Second of three parts
"I've failed the boys."
That was all Barbara Paul could think after she had dashed back to her Fitchburg apartment to find her two sons gone, taken from her home by the state.
She collapsed on the porch, and, as darkness fell on that dreary winter day, listened as her neighbors described the scene she had just missed: The boys crying as they were led by two social workers to a waiting car. Police officers nearby in case violence erupted.
Barbara went into seclusion that night of Jan. 4, 2000, into a darker place than she'd known during her often bleak childhood in Winchendon, or her struggles as a young, single mother, or in the aftermath of rape. She wept and pounded the walls of the ill-kept apartment that was Exhibit A in the state Department of Social Services' case against her.
Social workers said the 35-year-old single mother had raised her boys -- Joe was 13, Art was 8 -- in an unhealthy environment and had neglected some of their basic needs. In a court filing seeking a judge's permission to remove the children, an action Barbara was unaware of, social workers described her apartment as "unsanitary," a chaotic scene of dirty dishes, trash, and smelly clothes.
A ceiling leak left a puddle on the floor. The report described Barbara, who often wore grungy clothes, as "sleeping a lot and not appropriately dressed." The youngest boy had severe tooth decay, apparently the result of Barbara's negligence about dental care -- her sons' and her own.
Social workers feared that the disorder of her home reflected the state of her mind. "The continuation in the home is contrary to the welfare of the children," the report concluded.
Joe and Art didn't see it that way.
They cried and yelled as Rissa LeVangie, the 22-year-old social worker handling her first child ``removal'' for the state, struggled to comfort them. Over and over, as they were driven away, the boys said they wanted to be with their mother.
That first night, the boys were placed in separate foster homes in Groton. But separation quickly proved too painful, even as a temporary step. Art, inconsolable, stared at a picture of his mother. He sobbed and said he needed his big brother by his side, and Art's foster mother, Peggy Geddes, eventually agreed to take in the older boy. The two would share a full-size bed.
Nearly six weeks went by before Barbara saw them again. She missed them desperately, but first had to tame her fury at LeVangie, and at DSS, which she blamed for her loss. Meanwhile, the boys kept telling their foster mother how much they ached for their mother, especially after one scheduled reunion was canceled because of bad weather. At last, a date was set: Feb. 14, 2000, Valentine's Day, at the agency's Leominster office.
When Barbara and the boys spotted each other that day, they ran into each other's arms. The boys kept saying, ``We want to come home.''
Under the gun, against the clock
Barbara was determined to make that happen. She told herself that she could win over DSS, that she could prove herself to them. What she needed was time to rewrite her life, and she could sense that time was something she didn't have much of.
She was right. Federal lawmakers, in a landmark child-welfare bill passed in 1997, had strictly limited how long parents have to regain custody of children who had been removed because of neglect or abuse. Too many foster children, the lawmakers concluded, had languished in limbo for years while their parents kept promising to change their ways.
Under the changes, state social workers must spell out clear goals for parents and check on progress every six months. The social workers must also explain how they will help the parents. And if problems haven't been adequately addressed within 15 months, the state must ask the courts to terminate the parents' rights.
This would be, in essence, Barbara Paul's final exam to save her motherhood - a test timed and graded pass-fail.
Barbara had no choice but to rent and maintain a clean apartment. She had to attend therapy sessions to help her cope with the 1993 rape at knifepoint that sent her into a tailspin of depression, and with the other traumas of her life. And she had to find a job to replace her lost welfare income.
She had to change straight away or lose her children forever. Rating her efforts would be some of the most dedicated - and exhausted - social workers in the state. They worked out of the Leominster DSS office, where social workers often juggle between 18 and 24 family cases; a caseload of 15 is considered the manageable limit. They would decide whether Joe and Art should join the estimated 65,000 children nationwide - including roughly 1,000 in Massachusetts - who await adoption, their legal bonds to their parents dissolved.
Meanwhile, in the Groton foster home, Joe, the older boy, was shocked to hear that his mother had to do so much, so fast to get him and his brother back. They had expected their time away to be brief; whatever it was that had caused them to be removed from home would be fixed in a matter of days, or weeks. Joe, in particular, worried about his mother, and both boys wanted to return to their familiar schools in Fitchburg, rather than drop, mid-stream, into a new school in Groton. Joe got a sense of the odds against them when he asked a social worker how long he and Art would be kept in the foster home. He remembers her saying, ``You'll be here until your mother shapes up.''
