Chris finally learns which home is home
By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
It fell to Sue Luebbert to give her foster son the news. She told the 10-year-old he would never go home to his parents. A judge had terminated their legal rights to him, essentially divorcing them from him.
"It means your mom and dad can't act as your parents anymore. They are never going to get you back," she told the child, who had been in her care for five years, half his life.
Chris Congdon's reaction seemed a non sequitur. "OK," he said, "That means when we go to New Hampshire we can stay there forever."
The more Luebbert thought about it, though, the more sense this reply made. They were planning a visit to her parents' home in New Hampshire, and Chris knew she'd like to move back there someday.
"It was almost like he was saying, if it's terminated, let's get away from this altogether. If I am done with it, I want to be away from it," Luebbert said later.
Chris' talk of moving to New Hampshire touched on his birth mother's greatest fear -- that she'd never see him again. Her rights to Chris' older brother also had been terminated, and the group home where that child lived had already forbidden her to phone or visit him.
DiPerna hoped to ask the judge when Luebbert and her husband, Christopher Hill, adopted Chris to order them to allow her to see Chris. She talked of it constantly, although the boy's father, Frank Congdon, told her it wouldn't happen.
DiPerna's fretting over it grated on Congdon because he didn't want to talk about the boys. He had frozen his feelings. When DiPerna told him he should be careful about his health for the sake of his sons, he asked, "What two sons?"
"The best thing to do is ignore it and pretend it is not there," he explained. "I don't want to get mad and go off."
It had taken Allegheny County Children and Youth Services five years to get a judge to terminate Congdon and DiPerna's legal rights to their sons. Federal legislation passed in 1980 said such decisions should be made after children are in the foster care system for 18 months.
That law, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, stressed fixing broken families and gluing them back together. But after 18 months, if parents hadn't reformed, a judge was to decide whether social workers should continue helping them or petition to terminate their rights and pursue adoption for the children.
This worked reasonably well for a few years. Then huge numbers of children began entering the system because of steady increases in crack addiction and child poverty. Caseworkers and courts couldn't keep up.
At 18 months, parents routinely would be granted more time because overburdened caseworkers hadn't helped them or long waiting lists had prevented them from getting services. That resulted in children lingering in foster care, where they didn't have either the security of birth parents or the permanency of adoption.
Congress, which was paying ever-increasing bills for foster care, wanted new legislation aimed at halting the endless reprieves given to dangerous and inept parents, so children could be adopted faster.
Child welfare advocates didn't quibble much with the effort by Congress to set earlier deadlines for birth parents to reform, but some questioned its fairness if the system were not adequately funded. They said a philosophical change was fine, but that parents still needed help to reform and individual decisions still needed to be made about cases. And neither could be properly done by harried caseworkers, lawyers and judges.
Yet Congress wasn't offering any new money to pay for more workers within the system or more services for parents.
At hearings leading up to the Senate vote on the new legislation, child advocates warned lawmakers that their philosophy pushing adoption wasn't enough if they didn't offer proper resources to make it work.
David S. Liederman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, told the Senate the system couldn't keep up with current demands, let alone new ones proposed in the legislation.
Judge David E. Grossmann, chairman of the adoption committee of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said judges had been overwhelmed by the sharp increase in abuse and neglect cases. "When courts are overcrowded and rushed, they can make tragic mistakes," he warned.
Their positions were supported by the federal government's own General Accounting Office, which wrote in a 1995 report: "Child welfare agencies became increasingly constrained by insufficient resources, high caseloads and overburdened workers. By the time we surveyed programs in 1994, more than one half said that they were unable to serve all the eligible families."
For Chris, the consequences of inadequate money were obvious. When his caseworker fell ill, the agency could not afford to replace her. For months at a time, his case -- his life -- remained in suspended animation while she recovered. It took three times longer than it was supposed to for the child welfare agency to petition for termination of his parents' rights. His foster parents filled out adoption paperwork twice because a year's delay invalidated the first set.
