Saving Baby Angela

An infant with two fractured ribs and bleeding on the brain. A teenage single mom with no high school diploma. Grandparents with a business to keep afloat. Can CPS find a stable home for Angela Delacourt?

Star answered the door. Though she'd kept her apartment, she was spending much of her time here, at her mom's house, with Angela. China-doll pale, her hair striped three shades of blond, Star radiated a Lolita vibe, both sexy and childlike, knowing and innocent. She wasn't expecting Susan; she mistook her for the Early Childhood Intervention therapist that CPS had arranged to visit Angela. "Mom," Star yelled, "there's somebody here for you."

"Actually," said Susan, "I'm here for you."

In the living room Susan explained her mission to Star and Cheyenne. First, it was her job to see that Angela was safe. Second, she wanted to help Star provide for her daughter's needs. "I shoot from the hip," Susan said -- one of her stock phrases. Cheyenne liked that: She, too, is outspoken, a direct, call-it-as-I-see-it type.

Sherryl Becker, Susan's supervisor: "In the system I work in, people don't just say, 'Oh, by the way, I injured a child.' "
Deron Neblett
Sherryl Becker, Susan's supervisor: "In the system I work in, people don't just say, 'Oh, by the way, I injured a child.' "
Angela's unusual flexibility: Did it signal fetal alcohol syndrome?
Deron Neblett
Angela's unusual flexibility: Did it signal fetal alcohol syndrome?

Susan's first order of business was simply to find out what was going on, to double-check the specifics of the case and to compile a "genogram" -- that is, a detailed look at the family's psychological history, a starting point from which all her other work would follow. It's awkward, asking a near-stranger about her most private life, about her worst moments as a human being and a parent. Susan asks those questions directly, treating drug history and sex abuse as matter-of-factly as a date of birth or number of siblings. Usually the genogram conversations sprawl, touching on a theme, then looping back to it later. During those times, Susan listens for contradictions. It's human nature for a client to cast her life in the best possible light, but it's Susan's job to look for the shadows.

In brief: Star's father had physically abused Cheyenne, and after the divorce, turned his rage on Star. He once kicked her in the kidney so hard that she was hospitalized. He then lost custody of Star and her sister, but Cheyenne wasn't able to support herself, much less her daughters. The girls bounced from relative to relative. Star was dyslexic; while she lived with an aunt and uncle, they called her stupid, and said that she was like her mother.

Cheyenne was putting her life back together. She married John, her current husband, and immersed herself in her business. Star, by then a rebellious teenager, returned to her mother's house but felt that she was low on Cheyenne's list of priorities. Star began running away from home, living mostly on the streets of Montrose.

At 17 she and a friend left for Austin, where Star began what she calls, ironically, "my wonderful dance career." She moved in with Antonio, one of the strip club's bouncers, and had been living with him nearly a year when she accidentally got pregnant. Angela was born in March '99. Star, sleep-deprived and stressed out, resumed dancing six weeks later, around the same time Antonio tried to choke her. They were in an H.E.B., buying formula for Angela.

In July, Star left both Austin and Antonio. She and Angela moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Houston, not far from Cheyenne's house. Star developed a drinking problem (she liked Goldschlager) and found work at a topless club in Houston. She hired Rick, a student, to stay with Angela, and paid him ten or 15 bucks a night, roughly a dollar or two an hour. At some point in October, around the time Angela was injured, Star fired Rick after she came home and found Angela naked, sleeping in her own feces and urine. Star quit dancing to stay home with the baby. Now she couldn't pay her rent.

Normally Susan wraps up a getting-to-know-you interview in a single meeting, over a couple of hours, but Star and Cheyenne were talkers, prone to tangents and eager to explain all the facets of Star's complicated life. By the time Susan called it quits for the evening, she was barely half finished with her assessment. She at least didn't believe that Cheyenne had shaken Angela; she couldn't rule out the possibility, but it seemed unlikely, and Angela appeared safe with her.

She couldn't be sure about Star: maybe, maybe not. In a way, Susan's job would have been easier had Star shaken her daughter and admitted it readily. At least then Susan would have known clearly where things stood, and could have worked with Star on managing anger and reducing stress. But instead of a problem, Susan faced a mystery: What, exactly, had happened to Angela? Who hurt her? How could CPS be sure it wouldn't happen again?

December 21: At 9 a.m. Susan rang Cheyenne's doorbell. No answer.

She knocked, five times, loud.

Still no answer. She began to worry. Was Star skipping the appointment?

Susan pulled a cell phone out of her bag, dialed Cheyenne's number and heard the phone ring inside the house. Star answered. "Hey," said Susan, relieved. "I'm outside knocking."

A minute later Star opened the door. Sleepy-eyed and barefoot, she apologized for oversleeping. The night before, she said, she'd been up late with her mom, wrapping Christmas presents.

Star curled into a chair beside the Christmas tree, knees drawn up protectively in front of her body. Cheyenne also materialized, apologizing for her just-out-of-bed hair. She sat on the couch, with a view of Susan, but with the Christmas tree between her and Star.

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