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?

On the freeway, Susan Sciacca left the driver's-side window open an inch while she smoked, a cartoon air freshener dangling from her rearview mirror: Taz, the Tasmanian devil, a combination of energy and chaos. Susan, herself all energy, gravitates toward chaos: She'd been a caseworker for Children's Protective Services for five years, and was now assigned to Family Based Safety Services, the high-intensity program to repair dangerous families. "Meaty" was how she described her latest case, Angela Delacourt's: lots of issues, lots of mysteries.

On November 1, Star Thomas and her mother, Cheyenne Adams, had brought Angela, Star's seven-month-old, to the emergency room of Texas Children's Hospital. Angela had always been a fragile baby -- she'd been born with three holes in her heart, a cleft soft palate and extremely poor muscle tone -- and now Star and Cheyenne were worried about her persistent cough. They were right to worry: Angela, said the doctors, was suffering both bronchitis and pneumonia.

But an even more alarming diagnosis soon followed. Angela's chest X ray revealed two recent rib fractures, and a CT scan showed a bilateral subdural hemorrhage -- basically, bleeding in Angela's brain. The two injuries pointed toward shaken-baby syndrome. Sometime in October, the doctors believed, someone had squeezed Angela's tiny rib cage and jerked her back and forth, probably for a matter of seconds, probably to stop her from crying. Shaken babies suffer brain damage of varying kinds and degree: Brain cells can be killed directly, by the trauma itself, or indirectly, by a related lack of oxygen and swelling of the brain. It's estimated that 20 percent of shaken babies die soon after the incident; others sink into comas, or are paralyzed or mentally impaired. For once in her short life, Angela seemed lucky.

"I shoot from the hip": CPS caseworker Susan Sciacca.
Deron Neblett
"I shoot from the hip": CPS caseworker Susan Sciacca.
Sherryl Becker, Susan's supervisor: "In the system I work in, people don't just say, 'Oh, by the way, I injured a child.' "
Deron Neblett
Sherryl Becker, Susan's supervisor: "In the system I work in, people don't just say, 'Oh, by the way, I injured a child.' "
Angela's unusual flexibility: Did it signal fetal alcohol syndrome?
Deron Neblett
Angela's unusual flexibility: Did it signal fetal alcohol syndrome?

When CPS receives an especially dangerous-sounding report, the agency assigns it to the Intensive Investigative Team. The team immediately dispatched a caseworker to Angela's hospital room, and Molly Herrington, the caseworker's supervisor, didn't like what she heard. The sheriff's department considered both Star and Cheyenne suspects in the baby's shaking. Star radiated "risk factors": She was 19, a former topless dancer, unemployed and separated from Angela's father. She was low on money and prospects, without a GED or even a driver's license. Worse, the investigator didn't think she seemed firmly bonded to Angela -- and a young mother, under significant stress, is especially likely to abuse a child she hasn't bonded with. Had Molly Herrington been forced to make a decision then, she would have advocated "pickup," taking Angela into CPS custody and placing her with a foster family.

But Angela, recovering from pneumonia, spent ten days in the hospital, and that time worked to the family's advantage. Cheyenne and Star cooperated with caseworkers for both the hospital and CPS, and the caseworkers liked what they observed. Cheyenne, 39, appeared deeply concerned about her granddaughter, and organized, too: She kept Angela's records in a fat brown accordion file. (The other prime suspect in Angela's shaking, a babysitter named Rick, refused to meet with a CPS investigator.)

Angela's case, like most child abuse cases, involved a large gray area of uncertainty. Harris County CPS investigates roughly 100 reports of abuse each day. A few of those cases are clear-cut: In about 3 percent the danger is so obvious that CPS immediately removes children from the home; other cases are dismissed as frivolous reports. The rest of the cases are considered by a "triage" team, a panel of experienced social workers. In Angela's case, the team decided not to pick her up -- at least not yet, not if another arrangement could be worked out. Angela was a good candidate for "family preservation."