Shapes up. Joe had never heard the phrase before. It seemed so blunt, and intimidating, and hopeless.
He threw a temper tantrum, screaming and swearing at what he called ``this trick'' by DSS. Social workers were struck by the depth of Joe's anger and took notes.
Barbara, for her part, learned to bite her tongue. Shortly after receiving her 24-page ``service plan,'' outlining new goals and timetables, she had exchanged some angry words with a social worker, then rushed to get off the phone, saying she didn't want to ``get the case into trouble.''
``I don't want to start swearing at you people,'' she told the social worker.
Barbara would be largely on her own as she pursued this overhaul of her life. According to the plan, a state social worker had to drop in on her at least once a month, arrange for Barbara's monthly visits with the boys, and make referrals for special services as necessary.
The same document required Barbara to keep her home clean by completing dozens of specified tasks, from sweeping the kitchen floor to wiping the bathroom sink. She also had to do three things she had never accomplished separately, much less all at once: Get a steady job, secure stable housing, and address her depression.
A will, but little way
It all seemed too much. Setbacks soon outpaced her successes. The pressure for rapid change seemed to accelerate her decline.
By summer, Barbara had been evicted from her Fitchburg apartment for failure to take care of it. She lived briefly in a nearby transient hotel, and then took refuge in Our Father's House, a renovated white Victorian home that sets aside its third floor for up to eight homeless women. In this shelter just outside the downtown area, Barbara shared a room with another woman. She brought along just one bag to hold her belongings and her treasures: snapshots of the boys.
Plunging into bouts of self-loathing, she lashed herself as lazy and worthless, a failure to the two most important people in her life. Her sleep, for years disrupted by flashbacks to the terror of the rape, now was interrupted by nightmarish replays of the day her boys were taken away.
But as her depression deepened, her participation in the mental health program required by DSS grew more spotty. Her social worker at DSS referred her to the Lipton mental health center once again, and this time she was assigned to a daylong group treatment program in Leominster, a bus ride away. Most of the dozen or so others in her group had previously been hospitalized for severe psychiatric illness.
Barbara showed up regularly at first but felt out of place among schizophrenics who talked about imaginary demons and drug addicts who craved heroin. She also didn't like the long hours, which made it harder to look for a job, let alone keep one.
She would have preferred individual therapy but was told that wasn't an option. Cost might have been a factor: One full day of the group-therapy program cost the state $66; an hour of individual counseling was $71.
The Lipton staff might also have been confused about how to treat her. Her mental health records list an array of possible diagnoses, including bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline mental retardation. There were also many references to her dirty, sandy-blonde hair, disheveled clothing, and body odor. Barbara was, they concluded, often severely depressed, but never appeared suicidal.
A light punctures darkness
Except for her boys, there was only one person who could lift her spirits. Soon after her sons were taken, a friend introduced Barbara to Michael Wilson. A tall muscular roofer in his early 30s, Wilson had a tough past marred by a criminal record - mostly, he said, larcenies and motor vehicle violations. Still, Barbara enjoyed his large, gentle presence in her life and his compassion for what she was going through. Her counselors at Lipton noted that this new boyfriend seemed to boost her spirits. As the relationship deepened through the spring of 2000, she seemed more cheerful and to be taking better care of herself.
With Mike in her life, Barbara began to believe she could win her boys back. She got a full-time job as a cashier at a Fitchburg convenience store, earning slightly more than $6 an hour, the state's minimum wage. A therapist noted that Barbara seemed more motivated and ``wants to earn money for an apartment so that she can get her children back.'' Another report noted that her hygiene was better, her mood stable, and she was even wearing a touch of makeup.
Still, she was far from meeting all the goals set by the state, and she knew it. Social workers began warning that if substantial progress wasn't made within months, she risked losing her children. As for Mike, the state concluded that his criminal past posed no threat to the boys' safety and allowed him to join in Barbara's monthly visits. But Barbara was told that if the four of them ever wanted to live together, she would need to secure a two-bedroom apartment. Again, Barbara, largely left by the state to solve her problems on her own, responded poorly to the pressure for change.
Pressed for money, she and Mike began shoplifting. A few times, they were caught taking food. Other times, it was DVD players and other electronic goods, which they tried to resell for cash. In the spring, Barbara served five days in a prison in Framingham for failing to pay a fine on a shoplifting charge. She was released on May 14, 2000, her 36th birthday.
