By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|Photographs by Anne Fishbein|
Bless me anyway.
I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times,
and there are people who live through much,
much worse, but . . .
You see them living anyway.
—Tony Kushner, Angels in America
Two brief moments of grace broke up the long hours of grief, rage and fear that made up the worst day of Frances Aguilar’s life — the day that the Department of Children and Family Services took Frances and Luis’ children away. Just after nightfall, first Bola, then Estephanie somehow managed to get to a phone and dial home.
"Mom! What’s going on?" whispers Estephanie urgently and without preface when Frances snatches up the receiver. Frances explains about the police raid, and about DCFS showing up. "The police were looking for drugs," says Frances.
The Family So Far This is the concluding chapter of a yearlong series focusing on the Aguilar family — Luis, Frances and their children — of East Los Angeles. In Chapter 6, the police raided the Aguilars’ house for the second time this year and called in county social workers, who took the children to foster homes. It was not clear when, if ever, they would be allowed to return home. Now, the pain of separation and uncertainty over the future stresses Frances and Luis’ relationship to the breaking point.
"Again?" asks Estephanie in a cheerless tone. The 14-year-old cries a little, and says she wants to come home. For the most part, however, she is surprisingly level-headed, as if the emergency has caused a new maturity to bloom ahead of season. Her foster mother is nice, Estephanie says. "She let me use the phone." (Bola’s foster parent denied him a call, but resourceful Bola slipped to a phone anyway.)
Estephanie is also loaded with information. She was the last of the kids to be taken to a foster home, so she saw how the other children were dispersed, she says. She and 4-year-old Frankie each have no siblings with them, but Bola and Julian are together, as are the 2-year-olds, Elijah and foster child Mando. Gennisis, the baby, is also alone. "Don’t worry, Mom," Estephanie says. "Don’t worry. We’re okay. We’ll be okay." When Bola calls, he is not okay at all. He says he’s planning to run away, then blurts out that the social worker told him if he tried it, he’d never see his brothers and sisters or parents again. "She had no right to say that," says Frances, but makes it very clear he must stay where he is. "It’ll just go against me and Luis if you run away," she says. "Don’t worry. We’ll get you home soon."
Bola fills in additional blanks regarding the kids’ peregrinations after they were removed. From the Aguilar house, they were taken to the detectives’ building on First Street, where they were put in a holding cell and fed some breakfast. After several hours, they were taken by van to a central foster-care facility, where Estephanie joined them, and where they remained until homes could be located for each of them. The part of it that was the worst, Bola says, was that when they were with the detectives, Officer Rudy Chavez came in to visit the children. (Chavez is the officer who originally arrested Luis last January, and was the lead witness in the now-dismissed case against him.) "He told us he was sorry for us ’cause of the parents we have," Bola says.
The calls steady Frances despite their upsetting content. "I was feeling so crazy and terrible after DCFS came," she says. "But talking to my kids helped me get my head straight so I could be strong for them."
For weeks afterward, the unfolding of this worst of days continues to spool through Frances’ mind. At around 7:20 a.m., a team of Hollenbeck gang-enforcement and narcotics officers smashed in the back door of the Aguilars’ house in a surprise raid. During the raid, the officers found no drugs, no weapons, no paraphernalia, scales, currency or anything else that might suggest that Luis or Frances were engaged in drug sales, which was the stated reason for the search warrant. The police did find two homeboys in the house, one of whom had half a joint’s worth of marijuana, and a small amount crystal meth on him, yet only enough for personal use.
Shortly after the search began, the police called two DCFS workers, who took the six youngest kids, Bola, Julian, Frankie, Elijah, and baby Gennisis — plus Mando the 2-year-old foster child — into county custody directly from the Aguilars’ home.
By that time, eldest child Estephanie was already at school, so social workers picked her up later from Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter High School. She was in the middle of her second-period science class when Sara Weiss, a teacher whom Estephanie likes, called out that she should gather all of her things and come to the principal’s office. There, Dr. Robert Barksdale, Animo’s principal, told her in the gentlest way he could find that she and her brothers and baby sister had been removed from their parents’ custody and would be placed into foster care. Estephanie reacted as if socked in the chest and began to sob. Eventually, she asked Barksdale to please let her cousin Anthony know what had happened so he wouldn’t be worried, then she followed the male social worker to his car without protest.