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.
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.
CPS had good cause to remove children from their parents' homes in every case she's seen, Franzmeier says. But she doesn't believe CPS has done as good a job checking out all the options, namely relatives, when it comes to placing a child.
Vicki Camlin voices this more strongly. She doesn't believe CPS, as an institution and especially among its youngest caseworkers, is open at all to returning children to their families after parental rights have been terminated. "Once your rights have been terminated, it's over. People just assume the worst."
She points to Gonzales's experience as a case in point. "There were no reports on her ever before. Her husband got off scot-free. Why he wasn't called to bear some responsibility for this, I don't understand." She says that in the year she argued on Gonzales's behalf with CPS, there were several times when she didn't think they were going to be successful.
Judy Hay disputes this, saying that on the official record there is nothing written that CPS in any way ever opposed Gonzales's being reunited with her daughter. She says CPS understands that with new regulations making it easier to terminate parental rights, there is more of a possibility of reuniting a family after changes have been made. Actually, a single caseworker could never block a placement, she says, because the decision is something that involves a judge, attorneys and CPS.
Of course, single caseworkers can do a lot of good or a lot of damage, officially recorded or not.
Their first year back together hasn't been without its bumps for Samantha and her mom. Samantha had enormous mood swings at first, which Gonzales attributes to all the medicine her daughter was taking. That stopped after Samantha, who appears to be thriving, was weaned off all the psych medicines, her mom says.
DePelchin's Camlin is not at all comfortable about the amount of medication received by some of the children in the CPS system. "If these kids act out at all, then they medicate them. I've seen this in several families where the kids are on medication, and once they're returned to the family they don't need it anymore." Hay says that CPS relies on its doctors, and that by the time Samantha left CPS custody she was on some very low dosages.
Gonzales and her daughter have lived several places in the last year. For a while they were with Gonzales's husband ("That didn't work out. We're going to be friends now. He's filing for divorce"), for a while with Gonzales's mother and now in a tiny one-bedroom apartment of their own. Sixth-grader Samantha gets the bedroom, whose walls are covered with cartoon artwork sent to her by her father from prison. Her mother sleeps on a daybed in the front room. It is a neat, tidy, if somewhat spartan existence.
Gonzales sees her other children as often as she can, but these visits are governed by their new guardians, who make the decisions about when and for how long.
She has long-term goals: to keep improving in her job -- she made $17,000 last year, the most she's ever made in her life -- and she's saving money to buy their own house. "I got my priorities straight now."
Prison was awful. "You got somebody telling you what to do all the time. The work was hard. You don't get paid for it. Being away from my family was the hardest. I lost everything. I lost my kids. I'm still minus five. I messed up, and I'm paying the price."
She has a lot of guilt. "I felt like Samantha had to go to baby prison because of me. God knows I'm sorry." At the same time she is proud she didn't try to dodge responsibility for the wrong she did.
She comforts herself with the Bible's Jeremiah 31:17, which reads, "There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country."
DePelchin's push to reunite families runs directly counter to the protective urges most of us have to see that children are removed from danger. But if we can hope for change, if we can't conceive of people moving to the better, then we as a society may do more harm than good.
Feel comfortable about this? No. Build in every safeguard imaginable. But it's hard to argue with success stories, and if this isn't one, then there's a whole lot of really good actors involved here that Hollywood ought to be trying to get.
Meet Beatrice Gonzales today and it's hard to see the woman who did such a horrific act five years ago. Meet Samantha today and it's hard to see a child so filled with anger that she lashed out at everyone and had to be medicated to be controlled. The two dote on each other. They take care of each other. They pronounce themselves each other's best friend.
And when Beatrice Gonzales looks at her daughter, it is clear she thinks of all she has now. And, of course, all she has lost.