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Until the last year or so. Instead of incremental improvement, Sophie began to seem trapped in a cycle of sinking and rising, sinking and rising. And each new struggle to the surface appeared to deepen her fatigue. On the downswings, she ran up debts, and bounced on and off welfare. As Sophie suffered, so did her children. Her mothering became haphazard and distracted. She uprooted herself and her kids every few months for flimsy reasons, often leaving behind their possessions in the departure. Peter, the 10-year-old, demonstrated his unhappiness by acting out at each new school. And though she was expert at hiding it, there were signs that Sophie was starting to self-medicate with unsettling regularity.
WHEN, BY TUESDAY MORNING, SOPHIE STILL hadn't called, there were practical considerations in addition to the worry. Isabel was nearly out of money. She'd gotten married in the summer, but Gus, her new husband, was not noticeably energetic when it came to finding employment, so Isabel had to be the breadwinner. Recently, she'd had to quit work to care for her ill mother and three younger brothers. A week ago, Gus had gotten himself arrested on a minor drug charge. Now the family was managing on the barest of public assistance. Isabel didn't mind the added work of Sophie's kids, but three more hungry mouths in the household put her over the edge financially. "The boys don't have any clothes except what they were wearing when Sophie brought them," Isabel told me. "And Matty, the 2-year-old, is out of diapers." Isabel wanted to know if I could send her some cash.
This presented a bit of a problem. I'm a single mother myself and was battling my own unpleasant cash crunch as the holidays approached. I could comfortably afford to send 50 bucks or so, but that wasn't going to go very far. On the other hand, my son and I have a nice home, an SUV and a few shares on the NASDAQ. Isabel had next to nothing and was caring for three boys who might never see their mother again. Should I sacrifice my own family's Christmas to send her the money she needed? Damn Sophie! I thought. What the hell is she doing?
I tried calling Father Greg Boyle, the Eastside priest known for his work with gangs, to see if his office could ante up any support. Father Greg knows Isabel and Sophie as well as I do. "It's clear what needs to be done here," he said when I reached him. "Somebody needs to call Child Protective Services. Those kids need some stability. They need to be in foster care, and Sophie needs to be in rehab. Anything else is a Band-Aid."
"No," blurted Isabel emphatically when I relayed Father Greg's suggestion. She agreed about Sophie and rehab, but not about foster care. "I won't let those kids get in the system. First of all, they'll separate them, you know they will, and that'll break the baby's heart." Isabel had been in foster care as a girl, and knew the system from the inside. "My sister and I had a pretty good foster family. But for my little brothers it was terrible. Those people made them feel like they were nothing. Lower than nothing. I know how it feels to be in somebody's house where you don't belong, and I don't want that to happen to Sophie's boys." A pause. "Maybe I could find a way to keep the kids while she's in rehab -- you know, apply for emergency aid or something."
Father Greg had given me the name of a man named Henry Marquez, a social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services. I called him, thinking he might have an idea how Isabel could get some kind of emergency financial assistance. Once I'd outlined the situation, Marquez -- a sympathetic and sensible man -- described several options. Sophie could write out and have notarized a plan indicating her intention to place the kids with Isabel for a given period of time. Isabel could then take the document and apply for additional aid, which Marquez surmised she could get fairly quickly. Or Sophie could let the kids enter the system voluntarily, indicating that she needed time to go into treatment and get her life in order. "This would give her a little more power in the eyes of the court when it comes time to get her kids back," said Marquez. But both of these scenarios required Sophie, who was still nowhere to be found.