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
"I have a horrible suspicion," said Gilden, "that this middle ground we're speaking about is very large, Ã£ although we have no way yet to quantify it. Part of the difficulty is the fact that a lot of kids coming into foster care get so confused that they no longer expectto be loved. They just accept the emotional abuse and never say anything to the people who might be able to help them."
THURSDAY EVENING, FOUR DAYS after Sophie's disappearance, everything changed. Driving back from a meeting, I got a call from Isabel: Sophie was alive. Isabel had tracked down her younger sister, who admitted Sophie was staying somewhere in Santa Ana. Thank you, God. The relief was quickly replaced by fury. If Sophie was alive, uninjured, in Orange County, then nothing prevented her from calling her kids. She simply chose not to.
"The bitch was out getting her kicks," Isabel said. "And me, like a stupid, picks up the slack, just like she knows I will. That's it. I'm making the call. I love those kids, but I'm not going to keep busting my butt for them just so their mother can go out and party." And with that Isabel hung up.
By the time I reached home, Sophie had also phoned. Her voice on the tape sounded lifeless and mechanical. "I'm so sorry," she said dully. "I really messed up. I finally realized I can't take care of my kids. I can't even take care of myself. Tell the kids I love them and I'm sorry. And tell Isabel thanks, and I love her too."
After listening to the message twice, I was unsure how to interpret it. It had a very goodbye-cruel-world tone, and Sophie had a history of suicide attempts. It was also, no doubt, in part a manipulation. On the other hand, maybe she was actually ready to accept the help she clearly needed, that the kids needed. I prayed for the latter answer to be the right one.
I left Sophie several urgent messages on the pager of the friend Isabel said she was staying with, asking her to phone me that night, no matter what the time. It was 4:45 a.m. when the phone next to my bed finally rang. Groggily I fumbled for the receiver and heard soft sobbing. "I'm so tired," Sophie said over and over again. "I'm just so tired. I don't want to do it anymore." Do what? I asked her. "Anything," she said.
I asked why she was in Santa Ana, of all places. "I got a job," she said. "I'm trying to start over and make a home that the kids can come back to." I told her I thought she had passed that point now, that she needed to make some hard decisions about her sons or they would soon be made for her. "There's a whole list of people who are ready to call the county on you," I said. Then I outlined the alternatives that Henry Marquez had suggested, reiterating that if she didn't agree to go into drug rehab and complete the steps necessary to have the kids temporarily placed with Isabel, the choices would soon be removed from her reach.
"I won't let my kids go into foster care," Sophie said, her voice unexpectedly forceful. "I won't. I don't care what anyone says. I won't do it. I won't lose my kids."
KIDS DO GET LOST IN FOSTER CARE. Henry Marquez admitted it. Sometimes the court takes them away and then, even after the mother has gotten herself straightened out, is reluctant to give them back. Sometimes kids get killed in foster care. In fact, by the spring of 1999, enough Los Angeles children had died at the hands of foster parents that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors figured it had better do something. And so a task force was created to assess the entire foster-care program. The task force, headed up by attorney and child advocate Andrew Bridge, executive director for the Alliance for Children's Rights, did five months of detective work, and held 11 public meetings. The resulting report, released in December of last year, was blistering in its conclusions.
"Once taken from their homes, children in Los Angeles foster care remain at risk of further harm in a system that lacks adequate safeguards to provide constant levels of quality comprehensive care," the report stated in its introduction. "Both state-licensed foster parents and foster-family-agency-certified parents should act as surrogate parents and should provide nurturing and emotional support to the child. However, monitoring and support systems do not ensure that these requirements are actually accomplished. Studies and anecdotal data indicate that an increasing number of children in Los Angeles County enter the foster-care system only to be re-abused or re-neglected. In short, Los Angeles County lacks the ability to know the full nature of the quality of care foster children actually receive, the full extent of harm children may face in foster care, and how to protect children from harm in the future."
After reading the task-force report, I called Henry Marquez to ask whether, if worst came to worst, he could protect Sophie's kids by ensuring they got a good placement. "I'm afraid not," he said. "I wish I could. But the system doesn't work that way. It's all luck of the draw."