Tears and defiance as Chris faces 'termination'
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Chris Congdon's caseworker took him aside and tried to explain in a way a 9-year-old could understand what she planned to do.
She was going to ask a judge to cut all legal ties between him and his mother and father. If the judge agreed, his parents' right to visit him, send him birthday cards and presents, even telephone him would forever end.
It was Feb. 14, 1996. Valentine's Day.
On a day devoted to undying love, Chris learned that the man who expected great things from him and the woman for whom he was named would, in the eyes of the law, no longer be his parents.
Caseworkers from Allegheny County Children and Youth Services also told Chris' parents that day. The child welfare agency would try to terminate their rights to Chris, who had been in foster care four years, and his older brother, who lived in a group home.
Chris' mother, Christine DiPerna, wept. "All I did that day was cry, cry, cry. It was like my whole life ended." His father, Frank Congdon, hid his feelings where no one, not even DiPerna, his partner for a decade, could find them. "He said," she recalls, "crying won't bring them back home."
DiPerna was told that Chris' foster parents, Sue Luebbert and Christopher Hill, had agreed to adopt him if DiPerna's and Congdon's rights were severed. DiPerna liked Sue Luebbert and knew she'd been good to her son. "My mind said, yes,' Chris would be better off with Sue. But my heart said no.' "
The effect on Chris was not as immediately obvious. The following morning, he told Luebbert, "I can't wait for you to adopt me, Mommy."
But within a week, there was trouble. He couldn't focus in school. He'd daydream. He'd fall out of his chair. Although he had attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, he'd gotten no demerits for weeks. Then, right after he was told of the termination, he got six in one day.
Termination is society's solution for a failed reunification of child and parents. When abused or neglected children are sent to foster care, the first goal is to rehabilitate the parents and send the children home. Parents are told what they must do to get their kids back stop smoking crack, find suitable housing, get a job. If they don't accomplish those tasks within a reasonable amount of time, the goal changes. Adoption becomes the plan for the child.
Before parents may be discarded, however, their legal bonds to their children must be destroyed. That's termination.
It is a satisfying act for a society supporting the 500,000 emotionally and physically injured children of abusive and neglectful parents. The federal tab for foster care is nearly $4 billion a year.
Still, termination is as violent as it sounds. It is called the capital punishment of family court for good reason.
Just talk of it reduced DiPerna to tears and Chris to defiance.
On the holiday of hearts, theirs were broken.
The conflict within
A few weeks later, Chris' school bus driver gave him an old-fashioned punishment. He was to write 100 times, "I will not scream on the bus."
When he got home, Chris told his foster mother he didn't want to write the sentences. Luebbert said he had to.
Chris kicked and screamed, something he hadn't done in years. He threatened to leave, which he'd never done before. He went to his room and packed a bag.
Luebbert knew the tantrum wasn't really about scribbling sentences. It was about conflicted loyalties. Should he protest termination and stand by his parents' side? Or should he say nothing because Luebbert and Hill now seemed like his parents?
This was something, however, Chris was unlikely to talk about openly, especially when he was angry, and Luebbert was pressed for time. She had a dentist appointment in Sewickley. And she didn't want Chris running away when she wasn't there to follow him.
An inspiration hit her. Chris' caseworker had an office near her dentist. She told Chris she couldn't just let him leave because she was responsible for his safety. But if he felt he could no longer live with her and Hill, she said, she would drop him off at his caseworker's office.
He got into the car with his bag.
When they arrived in Sewickley, however, he wouldn't get out.
Later, he told her that sometimes part of him wanted to return to his parents, but then part of him wanted to stay with her and Hill, where he had lived longer than any other place in his life.
Chris was just 2 when he first entered foster care because his parents couldn't care for him. He shuttled back and forth between foster care and home several times before ending up with Luebbert and Hill at the age of 5.
Luebbert told Chris to listen to the part of him saying he should leave and think about what it was. Maybe it was a feeling he would have to leave someday when he grew up. Maybe it was a desire to leave because he knew his parents wanted him back so badly.
Luebbert wondered if Chris' desire to return now was a result of the caretaker role he'd assumed within his family. He'd have to go back to take care of his mother, to make sure CYS could not hurt her by terminating her rights.