Since the early '80s protective agencies across the country have adopted the philosophy that whenever possible children should be left with their families, and those families shored up by intensive attention from caseworkers like Susan. Family preservation is highly cost-effective -- much cheaper than the alternative, foster care -- but obviously it's a tricky business, with the highest of stakes. Judge a family too harshly, and the child will be traumatized by removal from her home; judge a family too leniently, and she could be reinjured, even killed.

Immediately after the hospital discharged Angela, Cheyenne drove Star and the baby to Herrington's office. There, Cheyenne and Star signed a "family safety plan." CPS agreed not to take custody of Angela, pending further investigation, but only if Cheyenne would become her granddaughter's chief caregiver and constant guardian until the agency was convinced that Angela was safe with her own mother. Star could still visit Angela, but only if Cheyenne were there to chaperone.

Star was devastated. Cheyenne was angry.

And Susan Sciacca, of CPS Unit 91, was assigned the case. A meaty one.

December 16, 1999: Cheyenne lives in a middle-class house in a middle-class suburb, a place where kids ride bikes on streets named after trees. Wooden elves and reindeer sprouted from the yards; strings of Christmas lights waited for darkness.

It was Susan's last appointment for the day, and she braced herself. On the phone, Cheyenne and Star had sounded guarded, a natural reaction. Clients never welcome CPS into their lives, roll out the red carpet for the caseworker, say, hey, come in, join us for dinner, we're delighted your agency believes we're unfit parents.

Star answered the door. Though she'd kept her apartment, she was spending much of her time here, at her mom's house, with Angela. China-doll pale, her hair striped three shades of blond, Star radiated a Lolita vibe, both sexy and childlike, knowing and innocent. She wasn't expecting Susan; she mistook her for the Early Childhood Intervention therapist that CPS had arranged to visit Angela. "Mom," Star yelled, "there's somebody here for you."

"Actually," said Susan, "I'm here for you."

In the living room Susan explained her mission to Star and Cheyenne. First, it was her job to see that Angela was safe. Second, she wanted to help Star provide for her daughter's needs. "I shoot from the hip," Susan said -- one of her stock phrases. Cheyenne liked that: She, too, is outspoken, a direct, call-it-as-I-see-it type.

Susan's first order of business was simply to find out what was going on, to double-check the specifics of the case and to compile a "genogram" -- that is, a detailed look at the family's psychological history, a starting point from which all her other work would follow. It's awkward, asking a near-stranger about her most private life, about her worst moments as a human being and a parent. Susan asks those questions directly, treating drug history and sex abuse as matter-of-factly as a date of birth or number of siblings. Usually the genogram conversations sprawl, touching on a theme, then looping back to it later. During those times, Susan listens for contradictions. It's human nature for a client to cast her life in the best possible light, but it's Susan's job to look for the shadows.

In brief: Star's father had physically abused Cheyenne, and after the divorce, turned his rage on Star. He once kicked her in the kidney so hard that she was hospitalized. He then lost custody of Star and her sister, but Cheyenne wasn't able to support herself, much less her daughters. The girls bounced from relative to relative. Star was dyslexic; while she lived with an aunt and uncle, they called her stupid, and said that she was like her mother.

Cheyenne was putting her life back together. She married John, her current husband, and immersed herself in her business. Star, by then a rebellious teenager, returned to her mother's house but felt that she was low on Cheyenne's list of priorities. Star began running away from home, living mostly on the streets of Montrose.

At 17 she and a friend left for Austin, where Star began what she calls, ironically, "my wonderful dance career." She moved in with Antonio, one of the strip club's bouncers, and had been living with him nearly a year when she accidentally got pregnant. Angela was born in March '99. Star, sleep-deprived and stressed out, resumed dancing six weeks later, around the same time Antonio tried to choke her. They were in an H.E.B., buying formula for Angela.

