Chris' parents get a place of their own and demand their boys back
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Chris Congdon's parents called him at his foster home one day in January 1997. Great news, they said. They'd rented an apartment.
They wanted to throw a big party there for Chris and his brother, who lived in a group home. The boys could open their Christmas presents. The parents, Christine DiPerna and Frank Congdon, could celebrate their momentous achievement getting a place of their own.
They'd finally accomplished what they thought was the last and hardest task Allegheny County Children and Youth Services required before they could get their boys back.
A celebration now could help them forget the trouble of the previous year. That year, 1996, had started with CYS telling them on Valentine's Day that it would try to terminate their legal rights so the boys could be adopted. Then, at year's end, both parents were sent to psychiatric wards. DiPerna had tried to kill herself. Congdon was hallucinating after neglecting to take his medication for schizophrenia. That's why they hadn't seen their boys at Christmas.
But as soon as Congdon left the hospital, he rented an apartment on the second floor of a small red-brick building in McKeesport. It had hardwood floors, a tile decorated fireplace and a covered balcony. Congdon asked DiPerna to join him, although they'd fought and split up in December.
She moved from her mother's house, where they'd lived together before the fight. She brought the framed pictures of their boys, who were 10 and 11, to hang on the walls.
She and Congdon talked of converting the dining room into a bedroom for the boys, the final project necessary to end five years of separation, just as Congress debated the issue of how long parents like them should get to reform themselves.
Some lawmakers felt a 1980 federal law requiring "reasonable efforts" to return abused and neglected children to parents had been perverted into ridiculous attempts to reunite unfit parents and hapless children. They were sick of hearing accounts of children sent back to abusive parents who then beat them to death. They were tired of stories about children spending four, six, 10 years in foster care, never to have the security of either birth parents or adoptive parents.
While Congress wrestled with the conundrum of how much time would be too long for children to spend in foster care but too short for parents to achieve reform, Congdon and DiPerna pursued their plan to get their boys back.
Just after calling Chris, they phoned his older brother to tell him the good news, too.
He was particularly excited. Unlike Chris, who had been living with foster parents in a suburban subdivision, the older boy had been with staff in a group home, essentially a small orphanage.
As soon as he hung up, he told the staff he was going home. They warned him it wasn't that easy. A judge would have to give the OK first. And that, they said, was extremely unlikely.
A few hours later, he tried to drown himself in a bathtub.
A fantasy fades
It was the fourth time he'd tried suicide. His first attempt, at age 6, landed him in a psychiatric hospital.
Chris was different. Under stress, he wouldn't hurt himself. He'd strike out, break things. One time he ripped all the pictures from his bedroom walls and smashed them.
This time, his nightmares returned. He became emotionally needy. He wanted more hugs. He'd engage Sue Luebbert, his foster mother, in chatting for long stretches before he'd let her switch off his lights at bedtime.
Chris' fourth-grade teacher called Luebbert. Chris had never been this bad. What was going on, she asked.
Luebbert tried to explain. The child was frightened and confused. CYS had told him the year before that Luebbert and her husband, Christopher Hill, were to adopt him. But nothing happened, as overburdened caseworkers neglected the simplest tasks, such as sending Chris' case file from the regional office to the adoption office so legal work could begin. And now his parents were telling him he was coming home.
On the intellectual level, Luebbert explained, this bright 10-year-old knew a judge would decide whether he went home, and his parents' new apartment was only one part of the decision. But the fact that he grasped it didn't mean he could cope with it emotionally.
Chris' teacher understood. She'd try patience. But Luebbert had lost hers.
She told Chris' caseworker how upset he was, and the caseworker forbade any more calls from Congdon and DiPerna.
Congdon and DiPerna believed Chris was misbehaving and their older boy had tried suicide because they wanted to go home and no one would let them. Luebbert couldn't convince Congdon when he called her that the behavior was a result of conflicted feelings prompted by Congdon's telling the boys they'd be coming home soon. Congdon hung up on her.
Luebbert had been friends with Congdon and DiPerna from the first visit Chris had with his mother after being placed in Luebbert's care. Although a secretary had sent DiPerna away that day, telling her no visit was scheduled, Luebbert had searched for and found her so the 5-year-old boy could see his mother.
DiPerna saw this as a favor Luebbert had done for her. She never understood that Luebbert had done it for Chris. Luebbert knew Chris needed to see his mother at a time when he was feeling insecure following a change in foster homes.
