A final plea that love is enough to send Chris and his brother home
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Frank Congdon and Christine DiPerna arrived at court without bus fare home. They'd walk back if they had to. This hearing was too important to miss.
Allegheny County Children and Youth Services was asking a judge to sever their legal rights to their children to divorce them from their two sons.
They didn't have the couple of bucks for return bus fare because money was particularly tight for them now. For the first time in five years, they'd rented a place of their own, a step they thought was necessary before CYS would give them back their boys.
Now they had to pay rent and utilities from their $1,022-a-month in Social Security Disability income. They'd already lost their phone because they couldn't pay the bill. They got groceries at a food bank.
They considered moving to a smaller, cheaper apartment, but they wanted to stay where they were, in a place big enough for their sons, until a judge ruled on the petition from CYS. The agency had taken the boys from them five years before because they had been unable to adequately care for them.
This hearing in June 1997 had been hanging over them for a year and a half. CYS told them in February 1996 that it intended to terminate rights. The younger boy, Chris Congdon, was to be adopted by his foster parents. The older boy lived in a group home. No one was waiting to take him.
Congdon and DiPerna wondered how CYS could justify making their oldest son, who was 11, an orphan. How could it take away his parents who loved him and whom he loved if that would leave him with no parents at all?
This was a question before Congress as well. Lawmakers were considering legislation requiring states to seek termination of parental rights more quickly. They wanted to speed adoption, so foster children wouldn't be suspended for long periods between two families.
But the General Accounting Office, Congressional Research Service and social scientists had warned Congress the result of speedy terminations could be something they didn't want even more state-created orphans.
Already 110,000 children across the nation awaited parents. In 1996, a record 27,000 were adopted or placed permanently with relatives. But that left 83,000 with no ties to parents or adoptive families. And each year more children were orphaned by terminations than were adopted, so the number waiting constantly rose.
They had been, as Cincinnati Judge David E. Grossmann, past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, put it, "cast into a pit where nothing will happen." What Congress proposed could dump even more kids into that pit.
Some states that already hurried terminations had found that to be true. Michigan, Ohio and some parts of Kentucky couldn't come up with enough adoptive homes for all the new orphans created by their early terminations, experts told Congress.
Michigan's orphans have increased every year since speedy terminations began nine years ago, accumulating to a total now of about 6,000 parentless children. Catherine H. Gardner, who serves as a hearing officer in these cases in Detroit, describes the state's "permanent court wards" this way: "Their mother is the government. Their father is the state."
Even Gardner's boss, Detroit's Chief Judge Freddie Burton Jr., who supports speedy terminations, concedes, "The kids know the government does not wrap its arms around you."
One of the things DiPerna always did well was embrace her sons. She knew she hadn't always provided them with the direction and protection they needed. "But," she said, "I always fed them and read to them and gave them love and toys."
She and Congdon couldn't believe that the court would take their sons from them when it meant the oldest would be denied a parent's love.
A loving bond
But love hasn't got much to do with it when parenting gets to court.
Although Congdon and DiPerna clearly adored their boys and the boys loved them, a psychologist would tell the judge they weren't what the boys needed in parents.
"The parents mean well," Neil Rosenblum testified, "and they want to do well by the boys. But they don't have the patience or skills necessary to deal with two boys with special needs."
Chris' special need, the term the court uses for any physical or psychological handicap, was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His brother's was mild mental retardation and depression.
The parents couldn't cope with the boys' problems because they had their own, Rosenblum told the judge. The father was schizophrenic and the mother mildly mentally retarded, limiting her ability to understand the boys' needs, he said. She induced guilt in Chris by suggesting that he didn't love her. Congdon was impatient, demanding and relentlessly critical of Chris, the psychologist said.
In fact, while Congdon was affectionate toward the older boy, he was so caustic toward Chris that Rosenblum asked DiPerna about it.
She told him it was because Congdon wasn't the older boy's father, and that he had higher expectations of his own son.
This was news to Chris, who was with his mother when she revealed that Congdon was not both boys' father. "He looked very dejected," Rosenblum said, adding it was inappropriate for the mother to so casually offer such information. It was, he said, an example of how ill-equipped she and Congdon were to deal with these boys.
Maybe they weren't perfect parents, their court-appointed attorney replied, but, she asked, is it right to terminate their rights if that makes the older boy an orphan?
The psychologist conceded, "That is not a desirable psychological state for a child to be in."
And if the court orphaned the boy at 11, his adoption prospects were slim. Most terminated children are adopted by foster parents, and this boy, still living in a group home, did not have foster parents.
