As Chris settles in, home is a place that divides his heart
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
On orders from his foster mother, Chris Congdon telephoned his mom to wish her happy Mother's Day.
They chatted a bit. Then, still holding the phone, Chris turned and said something to his foster mother.
His mom thought he was still talking to her.
"I asked him, What did you say?' " Christine DiPerna recalls.
"Then he said, I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to my real mom.' "
"That hurt," DiPerna says, choking at the recollection. It angered Chris' father, Frank Congdon: "Where do they get off teaching him to call them mom and dad? He is so confused. He does not know who his real mom and dad are."
The foster parents, Sue Luebbert and her husband, Christopher Hill, hadn't taught Chris to call them mom and dad. He'd begun doing it spontaneously within days of being placed in their home in 1992 as a foster child at the age of 5. He'd been there four years now, and calling Luebbert mommy seemed completely natural to him.
Chris had been taken from DiPerna and Congdon by Allegheny County's child welfare agency, Children and Youth Services, because the couple were unable to care for him.
Who Chris would call Mommy became an issue the first time Luebbert and DiPerna met. So Luebbert, who wanted to have a cordial relationship with Chris' parents for his sake, asked him not to call her mommy in front of his mother.
Luebbert was, after all, nothing but Chris' foster mother, a pseudomother, a surrogate. She'd never borne a baby of her own. So, DiPerna would tell Luebbert, she had no idea what it was to be a real mother.
Luebbert and Hill's job in this relationship was prescribed by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980: care for Chris until he could return to the mother and father who had given him life.
The philosophy behind this federal law was that children should be raised by their biological families whenever possible. Caseworkers should help abusive or neglectful parents so their children didn't have to go to foster care. But if children had to be removed to ensure their safety, caseworkers were to help parents reform so they could get their children back.
The federal government didn't intend to give parents unlimited, free, foster care layaway, however. The 1980 law set deadlines for parents to rehabilitate themselves, after which their children could be placed for adoption.
Just after the law passed, caseworkers did this. Children who had been waiting in foster care for years were adopted, most often by their foster parents. But by the 1990s, caseworkers had little time for the paperwork adoption requires.
They were overwhelmed by massive numbers of new children entering the system, increasingly from homes where crying babies were forsaken by parents in relentless pursuit of their own comfort, the kind that comes from a crack pipe.
So kids like Chris waited on foster care shelves, conflicted about who to call Mommy.
The great divide
Luebbert showed up for the visit with doughnuts a little pastry to sweeten the meeting of foster mother, child and birth parents.
The attempt at courtesy brought an admonishment down on Luebbert's head, however.
DiPerna lectured the errant foster mother.
Luebbert shouldn't be giving Chris doughnuts. The boy was hyperactive and wasn't supposed to eat sugar.
Luebbert conceded the error. "I accepted that she was trying to put me in my place and show me that she cared about her child and knew what was good for him."
Then, just before the visit concluded, DiPerna handed her son three bags of candy.
And that is the way it would be. DiPerna was the sweet mommy, Luebbert the strict mother.
Luebbert was forever telling Chris no. "One of the behavior patterns he learned very early was to argue with no because it worked with his mother," Luebbert says, "I would love to say it is a habit that is broken, but it is not. So I just say no. And I tell him that I say no because I am the meanest mother on the block."
DiPerna forever told Chris yes, and he knew the power he held over her. "She lets me do whatever I want," he says. He would mention a toy and DiPerna, despite meager funds, would do everything she could to get it for him.
Gifts were a way DiPerna tried to meet her son's needs and secure his love while they were separated.
"She just does not understand that there is another level of meeting needs," Luebbert says, "that discipline is another way to meet needs, setting limits and saying no is a way to meet kids' needs."
Still, Luebbert would be eternally grateful to DiPerna for one thing she gave Chris and his older brother: her love. "Christine [DiPerna] has always been a loving presence, even when she did not have them. They were not afraid to get close, not afraid to love. I have to give Christine credit for that. That got through to them, that they were loved. Not all kids get that," Luebbert says.
Love is not enough, though, for parents to get their kids back from foster care.
Parents like DiPerna and Congdon must meet goals set out in a document called a family service plan, which was one of the new requirements of the 1980 legislation.
After children go into foster care, a caseworker sits down with the neglectful or abusive parents to list tasks they must accomplish before they can get the children back. Progress on the goals is reviewed by a judge every six months. After 18 months, the law called for some sort of resolution.
A judge was supposed to decide whether there was a real chance these kids would go home. If so, he could give the parents more time to meet the goals. If not, caseworkers were supposed to petition the court to terminate the parents' legal rights to the children so they could be adopted.
The family service plans written for DiPerna and Congdon every six months all have virtually the same goals. They were to attend classes to learn to be better parents. They were to obtain regular psychological care, Congdon for his schizophrenia, DiPerna for her depression. They were to take their medications. Congdon was to get regular medical care for his diabetes, heart condition and asthma.
And they needed to secure an apartment or house where they could live with their children. They had been nomads, living with a succession of friends and relatives. Caseworkers wanted them to get their own, stable place.
DiPerna and Congdon did go to the parenting classes. Although Congdon occasionally denied he was schizophrenic and refused to see his doctor, DiPerna fairly routinely visited her psychologist. Congdon was rushed to emergency rooms when he had chest pains or couldn't breathe because of asthma. Neither was diligent about taking medications.
Despite this spotty compliance with the medical requirements, DiPerna and Congdon thought all that kept their boys from them was an apartment. They searched, and sometimes thought they were close to getting one.
