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?

"Are you willing to go to boot camp to get your life back together?" Susan asked Star. "I see you as a typical 19-year-old: You have friends, you like to go out, you like to party. But the second you had that baby, you gave that up. My point is this: You do have a choice. If you want to get Angela back, you've got to prove that you can get your life together, give up those 19-year-old things, be an adult -- prove it to CPS and prove it to yourself. It's gonna be work. Are you willing to do that? You want time to think about it?"

Star sounded thoughtful: "I don't think I can care for Angela and get my life together. I'd be setting myself up for failure."

"So what's your options?"

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

"Can I get another cigarette?"

They talked for hours more. Star still wasn't sure what she'd do next. She and Cheyenne agreed that no, Star couldn't possibly live with Cheyenne and be in the same house as Angela grew up; the arrangement just wouldn't work. Susan wondered silently why they said that -- whether maybe Star fought with Cheyenne's husband, John.

At 6:45 p.m. Susan left a list of CPS-approved day cares with Cheyenne, and said she'd check on a temporary subsidy. It was dark as she drove home, and she hadn't eaten all day.

January 25: Cheyenne, holding Angela, answered the door of Star's apartment. The Christmas tree still stood in the dining room.

The last two weeks had been hectic even by Cheyenne's standards, and she'd kept Susan up-to-date via phone: Star had passed a lie-detector test and didn't have to appear before the grand jury; Star's landlord was on the verge of evicting her; and perhaps most important, Star had almost decided to sign over custody.

And today Cheyenne had a new victory to report: an important piece of Angela's medical puzzle. A geneticist had said that the baby's condition wasn't fetal alcohol; instead, he suspected something called Stickler's syndrome, a genetic glitch that affects one in 10,000 people. From the fat brown accordion file of Angela's medical information, Cheyenne pulled pages of Stickler's information printed from the Internet. Susan read it with interest. Some of the symptoms precisely described Angela: her heart problems, cleft palate, wide eyes and flat facial features, her amazing flexibility and unusually soft skin. The geneticist had videotaped Angela and had shown the film to 20 colleagues; all agreed that she should be tested.

Not all the news was good -- Medicaid won't pay for the test, and if Angela did have Stickler's, she was at risk to develop arthritis, and vision and hearing problems. But at last there was a medical theory that made sense of things, that explained her problems and predicted the future. Susan praised Cheyenne's research.

Cheyenne had asked the geneticist whether Stickler's might somehow explain Angela's broken ribs. He'd replied no, that it shouldn't affect her bones. Now, for the first time, Cheyenne seemed ready to consider the possibility that Angela was shaken, that maybe Antonio had hurt her when Star had visited him in Austin.

Star sat cross-legged on her futon, cradling Angela in her lap. It was a good day for Star, too: Over the weekend, she'd attended a "life training" class, a hard-core combination of group therapy and good advice. The class stressed the importance of self-discipline, of taking responsibility, of dealing with anxiety and facing trauma that you'd rather ignore. Star learned to meditate. She learned to release her anger. Today, she felt ready to take on the world, ready to start getting her life back together.

Susan pulled out a typed custody agreement with blanks for Star's and Cheyenne's signatures.

"I don't want to sign that," Star said.

Susan was stunned: "You don't?"

"I don't."

"You're fixing to be homeless."

"But I can get a job."

"If you want to do that, and keep your daughter, I can help you. I'll meet with you every day. It'll take a lot to get me out of your life, but we can do that."

"But I want Angela to stay with my mom till I'm stable."

"That is temporary custody. See what I'm saying?"

"No."

Star held fast. Susan phoned her boss, and Sherryl recommended that they discuss the terms of the custody, the conditions under which Cheyenne would give Angela back. What would Star's life have to look like? How long would it take her to achieve the stability Angela needed?

Star vacillated: Yes, she could get her life together in two weeks -- a driver's license, a GED, a job, a home. Or maybe it would take three months, and then she could take care of her daughter. Or maybe longer; she didn't want to set herself up to fail.

Susan pressed for a decision, a time line: "I need to know today, before I leave, where we're going with this family."

The conversation circled without closure. They talked about what the custody might look like, how Star could remain a part of her daughter's life. For the first time Cheyenne and Star realized that if Star relinquished custody, Susan would exit their lives.

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