Let’s Talk Family Court

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It’s time I wrote about court.  The last time Erik and I went to court we proudly realized that we have learned enough of the system to enter the Bexar County Courthouse (that’s San Antonio, for you non-Texans) with confidence.  We know where to park, we know how to wait for that funky diagonal crosswalk signal that gets you through the whole intersection, we know which door to enter in and we empty our pockets for the metal detector and place our bags on the x-ray belt without hesitation.  We know which elevators to take, we get on and press the 3rd floor (family court), and then turn to the left – because that’s the direction of our judge’s courtroom.  We can spout off all of the typical cast of characters – the judge at the front of the room, the ad litem who sits to the left and represents the kids and their best interests, the DA and CPS caseworker in the center who act effectively as the plaintiffs, the line-up of bio parents (often one mother, and one or more fathers) and each of their attorneys sitting to the right.  We don’t wander the halls looking lost anymore.  When we actually ran into another foster parent friend at the courthouse last time, we really felt like we belonged.  Yes, we feel relatively at ease at the courthouse.  Is that something to be proud of?

The Bexar County Courthouse is a striking old red brick 5 story or so building in the center of downtown.  We now know that one end of the family court hallway holds Judge Garcia’s courtroom and the other end Judge Montemayor – two men who have one of the most intriguing, influential, powerful and yet unenviable (in my opinion) jobs imaginable.  I am amazed at how many times I am asked by a fellow foster parent, “who is your judge?”  Hmm, The Lord, God Almighty?  Oh, no wait, you mean for my foster children.  Somehow the reputation of these two men circulates around the foster world and everyone enthusiastically offers their two cents on your judge and whether they are on a “unification” (send kids back to bio parents) or “termination” (don’t send them back to bio parents) kick.  Since all of the cases are public hearings, you have the option of waiting in the hallway for the name on your case (usually the child’s last name) to be called, or sitting in the back of the courtroom listening until your case comes up.

The first time we went to court, we were immediately greeted by our CPS caseworker, who warned us that baby boy’s dad was waiting in the hallway and asked if we wanted to meet him.  “Sure?” we answered, in the same tone a more cautious child might use if you’ve just asked them if they’re ready to ride without the training wheels.  Thankfully, Dad was very kind to us.  As we had been warned, he was willing to stand and talk and talk as long as we would listen – telling us about his attempts at employment and residence, etc., etc.  Had I had my whits about me, and not been in a minor state of shock meeting this man, I would have put on my medical hat and snuck in questions along the lines of, “does anyone in your family have asthma?  eczema?  allergies?  has anyone had heart disease at a young age?  sudden death at a young age?  high blood pressure?  diabetes?  any mental illness?  did bio mom use drugs during the pregnancy?”, well maybe some of that would have been going to far, but you get the idea.  Erik at least had the forsight to ask if we could take his picture, which he was more than willing for us to do.  (Someday, that may be a treasured small piece to the puzzle baby boy will construct as he answers for himself who his bio dad was.)  He talked about his faith and we talked about ours, and told him we would pray for him.  We shook hands, assured him we would take care of and love baby boy for as long as he was with us, and parted ways to go into the courtroom.  The second time we went to court, which happened to be the termination of parental rights hearing for our case, I couldn’t bear to stand out in the hallway and make small talk with baby boy’s dad.  The pit in my stomach of what was about to happen, compelled me to say a brief hello and then excuse myself into the courtroom to sit quietly in the back.

Now in the courtroom, I was in awe of the commanding presence of the judge.  Hearing him speak with such confidence, quickly making decisions and justifying them, taking time to explain why the law mandates his rulings.  While awaiting our case, we heard one case that involved termination of parental rights in which both biological parents were present to argue their side.  Several minutes into the case I recognized the story as a family whose children had been placed with foster friends of ours.  As such, I knew some back story, and that drug addiction and its, at times, violent and neglectful consequences, was the primary impetus for keeping these parents from their kids.  While bio mom was sitting next to her attorney in tears, the judge turned to address her and took her back hearing by hearing over the 12 months of the case and explained why the law dictated that termination now occur.  He made it very clear that when CPS takes custody of a child at 262 (see Let’s Talk CPS Timeline), one of two things usually happens.  Parents freak out and immediately do anything and everything CPS asks of them in order to get their kids back.  These terms are clearly spelled out in the “service plan” created for each case.  The service plan often contains steps such as attending counseling, drug rehab, documenting stable residence, obtaining a psychologic evaluation, etc. So parents appropriately freak out, or (going back to the judge now) parents do nothing – for months and months on end.  This case had been the latter.  As such, the judge again looked directly at the parents and stated, “Quite frankly, you’re out of time.”  I watched the mother exit the courtroom in tears and for a moment wished I could disappear and weep myself.

Erik and I have now been to a total of three hearings on the case of our foster children.  The experience for me always proves to yield both an emotional and visceral response.  At times I am hopeful, as our case moves closer and closer to adoption.  At times I am nervous, even though I have clearly done nothing wrong.  I have always driven home from court, wishing for nothing other than to climb in bed, pull the covers over my head and sleep – a testament to how emotionally exhausting I find the process.  Our termination hearing was 30 minutes or so of listening to the cast of characters above, review the past year of CPS custody for our children and the lack of progress on the necessary service plan.  For a long thirty minutes, I sat on the wooden bench in the back of the courtroom, knowing that at this point my heart was very much on the line, listening to more sordid details of my foster children’s past, hearing attorneys grill bio parent on points of the service plan.  At one point an attorney made the statement, “little girl has an amazing bond with the 3 year old biological child in the home.”  I bit my lip, and looked down at my shoes as I felt my face flush from the emotion of hearing my Nate be called out as evidence before the judge.  Several minutes later the ad litem added, “foster mom is a pediatrician and as such has been able to take care of all of baby boy’s medical problems.”  Again, face flushing, lip biting, looking at floor.  Erik tapped me on the knee reassuringly.  The judge finally pronouced the inevitable termination, with a heaviness in his voice.  Erik and I left court, with an internal maelstrom of emotions.  Our excitment over the prospect of adoption was tempered with sorrow.

I can only metaphorically describe the experience as if we had just attended the funeral of our foster children’s biological parents, without our foster children even knowing.  Baby boy and little girl are too young to even have a glimmer of understanding of what it meant that Erik and I were going to court.  But someday they’ll understand.  And although Disney may try to convince me that this scenario ends with “happily ever after”, I know that there will be a necessary and hopefully healthy grieving in their future.    Of course I know that the alterative would be far worse, had the ruling been to return the children to bio parent, we would have left terrified.  For the days that followed our termination hearing, when my whirlwind of intrusive thoughts about how life-changing that court day was for our family would calm, I was left pensive, saddened that the children that I now love will someday walk the difficult road of mourning the loss of a life with their biological parents.  And yet, there is good associated with the grief.  I know God has used my own grieving for baby boy and little girl’s loss to transform my heart from that of their foster mom to, Lord-willing, adoptive mom.

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