn't think she seemed firmly bonded to Angela -- and a young mother, under significant stress, is especially likely to abuse a child she hasn't bonded with. Had Molly Herrington been forced to make a decision then, she would have advocated "pickup," taking Angela into CPS custody and placing her with a foster family.
But Angela, recovering from pneumonia, spent ten days in the hospital, and that time worked to the family's advantage. Cheyenne and Star cooperated with caseworkers for both the hospital and CPS, and the caseworkers liked what they observed. Cheyenne, 39, appeared deeply concerned about her granddaughter, and organized, too: She kept Angela's records in a fat brown accordion file. (The other prime suspect in Angela's shaking, a babysitter named Rick, refused to meet with a CPS investigator.)
Angela's case, like most child abuse cases, involved a large gray area of uncertainty. Harris County CPS investigates roughly 100 reports of abuse each day. A few of those cases are clear-cut: In about 3 percent the danger is so obvious that CPS immediately removes children from the home; other cases are dismissed as frivolous reports. The rest of the cases are considered by a "triage" team, a panel of experienced social workers. In Angela's case, the team decided not to pick her up -- at least not yet, not if another arrangement could be worked out. Angela was a good candidate for "family preservation."
Since the early '80s protective agencies across the country have adopted the philosophy that whenever possible children should be left with their families, and those families shored up by intensive attention from caseworkers like Susan. Family preservation is highly cost-effective -- much cheaper than the alternative, foster care -- but obviously it's a tricky business, with the highest of stakes. Judge a family too harshly, and the child will be traumatized by removal from her home; judge a family too leniently, and she could be reinjured, even killed.
Immediately after the hospital discharged Angela, Cheyenne drove Star and the baby to Herrington's office. There, Cheyenne and Star signed a "family safety plan." CPS agreed not to take custody of Angela, pending further investigation, but only if Cheyenne would become her granddaughter's chief caregiver and constant guardian until the agency was convinced that Angela was safe with her own mother. Star could still visit Angela, but only if Cheyenne were there to chaperone.
Star was devastated. Cheyenne was angry.
And Susan Sciacca, of CPS Unit 91, was assigned the case. A meaty one.
December 16, 1999: Cheyenne lives in a middle-class house in a middle-class suburb, a place where kids ride bikes on streets named after trees. Wooden elves and reindeer sprouted from the yards; strings of Christmas lights waited for darkness.
It was Susan's last appointment for the day, and she braced herself. On the phone, Cheyenne and Star had sounded guarded, a natural reaction. Clients never welcome CPS into their lives, roll out the red carpet for the caseworker, say, hey, come in, join us for dinner, we're delighted your agency believes we're unfit parents.