Most couples seeking to adopt aren't looking for 11-year-olds. Many are willing to spend thousands of dollars to go overseas to get infants and toddlers to adopt. Ten thousand foreign-born children were adopted by American couples in 1996 while tens of thousands of older American foster children, whose parents' rights had been terminated, waited for parents.
Because so many couples want babies, early termination of parental rights would be good for the increasing numbers of crack-exposed infants entering foster care. It would help them get adopted before they hit the terrible twos.
But babies under age 1 make up only 3 percent of all children in foster care. And only 3 percent of the orphans. Children ages 6 to 12 the group that included Chris' brother are the largest category of orphans.
Chris' brother did have one advantage, however. He was white. Richard P. Barth, a professor of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, found in a federally funded study that white children were nearly twice as likely to get adopted as black children, and the older the children got, the less likely they would be adopted.
Those statistics fuel criticism of quick terminations. "Michigan is raising a whole generation of young black men in group homes because they are terminated and can't get adopted," said Detroit hearing officer Catherine Gardner. "Is that a good idea?"
Max Baer, administrative judge for Allegheny County's Family Court, also questions a public policy that creates orphans. "If the purpose of all this is to help kids," he asks, "isn't it better to have a dysfunctional mother than none at all?"
At least a dysfunctional mother comes around to visit the child now and then. That's forbidden after termination.
And for Chris' brother, that would not be a good thing. Rosenblum said if the termination occurred and Chris' brother had no adoptive parents, it would help him to continue seeing his parents.
He said Chris also should have some contact. "I don't think Chris would ever be at a point where he would be able to say he does not want to see his parents or does not love his parents," Rosenblum told the judge. But, he added, Chris should see his parents less because they drained and depressed him.
Rosenblum's testimony infuriated Congdon. He said it was nothing but a setup: CYS wanted to terminate rights and had found a psychologist who would say what it wanted. "They knew what they would do all along. How can you assess a relationship in 15 minutes?"
It wasn't over for Congdon and DiPerna, though. The judge continued the hearing until Aug. 8 because she wanted their psychological histories, and since they still hadn't signed release forms, she ordered it. And, she wanted Rosenblum to assess the relationship between Chris and his foster parents, Sue Luebbert and Christopher Hill.
This session had been scheduled, but CYS had failed to inform Luebbert and Hill of the date, so they didn't show up. Luebbert was, as she put it, frosted by this. Missing an appointment, especially one having to do with Chris' adoption, was something she and Hill would never do. This negligence by CYS made her feel like no one but she and her husband cared about Chris or the adoption.
"Is there something else I need to be nagging CYS about to get this done?" she wondered. "I have bent over backwards to accommodate them. Why aren't they working with us? We are always initiating calls. It is not like my phone is disconnected. It takes messages."
Luebbert and Hill had shepherded this case from the start, making sure visits with the parents occurred when overworked caseworkers couldn't be bothered. Sometimes they even informed caseworkers of hearing dates, another reversal in roles. Now they took up the slack to ensure the termination process continued by scheduling a new meeting with Rosenblum themselves.
Later, the tears
DiPerna remained stoic through the termination hearing. She scowled and shook her head in disagreement from time to time at the testimony, but she didn't cry.
She explained later that it was because she didn't believe the court would take her sons from her forever. "I can't face this. My belief is the kids are coming home. I haven't shed a tear yet."
Congdon was more fatalistic. He believed their rights would be terminated. And he had cried. It wasn't at the court hearing but during a telephone call with his older son.
For all DiPerna's talk about him not being the boy's father, Congdon had assumed that role. Sometimes DiPerna said she was pregnant when she met Congdon; sometimes she said she wasn't sure. But it didn't matter to him. He felt the boy was born to him, and he said he was less strict with him than with Chris because the older boy was more vulnerable. From Chris, a bright, athletically talented child, Congdon demanded more.
During one of Congdon and DiPerna's phone calls with the older boy, DiPerna told him she'd just gotten a puppy, and it was to be his when he came home. He told her he didn't think he was ever coming home. That upset both of them, and DiPerna gave Congdon the phone. The child was rude to his father, and Congdon responded by saying, "Who do you think you are talking to? I am your father."
"I don't think so," the boy said.
That caused Congdon's tears.
Despite that rebuff, when CYS asked Congdon and DiPerna to tell the boy it was fine for him to be adopted, they refused.
"They are so callous." Congdon said, "They have no feelings at all. It is nothing to them. To me, it is like they are asking me to give away a leg."