Often when parents neglect their children, one of the youngsters takes over adult duties. That's what Chris did, even as a young child. DiPerna recounts proudly times when Chris saved the day. Once, she recalls, he stopped her from throwing a lamp at his father.
For Chris, and other caretaker children, termination means separation from parents they not only love but also feel responsible for. For them, the psychological struggle is worse while they wait endless months for the overworked child welfare agencies to process forms, advertise in legal journals and complete documentation necessary for the termination hearing.
Termination is supposed to eliminate recalcitrant parents who won't clean up enough to get their kids back. It's supposed to give abused or neglected children a new chance, a new set of parents who can care for them properly.
The problem is that many children, like Chris, aren't sure they want their parents erased from their lives. The children feel they're the ones being punished.
Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledges the pain of termination, but says it can't be avoided. When parents fail over time to reform themselves, society must do something to give their children new parents. "There is no way around the trauma of some of this. To be chosen [for adoption], first you have to be given up. In infant adoptions, this giving up is a quiet process," he said, but for older children, "it is violent."
Detroit Judge Patricia Campbell, who has dealt with the emotional fallout from terminations for nearly two decades, says children need to know they can continue loving their parents. She tells the kids, "I am trying to get someone responsible to make decisions for you. Your mother may not be able to do that for you. In no way do I cut off the love she has for you or the love you have for her."
The worst cases, she said, the hardest ones for her, are when parents are terminated because of mental retardation, personality disorders or mental illness: "They love their children, but they can't parent them."
That is the case with DiPerna and Congdon. She is mildly mentally retarded, and he has schizophrenia.
An earlier betrayal
On some level, DiPerna knew she could not care for Chris. When he was taken from her in 1992, when he was 5, he was sassy and defiant. Both she and the caseworker described him as "a handful." He was out of control.
Luebbert and Hill had tamed him. They wouldn't permit him to speak rudely to his parents on the phone. They gave him timeouts and took away privileges for bad behavior, like spitting on street signs. They praised and rewarded him for his accomplishments, like home runs he hit for his Little League teams. Over four years, Chris had learned to control himself.
DiPerna could acknowledge Chris had found stability, security and a set of perfect replacement parents by surrendering her legal rights to him and allowing Luebbert and Hill to adopt.
But DiPerna couldn't hand over Chris or his brother so easily. She'd been through this ordeal before, and she'd felt deceived then.
A little more than a decade earlier, her first two children were in foster care, and she'd relinquished her rights, allowing adoption without a fight. The foster parents were supposed to keep in touch with her, but they didn't.
DiPerna was 22, unmarried and unemployed when she found herself pregnant. Her grandmother advised her to get an abortion and go to school to become a chef as she had planned. But DiPerna liked being pregnant and didn't want an abortion.
"My grandmother said I would be sorry. I wouldn't listen," she recalls. The baby, whom she named Scott, made her happy. "I was so proud. It was a good feeling being a mom." She had a second child, Crystal, the following year.
But then she was overwhelmed. She had two little children and no way to support them. She lived with various family members. The children's father had introduced her to hard drugs, and she'd become an addict.
Even when she wasn't high, she didn't know how to discipline her children. One time when Scott spilled a pitcher of Kool-Aid in the refrigerator, she began smacking his behind with her hand and lost control. Her sister stopped her. "After that," she says, "I promised I would never hit a child again."
She may not have hit them, but she wasn't caring for them either. She'd leave them with her mother while she got high for days on end. Finally, her mother called CYS, which placed Crystal with DiPerna's sister and Scott with an unrelated foster family. After a few months, CYS moved Crystal to the family that had Scott.
DiPerna wouldn't give up drugs or do what was necessary to get her children back, so CYS asked her to relinquish her rights so the foster parents could adopt. The foster parents, DiPerna says, promised to send her letters and pictures if she did.
She agreed, but not long after the adoption, they denied pledging anything. DiPerna's letters were returned unopened. She thinks the family moved, but she doesn't know where they are or how to contact them.
Because there was no open adoption law in Pennsylvania, she couldn't force them to keep their part of the bargain. In some states, open adoption laws allow birth parents and adoptive parents to sign pre-adoption contracts allowing birth parents to continue to receive pictures, letters, phone calls or even visits.