Just four days before Luebbert and Hill were scheduled to adopt Chris last fall, a caseworker called to say CYS had just discovered that it needed to complete another routine check of their household. Without it, the adoption could not proceed.
Although Luebbert was sick in bed, she and Hill accommodated the eleventh-hour request.
A member of the family
On Oct. 24, while they waited for the adoption hearing to start, Luebbert and Hill teased Chris. Because they weren't changing his last name, as most adoptive parents do, they said they were giving him a new first name. It would be Elmer.
Elmer was right up there with Elmo as a name a 10-year-old would never want. Chris didn't think they were too funny. And he, and Brian Luebbert-Hill, the 5-month-old baby who was to become his brother that day, were getting tired of waiting.
Their hearing was set for 9 a.m. It was 10:15 when they were finally called into Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen Craig's courtroom.
CYS adoption attorney Paula Benucci called Luebbert to the stand.
"Do you understand you have all the duties toward this child that you would have for a natural child?" she asked.
"Yes," Luebbert said, her voice tight, tears rolling down her face.
"Do you understand you have the duty of love and affection for Chris?" the attorney asked.
"Do you understand that he may inherit from you and you from him and that you may not discriminate between Chris and any other natural child you may have?"
"Yes," Luebbert said, wiping away the tears.
Hill took the stand next and answered the same set of questions.
Benucci told him that he and Luebbert would receive an adoption subsidy of $15 a day for Chris. The subsidies were established by federal legislation in 1980 to encourage adoption of foster children who are difficult to place, including older kids such as Chris, minority youngsters and sibling groups.
Although the subsidy is paid until the child turns 18, it is less costly than foster care payments because for every foster child, the government must also pay the salaries of caseworkers and the overhead for child welfare agencies. The federal government saves about $80 a month on every foster child who is adopted. State and local governments, which pay about half the cost of foster care, also save when children are adopted.
In Chris' case, the government saves twice because his adoption subsidy is half the $30 rate it had been paying Luebbert and Hill for foster care. That higher rate was because Chris had behavioral problems and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The couple would have liked to have continued receiving $30 a day for Chris to ensure that they could pay for any special classes or psychological care he may need. But they were too intent on adopting him to quibble over the money.
Hill accepted the lower payment Benucci offered.
"I would request," Benucci said to the judge, "that Christopher Lee Congdon become the child of Sue Luebbert and Chris Hill."
Judge Craig signed the papers and everyone clapped. Luebbert smiled for the pictures, but her nose was red from crying. When no one else could get Brian to stop fussing, Chris hugged and bounced him until he smiled for the camera.
After all the years of foster care, this day, adoption day, was supposed to be a special time, like a second birthday, just for the new family, Luebbert, Hill, Chris and his new brother, baby Brian.
But as the family left the courtroom, Luebbert saw something she couldn't believe. Maybe it was just tears blurring her vision. No, it was what she thought -- Chris' birth parents standing in the hallway.
Chris ran to DiPerna and hugged her. "Hi, Mom," he said.
Luebbert didn't know what to do. A caseworker told her to just walk away. "But I knew if I did that I would hear screams from Oakland to the North Hills," she said later.
Instead, she urged Chris to go to his birth father, saying, "He needs a big hug, hon, because he loves you very much." Chris complied, hugging his father stiffly.
Then, Luebbert told them she had to leave because the baby was crying. She took Chris and they walked toward the stairs. Chris looked back and DiPerna waved to him. He turned to Luebbert and said, "I feel her pain."
DiPerna was sobbing. She had wanted to talk to the judge at the hearing. She had wanted a promise that she would be able to see her son. "Deep down inside, I am afraid I will never see him again. I feel like my world ended today. I got this emptiest feeling in my heart."
She couldn't understand how the adoption had gone on without them. She said she'd gotten a notice from CYS to be there at 10 a.m., and that they were only a few minutes late. She could never find this notice later, however, and Luebbert learned that a caseworker had accidentally told them of the hearing that birth parents are almost never invited to attend.
"I hope Christopher doesn't think I would stop loving him because I won't see him no more," she said. "I will love him until the day I die. I feel I am still his mother. No one can take that away from me."
