The past few months have been very exciting for us, and also emotionally challenging. The little ones who were placed with us on March 27 were considered a "legal risk" placement, which basically means that although it looks like they will become legally free for adoption, that was not yet the case when they were placed with us. So we brought them into our family with very open and hopeful hearts- praying and wishing they would forever be ours. Situations like these can take years, but fortunately due to some hardworking people involved in their case, and thanks to foster care reform laws in the state of Georgia, C, C, and E were on the fast-track to permanency. Over the summer when all three parents were incarcerated at the same time, the state filed for the termination of parental rights. In case you don't know what that means, it is exactly what it sounds like - a judge hears a case to determine if it is in the children's best interested to terminate their biological/legal parents rights, essentially setting them "free" to be adopted. So way back in the last summer when all the parents were locked up, we signed papers indicating our wish to adopt this sibling group of three. Everything was explained to us- the legal process, paperwork, financial commitment, etc. and we joyfully signed those documents. Then a court date was put on the calendar - October 10, 2012. And though some cases (like ours) may seem cut and dry, like a determination would be quick and easy, this is rarely the case. The attorney for the parents works hard to find compelling evidence why their client's parental rights should remain intact. The attorney for the state prepares a case to show the court how the parent has not demonstrated the ability to parent his/her kids. The caseworkers for the department of family and children's services work with the state to establish the reason why they felt it was no longer a good idea to try and "reunite" this family. In our case, there were also a handful of biological family members (who had all at one time been ruled out as an appropriate placement for the kids) who had hired an attorney and gone to battle against the state as part of the same case. At the same time, there is also an attorney for the kids- also known as a GAL, who represents the children and their interests in court. And fortunately for us, there was also a wonderful CASA (court appointed special advocate) a volunteer who works exclusively for the children, and makes an informed recommendation to the court on behalf of the kids needs and wishes.
In preparation for a court case involving four attorneys, three biological parents, and a host of evidence, witnesses, and experts, the judge had assigned this case four days on the court calendar- 10/10 being the first day of proceedings.
A few days before the hearing, our subpoena was served. We also received notice that dad #1 (Big C's biological dad) had agreed to surrender his rights and there would be a "goodbye" visit for him on the tenth when we came to court. My sister agreed to go with us in the event that John and I were called to testify. We hoped and prayed that we would not have to testify. At the end of day one, the kids had a visit with their great-granny, while we went to lunch with a few of the key players and caught up on the days' events. We learned about the great show that went on in the courtroom, the tears, the accusations, the eye-rolling, the dramatic meltdowns, the expert testimony (that didn't look good for the biological parents) and the blame game, where I'm told the biological mom actually took the stand and tried to point the finger at the judge. The most dramatic part for me all day was when I took Big C across the hall into a conference room for his goodbye visit with his biological dad. The child was running a fever that day, fighting a cold, and he just plain didn't want to interact with someone. Plus, and let's be fair - he is five years old. Concepts like "forever" and "goodbye visit" are pretty abstract to him at this point. To him, he just wanted to stay on my lap and when a stranger came to get him and take him across the hall, he was not happy. He fought her with his entire body, and cried and screamed into my neck. "Can I walk him over?" I asked, thinking I would just lead him into the room and drop him off. Little did I know that because all the important people were in the courtroom fighting it out, there was a lone deputy who had brought Big C's dad over from the jail. They sat in conference room chairs, watching awkwardly as I struggled to bring the five year old into the room. A woman from DFACS was there, but we had never met before and I am pretty sure the kids haven't ever seen her either. The deputy was a grandfatherly man, and he smiled warmly, trying to ease the tension in the room. "Should I leave?" I asked, seeing Big C's dad in person for the first time.
"Why don't you stay?" The deputy asked, and I took a deep breath, feeling like a fish out of water. What was I doing here? Why was I part of this? I always assumed that God called me to adopt children out of foster care to get them away from their original parents. My plan never included being buddies with original dad. But God gave me grace . . . again. I turned and saw him sitting there, in plain clothes because they let him change- slumped in a chair holding a few snapshots of himself and Big C together on their visits over the past year. I could see he was fighting back the tears, and that made me soften toward him. I walked over to the chair beside him and sat down, cradling the child in my arms.
"Hi," I said, trying to think of what to say at such a time.
"It's nice to finally meet you," he said, offering me his hand to shake.