At the hearing held 18 months after the boys were in foster care, the judge gave DiPerna and Congdon more time. In Allegheny County and many other places across the country, these hearings often last no more than a few minutes because judges have the problems of dozens of other families to consider that day as well. If the caseworker asks for more time for the parents, the judge often signs the paper without a second thought. Another hearing is scheduled in six months.
Years passed and the same goals were written for Congdon and DiPerna over and over. Chris, his brother, and thousands of other children just like them, waited.
Chris had nightmares typical pre-teen terrors, monsters and aliens and stuff.
He'd run to Luebbert and Hill's room and wake them up.
Luebbert always wanted him to crawl into bed between her and Hill. There the child would be safe and warm, cuddled and soothed. That is what other parents do.
But Luebbert and Hill weren't parents. They were foster parents.
They couldn't do anything that might be perceived by someone somewhere as somehow improper. They were told in foster care training they shouldn't even sit on a child's bed when reading night-time stories or tucking in the child.
So when Chris had nightmares, he'd sleep on the floor beside their bed. Luebbert would fetch his pillow and unroll a sleeping bag. Chris would be fine there on the floor. But it always chafed Luebbert.
The standing joke among foster parents, Luebbert says, is that if they get to adopt, they can finally touch the child, hug him, hold him by the shoulders and look into his eyes. Because then, the law would say, they'd be his real parents, not his temporary, stand-in, pretend parents.
But parenthood can't be defined by legality or biology alone. There's much more to it than that.
"Parenthood is a relationship, not a legal entity. It requires a continuing interaction between adult and child to survive," Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund, Joseph Goldstein and Albert J. Solnit say in their groundbreaking book, "Beyond the Best Interest."
Similarly, they write, biology is insufficient. "The child's emotional attachment results from day-to-day attention to his needs for physical care, nourishment, comfort, affection and stimulation. Only a parent who provides for these needs will build a psychological relationship to the child on the basis of the biological one and will become his psychological parent."
In the 25 years since this book was published, "psychological parent" has become a common phrase in family courts. And the idea that parenthood requires more than a blood bond has been accepted by judges. Recently, for example, the Pennsylvania Superior Court wrote in its opinion in a 1996 adoption appeal: "Being a parent is more than a passive state of mind; it requires constant affirmative demonstration of parental devotion."
When a child is in foster care, that may be difficult for biological parents to achieve. A judge may limit their visits with their children to an hour every other week a total of two hours a month. And those may be skipped because a child is sick or a parent has difficulty finding buses to the other side of the county where the child is living with foster parents.
In the meantime, the foster parent provides day-to-day attention to the child's needs. And, Freud and company write, "Ties of blood weaken and ties of companionship strengthen by lapse of time."
Foster parents may, over time, become psychological parents.
That is what happened with Luebbert, Hill and Chris. That is why he told his biological mother that Luebbert was his "real mother."
DiPerna knew it was happening. She saw this other woman becoming her son's mother. "She is taking my place," DiPerna said. It hurt her, and she knew Chris suffered, too. "I know he loves Sue [Luebbert]. I know he loves me. He is torn."
One fall, as Chris began a new year of Sunday school, his teacher asked what Old Testament stories the children remembered.
Most offered tales from television epics: Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments.
Chris recalled a less famous one: King Solomon deciding which woman was a child's true mother.
In the summer of 1995, after Chris had been in foster care for three years, his birth parents told him he'd be coming home soon. They'd found a house.
It was during an outing to North Park Pool that Luebbert had arranged. She and Hill and Chris met DiPerna and Congdon at McDonald's on McKnight Road, then Luebbert drove them all to the pool. DiPerna and Congdon don't drive, so they took a series of buses to McKnight from McKeesport, where they lived with DiPerna's mother.
DiPerna was very excited about the house. She went on and on about it, describing it to Chris, telling him how great it was going to be when they all moved in.
When Chris got back to his foster parent's house, he packed some toys.
And he started defying his foster mother and father. He talked back. He wouldn't do what he was asked. He was, Luebbert says, "hell on wheels."
The boy had to make Luebbert and Hill angry. Then they would yell at him and punish him and he could hate them and feel no regret when he returned to his birth parents.
In 10 days time, it was over.
Congdon and DiPerna couldn't get the house. They needed two months' rent for a security deposit, and they couldn't come up with the money.
They'd done this to Chris before. Every six months or so they'd tell him they were about to rent a place of their own. He would eagerly anticipate joining them there.
That's because most children in foster care even some badly beaten ones really want to go home. Judge Patricia B. Campbell, who has heard these cases in Detroit for nearly two decades, says it best: "What they all really want is for their parents to get off crack and take care of them."
Chris' parents were not on drugs. In fact, his mother had been an addict earlier in her life but had stopped using before Chris was born, an accomplishment Luebbert believed was part of DiPerna's efforts to be a good mother.
But even sober, DiPerna was never quite able to do what was necessary to get Chris back. There would only be talk of houses.
Chris would misbehave. The house would never materialize. He'd be crushed.
Luebbert couldn't take it anymore. She was the one who had to deal with the defiance and disappointment. She took the brunt of the broken promises.
Although social workers had told her for years that they didn't expect Chris or his brother to ever go home, they made no move toward adoption.
"They diddled around with the case. Everything was fine for them," Luebbert said, "The kids were seeing one another and their parents. Why rock the boat? If things had gone on like that forever, it would have been fine as far as the social system was concerned. It was not fine for me. It was getting hard on me. I could not see it as a long-term solution. I could not see another 10 years of Chris getting upset when they talked about getting a new house every six months."
That fall, she asked Chris' caseworker what he foresaw for the boy. The caseworker predicted that DiPerna and Congdon's legal rights to Chris would be terminated within a year.