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 nodded.

"You told her that? She needs to know."

Star nodded again. "I did it a couple of weeks ago, in the car. She cried. She said she made the best decisions she could at the time. As a mother, I understand that now. I made the best decisions I could for my daughter. ButŠ" She shrugged.

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

"I think your running away was more than typical teen behavior," Susan said. "All these different caregivers let you down. You didn't have stability. You didn't have role models. Do you want your mom to be a mom? Do you want her to be a mother figure in your life?"

"She's doing good being a grandma."

"Making up, you think?"

"Taking care of Angela, she's lost time at work, almost lost the house, the company. But she was good at it. It hurt me, after Angela got used to being with her. Angela would cry when she left the room. I'd be holding Angela, and she'd reach for my mom."

"Girl, CPS is not a fun thing to have in your life. But it can be a good thing."

The talk turned back to Antonio, to the way that at first he was sweet to Star, wanted to take care of her. He didn't want her hanging around other dancers; they were sluts and cokeheads, might lead her astray.

"Didn't that set off bells in your head?" Susan asked. "That controlling behavior?"

"For the first time in a long time, I had somebody looking out for me."

Susan leaned forward, excited: "You wanted somebody to take care of you."

Star nodded. Antonio didn't get mad when her home pregnancy tests came out positive. She was two months pregnant then. He fussed over her and brought her things to eat. He didn't beat her up, not until he tried to choke her in the H.E.B. The time he threw a tequila bottle didn't count; the bottle missed her.

"That is abuse," Susan said. "What if he'd hit you? Didn't he mean to hit you? Girl, that's how domestic abuse starts. It only gets worse."

January 4, 2000: Star was smoking on the balcony of her apartment, next to her front door. It was coat weather, but Star was barefoot. When she finished the cigarette, she headed inside, readier to face an apartment full of people.

At the kitchen table, beside the Christmas tree, Susan and her boss were talking with Cheyenne and examining Angela. Susan's supervisor, Sherryl Becker, didn't have an iota of the goody-goody air you expect of social workers. She was dressed all in black, and her blond hair hung below her waist. Even when she cooed at Angela, her voice sounded deep. She projected authority, perhaps because she was drawing on her expertise: congenital problems caused by drug and alcohol abuse. Sherryl had seen lots of babies like Angela -- babies with high foreheads, flat cheeks and noses, extraordinary flexibility and problems gaining weight. Babies with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Star said she drank only one or two beers and stopped cold once she found out she was pregnant. Sherryl explained that there's no threshold for fetal alcohol, no acceptably low number of drinks. She wanted a geneticist to examine Angela.

Susan asked Star, again, whether she thought Antonio could have shaken Angela. Star said no: "I don't want it to be him."

Cheyenne still wasn't convinced that anyone had shaken Angela. This time it was Sherryl who insisted that Angela was shaken, that the injuries spoke for themselves: "In the system I work in, people don't just say, 'Oh, by the way, I injured a child.' "

During the conversation, Star leafed through Angela's scrapbook, pausing occasionally to show photos: Star, vastly pregnant, smiling; "Baby Comes Home," with tiny Angela still bruised from IVs; the crowded one-room apartment that Angela came home to.

A scrapbook, Star seemed to be saying: Would a scrapbooking mother drink while pregnant? Would she abuse her child? Isn't it obvious that I love Angela?

But love wasn't the issue; safety was. For Star to get Angela back, Sherryl said, CPS would have to feel sure that Angela would be safe, her environment stable. "What do you think you need to do?" she asked Star.

Get subsidized day care for Angela, Star said; get a GED; get child support from Antonio. They discussed programs Star and Angela might qualify for: social security, food stamps. Star didn't want to accept handouts, but Cheyenne goaded her: What's more important, she asked, your pride or your daughter?

A friend of Star's knocked at the door; she'd come to retrieve a pair of pants that Star had borrowed. All smiles and high-pitched laughter, the two retreated to Star's bedroom. They looked like kids escaping a dull grown-up conversation.

"How old is your daughter?" Sherryl asked Cheyenne.

"Nineteen."

"How old do you think she is emotionally?"

"Sixteen."

"Do you think she can provide sufficient care for Angela?"

"I see a lot of work ahead."

January 11: Cheyenne held Angela in one arm, and with her free hand, laid the subpoenas on her coffee table for Susan to examine. Both Cheyenne and Star had been summoned to appear before a grand jury in a week, to answer questions about Angela's injuries. In her steno book, Susan copied phone numbers for the lawyers and detectives involved.

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