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For boys, new home, new parents

Last of three parts

They rose before the sun on a crisp September day in 2001 and headed off on the long drive from Groton to Fenway Park. Sticking close together, and to the social workers who drove them in, Joe and Art found their way into the old stadium and out onto the mesmerizing green of the field.

It was their first time at Fenway. Meandering through a crowd of about 170 children, the boys munched on hot dogs, and soon found themselves standing on the pitcher's mound.

"This is bigger than I thought," said Art, a slender 10-year-old, as he surveyed the lush field.

Joe, 14, put a protective arm around him. The boys stared out at the crowd of some 1,000 adults who all seemed to be staring back.

This was, of course, no ordinary game day for the Red Sox. Where most kids go to Fenway to see Pedro Martinez pitch or Nomar Garciaparra hit, Art, Joe, and the others were there to find out if they might soon have new parents.

It was an "adoption party," one of the festive but controversial such events organized by public and private agencies. Interested adults were invited to scan the crowd of foster children from a distance and, reserving a measure of anonymity, ponder whether to take the first cautious step toward adoption.

Joe and Art were there because, 20 months after they were taken from their mother's apartment into foster care, the state had decided to begin finding them a new permanent home.

As their mother, Barbara Paul, struggled toward her decision to surrender her rights to them, the boys were launched on an epic emotional journey of their own.

Critics say the risk at adoption parties like the Fenway affair is that childen will feel rejected if they are paraded before the crowd and no one expresses interest in them.

But it was quickly apparent that this would not be a problem for Joe and Art.

A couple in their early 40s had spotted them, the stocky big brother so sweetly protective of the younger boy. They were intrigued. Most childless couples prefer to adopt babies, but Anne and Jim, feeling the creaks of middle age, liked the idea of caring for older children who can talk and walk. Adopting two brothers would also give them a kind of instant family.

They collected some basic facts about the boys from the state Department of Social Services staffers on hand that day: No major behavioral or physical problems. Average students. Nearly two years together in a Groton foster home. Mother accused not of abuse but of neglect, mostly related to poor hygiene and poverty.

They also learned the boys were not ``legally free,'' because this was before Barbara had given up her parental rights. That seemed to them a considerable hurdle. But Anne and Jim remained interested in the tightly bonded brothers. So too, they would learn, were other couples in the Fenway crowd.

Anne and Jim later approached the boys in the middle of the Fenway field. They chatted with them about the baseball cards that event organizers had distributed as conversational ice-breakers. [At the couple's request, they are identified only by their middle names to protect the family's privacy.]

Joe was chatty, and Art listened shyly. The couple, both from military families, were impressed by the boys' good manners; something must have gone right in the home they were taken from.

As they drove away from the event, Anne and Jim exchanged guarded smiles.

``We could do this,'' Jim said.

Entering the bureaucracy

The couple couldn't know, of course, what they were getting into, couldn't know they were in the first days of a trial-by-bureaucracy that would teach them some of the lessons Barbara had learned long ago about dealing with the state.

They also couldn't know what they would learn about the family of the boys - a family so different from their own, where children rarely brushed their teeth, sat for regular meals, or slept in their own beds. They would hear about a mother who was as likely to be asleep as awake when her boys left for school.

Most of all, this couple would have to learn how hard it is to become the parents of children who bring with them a strong image of a Mom - and to a much lesser degree, of a Dad. The couple would sometimes feel oddly competitive with this woman, with her tangled hair and shabby clothes, who struggled against any number of stigmatizing labels - welfare mom, charity case, rape victim - and had been deemed so lacking as a parent that the state had taken her children.

Barbara had something the couple envied: the love and loyalty of the boys. And at the time of the Fenway adoption party, Barbara would still have more than a year to claim the legal title of ``mother.''

But Anne and Jim, who had just celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary, had good reason to believe they could handle almost anything. They enjoyed good health and both worked as computer software developers. They had recently renovated their tan split-level home, with a backyard swimming pool, in a comfortable Middlesex County suburb. They were also surrounded by a large community of friends and relatives.

