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
The first sign that there might be trouble appears around 9:30 a.m. when Frances’ attorney pulls her aside and tells her that the drug test has belatedly come back for Darlene, the 28-year-old niece who lives with the Aguilars, and Darlene has tested dirty. "This isn’t good, but I think if you agree to have her move out — and I mean tonight — once they know she’s out, they’ll give you the kids." Frances agrees instantly and goes to break the news to Darlene.
At 10:15, the attorney comes out again and says they are waiting for the social worker’s report, which appears to be delayed for some reason. But she is still upbeat, explaining that this only means that the social workers are recommending release, but someone "up the line" is trying to stop it.
After lunch, Frances gets an inkling of who the "someone" might be when she sees the two lead police officers from the raid walk down the third-floor hallway and into the courtroom. A half-hour later, Frances is called in. Fifteen minutes later still, the courtroom door slams open, and Frances runs out, waving off any attempts at comfort. "They’re still keeping the kids," she sobs, when she can speak at all. "I don’t know what the police said to the judge, but whatever they said was poison." A short time later, Frances’ attorney also emerges from the courtroom and attempts to calm her client. "You shouldn’t have run out like that," she tells her. "In court, deportment is everything. They already think you’re on drugs, and getting upset like that doesn’t help."
This only makes Frances cry harder. "I don’t even take Tylenol!" she sobs. "They know that! They drug-tested me! They’ve taken my kids, and they keep saying all these lies about me . . . !"
Later, when Frances has pulled herself together, she calls Estephanie and Bola to warn them of the bad news. Neither reacts well. Estephanie, who has been extraordinarily grown-up throughout the ordeal, now cries, rages and threatens to run away. "What? They think this is good for us?!" she sob-shouts to her -mother, then slams down the phone. Bola’s reaction is much angrier, much more specific, much scarier. "He says he’s going to run away, that he doesn’t care anymore, that I can’t stop him," Frances says when she gets off the phone with him, her face pinched with strain. "I pleaded with him not to leave, I made him promise me . . . I told him that I’d get him home. But I don’t know . . ." Her voice falters. "This is damaging my children," she says. "And for what? For what?"
Another attorney, who has observed much of the court proceedings, shakes his head. "This is the most ordinary type of case in the world," he says. "There are a few problems. Somebody in the household is using drugs. That person moves out. The kids go back with some monitoring. End of story. We see these cases every day. But with the police showing up, and the press attention, this thing has suddenly taken on a whole other life of its own . . . It’s sad for the children, sad for the parents, sad for everybody."
Frances gets home before Luis does. When he arrives from work, he is in a good mood. "Where are the kids?" he asks. "I don’t have them," says Frances. Luis assumes she’s teasing and makes an exaggerated show of stalking from room to room, looking under beds and behind doors for the children. "No, babe," says Frances. "I really don’t have them. The judge didn’t give them back." For a few more beats, Luis looks confused before he understands that this is for real, the kids aren’t coming home. This time, when he breaks down crying, Frances has no energy to console him.
"I guess they want to see if they can break us," says Luis a few days later. "Everybody has a breaking point."
When asked about the Aguilars’ case, Hollenbeck area’s commanding officer, Captain William Fierro, describes it as an appropriate intervention. "We have 35 gangs in our area," he says, "and while we’re not going to stop certain people from joining gangs, we can save some of the younger kids, get ’em out of the homes. It’s very hard because so many of these kids go home to an environment where they don’t have a chance. That’s what our concern is in this home and other homes. When you have gang members hanging out, and narcotics being sold, the younger kid being arrested for graffiti, that is not an environment conducive to breaking the gang cycle," says Fierro. "And as hard as Frances tries to do the right thing, is she really? I don’t think so."
Father Greg disagrees. "I’ve known parents that are neglectful and abusive," he says. "And Frances and Luis aren’t even close. But the police who are involved here have begun with the premise that the Aguilars are bad people. And all of their subsequent perceptions flow from that demonizing premise. Anybody who knows Frances knows she’s a great mother. Of course she’s made mistakes. But her kids are emotionally intact specifically because of the kind of mother she is. And here’s the truth. What the police and DCFS have done to these kids was more damaging in the first hour than Frances’ cumulative lifetime of missteps."
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