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?

"Okay," Susan said to Star, "last time we were talking about substance abuse. Your favorite was Goldschlager?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"You went to A.A.?"

"I shoot from the hip": CPS caseworker Susan Sciacca.
Deron Neblett
"I shoot from the hip": CPS caseworker Susan Sciacca.

"Mmm-hmm. I was going daily. Now weekly."

"How about drugs?"

"I experimented some in junior high, never really got into it. I never wanted to do acid, had heard scary things about it."

"X?"

"No."

"Cocaine? Speed?"

"No, no. I tried Valiums. And weed, every now and then."

Susan asked about Star's life on the streets. Star talked about living in squats, taking AIDS tests so she could get free pizza, making money by referring other kids to "Pimp Lady," a huge black woman whose trademark shirt read, "Ho Ho Ho." Cheyenne leaned forward, listening close; she'd never heard most of these stories.

"You were never a prostitute?" Susan asked.

"No," said Star.

"Into drugs and alcohol?"

"Every now and then. But not like other kids on the street. I saw one girl, when she was 12 years old, smoking crack."

"She's probably not alive anymore."

"Yes, she is. I saw her. She's living with her mama, out here in the suburbs."

"I believe people can change."

After another 45 minutes of questions, Susan offered her diagnosis. Physical and emotional abuse had left Star with a bad case of low self-esteem, and she'd run away to take control of her life. "On the streets," said Susan, "you're a princess, you're a queen. You're smart compared to these other kids. You felt good about yourself."

Star nodded.

"And then you were smart enough to get away from the street," Susan said. That intelligence is a good sign, she told Cheyenne. "I'd like to see Star get her driver's license and GED. And I don't want to see her be a dancer for the rest of her life. I want her to get a good job."

She also wanted Star to steer clear of the abusive, controlling men she has fallen for, men like Antonio, Angela's father. And in general Star needed to learn to make better choices about the people in her life. Somebody shook Angela -- maybe her dad, maybe the babysitter, who knows? -- but Star was partly responsible. It was her job to screen all the somebodies in Angela's life.

Cheyenne objected: She'd thought about the matter, and she wasn't sure that Angela had been shaken. The doctors had checked for bleeding behind Angela's retinas, a classic sign of shaken-baby syndrome, and hadn't found it. The doctors couldn't swear that Angela's broken ribs and brain hemorrhage had occurred at the same time. And couldn't those injuries somehow be related to Angela's other medical problems?

No, Susan told her, Angela has been abused. Cheyenne held firm. Susan suspected that Cheyenne was in denial but promised to double-check with the hospital anyway.

Upstairs, Angela began crying. Star and Cheyenne put out their cigarettes, and Cheyenne left to comfort the baby.

December 30: This afternoon Star was alone in the house. Cheyenne was trying to catch up on work, doing what she could with Angela in tow. Cheyenne and John run a small business, and during Angela's hospitalization her absence had been sorely felt.

Susan was glad to catch Star alone; she suspected Star might talk more freely without her mother listening. Once again, Star curled into the chair next to the Christmas tree. Her bell-bottoms framed her bare feet, which were pale and soft, like a baby's.

Star was mad at Antonio: Although he'd visited Angela at Christmas, he hadn't stayed long. You don't pay child support, she'd told him. You don't come see your daughter in the hospital. And now you're here only two hours?

"Why is he like that?" asked Susan.

"Because I left him," said Star. "He's mad at me, not her."

Susan told Star about her most recent discussions with the hospital staff. She'd asked if Angela's medical problems could have been misdiagnosed as shaken-baby syndrome, and again the doctors had been adamant: The trauma was "nonaccidental."

"I'm very frustrated," Star said. "Everyone's like, you abused your child, we're taking her away, but nobody can say what happened."

"Well, what do you think happened?" asked Susan. "Something happened. What's your gut feeling?"

Star didn't answer.

Susan plunged on: "I know this is a harsh question, but I shoot straight from the hip. Do you think that, in any way, it was your fault?"

"I thought she was safe," said Star. "I left her with family, friends, her godmother, her godmother's family. I didn't leave her with bad people."

Susan asked whether she might have noticed warning signs about her babysitter Rick. How long had she known him? Wasn't it odd that he was working for so little money? Weren't there danger signals early on, before she fired him? Looking back, did she feel confident letting Rick stay with Angela?

"No," said Star. "Not knowing what I know now." She lit a cigarette.

Susan shifted to a new subject: Why had Star run away from home as a teenager?

"I was rebellious, a teenager. I had a lot of anger."

"Why were you angry at your mom?" Susan asked. "Did you feel she wasn't there for you?"

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