Anne, a retired major who spent 24 years in the Air Force National Guard, had been introduced to Jim through a mutual friend. The couple soon discovered they had much in common, from earnest personalities to bachelor's degrees in science and engineering to a passion for amusement parks. Their courtship included roller-coaster rides at Disney World and Busch Gardens.

On May 24, 1997, the couple exchanged wedding vows at a Baptist church in Shrewsbury, where Anne was raised. They hoped to quickly begin a family, but after several years together, it became clear they might never have their own biological children.

Some friends suggested they explore international adoptions, but Anne and Jim, whose families spanned multiple generations in Massachusetts, had no interest in looking overseas. ``There are kids here who need homes,'' Anne would say.

Indeed, in 2001, the state had nearly 3,000 foster children waiting for new homes. One of the agency's top priorities was the recruitment of adoptive parents. Anne and Jim had every reason to expect that DSS would be thrilled when they called to inquire about Joe and Art.

But several calls to the agency's office went unreturned. Anne and Jim set up at least two meetings that were canceled. Was this the way it worked? Or had another couple reached the boys first? Social workers assured them the Paul boys were still available.

The couple learned that this sort of adoption can get off the ground only after a disclosure meeting, at which social workers reveal everything they know about the children, giving parents a chance to change their minds. They waited through the fall for the state to schedule that meeting.

As they waited, Anne and Jim couldn't resist spinning fantasies of two boys splashing about in their swimming pool, stroking their cats, filling the empty bedroom with baseball cards and computer games. They liked the fact that the boys were brothers. Surely, that sibling bond would help sustain them as they adjusted to new, and inexperienced, parents.

Still, there were worries. What if the boys didn't like them? What if they heard something about the boys that weakened their resolve to adopt? What if their mother fought hard to keep them?

They resolved to see it through. The image of the two brothers, huddled on the pitcher's mound, stayed in their minds. Not until Jan. 4, 2002, did they get their first real chance to meet the boys.

That day Joe raced to the front door of the blue Colonial house in Groton to greet them. He was sporting a fresh haircut. Close behind was Art. He had a new haircut, too.

Anne and Jim took their seats in the living room of the boys' foster home, trying not to look like nervous suitors on a first date. They had waited so long for this day, waited as the state investigated their background and winnowed the field of candidates to adopt the boys down to them. Sometime around Christmas, the state began responding to the couple's persistent calls. The disclosure meeting on Dec. 27 went smoothly. Now, at last, they would be able to spend some time with the boys, as Libby Easton, a state social worker, and Peggy Geddes, the foster mother, sat nearby like chaperones.

Jim broke the ice by asking the boys if they liked roller-coasters. That went over only moderately well: Joe said he loved them, Art said they scared him. Jim and Anne had rehearsed this scene many times in their minds, so they tried other topics. They talked about their backyard swimming pool. And about their two adorable cats, Kitty and T.C. (``The Cat'').

Now it was the boys' turn. Joe, as usual, did most of the talking. Would they each have their own room? Yes, if they wanted. What kind of jobs did this couple have? Anne and Jim each talked about their computer work. Would the boys be required to do chores? Yes.

At times, Jim sensed that the boys were trying to figure out if he and his wife were financially secure. At one point, he volunteered, ``We're not rich, but we're comfortable.''

Sometimes the rapid-fire conversation came to an abrupt halt, and the room filled with awkward silence or strained laughter. The couple stayed for about an hour.

When Easton got up to leave with Anne and Jim, she looked back at the boys, unsure how things had gone. Joe gave her a thumbs-up sign.

Joe did feel upbeat, but also slightly guilty about even hinting that he was enjoying life away from his mother, who he knew was struggling. She had bounced from a homeless shelter to a transient motel to a tent in the woods, which she shared with her new fiance, Mike Wilson. His mother always tried to spare him upsetting news, but he could tell that she was barely getting by.

Barbara had many problems, but she could be a lot of fun, and ``goofy,'' as Joe often put it. She always put her sons first. When food was limited, they had always eaten before she did. When there weren't enough blankets on a chilly night, they always got covers first.

