By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Beatrice Gonzales wrecked her life on New Year's Eve 1995, not that she can remember much about it. She knows that she and her husband had been fighting. She knows that she'd been drinking and using drugs.
She knows that she almost killed her one-year-old baby that night when she set him down next to a busy highway and walked away. A neighbor spotted the infant, grabbed him and called police.
Gonzales woke up in jail to find Harris County Children's Protective Services already had taken possession of her baby and his five brothers and sisters, ages six months, two, five, six and seven. In short order, she went to prison for injury to a child and child abandonment. During her three years in two different Texas prison units, she learned to use an Aggie hoe and worked on a paint crew, which were her worst and best jobs, respectively. While still in prison, her parental rights were terminated.
She got out on a Friday in 1998, a 28-year-old woman with no job, few prospects, a record and no kids.
Now most people would probably say a woman who got blitzed on New Year's Eve and left her baby boy by a highway should lose all rights to those kids. Better they should live with someone else and live, than die because Mama's not responsible enough to be a parent.
But a year ago CPS, after sustained intervention by DePelchin Children's Center, gave Gonzales one of her children back, five years after she was declared an unfit mother.
This Beatrice Gonzales, DePelchin says, is not the one who endangered and abandoned her children. She has reformed and is redeemed. She is worth our trust, so let's give her a kid and see if we're right. Because she may well be her daughter's only saving grace.
Used to be, wards of the state could stay in foster care for years, either because they weren't babies (healthy and white being the most sought after) or because parental rights couldn't be terminated to make them available for adoption. Now, these rights have to be settled a year after a child comes into CPS custody, although a judge can grant a six-month extension. Also it used to be, if a parent was sent to prison, his parental rights were intact, says CPS spokeswoman Judy Hay. But that left kids in limbo, too, so that's been changed as well.
All of which was designed to move things along, except that a lot of older kids aren't hot commodities and still get stranded. According to Sylvia Franzmeier, DePelchin's Family Care and Educational Services director, social workers got to noticing that no matter what the courts had said, kids often stayed in touch with at least some members of their birth families and returned to them at age 18 when released from the CPS system. If the kids were going there anyway, why not make better use of available resources that had been overlooked before?
In 1997 DePelchin got a federal grant to help put children waiting for adoption back together with some part of their biological families. A three-year continuation of that "Kin Can" grant has just been awarded to DePelchin, which will work with CPS "to review the foster care records of 300 eligible youths and attempt to locate their relatives."
Franzmeier concedes the risks, either from parents previously ill-equipped to take care of their children or from relatives who never stepped up to help out before. But as a social worker, she says, "We believe people can change for the better." Shifting from the romantic to the pragmatic, she notes that a lot depends on the vulnerability of the child. A two-year-old can't get his own food, so he's in a bad situation if his parents don't provide him his meals, Franzmeier says. But a healthy ten-year-old, she says, should be perfectly capable of foraging.
The program got off to a slow start. Even now, it's more likely that a child will develop contact with some members of his birth family rather than being taken in by them, she says. Even when some relatives want the child, they may be too old or not have enough financial resources to care for him properly. Or they may not want the bother.
"We have 'reconnected' a lot more kids than we have 'replaced,' " Franzmeier says. "This puts them back in touch by telephone, and at least the child has someone to send him a birthday card or someplace to go on Christmas."
So in most cases, that's as good as it gets. A card and a meal -- a pretty slender lifeline.
While Beatrice Gonzales was imprisoned, struggling to come to terms with the mess she'd made of her life and of her children's lives, her kids were thrown into life without Mom. "I used to take them everywhere with me. We went all together. If I went to the store, I loaded up all six. We had never been separated."
Time to turn to Dad. This entailed a certain amount of sorting out, since there were four different daddies for Gonzales's children, something she is not proud of.