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?

She retreated to her truck, waiting to see whether Cheyenne and John were running late. Caseworkers are used to late clients, and to clients who miss their appointments completely. Susan herself tried to be on time. It was a sign of respect for her clients, who often didn't get it anywhere else. Susan thought she'd crack under the stress some of them endured.

She was amazed by the things her clients had survived. Most were abused themselves, and were only repeating what they learned from their parents. Susan knew some abusers were malicious, and she thought crack addicts were hopeless, ready to abandon their kids and sell their bodies to get one more bowl of the devil's drug. But most of her clients, Susan figured, wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to take care of their kids.

She backed her truck out of the driveway and parked it on the street; she didn't want to flick ash onto the driveway. Three packs of Benson & Hedges were lined up in her armrest, and she kept an open one between her legs.

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

Sure, the job was stressful; missed appointments were the least of it. Sometimes, when a family couldn't be made to work, she had to remove the children. She visited clients in the projects, places where you heard gunshots. Clients yelled at her. And of course they didn't always tell the truth -- nobody was going to say, "Miss CPS social worker, I got drunk and sexually abused my kids today." And the kids themselves weren't easy: Lots of them had medical problems, mental problems, emotional problems. Crack babies cry with high-pitched screams, screams that could drive anybody crazy.

It was almost dark. Nobody had shown up. Susan went home.

February 25: Cheyenne offered a rapid-fire update on Angela's medical condition. One of the holes in the baby's heart had grown bigger, and doctors wanted to do surgery soon; while she was under anesthesia, they might also repair her cleft palate. Cheyenne described making the rounds of Angela's medical team. Her brown accordion file bulged, fatter than ever. She'd need a second one soon.

Angela had started day care, subsidized temporarily by CPS, and Cheyenne had been able to return to work, where John desperately needed her.

Cheyenne and John's dogs burst from a back bedroom, and John shooed them outside. "Hey," he greeted Susan -- polite but distant.

"It shouldn't take long today," she said. "I can wait till you've fed the dogs." He took a seat on the couch.

"You okay with everything?" Susan asked him.

"Soon as we get things straightened out, it'll be all right."

"What if things don't get straightened out?"

"That's what I was working on."

Cheyenne rushed to explain: "It's the business that needs straightening out. That's what he's talking about, not Angela. It's been a whole year that I haven't been able to work, and he feels like I abandoned him."

Susan laughed at that torrent of vicarious words and emotion. Susan looked at John: "Is that true?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Y'all have talked about that?"

"Yeah."

Susan noted that they were under a lot of stress: work problems, financial problems, Angela's hospitalizations. She asked John, "Are you doing anything to relieve that stress?"

"Work."

"That helps you?"

"Helps to get out of the house."

"Are you and Cheyenne arguing more?"

"No," he said. "I have no problem with Angela being here. Angela's a good kid."

They talked a while longer, then Susan climbed the stairs to the nursery, to see the baby one last time. She made sure Cheyenne had her number, and told her to call, anytime.

March 9: The Harris County sheriff's department phoned Susan with an update on its investigation. They'd recently interviewed Angela's godmother, who had mentioned that Angela had new bleeding in the brain.

New bleeding in the brain? New bleeding in the brain?

A caseworker's worst nightmare is this: that she will miss something, some cue, some tip-off, and allow a child to remain in a dangerous home, a place where she might be hurt again, or killed.

Susan wondered: Could the new bleeding be a sign of trauma? Had someone shaken Angela again?

Susan prayed not. She still believed Cheyenne was safe. She really, really wanted to believe it. She hadn't seen warning signs.

But until she was sure, she had to reopen the case.

March 10: Cheyenne, of her own volition, called Susan to give her Angela's medical news, delivered at Cheyenne's usual high speed: On February 26, the day after Susan's last visit, Angela had been hospitalized with pneumonia. The baby looked awful, with feeding tubes in her nose and head. The cardiologists wanted to schedule her heart surgery soon, maybe in a week, but neurosurgery said no, that the hemorrhage in her brain hadn't disappeared. In fact, there was new bleeding, so Angela couldn't take the blood thinners needed for the heart surgery.

Susan told Cheyenne that she'd already heard about the new bleeding, that it could be a sign of abuse and that she had to investigate it.

Cheyenne was angry that the criminal investigation was still dragging on; she was even more annoyed that Susan had reopened the CPS case. By now, shouldn't Susan know that she wouldn't allow Angela to come to harm? Did Susan really suspect her of child abuse?

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