We sat there quietly for a few minutes. The lady from DFACS and the Deputy seemed to be waiting on me to take the lead. So I did, with God's help. I told original dad about Big C's progress in school, our recent camping trip, his plans for Halloween, and about our household. I told him about my infertility, my desire to be a mother, and my love for these children. I told him about my faith, and about my amazing and wonderful husband. I asked him questions about his family, his parents, his brother, his former jobs, and his pregnant girlfriend. We talked about everything from hobbies to hymns, tattoos, cars and dogs. At one point he calmly said, "The only reason I signed the papers is because I can't do anything for him right now. And I don't want him to move again. I don't want him the be with anyone but you guys." I nodded, appreciating his honestly. I told him that in our house we don't speak badly of anyone- including other parents. I explained to him that we will raise the kids to have respect for their birth parents, to know that they did the best they could for them at the time. I told him that he would never have to worry if his son was loved, cared for, and protected. I assured him that this was not goodbye forever. When the visit was almost over, our wonderful DFACS transporter arrived and took Big C into her arms to free me up. I went to take Little C to the potty and as I walked from the room, I took one last look at Big C's birth father. They spent about fifteen more minutes together before the deputy took him back to the jail.
We were excused from attending the hearing on Thursday, so I hung closely by my phone at work all day. I got regular updates from our case workers, the CASA, and others who were involved. At around 3:30 pm, I learned that Dad #2 had surrendered his rights to little C and E, his biological children. Our caseworker asked me if I could transport the kids to the courthouse for their "goodbye" visit with him the next day. John had a job interview so it would just be me. I thought I would just be the transportation - but again I was wrong. On the way back to the courthouse, my phone rang with an unfamiliar number.
"This is Deputy Davis . . . I was just calling to see how far away you are?" I told him I was about an hour away, and he commented that we were making good time. He told me that we would meet inside juvenile court, at the same conference room as the prior goodbye visit. I realized it was that same older gentleman who escorted dad # 1 to Wednesday visit.
"Oh that was you on Wednesday?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said, "And I meant to tell you - you did a wonderful job with him."
That was the Lord, I told him, because it was very hard and very uncomfortable for me. And yet, God called me to do it again on Friday.
I met with our CASA volunteer (who had come to support me) and we realized no one from DFACS or family court was coming to supervise the visit. It was just the four of us- and the two little ones. We got there about 4 pm and saw one of the grandmothers had been invited as well. Little C looked at her suspiciously, as though he could barely remember her - but not enough to slow him down. The two of them ran around the conference room, eating handfuls of raisins and getting into everything.
Dad # 2 was soft-spoken, smaller than I had imagined - quiet. He tried to hug and play with the kids but they regarded him as a stranger. E knocked her head on the corner of the conference table and screamed for me, running across the room into my arms. I felt like dad #2 and grandma were watching me with the kids, maybe hoping to find something that they could dislike about me- but as the visit moved on, we talked and opened up to each other. Grandma asked if she could send me some pictures of distant relatives and baby pictures of the kids. I told her that I would like that very much. I told her and her son that we would never speak ill of them, and that we would always make sure the kids knew how much they were loved. Dad # 2 told me similarly to Dad #1 "I couldn't do nothin' for them in the jail. And I want them to know I love them." I assured him the kids would always know he loved them. He was more playful than dad # 1, maybe because the kids are smaller and you have to be on your toes with them. But at the end of the hour, a second deputy came into the room and motioned to him "It's time to go," he told him. And the air in the room became very heavy, like someone was about to be executed. I saw him literally swallow a huge lump in his throat. He took a deep breath and fought back the tears. The kids didn't know what was happening while the dad and granny took turns hugging and kissing them, at one point Grandma grabbed my hands and thanked me, saying "I love you." I struggled with my reply. Should I say "I love you too?" to someone I don't know - to someone who at one time posed a threat to my possible adoption? I looked at her in that moment, while the deputies were leading us from the room. I looked at her pale face, stringy long hair, thin frame, faded jeans, tear-stained cheeks. Underneath it all, I saw E's little face, the light in her eyes - and little C's sweet smile. There were my babies- in her face. I couldn't help but love her, because they are a part of her - so I embraced her in that doorway and said, "I love you, too."
Outside the conference room and outside the courthouse, I could not get away fast enough. I ran with the kids in their stroller and buckled them into the car seats. They were hungry, but there was no chance I was stopping in that county for dinner. We drove for over an hour before I stopped to buy them a happy meal. At that point, it might be less "Happy" and more like and "angry meal," but I let them play on the playground and get an ice cream cone to make up for it.
And we came home.
And we waited.
I hoped we would hear that biological mom had let go gracefully. But, as the CASA told me, "She won't go away quietly."
The third day for court was scheduled for October 16th. The caseworker called to tell me that, while the kids were excused from court, I was being called as a witness. Me and my big mouth.
So John and I made arrangements for the kids to be dropped off super early at the daycare so we could travel again to the courthouse 2 hours away- and watch the drama unfold.
