By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
These so-called failed placements occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the foster parents simply don't like the children, Gene Gilden told me grimly. Gilden is the division chief for quality assurance at the Department of Children and Family Services, the section that keeps tabs on the well-being of the county's charges once they are placed. "Other times the parents decide they don't want to be foster parents anymore, or the kids are angry and act out, which is understandable, but the foster family feels it can't handle them." In still other cases, Gilden said, the kids are so unhappy they run away repeatedly. And then, of course, there are the true nightmares in which foster parents abuse the kids they are supposed to be protecting. "In these cases," said Gilden, "we remove the kids, and label the family 'Do Not Use.'"
Gilden estimated that the department gives a "Do Not Use" designation to approximately five to seven foster families and/or group homes per month. "We know that multiple placements are extremely rough on children," she added, "particularly since all these kids have already been traumatized. So we're working hard to change the situation. I just wish we could change it a little faster."
McLaren Children's Center is among the county's largest juvenile shelters, and the site where the boys would probably be housed between failed placements. Mac, as the kids have named it, is a well-run facility located on 10 acres of grassy land a few blocks off the 605 freeway in El Monte. I drove there one afternoon and chatted with a group of prepubescent girls in one of the center's pleasant day rooms. The girls I met were from varied ethnic backgrounds, but all possessed a similar fragility, like china cups that have been shattered and pieced back together. Most had learned to veil their take-me-home expressions with a thin veneer of toughness.
I talked longest with a girl I'll call Tessa, an exceptionally bright 11-year-old who admitted she'd been back to Mac five times, meaning she'd had five foster-family washouts. I asked her if she was hoping for a reunion with her own mom or dad. Tessa shook her head decisively in the negative, then cranked up a well-practiced smile. "No," she said. "I'd like to go forward to a family who wants me." I told Tessa that anyone with any sense should be proud to have her as a daughter. Then I left, wondering as I drove if that's how it would be if Peter and his brothers wound up in the system: bouncing from one unfamiliar house to another, hoping each time that some family would find them acceptable enough to keep.
TO AVOID FOSTER CARE FOR SOPHIE'S BOYS -- even in the short run -- we clearly needed an immediate source of money. After a night of hand-wringing, I woke up with an idea. My birthday was coming up in a few days on December 13. Maybe I could throw a potluck party. But instead of bringing presents for me, I'd ask friends to cough up clothes and toys for the kids plus enough cash to buy Isabel a little time. I e-mailed everyone I could think of, and within hours, enthusiastic responses started rolling in. In a season of mall and e-commerce fever, people seemed delighted at the opportunity to give where there was truly a need. The party idea didn't remove any fears about Sophie's whereabouts, but at least I could do something concrete for her boys.
Late Wednesday morning, Father Greg called again, hoping for good news.
"I don't want to sound negative," he said, "but have you phoned the hospitals?"
Which hospitals? I asked him. "She could be in L.A. She could be in Orange County. She could be in fucking Tijuana."
"Right," he said bleakly. "What about calling the police and asking if they have any Jane Does?"
"I don't think we're there yet," I said.
Later that day, though, Isabel voiced what we both had secretly been thinking. "Why wouldn't Sophie call if she was alive?" She was silent for a long moment. "Peter cried for a long time last night," she said. "He knows something is wrong. They all know something is wrong. Even Matty, the baby, keeps crying for his mom. I don't know what I'm supposed to tell them."
LOOKING BACK, WE SHOULD HAVE SEEN SOPHIE'S smashup coming; even the club gig was a red flag. Lately, dance clubs had become Sophie's fallback position whenever she was out of work. She was small and curvy, with a Gerber-baby face and cascades of long, red Venus-on-the-half-shell hair -- a beautiful toddler with grown-up boobs, just what the men at the clubs wanted. But the club jobs ultimately took more away from Sophie than they returned. Some women might work strip joints without trashing their psyches; Sophie couldn't -- too many men in her girlhood had used her as if she didn't matter. The club patrons, with their brazen stares, brought the worthless feeling back again; soon she might have found herself thinking, fuck it, whatever, let them do what they like.