Luebbert had overlooked misunderstandings like this, partly because she liked Congdon and DiPerna and knew they loved their sons. She had manufactured in her mind an idealized relationship with Chris' family, one in which everyone was working in his best interests. For five years she had tried to create the perfect alliance between birth family and foster family for the benefit of the child.
But when Congdon hung up on her, the fantasy ended. She made herself acknowledge what she knew in her heart. Congdon and DiPerna often did things, such as telling Chris he was coming home, for their own benefit and couldn't see the consequences for the children.
She realized she couldn't control this complex situation to be sure it all went well for Chris because everyone else would do what they wanted his parents, the caseworkers, the judge. "I couldn't make everyone get along. Everyone has their own minds."
So, she moved from trying to appease them all to simply protecting the child. "I could not stand back and let what they did hurt Chris."
This was where Congress was moving as well, laying the groundwork for new legislation that would focus child welfare efforts on children instead of parents.
The effort began in the House with a bill sponsored by Barbara B. Kennelly, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Dave Camp, a Republican from Michigan. The name made clear their bill's intent: The Adoption Promotion Act.
In the Senate, Democrat Jay Rockefeller from West Virginia, and several Republicans including Mike DeWine of Ohio revised the House bill, making it even tougher on parents.
They gave them less time to reform themselves. Under the old law, parents had 18 months before a judge was to decide whether to change the goal for the child to adoption or give the parents more time. Very often, parents got another six months, then another. That's part of the reason their children remained frozen in foster care. That's how Chris' parents were still hanging in there after five years.
Rockefeller and DeWine cut by a third the time parents had to find housing or get off drugs. The hearing was to be held at one year. Then, to prevent judges from granting unlimited reprieves, the senators added something new a mandated termination hearing.
Social workers would have to petition a judge to sever the legal rights of parents who failed to mend their ways within 15 months. This would accomplish what Congress wanted a major change in emphasis, from parents' rights to have their own children to children's right to have appropriate parents.
We can't please CYS'
When Congdon and DiPerna heard of the legislative efforts, they saw them as insidious attempts to provide childless couples, like Luebbert and Hill, with children. "If they want children," Congdon said, "let them have their own."
They already thought Luebbert and Hill were trying to steal their son, with the aid of such government agencies as CYS. And they pointed to a hearing after they got their apartment in January as evidence.
It was one of the routine case review hearings held twice a year. Congdon and DiPerna's lawyer told the judge about the apartment. They'd now met CYS' requirements, their attorney argued. At the very least, Chris' brother, who lived in a group home, should be returned to them.
CYS argued against that. Both parents had been hospitalized the previous month, the CYS lawyer said. And the agency was trying to get the parental rights terminated, not return the boys.
The judge wanted to see Congdon and DiPerna's mental health treatment histories before deciding. But the parents had not signed for release of the documents. The judge continued the hearing to allow time to get the reports. It would be held the same day the termination hearing was scheduled.
To Congdon and DiPerna this proved CYS had changed the rules to keep them from their boys. "I don't know what they got against us," DiPerna said. "Now that we got a house, they came up with other reasons to keep our kids from us. We can't please CYS no matter what we do."
They were afraid to release their psychiatric reports because of what they'd been told by staff at the group home where Chris' older brother lived.
"They told me I could not handle his problems," DiPerna recounted. "They said when he gets upset, all he wants to do is suicide. They told me I couldn't supervise him because I ended up in a psych ward. It tears me apart. I am sorry I signed myself in."
Congdon was furious because he believed the group home wrongly blamed them for the boy's suicide attempt. "I love that kid more than life itself. He wants to come home so bad. And they tell us we can't tell him he's coming home," Congdon said.
The boy clearly demonstrated his desire to be with his parents at a hearing. When an attorney asked that his visits with them be shortened or suspended, the boy placed his hands together as if in prayer and shook his head back and forth, silently pleading with the judge.
That, Congdon said, is why he tried to kill himself, because he wants to be with them, and the group home staff told him he couldn't go home.
For this boy, not going home was terrifying. He knew CYS was trying to end his parents' rights to him. That would make him an orphan. He'd have no legal parents. And CYS hadn't provided him with alternative parents. All he had was staff.
The judge had repeatedly ordered CYS to find the boy foster or adoptive parents. That they came up empty is not surprising. The previous year, 110,000 children like Chris' brother were waiting. Their parents' rights had been terminated, or that was the goal. But only 27,000 got adopted or permanently placed with relatives. And that was a record. In the past, adoptions of foster children had averaged 20,000 a year.