We arrived a few minutes before 9am, and sat in a waiting area with various relatives of our kids. A few minutes later, the caseworker motioned for us to follow her into a hallway where she told me "you're being excused from court today. We don't need your testimony." I must have looked stunned. God knows I had practiced my little speech over and over, looked at my notes, listened to "lose yourself" by Eminem in an attempt to motivate myself, picked out a special "court outfit" and even wore my special bracelet that I wear anytime I need confidence. Not to mention we drove 120 miles again . . . but truly I was relieved. I was relieved because I just wanted this to happen without me. I wanted there to be enough compelling evidence that I could just collect my babies and leave when it was all over.
"But," she told us, "you're welcome to stay and watch the hearing. You both can sit in the back of the courtroom."
I jumped at the chance to do that. It was way better than trying to stay busy all day, wondering what was happening. I don't even think I gave John a vote. I grabbed his hand and we walked into the courtroom.
"Yes, were staying," I told our caseworker.
It was a very long day.
The judge made it clear that she wanted to finish hearing this case on that very day. She explained that breaks would be very brief- lunch would be only ten minutes- and that court would remain in session all night if that was required. Again, I hoped it would be quick and easy. Instead, it was long and ugly. It was like Jerry Springer meets Law and Order, with relatives pounding their fists on the podium, biological mom growling and staring at me, the Granny club seething in anger just down the bench from us, attorneys asking difficult questions, the judge asking for clarification on a few things.
The most memorable moment of court for me would be during the state's arguments when the assistant district attorney was questioning a witness on the birth mom's side. "And you think," she shouted, "That considering all these children have been through, that we should remove those children," she turned and pointed to us, where we sat holding hands on the bench, "from this Momma and this Daddy."
At 4 pm, John and I left during a short recess. We needed to be back in Dahlonega in time to pick up the kids. It did not appear that court would be over soon.
At 7:30 pm, all sides rested. We were not there- but we got the message. The judge decided not to rule from the bench, and indicated that she would likely use the last day set aside for this case- October 23 - to render her decision. I prayed it would not take thirty days (that is the legal time limit for the judge to render her verdict in these types of cases.) I told myself we would hear something right away. I tried to put it out of my mind for a few days. We tried to stay busy. The weekend came, and I got sick- really sick. I vomited, ran a fever, had chills, cramps, sore throat, and a terrible cough that is still lingering a week later. And by Monday, I grew really worried, irritated, desperate, and cranky. I couldn't exercise, I couldn't talk without crying, and I started dissecting everything I had seen and heard in that courtroom. Suddenly all the outrageous things I had seen and heard were starting so seem less outrageous as my mind started playing games like "worst case scenario" and waking me up at night to ask "What if??" That is not a pleasant feeling, and it lasted for a few days. Tuesday came and went. Wednesday came and went. And Thursday came and went, with me slowly slipping into insanity. I texted and called our caseworker and CASA like some love-sick seventh grader: "Has she made her decision yet?" "Have you heard anything yet?" "Should I be worried?" "What's going on here??" I was so obsessed. And like I told my facebook friends, the person who penned the phrase 'no news is good news' was clearly a drinker. For the first time in my life, I was seriously considering drinking.
I began to think that maybe it would have been better if I had testified. Maybe it would have been good for this Momma to take the stand. This Momma could have told the granny club all about the sad state in which these babies came to us. This Momma could have told the court about the amazing progress of these three brave kids, of their huge leaps and bounds in health, emotional well-being, academic pursuits, social development, and inner healing. This Momma could have told them about the way they cling to me, want to be held and rocked as much as possible, draw pictures of our family, ask for John when he is away for just a few minutes. This Momma could have told them how they NEVER ask for their birth family, never mention them, never draw pictures of them. This Momma could have told them all about the emotional baggage these little ones carried into their new home. And this Momma could have told them that although I may not have carried them in my body, I would give my life to see them happy and healthy forever.
Friday morning I came into work, warmed up my breakfast sandwich, checked my emails. Around 8:45 I went into the restroom, carrying my phone (because that's what you do when you're obsessed) and it rang.
"Hello?" I answered, half coughing (still sick.)
"Are you ready for some good news?" she asked me. She being our caseworker.
"Oh yes," was all I could reply.
"It's done," she said fiercely, "It's over. We won."
I could barely wrap my head around it. Finally. Thank you, Jesus! And the words that followed were sweet and perfect. She told me how the judge had written into her court order: "the children were placed in this current home in March of 2012 and the foster parents have done wonders for them. It would be detrimental to the children to be removed from this home."
This Momma is really, really happy.