But Joe had to admit that his new life was better in many ways. No longer did he have to go to food pantries for meals or wash clothes in the sink. He looked up to his foster mother, Peggy, and liked playing with the other foster children who lived in the house. They acted like a big family.

When Barbara would ask him how he liked his Groton home, Joe talked about being fairly happy. He wondered, though, if this made his mother feel better, or worse.

Moving in

Four more months passed before the boys moved into Anne and Jim's home for a pre-adoption test of the couple's readiness to become parents, and of the boys' comfort with them. With some anguish, the boys' foster mother, Peggy, helped them pack. She was happy to meet Anne and Jim; the couple seemed perfect in many ways. But Peggy, 47, who has cared for more than 30 foster children over the years, had also grown attached to Joe and Art. They were happy in a way that many foster children are not.

As Anne and Jim prepared for the arrival of the boys, they had plenty of help. A few weeks before the move-in day, more than 20 relatives and friends decided that even a pre-adoptive home needed a ``kids' shower.'' One afternoon, they descended on the couple's family room, bringing gifts and practical items like bed sheets and clothes. After hearing that the boys had asked to sleep in the same room, some relatives pitched in and bought a cherry-wood bunk bed.

On April 13, Joe and Art arrived. When they entered their bedroom, their eyes popped when they spotted the bunk bed. Never before had each of them had his own bed; they had always shared.

Joe, 15, seemed close to tears.

Jim thought, sadly, ``Nobody should be that excited about getting a bed.''

The boys passed the day exploring their room, with its newly painted yellow and green walls. The boys would share a dresser and closet, but each had his own laundry hamper.

Some old anxieties surfaced that first night: Joe made a point of checking the locks on the front door of the house. It had been a habit since one Christmas several years ago, when a burglar broke into his Fitchburg home and stole their presents. He also never forgot the day he visited his mother at a transient hotel and found a person dead in the room next door.

Joe would keep checking the locks every night for nearly six months. Anne and Jim observed this and said nothing. They knew it would take time before he felt secure.

There were other, more difficult challenges. The boys would argue; often, it was Art bristling at his bossy older brother. And Anne and Jim had to remind the boys frequently to do their chores, and to brush their badly-decayed teeth. The couple had already spent roughly $3,000 on dental bills.

Homework patrol was harder still. The couple tried incentive systems, saying that if the boys earned good grades they would all take a trip the next year to Disney World.

To help with the adjustment to their new life, the boys went to counseling sessions twice a month. Still, there were days when adjustment seemed a long way off, when Jim would turn to Anne saying, ``What the hell did we just do?''

As a rule-enforcer, Anne often felt she had a tougher time. The boys yielded more quickly to Jim, perhaps because a father figure was new to them. Jim also worked from home, giving him more time with the boys during the week. Anne believed the boys were constantly comparing her to the other ``mothers'' in their lives: Barbara, whom they still loved, and their foster mother.

Still, most days Anne and Jim were caught up in the swirl of their new routine. As a family, they watched some of the boys' favorite TV shows, like ``Survivor'' or ``Smallville.'' The boys loved music; Joe liked Eminem and 50 Cent, while Art owned every CD by Linkin Park. As a treat, the four of them sometimes dined at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

Jim thought, ``I can't imagine not being a parent.''

Getting by

Neither could Barbara Paul.

She agonized about releasing the boys. Sometimes she felt grateful to Anne and Jim for providing for them in ways that she could not. But while she had met the couple a few times during her monthly visits, they still seemed like strangers - strangers who would be first to see Joe get his driver's license, and to hear Art's voice change.

As Barbara pondered all this, she was settling into her first real home in years. With the help of a grant from a nonprofit social services agency, she and Mike rented a two-room apartment in Framingham. They took in a roommate to help with costs. They tried to keep the place neat, though clothes were often strewn about their bedroom floor. A stack of mail and papers covered the dining room table. The apartment smelled of smoke - the result of Mike's cigarette habit.