Before the adoptive parents disappeared, DiPerna gave them letters for Scott and Crystal to open when they turned 18. She hopes the children try to find her then. Scott is 18 now and has not contacted his mother yet, but it would not be unusual for the children to seek her out at some point.
Robert Ennis, who runs a major foster care and adoption agency in Detroit, tells people adopting any child who lived with birth parents for two or more years that the child may try to find that family as soon as he is able to read a phone book or board a bus by himself. Sometimes they move in with the birth parents.
Judges may end legal rights, but, Ennis says, the feelings, the memories that parents and children share can't be crushed by a gavel.
DiPerna says losing Scott and Crystal punched a hole in her heart. It was a wound that would never heal. She'd given up her first born boy and girl and since then, she'd given up drugs. Now she wasn't going to part with her second set of children so easily.
She would hear Luebbert saying again and again she felt it was important for Chris to see her and Congdon, even after an adoption, but DiPerna's trust was destroyed by the betrayal before.
This time DiPerna needed her children to know she'd fought for them. This would prove her love even if she lost. "I want Chris to know I love him," she said as she prepared to battle CYS in court.
Where's the help?
Congdon wasn't talking of termination. He wanted the boys back.
In the summer of 1996, he and DiPerna were living with her mother in McKeesport. The elderly woman's health had deteriorated after she broke a hip, and she was bedridden and often incoherent.
Congdon and DiPerna cared for her 24 hours a day. They didn't understand why the boys couldn't move in. They had stable housing. They had proved their abilities by nursing DiPerna's mother.
But CYS kept telling them to get a place of their own.
Congdon argued that the two of them, living on a total of $1,022 a month in Social Security disability payments, had little income to pay rent, utilities, phone bills and other housing costs. And, he asked, if CYS wanted them to get an apartment so badly, why did it provide them with absolutely no help?
That is a question that can make termination tricky. Is it morally acceptable to permanently remove children from parents when society has failed to help them meet goals it set for return of the children?
It is a constant quandary for judges, says Mike Foley, executive director of the Children's Charter of the Courts of Michigan. In Michigan it arises more often because that state requires termination hearings for parents who fail to meet goals within a year. Other states allow more time. Often, Foley says, judges won't terminate if they feel the system has failed to give parents services they needed to get their children back.
Those services may include classes on how to discipline without beating, drug treatment or mental health therapy, or vouchers for public housing, all of which may have long waiting lists.
In 1980, when Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, it had decided the best place for children was with their own, rehabilitated parents. But within a decade, there weren't enough services to help the huge number of parents who needed them to get their children back.
"Resources for child welfare services failed to keep pace with the needs of troubled children and their families. While foster care funding has increased dramatically at all levels of government, federal funding for child welfare services has lagged. States and localities have found it difficult to meet demand," the General Accounting Office concluded after a 1995 audit.
If Chris' parents couldn't find an apartment by themselves, if there was a long waiting list for public housing and CYS failed to help them, should Chris remain in foster care indefinitely?
A long December
Ten months after Valentine's Day, that question seemed moot.
Early in December 1996, Congdon and DiPerna argued, screamed and overturned furniture at her mother's house. She kicked him out. He left with nothing, not even his medications.
He had nowhere to go, but homelessness was not new to him. He'd first lived on the streets when his parents evicted him at age 16. But without his schizophrenia medication, he began having hallucinations. Among Congdon's most common delusions is that he is Jesus Christ. He was arrested twice, once for not paying for a meal at a restaurant and once during a dispute at a church. McKeesport police, aware of his mental illness, charged him with disorderly conduct and sent him to a hospital.
DiPerna was left alone to try to care for her mother. She couldn't take it. She overdosed on Congdon's medication and was rushed to McKeesport Hospital. "I thought my kids would be better off without me because I was not there for them," she explained later. "I didn't want to be in pain anymore."
DiPerna, who had suffered from depression since she was a teen-ager, stayed in the psychiatric unit for three weeks.
She and Congdon missed their Christmas visits with Chris and his brother.
At the same time, Luebbert and Hill completed the adoption application for Chris. A social worker had begun studying their home and their relationship with Chris to ensure this would be a good placement for the child.
On Dec. 14, the day after DiPerna was admitted to the hospital, President Clinton called for doubling adoptions of foster children by the year 2002. Too many children, he said, were waiting for security in their lives. Too many Chrises subsisted in uncertainty.