"They want us to lie and tell him it is OK," DiPerna said. "I am not lying. It is not OK with me."
And they refused to give permission for him to be advertised for adoption on "A Waiting Child," a feature on a local television news show. But then the judge ordered it done anyway.
"A Waiting Child" is among the efforts made by agencies such as CYS to place children. There are adoption "picnics" where potential adoptive parents meet waiting children. There are pictures posted on the Internet. There are conventions, where people can browse catalogs containing children's profiles and watch tear-jerking videos of orphans pleading for parents.
For all these efforts, children still wait, especially those who are "wounded" emotionally disturbed, physically handicapped or, like Chris' brother, disabled in other ways. Adoption studies have shown these kids are least likely to have good "adoption outcomes." That means after they're placed with a potential adoptive family, and even after the adoption is signed and sealed, they may be returned, sent back to foster care or group homes. This happens in 3 percent to 15 percent of foster care adoptions.
Despite the odds, in July, just weeks before the termination hearing was to resume, CYS found a husband and wife willing to consider Chris' brother. He is a 49-year-old truck driver, and she's a 40-year-old teacher's aide. He has a 28-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. She was unable to have children and together they decided to pursue adoption. Chris' brother visited them so they could get to know each other before any promises were made.
It went well, but the couple had some concerns. Luebbert, who had come to know the boy from his twice monthly visits with Chris, said after she spoke with them it was clear that CYS had not told them everything. She feared the child would be devastated if they rejected him after receiving his complete file.
In the end, CYS did turn over all the information, but only after much insistence and persistence by the couple. "These are children's lives. If you are not given full access to the records, that can make a difference," said the woman recruited to be the older child's foster mother.
CYS director Marc Cherna said it is routine for agencies to conceal some information initially.
"If you give them the whole thing, put the worst case out on the kid, then no one would ever be interested. You try to put the kid in the best light and tell the parents as they go along. This is a process of engagement." The hope, he said, is that everyone falls in love.
When Luebbert met the couple, she felt it was a perfect match. "If I had custom-ordered a set of parents, this would be it. I couldn't be more thrilled. This is just what I wanted." The couple relieved Luebbert of her guilt about not taking Chris' brother as CYS had asked her repeatedly to do.
Congdon and DiPerna, however, were less than thrilled with this couple. They met accidentally at the group home one day when Congdon and DiPerna went to visit the boy and the couple arrived to take him home for the weekend.
"I put out my hand, glad to meet you," Congdon said. "It took him a long time to shake my hand."
No winners in this'
In June, after the termination hearing concluded for the day and a date to resume was set in August, Congdon and DiPerna searched the courthouse for their caseworker to ask for a ride back to McKeesport.
But she was gone. It was 94 degrees, and both were wearing long-sleeved shirts. Congdon was limping because of bad circulation to his legs. He'd stop every 20 feet to cough and catch his breath. At 42, he'd survived two heart attacks. They borrowed money from a reporter for bus fare home.
When they returned to court in August for the conclusion of the termination hearing, Congdon and DiPerna had money for round-trip fare, even though their rent had just been raised $20 a month.
This hearing was brief. The psychologist told the judge how well the foster parents and Chris got along. Rosenblum said after five years with Luebbert and Hill, Chris' identity was tied to them. "He said he likes his life," Rosenblum said. "He likes to be a normal kid and feels he is in his foster home."
Rosenblum also said he was impressed that Luebbert and Hill had told Chris he could see his parents and continue using Congdon as his last name after adoption.
Then Congdon and DiPerna implored Judge Cheryl Allen Craig to let them keep their boys.
"I may not be equipped to handle the problems they have, but I could learn," Congdon said. "I love both my children and I feel they should be with me."
Craig did not give them her decision immediately. She never does in termination cases.
Five days later, on Aug. 13, she made it final. She divorced Congdon and DiPerna from their boys.
DiPerna didn't really seem to accept it when they got the notice in the mail. But a few days later, when she tried to call her older son at the group home, it hit her. She wanted to talk to him about his birthday and tell him she'd gotten the Super Nintendo he'd asked for.
But the staff cut her off. "They wouldn't let me talk to him because I was terminated," she said, crying. "It will be the first birthday I don't see him." They wouldn't even let her give him the Nintendo.
"It's not fair. I didn't even do nothing, and they took my kids," she said through sobs.
Luebbert also cried when she got the news. "There are no winners in this," she said, "This is only about people getting on with their lives."