Barbara felt something close to contentment here. She spent hours crocheting and watching soap operas. She was now on a combination of sleeping pills and antidepressants that was helping her at night. If she couldn't sleep, she spent hours playing solitaire on the used computer she and Mike had bought recently. She tried not to think too much about the boys.

Anne and Jim had hoped for a clean adoption, one that would enforce a bright legal line between the boys' old life with Barbara and the new world with them.

So the couple balked at first when the state started talking to them about the mediation program in which Barbara would give up her parental rights in exchange for occasional visits after the boys were formally adopted.

What if she used those visits to beg them to come home? What if she manipulated their emotions to get them back? If the boys wanted to see their mother, Anne and Jim would certainly allow it, even encourage some contact. But they didn't want a contract telling them what to do.

But given the slow pace of the adoption process, the couple felt little choice but to give the visitation plan a chance. They came up with a tentative pact that would entitle Barbara to two visits a year, plus some correspondence with the boys.

Just when this seemed ironed out and a November date for final adoption was set, Anne and Jim learned of another delay. The state had apparently failed to make the required effort to locate the boys' biological father. Because he had left no address or phone number, that meant placing advertisements about the boys' impending adoption in newspapers in California, where the father last resided.

Jim was furious at yet another disappointment. Anne had become almost numb to bad news. The couple had recently even contacted the DSS ombudsman, complaining about the delays. Now this.

``I'm fed up!'' Jim screamed one day.

Worse, they had gotten word that Barbara wanted some changes to the agreement, including requests for extra visits or cards. The flurry of last-minute requests seemed like another bad sign.

Fortunately for Anne and Jim, the excitement of Christmas was around the corner - and the day would not disappoint. They were barely awake when they heard the boys tumbling out of their bunk beds and charging toward the Christmas tree in the living room. There, the boys saw dozens of gifts Anne and Jim had placed there the night before. It was almost everything Joe and Art had put on their wish lists: A new computer, a foosball table, a CD player, PlayStation 2 games, an art set, a remote-control truck, new boots and jackets. All together, Anne and Jim had spent close to $1,000 on the presents.

Joe had a rare speechless moment. Art muttered, ``Holy crap.''

Meanwhile, in Framingham, Barbara slept almost the entire day. Her treasured gifts were two wood-framed portraits of the boys - their offering to her during a recent Christmas-season visit.

`She signed. It's done'

The day Barbara finally signed the agreement, Feb. 3, got off to an ordinary start at Anne and Jim's house. The boys wolfed down their breakfast cereal and rushed off to school, saying goodbye to ``Mom'' and ``Dad.'' Sometime around Christmas, without explanation, the boys had stopped calling Anne and Jim by their first names.

Anne went to her job, and Jim plunged into his consulting work. They knew what the boys did not: that Barbara was scheduled to sign the mediation agreement at noon. Anne and Jim braced themselves.

Late that afternoon, Easton, the DSS social worker whom the couple had come to see as their advocate, called. ``She signed, it's done,'' she reported.

Anne and Jim could hardly believe it. Barbara was no longer the boys' legal mother.

Now, all that remained was a final court hearing, a formality at this point. The state simply had to give its official endorsement of Anne and Jim as the new parents, and a judge was expected to give the stamp of approval.

At dinner that evening, Jim announced matter-of-factly to the boys, ``Your birth mother no longer has parental rights. Everything went through.''

The boys were silent. Art got slightly jumpy, which Anne and Jim interpreted as a sign of relief. Joe didn't say anything.

About a month later, Anne and Jim asked the boys if they wanted to write to Barbara, which is how the couple now usually referred to her. Joe declined, but Art took out a sheet of paper.

Dear Mom,

How are you doing? I am doing fine. Joe, I don't know about him. I just got home from a bike ride. Oh, I forgot to tell, I got a new bike. Did you do anything in March?''

Love, Art

ps: I can't wait to are next visit.

On April 17, 2003, Worcester County Juvenile Court Judge Jan Najemy was set to finalize the boys' adoption. Strolling around the courtroom lobby, Art wore navy slacks and a white shirt, while Joe dressed in black pants and a black-patterned top. Anne approached them with surprise gifts: pens, just in case they were asked to sign any documents. Engraved on the pens were their names, with their new last name. They would now be a family united by name, as well as by law.