Congdon tried to console her. He told her again what he had said before. The judge couldn't order visits. That was between them and the adoptive parents.
As Luebbert walked up the courthouse stairs with Chris, she got more and more upset. How could Chris' birth parents have tainted this day?
"For all the sympathy I have for them," she said, "I was looking forward to just one day that was going to be just ours."
Although DiPerna had gone to court with the hope of guaranteed visits, what she did may have hurt her chances to see Chris.
Luebbert thought it was wrong for Chris to feel her pain. "He has felt more than his share of her pain. That has been his job for years, to take care of his mother's pain. Right now I am not inclined to foster a situation in which that would be an ongoing problem."
She decided to let Chris determine whether he wanted to see his parents. He asked if that meant he would no longer have to miss Little League games to attend court-ordered visits. She said it did; he could go whenever he wanted, not at some predetermined time.
Three weeks after Chris' adoption, the House and Senate, by overwhelming majorities, voted to require states to seek termination of parents' rights after their children had spent 15 months in foster care. Six days later, on Nov. 19, President Clinton signed the bill.
The legislation was the beginning of a new era in child protective services. This would be the time when children's "health and safety" would be the paramount consideration. The days of returning children to parents as the first priority were over.
The law continued federal financing for existing programs that provide services to families and courts. But it offered no new money for services, courts, or what some believe is the weakest link in the system, caseworkers.
Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group in New York City, was among those who said this was fine as far as it went. But, she said, the system needed much more than tinkering with termination timing.
What it really needs, she said, is high-quality and well-trained caseworkers and good supervisors, all with reasonable caseloads, and sufficient money for courts and reunification services. "Then, she said, "you would see a huge difference."
Her concerns were acknowledged by Senator Mike DeWine, a Republican from Ohio, the day the legislation he helped write passed. He promised that this year, the Senate would take up the the causes of caseworkers, courts and services.
"We need," he said, "better training for the caseworkers who look out for our children. We need to make sure they have smaller caseloads . . . We need to provide better training for the courts that deal with our children. We need to make sure that families who are in trouble, but [who] can be saved, get help before it's too late."
That was last fall. In the months since, nothing has been introduced in the House or Senate to do that. In fact, an aide to DeWine said last week that the senator was looking at the problems but probably would do nothing this year.
Throughout those same months, Chris' birth parents waited to hear from him. They sent him cards at Halloween and Thanksgiving, expressing their love. They particularly hoped to see him on his 11th birthday in December.
But Chris never showed any interest in seeing them. He signed a Christmas card Luebbert gave to him for them, but he didn't write a note, not even a "love you." Luebbert asked if he wanted to call them, and he shouted, "No."
Chris did not even seem to particularly want to see his older brother, who had finally moved in with foster parents six days after Chris' adoption. He called Chris frequently, but Chris rarely called him.
DiPerna called and Luebbert explained that she'd left the decision to Chris. "I was kind of hurt when she explained it to me," DiPerna recounted. "She said Christopher is not ready to see me yet. I don't understand why."
Luebbert wasn't sure why either.
It was possible he was just angry at his birth parents. He'd told Luebbert he resented her asking him to hug Congdon after the adoption. "I didn't want them to be there. Why did you tell me to do that?" he'd demanded.
Or it was possible that he wanted to sustain the image he'd created of his birth parents when he was with them at age 2.
"He likes the fantasy figure of them he has in his mind," Luebbert said. "But he doesn't want to deal with the reality. He would probably like it if we moved, and then he wouldn't see them, and he could enjoy the idea of them a lot more."
This spring, Chris attended a series of classes for adopted children. That may have helped him work through the conflicts because on Easter morning, he asked Luebbert if he could call Congdon and DiPerna.
She urged him to do it right away. He chatted with them for a long time, and has called them twice since.
He did not, however, call last Sunday, on Mother's Day. As the day wore on, and he didn't mention it, Luebbert assured him it wouldn't bother her. But he didn't do it. Maybe doting on one mother was enough for him this Mother's Day.