By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
"Well, you'd be crying if your mom left you," said Peter.
Despite Isabel and Peter's unhappiness, I was secretly relieved. To be truthful, I'd often wondered what kind of woman Isabel could have been if she'd stayed with her nice, stable foster family. It was only after she went back to live with her mother that everything really went to hell; her younger brothers were dumped on her to care for; she rebelled by dropping out of school, joining a gang, and drinking and using like crazy. Putting Sophie's boys in foster care is a gamble, but maybe we'd get lucky and they'd be placed with Ã£ great foster parents. There are, after all, a lot of decent people out there too.
Late Sunday night, 12 hours before our deadline, Sophie unexpectedly came for her sons. She wanted to take Peter and James right away, but asked if Isabel could keep the baby just a little while longer. She explained that she could pay somebody to watch the two older boys after school, but the cost of all-day child care for Matty was, at present, more than she could afford.
Isabel agreed to the plan -- even though it meant going to war with her mother. Sophie also claimed she was still planning on going to rehab. "She told me she was scared about it," said Isabel. "She doesn't want to have to talk about the past -- you know, all the stuff that happened when she was little." Isabel had been in rehab some years ago, and did her best to reassure her. "I told her when I went, I was scared too. But at rehab, they taught us how you have to talk about your problems if you want to get better. I told her, 'Look, your kids are depending on you.'"
Sophie brought Isabel medicine, diapers and wipes for Matty, but she failed to bring his medical information. She swore she'd mail it the next day. Two weeks passed without the necessary paperwork arriving. At the beginning of week three, Isabel decided to call it quits. She called Sophie and laid it all out for her. "My mom told me that all you wanted is to have me here baby-sitting for no money while you got drunk and got high. And now you're in a different mood and you're ready to be a mother for a while. But you aren't taking care of your kids, so don't think you are. So come and get Matty. And after you get him, don't call me. I don't want to see you. I don't want to talk to you ever again. You have lost me as a friend."
On January 21, Sophie came to fetch the baby, and Isabel relinquished him. Most of the next day, she cried about letting the kids go. Father Greg was, by then, on sabbatical in Europe, but we corresponded by e-mail. When I related what had happened, he told me there was no choice but to drop the dime on Sophie. "It's time," he said. But I dithered. She wasn't hitting the kids. Peter and James were back in school. And yet, there was no doubt that in another couple of months Sophie would crash and burn again. We could set a clock by it.
I talked to Henry Marquez one more time. After all, he'd initially counseled me against contacting the county. "Call the hot line," he said. "This mother may love her kids, but she's sending the message that she can't take care of them." For 24 hours I tried to force myself to make the call, but couldn't shake the feeling that I was an executioner pulling a switch. Once I even picked up the receiver, then put it down again and dissolved into a crying jag. Late at night, I e-mailed Father Greg about my failure of nerve. "I have to wait until she's on a downswing again," I said. "Don't worry," he wrote back. "I tell you what you ought to do, but I'm not sure I could do it, either."
Over the next few weeks, I did my best to cheerlead Sophie into formulating plans and goals. "I've been trying to figure out when it all went bad," she said dreamily one day on her lunch break. "I was making progress, then suddenly I wasn't anymore." She recalled her last serious boyfriend, who had seemed nice in the beginning, but ended up beating her up about a year ago. She left her apartment and all her possessions to get away from him. "I think that's when the downhill thing started," she said.
In the beginning of February, Sophie quit her job and moved again, this time to an apartment in Rialto. "I wanted to start over fresh," she said.
"It's the maybe-if-I-move-to-Mars-things-will-be-better syndrome," commented Father Greg in an e-mail.
Near the end of February, in one last gasp of hopefulness, I managed to locate a terrific residential rehab facility that houses both mothers and their children. I pulled every journalistic string at my disposal in order to secure the necessary places for Sophie and her kids. To demonstrate her good faith, Sophie had only to make a single phone call. Deadline day came and went, but she didn't make the call. Nor did she make it the next day, or the day after that. "I'm just not ready," she said. "I keep telling myself I'm not that bad off."
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