In July, Star left both Austin and Antonio. She and Angela moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Houston, not far from Cheyenne's house. Star developed a drinking problem (she liked Goldschlager) and found work at a topless club in Houston. She hired Rick, a student, to stay with Angela, and paid him ten or 15 bucks a night, roughly a dollar or two an hour. At some point in October, around the time Angela was injured, Star fired Rick after she came home and found Angela naked, sleeping in her own feces and urine. Star quit dancing to stay home with the baby. Now she couldn't pay her rent.

Normally Susan wraps up a getting-to-know-you interview in a single meeting, over a couple of hours, but Star and Cheyenne were talkers, prone to tangents and eager to explain all the facets of Star's complicated life. By the time Susan called it quits for the evening, she was barely half finished with her assessment. She at least didn't believe that Cheyenne had shaken Angela; she couldn't rule out the possibility, but it seemed unlikely, and Angela appeared safe with her.

She couldn't be sure about Star: maybe, maybe not. In a way, Susan's job would have been easier had Star shaken her daughter and admitted it readily. At least then Susan would have known clearly where things stood, and could have worked with Star on managing anger and reducing stress. But instead of a problem, Susan faced a mystery: What, exactly, had happened to Angela? Who hurt her? How could CPS be sure it wouldn't happen again?

December 21: At 9 a.m. Susan rang Cheyenne's doorbell. No answer.

She knocked, five times, loud.

Still no answer. She began to worry. Was Star skipping the appointment?

Susan pulled a cell phone out of her bag, dialed Cheyenne's number and heard the phone ring inside the house. Star answered. "Hey," said Susan, relieved. "I'm outside knocking."

A minute later Star opened the door. Sleepy-eyed and barefoot, she apologized for oversleeping. The night before, she said, she'd been up late with her mom, wrapping Christmas presents.

Star curled into a chair beside the Christmas tree, knees drawn up protectively in front of her body. Cheyenne also materialized, apologizing for her just-out-of-bed hair. She sat on the couch, with a view of Susan, but with the Christmas tree between her and Star.

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

"Mmm-hmm."

"You went to A.A.?"

"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?"

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 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.

Susan had begun to doubt that Star was ready to commit herself to Angela, and Angela required an extraordinary commitment. Besides the overwhelming needs of any infant, there were constant visits to her sprawling medical team: the cardiologist, plastic surgeon, dietician, physical therapist and pediatrician. Could Star navigate the medical bureaucracy? Could she handle the emergencies that seemed likely to arise? Could she even show up for all the appointments?

Gingerly, with Star, Susan broached a subject she'd discussed with Cheyenne on the phone: the possibility that Cheyenne might take custody of Angela until Star was able to care for her daughter. Without custody, Cheyenne couldn't get insurance for Angela, or Medicaid benefits, or a social security allowance. And from CPS's point of view, Angela would be safe with Cheyenne; the case would be closed.

Star hated the idea. "I want my mom to take care of my child, but I'm afraid she'll keep her."

"What do you mean?" asked Susan.

"I know my mom."

The phone rang: Cheyenne's lawyer, calling about the subpoenas. Cheyenne handed Angela to Star and carried the subpoenas and phone to another room. Angela wiggled, smiled so wide her gums showed, and sucked her toes.

"Are you scared to go before the grand jury?" Susan asked.

"Not as scared as my mom is for me," Star said. "I'm like, Give me a lie-detector test."

Angela cooed: "Maaa."

Star brightened. "Mama," she said. "Mama."

Angela began to fuss. Star carried her to her crib, and returned with a cigarette.

Susan pressed Star: Was she sure she didn't drink while she was pregnant?

Only that once, Star said, when she was about a week into the pregnancy, before she knew.

The answer bothered Susan. This version of Star's story didn't quite match previous ones: When, exactly, did Star discover she was pregnant? At one week? Two months? Was she trying to cover up her drinking? "I'm not saying that you're lying. But these don't fit."

