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Dad No. 4, Gonzales's husband, had also terminated his parental rights while Gonzales was in prison. His three sons, the youngest children in the family, were adopted by his mother. The oldest two, a girl and a boy, went with the third child's dad, the first child's dad being out of the picture. Six-year-old Samantha was supposed to be picked up by Daddy No. 3, but her life fell between the cracks and she wasn't. Her own father is serving a 35-to-life sentence in state prison, and no one else stepped forward. Samantha stayed in foster care, where she did not prosper.
Samantha acted out. She went through a series of foster homes. Toward the end of her stay with CPS, she was in the Child Development Center, a private agency that CPS contracts with to care for some of its more troubled children. According to Hay of CPS, Samantha was hospitalized several times for depression that had at its base her unhappiness at being separated from her mother. Samantha was heavily medicated with drugs that were supposed "to stop me from being sad," she says softly. She acted out, she says, because she was usually grumpy in the mornings and didn't like other people messing with her. She was mistreated in one foster home, something her mother found out about only when she got her back. Samantha doesn't remember much of the day CPS took her away, but she does recall that she refused to get out of the car that CPS used to carry her and her siblings, and that she had to be dragged out.
She never thought she would get adopted, she says, "because I wasn't a good girl." She says no one ever told her that. She figured that out for herself.
Growing up in the same lower-middle-class neighborhood behind Jackson Middle School on Leland where she lives now, Gonzales got pregnant while a teenager. She stayed in school after her first baby, her mother taking care of her oldest. But when she got pregnant with Samantha, her second child, Samantha's 28-year-old dad told her to quit school. She dropped out, getting her GED later.
After prison, Gonzales was able to get a job right away with the same company she'd worked for off and on since 1988. She went to the owner, said she'd gotten her life straightened out and asked for a full-time job. She got it and rapidly worked her way up the ladder.
The next step was to make contact with her children. She'd kept in touch by telephone and occasional letters while she was in prison, so she knew something of how they were doing. Afraid that all her letters hadn't been getting through to Samantha, Gonzales had made copies of each one so that she could prove to her one day that she'd always loved her.
She saw the older set of her children, and their parents said it was all right to visit them. The couple notified CPS that they'd given Gonzales their permission to see them.
"A caseworker called me and said I could get Samantha back. Then she called me back and said, 'No way,' " Gonzales recalls. She began visiting Samantha. Next came the involvement of Vicki Camlin, a DePelchin adoptions specialist.
Camlin came to trust Gonzales, believing that she desperately wanted to be back with her daughter and that this time she could do it right. "She made so many positive changes. I just think she made a real turnaround with her life. She got a full-time job. She was just so motivated to get her daughter back," says Camlin.
At the same time, Camlin says, it was very clear that it was in Samantha's best interest to get out of CPS. "It was real obvious that this child wasn't going to survive in the system and wanted her mother," says Camlin, who previously worked for CPS for seven years.
In April 1999 Gonzales went into extensive counseling with Samantha. This was one of the conditions set by CPS. She also attended AA meetings and had to take parenting classes arranged by DePelchin. Camlin stayed involved. "I acted basically as a go-between among three different caseworkers. She really needed a strong advocate to help her through the system."
"She did everything they asked her to do, jumped through all the hoops, filled in all the squares," Camlin adds. "Most people don't do that, don't have what it takes to follow through."
Finally Gonzales heard the news that she was getting her daughter. "They gave her back to me during spring break. Then they took her right back," says Gonzales. A CPS caseworker had failed to do something she was technically required to do before handing over Samantha. "Everyone was crying." Within days, though, the technicalities were satisfied and Samantha was returned to her.
Camlin was there when Samantha was brought back the second time. "They dropped her off and didn't go through the home. I knew if they didn't do some kind of home visit, they might have to do it over again." She asked for the on-the-spot check of the house, and the caseworker did the walk-through. It was now official.