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
On Saturday and Sunday, Frances and Luis engage in an orgy of housecleaning and re-painting, hoping to get the jump on any future inspections that DCFS might decide to impose. Before they begin, Luis makes a trip to Home Depot to buy a small electric sander, a couple sheets of dry wall, putty to fill in any cracks and holes, two new smoke alarms, and a list of miscellaneous items like childproof latches for the cabinets and small plastic, kid-safe plugs to put in every electrical outlet. "We got to do this right," he says. "We were going to paint the kids’ rooms anyway. We already bought the paint on sale at Kmart. But now we’re going to make this house perfect," he says. "Perfect."
By Sunday night, the worst of the cleaning is done, all broken toys and raggedy clothes, sheets and towels have been relegated to the trash, and the living room, at least, has been painted. On Monday, Frances drives around gathering all the letters, then takes the stack to Kinko’s late Monday night, where she makes enough copies for seven neat packets, which she intends to hand out to the judge and whatever lawyers and social workers will take them.
While the fate ofthe Aguilar children is uncertain, the fate of foster child Mando is the most uncertain of all, since the chances are slim to none that the county will return him to Frances and Luis. Yet, thus far, there is no one else to claim him. Mando is a bright child, and has begun talking in the months since he has joined the Aguilar household. "He was really coming out of his shell because he was finally, you know, secure," Frances says. "Before us, he was never secure. Before us, he was living with his mother in a Laundromat."
Horrified at the thought of Mando disappearing forever into the impersonal jaws of the county system, she attempts to contact Mando’s mother, without success. She has better luck with Mando’s dad, Victor, who surprises everyone by telling her that, yes, he would be willing to come to court and establish paternity. Since they are to be at court at 8 a.m., it is arranged that Frances and Luis will pick Victor up in front of the Homeboy office at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Although Victor swears he’ll show up, Frances is doubtful. "He says he’s clean and sober and he’s working, but who knows? Everybody tells me not to count on him, that he’ll never come through," Frances says. "Nobody gives a fuck about Mando. No one has ever given a fuck about Mando."
Yet, at 7:15, just as Frances and Luis are nearly ready to walk out of the house and head toward Homeboy, Victor appears at their door looking clear-eyed and nicely dressed in crisply pressed beige slacks and a long-sleeved sport shirt and a tidy sweater vest. "Mando’s my son," Victor says, looking nervous but eager. "I’ve got to do right by him."
The hearing is to be held at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court, just off the 710 freeway in Monterey Park. When the facility opened in 1992, it was billed as the first "child sensitive" courthouse in the nation. Before its existence, child-dependency hearings were held either at the criminal-court building downtown or in temporary trailers behind Van Nuys Superior Court. On the surface of it, the six-story structure is pleasant in design. Each floor is marked by symbols as well as numbers, clouds for one floor, snowflakes for another, moons for a third. Even the courtrooms are smaller than the norm, with walls and ceilings adorned with brightly painted animals and other kid-friendly images of the individual judges’ choosing. In the large third-floor waiting room, Frances and Luis are directed to seat themselves along with six dozen assorted other parents, grandparents and miscellaneous adults, all members of families that have somehow run afoul of this system. Despite the high-pitched, jovial chatter coming from television monitors permanently tuned to the Disney Channel and the attractive peach and turquoise décor, the atmosphere at Edelman Children’s Court is redolent with panic.
For the first hour after Frances and Luis arrive, not much happens. Then, around 9 a.m., lawyers begin to expel themselves from the courtrooms into the communal waiting area, whereupon they each call out the names of their clients. Most court proceedings — be they criminal or civil — feature two lawyers, one for the prosecution, one for the defense. In children’s court, however, a larger array of attorneys is required. In the Aguilars’ case, there is a lawyer for Frances, another for Luis, a third lawyer to represent the children, and a fourth lawyer who introduces herself as representing the county of Los Angeles. The function of the last lawyer is the most perplexing, as it would seem that the interests of the children and those of the county would be one and the same, therefore requiring only one attorney. Up until 20 years ago, in fact, that’s how things worked. But sometime in the mid-1980s, it was determined that a separate lawyer was needed to represent the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services itself, meaning the point of view of the social workers who are bringing the allegations against the parents. In practical terms, this means that that the county’s lawyer is the prosecutor.
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