Susan wondered, too, whether there was something more than maternal love in Star's desire to keep Angela. "I'm going to throw this at you," she warned. "It's a hard question: Do you feel -- because of what you went through, feeling abandoned by your mother -- that you don't want your daughter to go through the same thing?"

Star answered immediately: "I don't want to abandon my child."

"But are you at a place where you can take care of your daughter's needs? Without turning to alcohol?"

"I don't want to give her to my mom. I always told myself I wouldn't do that. I'd rather drag her with me."

"Is that fair to her?"

"No."

"Think she deserves stability?"

"Yes."

"Structure?"

"That's very important."

Cheyenne returned, off the phone, a wide-awake Angela in her arms. To Cheyenne, Susan began describing Star's "abandonment issues": that Star, when she was younger, had wanted to be with her mother, even if her mom couldn't provide a big house and expensive clothes.

Cheyenne admitted she knew that already. In the past year, she said, she'd learned to put her family first. Her father's death and Angela's hospitalizations had taught her hard lessons.

Susan looked at Star: "You see yourself in the same position your mother was in? With a child you're unable to raise?"

Cheyenne broke in, her eyes beginning to tear: "If anyone knows the feeling of laying in bed crying because you don't have your kids, I know that. But whenever I raise the issue of custody, Star walls up. She thinks it gives me control over her."

"I don't want you to be able to tell me I can't get my child back when I want her back! You'll get attached, and I'll lose her!"

"Let me interject," said Susan, quiet, to Star. "Are you feeling jealous that your daughter might be getting what you didn't get as a child?"

"It makes me confident: I know she could give Angela the love she couldn't give me and my sister."

"But do you resent that?"

"No. That's not what's running through my head. I'm worried about not getting her back."

Cheyenne nodded. "I told Star that -- I don't know how I'd feel if, five years from now, Star is able to take over. I don't know if I could say, here you go, she's yours. We'd be bonded. The issue becomes Angela."

"But she'd still be young when I get her back."

"What I want to know is, What makes you think that I'd be cutting you out? Where does my providing her a stable home cut you out?"

"Where does it cut me out?" Star began crying. "I'm her mother. I should be here. She could start walking, and I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be here her first day of pre-K. I'm already missing a lot of stuff."

Susan seized the moment: "You want to fight for your daughter? I'm going to help you. But you'll set yourself up to fail if you don't meet your own needs."

Susan looked at Cheyenne. "Can I talk to Star alone?" Cheyenne left.

"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?"

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

March 13: Angela had had surgery on Friday, March 10 -- not on her heart, but to repair her cleft palate and insert tubes in her ears to prevent infections -- and she had recuperated fine, drooling as she got used to the new roof of her mouth where there used to be none. She and Cheyenne had come home on Sunday, and today they returned to the hospital for follow-up visits.

Cheyenne knew, more surely than ever, that Angela was facing years of medical problems. While in Cheyenne's care, Angela had remained alarmingly skinny, and she was losing ground on her developmental milestones; close to her first birthday, she still couldn't sit up. So far no one knew for sure what caused those problems, much less how to cure them. The doctors wanted to delay the open-heart surgery until the bleeding in Angela's brain cleared, but Cheyenne worried about waiting.

Susan, at least, called with good news: No one at the hospital believed that the new bleeding signaled abuse. Once again, the case was closed. Susan was relieved: Angela's life wouldn't be easy, but at least it would be safe.

Cheyenne was still hurt that Susan had reopened the case, still didn't believe that CPS had ever needed to open the case in the first place. But on balance, she thought, Susan had done Angela more good than harm. If nothing else, CPS had forced the people who loved Angela to recognize how serious her situation had grown. With Susan's prodding, Star had admitted she couldn't care for her daughter; Cheyenne and John had felt compelled to take over. A good outcome, Cheyenne thought.

March 15: Cheyenne called Susan. Just to stay in touch.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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