First visit

Shouting was the only way to be heard at the Fun and Games video arcade in Framingham, where the explosive sounds of mock gunfire competed with electronic beeps in the darkened room. The boys had chosen this place along Route 9 for the first of their two annual visits with Barbara. They loved this kind of place, and knew their mother, and her fiance, Mike, did too.

``I'm not ready to know the adoption is final,'' Barbara screamed over the din in the direction of Jim, who was strolling around the arcade with his hands in his pockets.

Jim nodded at her, with a half-smile. ``OK,'' he shouted back, indulging her desire to suspend reality at least for this day. It was April 27; the adoption order had been finalized 10 days before.

``I don't want to know if it's final,'' Barbara shouted again, just in case Jim didn't hear the first time. Jim nodded. He was supervising this visit by himself, allowing Anne a free afternoon to go shopping with her mother.

Barbara didn't want any upsetting news to sour her special day.

She glowed when she saw the boys. Wearing dark eyeliner and showing off newly dyed red hair with freshly trimmed bangs, she snapped pictures of them with a disposable camera. She told Jim and the boys that she had just been approved for federal disability benefits, boosting her monthly income by about $100 a month. She also spent the morning driving around East Boston with Mike, who had recently started working as a mover and a roofer. The two recounted how they marveled at a drawbridge as it opened and closed.

``I felt like a little girl!'' said Barbara, who wore moss green pants and a blue top, sneakers but no socks.

She and Mike, under the mediation pact, would have the boys to themselves for two hours. She bought the boys video-game tokens. The boys raced around the arcade with her as if they had never left her.

At one point, Art wanted to put down his cup of tokens, but couldn't find a secure place. ``Mom, can you hold this?'' he asked. Not once during the visit did the boys call her anything but Mom. Jim didn't object.

Barbara paid for the first set of tokens for the boys, but when they wanted extra ones, the boys approached Jim. They didn't want to burden her with the expense.

After the arcade spree, Barbara, Mike, and the boys went to McDonald's. Jim went along, but fell back to let the four share a booth and focus on each other.

They talked excitedly about the past: A ``bowl'' haircut that Joe once got and the wrestling they had loved to watch on TV. They collectively gasped when they recalled Joe's discovering the body in the Fitchburg motel. Barbara asked if Joe still checks door locks at night.

``I'm still checking the door downstairs sometimes,'' he acknowledged.

Turning to Art, she said, ``I bet you have 100 girlfriends.''

``He actually has three,'' Joe answered for his brother.

``No, I don't!'' Art exclaimed.

Barbara yelled over at Jim, who was seated a few tables away, ``Is Joe shaving yet?''

Barbara squinted and moved her face inches away from Joe's upper lip. She tried to grab some stray mustache hairs, but Joseph, embarrassed and slightly red-faced, pulled away. Barbara giggled.

Afterward, in the parking lot, Joe turned to Barbara. He said his therapist believes he feels deep anger at his biological father for abandoning the family. Barbara listened intently, then said Joe might want to put his thoughts down in writing. Maybe they could send a letter, if they could find out where the man lived.

The conversation drifted to the subject of The Leash - their nickname for the state Department of Social Services. For the first time in nearly a decade, Barbara, Joe, and Art were free of the agency's tug.

``We can now burn The Leash!'' Barbara yelled.

Jim stood nearby, quietly listening. When 4:30 p.m. rolled around, he suggested it was a good time to say goodbye. Barbara gave each boy a plastic squirt gun as a gift, then hugged them, one at a time.

She asked Joe to write her more often. Turning to Art, she urged him to study harder in school.

The visit, which was legally required to run for a minimum of two hours, had stretched to three. Barbara slowly walked toward her red minivan, then paused and turned to Jim with an expression of pure gratitude.

``Thank you, Jim,'' she said. ``Thank you for the extra time.''

End of series.

Patricia Wen can be reached at

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