For Chris, two mothers and a fork in the roadBy Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Little Chris Congdon hadn't seen his mother in a month, and he needed to see her now because things had gotten pretty mixed up.
He'd moved to another foster home. He'd been separated from his big brother. And no one would tell him how soon he could go home to his mom and dad.
But when he arrived at the child welfare office that day, his mother had already come and gone. A secretary had told her no visit was scheduled.
While such a snafu was routine in the world of child welfare, it wasn't for Chris' new foster mother, and she wasn't going to put up with it. She knew waiting two weeks for the next visit would be unbearable for the 5-year-old.
So she and Chris set out to find his mother, tracking her down in a coffee shop nearby. It was hugs and kisses all around.
The foster mother's efforts that day six years ago were her duty, she felt, part of her mission to help Chris return to his parents.
It was 1992 and helping neglected and abused children find a way back home was the policy of the day. It had been since national legislation pushed it in 1980. But during the years Chris lived with this foster family, there'd be another major policy revolution.
If it takes a village to raise a child, Chris was being brought up by one struggling with its parenting values. The village bureaucrats the network of governmental agencies that protects children who are at risk in their own homes had mastered the easy part: snatching children from parents perceived as evil or inept. But what to do with the youngsters after that was a matter of dispute.
One side argued for rehabilitating parents and returning the kids to them. The other contended children should be sent to safety in foster homes and quickly given new, adoptive parents.
Although these factions had bickered for more than a century, neither solution is ideal because each case is individual. Each child, each set of parents, each extended family and foster family must be examined to determine what plan works best for the child.
To accomplish that, though, requires sufficient social workers, lawyers, judges and therapists to do the examining, to make individual determinations, to help parents who would benefit and to cut off those who would not.
The village has rarely provided enough money for that.
Instead, too often, no decisions are made at all. No one takes action, leaving Chris and 500,000 other foster children across the United States caught between two families birth and foster. And that makes for certain conflicts.
Chris' mother didn't want him to call the foster mother mommy. That woman, however, was doing what mommies do: Saving the boy from nightmare monsters, bandaging his scraped knees and helping him with homework.
Chris called them both mommy. Ultimately, it would be the duty of the village, which had set up the conflict then let it linger, to resolve it. To be Solomon. To choose.
The ties that bind
Chris had just turned 2 when he first went to a foster home. His mother, Christine DiPerna, called the county child welfare agency and asked it to take him, and his brother, who is a year older.
It was Dec. 14, 1988. DiPerna was living with her father, an alcoholic, unemployed steelworker. She says there was no food in the refrigerator and her boys weren't getting enough to eat. Her father and his girlfriend fought constantly and yelled at the boys. She needed to get out of there, but she and the boys' father, Frank Congdon, didn't have enough money for a place of their own.
DiPerna, now 40, and Congdon never married, but they'd lived together, mostly in the former mill towns of Duquesne and McKeesport, since 1985 when Chris' brother was born.
Neither worked. DiPerna had wanted to be a chef after she graduated high school in 1977, but she never made it to the training program. She's had three jobs over the years, including one as a maid, but none lasted more than a few months.
Congdon did odd jobs and had served six months and 10 days in the Army when he was a teen-ager. Before he was discharged for going AWOL, he earned his general equivalency diploma.
Although they fought and split up from time to time, Congdon and DiPerna had an enduring, symbiotic relationship. Each has disabilities the other helps overcome.
DiPerna is mildly mentally retarded and suffers bouts of depression. Sometimes she wishes for death. Sometimes she tries to get there.
Congdon is 43 and tells DiPerna not to expect him to make it to 50. He's diabetic, asthmatic, schizophrenic and weak from a bad heart. He won't take his medications, not for his head, not for his heart.
Sometimes when he hears voices, he thinks he's Jesus Christ. The Mc-Keesport police know him. They arrest him for things like refusing to pay for dinner at Eat'n Park, but usually just charge him with minor infractions like disorderly conduct and send him on his way.
When he would walk out on DiPerna, she would have a hard time managing their sons by herself. Like her, the older boy is mildly mentally retarded and suffers depression. He's a sweet child with a placid face who has tried to kill himself four times in his 12 years.
Still, Chris was the one they said was a handful. Like his father, Chris is extremely bright. But he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which makes it difficult for him to concentrate and to control wild impulses.
As soon as he could, Chris climbed out of his crib and into trouble. He liked to throw things out the window his baby bottles, stuffed animals, toys. One time DiPerna found him hanging from the window ledge. She thinks he wanted to go outside and play.
Chris always lured his brother into his exploits. Once they got up while their parents were sleeping and tried to make pancakes. DiPerna tells of broken eggs all over the stove and flour tracked from kitchen to bedroom.