The painful discrepancy between the number waiting and the number given permanent parents is the reason President Clinton called for a doubling of adoptions by 2002. Congressional leaders included several measures in the proposed legislation aimed at meeting the president's challenge.
States would have to make "reasonable efforts" to get kids adopted, and they'd have to document them. They also would be enticed to increase adoptions with bonus bucks thousands of federal dollars paid to states for each adoption above the previous year's total.
Also, more adopted children would be eligible for federal Medicaid insurance and adoption subsidies, which are like foster care payments, except they are given to adoptive parents of foster children who are hard to place, such as those who are mentally or physically handicapped, minority children, sibling groups and children older than 5.
But, more importantly for children like Chris' brother, the legislation would urge states to begin planning a child's adoption the minute he was placed in foster care. Agencies were still supposed to try to bring birth parents and children together, but at the same time, they were to find adoptive parents and begin the paperwork.
For Chris' brother, that would have meant five years of searching for adoptive parents. And it would have required the agency to do more than just repeatedly ask Luebbert and Hill to take him so the brothers would be together.
Luebbert and Hill had told the agency no, and each time, their guilt grew, because CYS would then simply leave the boy in the group home.
But they felt they couldn't properly care for both boys.
The older child was mildly mentally retarded and suffered from depression. The younger had attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Luebbert and Hill knew each boy required constant attention because the older child had spent holidays with them and the boys visited each other twice a month. The foster parents felt they couldn't give both boys everything they needed and deserved.
And that was before Luebbert became pregnant. At the age of 43, she had finally conceived. The baby was due in May. She and Hill could no longer be accused of trying to steal Congdon and DiPerna's boy to fill their empty nest.
The door stays open
Luebbert was in her third trimester and clearly showing when everyone returned to court March 9.
It was possible she and Hill would adopt Chris that day, then get a second child, their own baby, two months later.
If Congdon and DiPerna didn't show up for the hearing, their rights would be terminated and the adoption would follow immediately. The court had sent an attorney to their apartment to explain that, and to tell them if they did attend, the termination hearing would be delayed, but the regular review hearing of their case would be held.
Hill knew they'd show up, so he didn't bring his camera to snap pictures of a newly adopted son.
He was right. The termination hearing was delayed until June 25. Then the review hearing was held.
Congdon and DiPerna's attorney again asked the judge to send Chris' brother to live with them. She told the judge they didn't want their medical histories released, but that both were now stable and receiving mental health treatment. And, she noted, CYS still hadn't provided the older boy with other parents.
The judge was unpersuaded by Congdon and DiPerna's claims of stability. She left the older child in the group home and ordered CYS to redouble its efforts to find him foster parents.
She did, however, give Congdon and DiPerna a chance to get the boys back. She ordered psychological evaluations of their relationship with their sons. The results of these assessments are significant in judges' decisions on termination. It is much harder to terminate reasonably reformed parents whose children run to them, hop into their laps, cling to them and plead to be taken home.
After the hearing, Chris and his brother hugged and kissed their mother. DiPerna left court with the warmth of their affection and the cold reality that she might lose Chris. Her attorney didn't think the court would give her Chris back, and the boy had been sending her mixed signals. When she asked what he wanted to do, one time he would say he wished he could go home, and the next he would tell her, "I don't know."
She worried about what that meant. "I do not think Chris even loves me anymore," she said. "All he talks about is Sue [Luebbert] Sue, Sue, Sue." If Chris would say he definitely wanted to go home, then DiPerna would be sure of his love.
Chris didn't know what to tell her. When his father was there, he would say he wanted to go home because he knew that's what Congdon wanted to hear and he didn't want to make him mad.
But, really, he didn't want to choose. His fantasy was for his parents to move in with Luebbert and Hill, who would take care of everybody. They could adopt the whole family. And they could give their baby Congdon as a last name.
The baby was born May 30, five years after Chris arrived at the Luebbert-Hill home in Franklin Park. Luebbert was officially a birth mother and could say with certainty what she'd always suspected: Pregnancy doesn't make a mother. "I don't think carrying that baby for nine months made any difference," she said defiantly. "I don't feel any difference in the quality of love I feel for these two boys just because I carried one for nine months."
The baby was named Brian Luebbert-Hill.
Luebbert and Hill explained to Chris that because this would probably be the only time they got to name a baby, they wanted to do it all by themselves. Chris understood.
He also understood that his foster parents couldn't really adopt his parents. Congdon and DiPerna would remain far away, across the county, in their new apartment in McKeesport.