Barbara justified these forays as temporary survival measures, not a new way of life. ``We are shoplifting to have a roof over our heads,'' she repeatedly told Mike.
Despite such misadventures, disturbing to her social workers, Barbara remained devoted to Mike, and her general state of mind continued to improve. She had begun taking antidepressant drugs for her sleep and mood swings. The couple grew closer, and Barbara was soon sporting an engagement ring. She and Mike were making plans to get married, though not to have children; Barbara had decided to have her tubes tied after Art was born.
They led a nomadic life, always hopeful that one day they'd have a permanent home. On cold nights, they stayed in Mike's father's house in Waltham; in warmer weather, they slept in a tent in the woods.
Barbara hadn't given up hope of retrieving her children. She got a job at a convenience store, and by the end of September was telling a social worker that she was ``getting back on her feet.''
She never missed her monthly visits with Joe and Art, sometimes spending hours on public buses and trains to meet them at the Leominster DSS office, where the boys were brought. Even veteran social workers remarked to each other how conscientious she was about them, considering the stresses in her life.
When she was with the boys, she gave them candy. They played cards or board games. She loved reminiscing about old times. When she could afford it, she bought a disposable camera to take pictures - images that comforted her during the times apart.
But intimations of failure crowded in. She sensed that Joe and Art were starting to enjoy some parts of their new life. And she wondered whether the state would ever reunite children with a mother who sometimes slept in a tent in the woods.
An ally emerges
Mimi Rovito, 56, is a petite woman with a passion for helping troubled children and families. For the past 17 years, she has worked as a therapist at the Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, just outside Waltham's central shopping district. A former high school English teacher, she thought she could do more to help families as a social worker.
At the end of October 2001, Rovito was in her office when the receptionist called to say an unkempt woman in her 30s had just walked in off the streets, looking distraught. Rovito asked that she be shown in immediately.
Barbara came to the point almost as soon as she sat down. She said she was in agony about some choices she had to make about her children.
``I have to make some decisions,'' she told Rovito. ``And I can't wait anymore.''
Barbara had recently been jolted by news that her boys might be adopted into a new family. Joe and Art had told her that social workers, the previous month, had taken them to an adoption event in Boston, and that several couples had shown interest in them. Barbara and the boys took that as the first clear sign their lives might forever be apart.
Until then, she had put the idea of adoption out of her head. For a full year she had reason to know that she might lose the boys - the legal process of terminating her parental rights had actually begun in October 2000 - but it had always seemed unreal.
Now, suddenly, it was very real. The social workers said adoption now was the best ``goal'' for the boys.
As she sat in Rovito's office, she pleaded for help with the excruciating decisions that lay ahead. How could she fight the state? Did she have the strength - or a chance?
The two women would meet nearly every week from then on. Barbara almost never missed her weekly appointments, and if she had to, she called Rovito ahead of time to explain why. Such exclusive attention from a therapist felt like an indulgence compared to the ``crowd'' therapy she had at Lipton.
She began to see Rovito as her first true ally in the state's mental health system. They talked about Barbara's relationships with her parents, her boyfriends, her sons. They focused frequently on the 1993 rape, which Rovito saw as ``this violent act that tipped the scales'' in Barbara's life.
Mostly, though, they talked about Joe and Art, about whether Barbara really felt she could care for two children when she struggled so to care for herself.
``I know you want to be a good mother to these children,'' Rovito said.
The likelihood of adoption continued to grow. By the spring of 2002, it was clear that a couple from a suburb of Boston wanted to adopt Joe and Art. In fact, the boys had recently moved from their Groton foster home into this family's home. It would remain their ``pre-adoptive'' home until Barbara's parental rights were severed - if they were - either against her will by a judge or voluntarily as part of an agreement.
She often asked herself, How could she let anyone call Joe and Art their ``sons?'' These boys were still hers: Joe, now 15, whose fast-growing body looked more manly by the day, whose voice was deepening. And Art, now 11, still very much the skinny, energetic, quiet boy.
``I'm going to fight,'' she kept thinking to herself.
In the fall of 2002, she told Rovito she was invited by the state to take part in a relatively new mediation program, sponsored by Massachusetts Families for Kids in Boston. Its goal was to broker a kind of plea bargain: voluntary surrender of her parental rights in exchange for limited access to the boys after they were adopted. She knew that if she went to trial and lost, the court would probably deny her any chance of seeing her boys - at least not on any regular basis.