Despite the mess, DiPerna didn't get mad and never thought of paddling them. In fact, she says, she never hit them. Congdon says he spanked them only when they misbehaved and threatened much more often than he actually swatted. "I smack my dog a lot harder than I ever hit those kids," he says.
DiPerna and Congdon were never accused of abuse. Their boys went to foster care for what the system calls neglect.
Neglect accounts for half of the children in the child welfare system now, and it takes many forms, from failing to feed or clothe a child properly to leaving a toddler alone while trading food stamps for crack. Though it doesn't apply to DiPerna and Congdon's situation, crack addiction has been at the root of most neglect cases in the past decade.
The other half of children in the child welfare system are victims of abuse. These are children beaten and sexually molested. Politicians began taking note of abuse in the 1950s when doctors first reported in medical journals that some parents brutally beat and sometimes killed their own children.
Then in the 1960s, all 50 states passed laws mandating that certain officials, such as teachers, police officers and doctors report suspected child abuse. And in 1961, the federal government began paying part of the cost of keeping children in foster care.
As a result, many more abuse reports were filed, and many more children were placed in foster care.
In the 1970s, legislatures added neglect as a reason to remove children from parents. By the end of the decade, so many children were in foster care and stayed there so long that psychologists called it a disgrace.
Agencies had rescued children from bad parents, placed them in foster care and considered their job done. There was almost no effort to prevent removals, return children to parents who reformed themselves, or free youngsters for adoption.
These children were denied the security blanket of permanency. They weren't sure where they belonged. Did their parents, who may have stopped visiting, want them back? Did the foster parents, who were paid to keep them, really care?
Congress tried to address these problems by passing the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. This legislation urged agencies to return children to their parents whenever possible. When it wasn't possible, adoption was to be pursued. The number of children in foster care had risen to a high of 502,000 in 1977, but by the time Chris was born six years after the law passed, it had dropped to 280,000.
For Chris, the legislation meant that the first time he and his brother went into foster care, the child welfare agency helped their parents get them back. Chris returned home in April 1990, and his brother in June.
But six months later, they were taken again, and this time DiPerna didn't seek the intervention.
Three days before Christmas, police found the boys, then 4 and 5, wandering in the street without coats. Allegheny County's child welfare agency, Children and Youth Services, placed them with DiPerna's sister for two months and then returned the boys to their mother.
By then, CYS had set up a series of aids for DiPerna. The county agency for the mentally retarded was to help her. A set of foster grandparents visited her apartment, cared for the boys and taught her to keep house. Another program helped her learn to be a better parent.
Even so, it all began falling apart in May. She broke her foot and CYS sent the boys to her sister again. When DiPerna got back on her feet, the boys returned home.
Then, in November, the older boy tried to kill himself. The 6-year-old swallowed his parents' medications. He was sent to a mental hospital.
Shortly afterward, CYS took Chris. He wasn't sent to his aunt this time but to an unrelated foster parent he says was mean. But, by then, Chris was out of control. At one point, he tried to flush the foster mother's cat down a toilet.
A different world
That's when CYS found Sue Luebbert and Christopher Hill. They were foster parents trained to deal with "special-needs" kids, which is what child welfare experts call children who try to flush cats down toilets.
When Chris went to their house, he moved to a different world. Luebbert and Hill, both Ivy League graduates, lived in Franklin Park, a wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh. Hill, a purchaser for Bayer Corp., earned his bachelor's in chemistry from Dartmouth and his master's in business from Carnegie Mellon.
Luebbert is the daughter of a West Point graduate and a woman who earned a bachelor's in physics at a time when "co-eds" were encouraged to find husbands, not knowledge, at college. While her father taught electrical engineering and computer science at West Point, Luebbert skipped fifth grade. She was a classics major at Wellesley and knows Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish. She's a tax agent for H&R Block.
She and Hill were married in 1982 and began trying to have a baby almost immediately.
They practiced their nurturing skills by boarding puppies for Animal Friends, a shelter that does not euthanize unwanted dogs. It enlists volunteers like Luebbert and Hill to care for the dogs until homes can be found. They served as temporary caretakers for 120 dogs and puppies over the years.
As time passed, they came to believe they would never conceive. Luebbert was in her late 30s when they began to think of foster parenting. Although Hill was five years younger, they thought their ages would preclude them from adopting. They knew about foster parenting because Hill's father had been a caseworker and director of a child welfare agency outside Boston.
They went to classes at The Pressley Ridge Schools, a non-profit agency that, under contract with CYS, recruits, trains and supervises foster parents for troubled children.
Pressley Ridge sent Chris to visit Luebbert and Hill several times to make sure it was a good match. Near the end of these visits, Chris begged the couple not to send him back to the mean foster mother.
On May 30, 1992, Pressley Ridge moved Chris to Luebbert and Hill's home. They promised the little boy he'd never have to transfer to another foster home. He could stay with them until he returned to DiPerna and Congdon.