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?

You won't help Star get her GED and license? asked Cheyenne.

No, said Susan. She assured them that they could call her anytime; she just wouldn't be coming around. But Cheyenne and Star looked disappointed. After months of resenting CPS's intrusions, now they didn't want Susan to leave.

After two hours, still with no resolution, Susan handed the power-of-attorney document to Cheyenne. Maybe Star would want to sign it later.

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

February 1: Finally! Susan thought. Resolution! On the phone Cheyenne had told her the big news: Star had checked into an alcohol halfway house for 90 days and had signed the temporary-custody agreement before she left.

Susan expected this to be a cleanup visit, literally and figuratively: She was meeting Cheyenne at Star's apartment, and they'd talk while Cheyenne packed Star's possessions.

The long-dead Christmas tree had been moved outside to Star's balcony. Inside, Angela was asleep in the crib.

Cheyenne told Susan about the halfway house: It offered job training, counseling, help finding a place to live. Star can use all that, Cheyenne said, even if she's not an alcoholic.

Susan was alarmed: "You don't think she's an alcoholic?"

"John thinks she has a drinking problem. I think she's influenced by her friends. She can come to my house and not drink for days."

"You allow her to drink at your house? Even though she's underage?"

"She's had a beer at my house before."

The phone rang, waking Angela. While Cheyenne answered the phone, Susan fetched the baby for her. Angela kicked her rubbery legs, delighted to be in her grandma's lap.

After Cheyenne hung up, Susan returned to the topic. "If Star doesn't have an alcohol problem, why are you okay with her going into the halfway house? And don't you feel that by allowing her to drink, you're not setting boundaries?"

"I don't think we can set boundaries with Star. It's too late."

Susan turned the subject to custody: How hard would Cheyenne hold on to Angela? What if Star said she wanted her back, but Cheyenne wasn't convinced that Star was ready? And -- back to alcohol -- how would Cheyenne know that Star wasn't drugging or boozing?

"Star talks to me," Cheyenne said. "When she was doing drugs, she came to us and said, 'Hey, I'm on cocaine. I'm gonna die.' "

A red flag: This was the first Susan had heard about cocaine. "When was that?"

"Two and a half, three years ago. She checked into rehab but didn't stay."

Susan was worried. Not only had Star lied, but Cheyenne might not notice if her daughter's addictions returned. "Look," she said, "my straight-up assessment is this: If she says she has an alcohol problem, she's at least on her way to that. And it seems likely given her life experience, being on the streets, dancing in a bar. A lot of those women can't take their clothes off unless they're buzzed."

Cheyenne nodded. "I think she probably drank while she danced."

"A majority of alcoholics are functional. She could have a dependence on alcohol that you don't know about. You have to watch for that."

Susan turned to the loose ends she'd expected to tie up. What if Cheyenne still has Angela when Angela is a rebellious teenager? Does Cheyenne feel able to set boundaries now? Better boundaries than the ones she set for Star? Or would she send Angela away, as she'd sent away Star and her sister?

Cheyenne's answers were all the right ones: She was older and wiser now; she was willing to be the adult Angela needed.

February 11: The halfway house had transformed Star into a morning person. At 9:30 a.m. she emerged bright-eyed, radiant, wearing shoes. Outside, on the little cement porch, she told Susan how excited she was, how good this place was, how ready she was to start her life all over. Birds were singing. The sky was clear. Beside the porch, a little azalea had burst into bloom.

The only thing wrong with her life, said Star, was that she's not with Angela.

Susan talked sternly to Star about her cocaine use, about how she'll always have to monitor her addictions. Then she told Star good-bye, maybe for the last time. Susan wished her luck, told her to keep in touch, to call anytime. She meant it.

February 14: Cheyenne's truck wasn't in the driveway, and Susan was worried that she and John had forgotten their four-thirty appointment. This visit, supposed to be her first long talk with John, wasn't really about CPS concerns. John's criminal history, a 20-year-old arrest for a minor fracas, didn't worry her, and Susan believed that Angela was safe with Cheyenne, that the risk had been reduced, that at last the case could be closed.

As Susan saw it, this visit was mainly for her own peace of mind. She needed to believe that she'd done everything she could.

Nobody answered the doorbell. Susan dialed Cheyenne's home number; inside the house, the phone rang unanswered. She tried Cheyenne's cell phone; no luck there, either. At four thirty-five she left a note on the door.

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