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
Sitting apart from each other, Frances and Luis read page after page in grim, stunned silence. "The police couldn’t get me for drug dealing," Luis says when at last he looks up, "so they take the kids. That’s what this is about."
The hearing takes place at around 1:30 p.m. in courtroom number 405, D. Zeke Zeidler presiding. The older four kids have been brought in from their respective foster homes for the occasion and are allowed to sit alongside their parents in the courtroom.
When Luis and Frances emerge just after 3 p.m., as harsh as the accusations have been, the two parents seem optimistic. For one thing, they got to see the kids. "Estephanie looked good," Frances said. "You could tell Bola was trying not to cry. Julian sat with me, and Frankie sat on Luis’ lap and drew pictures of everybody." Father Greg Boyle also showed up and was permitted to testify on their behalf. "That made a huge difference," says Frances. "Otherwise, why should the judge believe us? We’re just a couple of gang members, you know?" She and Luis say they were also heartened by the fact that the attorney for the children, a slender, intelligent-looking man in his 40s (who is, incidentally, the only person out of all the lawyers, social workers and cops who has actually interviewed the kids), seemed to be recommending that the six children be immediately returned home.
"The judge didn’t do that," says Frances. "But I think he wants to find a reason to give us our kids back next time, after they’ve had more time to investigate." In the meantime, the judge has ordered that Frances and Luis may have unsupervised visits with all the children. "We just have to see them in a public place," says Frances. "But at least we get to see them."
With their children gone for at least another week, and facing their next court date on Tuesday, November 9, Frances and Luis do their best to fill the fearful, eerily quiet days with purposeful activity. A house inspection has been scheduled for Thursday. So Frances and Luis work late into the night doing additional housecleaning, organizing and painting. On Wednesday, Frances stays home from work just to complete the laundry. "I’ve spent nine hours and $115 at the Laundromat," she says at day’s end, giddy with exhaustion. "I’m telling you, I put every single thing in this house into the washer and dryer except the dog." On Wednesday night, Luis barely sleeps at all, but paints into the wee hours of the morning.
By Thursday at 10 a.m., the house has been cleaned, repaired and re-painted as much as time and money will allow — even a bit beyond what money will allow. The Aguilars have now spent so much on fix-up that they now don’t have quite enough for the mortgage. "So, we’ll pay it late, when Luis gets his next paycheck," Frances says. "We have to do whatever it takes to get our kids back."
The inspection appears to go well, so on Friday Luis goes back to work, while Frances takes the kids for the first unsupervised visit. She is allowed exactly four hours, but no more, with everyone, including Mando, who evidently was included by mistake. "I tried to be positive," she says. "I told them that since they missed Halloween, when they’re back home, everybody can still dress up, and we’ll have our own special Halloween party right at our house. I told them they’d be home soon . . ."
Yet even the constrained joy of the day is marred when wires get crossed and Gennisis’ foster parents fail to bring her. Then, when it’s time for everyone to go back, both Elijah and Mando scream so hysterically and cling to Frances so hard that she begins sobbing along with them. "It was terrible," she says. "It made me wonder if something was really bad with their foster parents. But they’re so little, so how do you know?"
Luis and Frances both see the kids again over the weekend; this time, the baby comes too. But when they see Gennisis, Frances becomes genuinely worried. Normally an even-tempered, happy baby, Gennisis has scratches on her face. The little gold-and-diamond-chip earrings that were a gift from a family friend are gone from her ears, and when Frances questions the foster father, he tells her they must have been "lost." The bottle that accompanies Gennisis is old and visibly encrusted with calcified formula, and the baby has a red and blistered rash on her bottom. "I keep telling the social worker that she’s really allergic, just like Luis, so they have to get this one brand of diapers, and she needs a special formula called Good Start Supreme, -otherwise she gets sick to her stomach and, like, -wheezes." But, somehow, none of this has been done.
On the eve of their November 9 court date, it is agreed that Frances will go to court without Luis, who feels he cannot miss much more work without endangering his job. Victor again asks for a ride to court, and says he is still sober, still working, still determined to get his son back.