Barbara could not bear the idea of losing contact with Joe and Art. Rovito listened to Barbara's fears and talked to her about the mediation option.
That fall, with a trial date looming in the Worcester County Juvenile Court, Barbara tentatively agreed to terms of an agreement. In return for ceding her parental rights, she would be guaranteed two visits a year with the boys, each lasting at least two hours. Plus, she would be assured of some mail from the boys. Barbara's request was that she get at least a birthday card or a Mother's Day card from them, plus some pictures and their report cards.
Only one decision remained: Should she sign the agreement?
Holiday cheers, fears
The holiday season was near, but the only thing that could rouse a smile from Barbara was the prospect of her ``Christmas'' visit with the boys, scheduled for Dec. 19. In the days before, she and Mike had strolled the aisles at the Natick Mall, though they knew that the shiny wrapped gifts were beyond their means. In the end, they picked out four gifts for each of the boys from the free Christmas offerings at the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
Barbara tried to avoid thinking about Feb. 3, the day she was scheduled to sign the agreement. Sometimes she daydreamed about abandoning the mediation and fighting to keep Joe and Art. After all, she had an apartment now and saw a therapist every week, two of the three goals set by the state. With the help of a grant from a Middlesex County program for the homeless, Mike and Barbara had rented an apartment in Framingham, which cost $825 a month. They even bought a used red minivan for $1,500, which would get them around and even double as a place to sleep if they ever fell behind on rent payments.
But she still didn't have a steady job. Over the past two years, she'd had stints as a cashier and a taxi driver, jobs she never kept for more than a few months. Her attendance was erratic. After a night without sleep, she often overslept the next day, missing the start of her shift. She complained about her heel spurs hurting when she stood on her feet for too long.
For income, she resorted to the familiar world of the state's public-assistance programs. She grew up in this world, and, with the help of her uncanny memory for numbers, had grown adept at navigating the system's maze of phone numbers and deadlines. She applied for state disability benefits, saying her mental health problems prevented her from working. She began receiving $338 a month in state disability checks and $139 a month in food stamps. She also began applying for federal housing subsidies, fuel benefits, and federal disability benefits.
She found another way to earn money that suited her irregular schedule. Together with Mike, Barbara spent many winter days collecting empty bottles from nearby suburban communities, including the Saxonville section of Framingham where they now live. One day the couple celebrated when their bottle redemption receipts totaled $90, an all-time high.
When the Christmas meeting day arrived, Barbara and Mike couldn't wait to hand out the gifts as the boys walked into the DSS office in Leominster. There was a football, a deck of playing cards, some sporting gear, and a variety of clothes. Barbara pulled the gifts out of bags; she hadn't felt the need to wrap them. The boys were delighted, and the four of them spent nearly two hours talking, playing games, and telling old, familiar stories.
On Christmas Day, Barbara almost slept through. Mike knew this was a tough time for her, so he didn't plan anything festive. Besides, she had already gotten from the boys the only gifts she wanted: their wood-framed school portraits. Both were smiling and were wearing crisp clean clothes, their hair neatly trimmed.
Finally, the time had come. On that cold winter day of Feb. 3, mediators Cheryl Peltier, a social worker, and Judy Rosenberg, a lawyer, waited nervously inside the conference room of Lutheran Social Services in Worcester. Before them, on a large wooden table, were the two sets of documents and a red pen.
It had not been a good morning for Barbara, who was running a little late. At one point during the drive there, she lost her will. She asked Mike to turn around and head back to Framingham. He told her she had come this far and needed to at least show up.
The night before she had decided to phone her mother in Winchendon, to tell her about the big, scary day ahead. But Barbara said all she heard on the other end of the line was silence.
And so, when she walked into the conference room, she was subdued. She greeted no one. Mike walked in behind.
As Barbara looked over the documents, Peltier suggested that this day could be the ``easiest day'' because so much thought had already gone into the decision. Barbara demurred.
``Giving away kids isn't the easiest,'' she said.
Then, seated at the conference room table, she lifted the red pen. Her hazel eyes glared at the blank signature lines.
She scrawled ``Barbara Paul'' to release Joe.
She scrawled ``Barbara Paul'' to release Art.
Then she fell into Mike's arms and sobbed.
Next: Barbara and the boys adjust to new lives.
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.