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 last court date is -scheduled for December 2. On this day, either the county will give the kids back or everyone will go to trial.
As of the hearing date, the county of Los Angeles will have had the Aguilar children in its custody for more than a month. In that time, Estephanie, Bola and Julian — all children who struggle academically — have not returned to school for a single day. And, in the face of still more calls by Frances to various social -workers, plus her attorney, Gennisis remains on the wrong baby formula, which has led to a chronic, scarring rash, ongoing stomach problems and two trips to the doctor due to her allergic wheezing.
A week and a half before the new court date, Luis is unexpectedly laid off from his job. Then, in an ironic gesture reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, where convicted witches were made to pay for their own hanging ropes, Luis and Frances each receive a bill in the mail for $380. "The county is charging us attorney fees," laughs Frances bitterly. "Where do they imagine we’re going to get the money?"
When the kids were first taken, the crisis brought Luis and Frances together. But the trauma of their continuing absence — plus the unrelenting financial strain — appears to tear at the relationship in truly fundamental ways. Frances blames Luis and his now-banished homeboys for the loss of the kids. Luis strikes back by insisting that it’s her fault, because of the whole Darlene incident. The couple has often fought in the past, but this time the fighting is more venomous and desperate. Two days before the hearing, the emotional combat gets particularly acute, and Frances sobs out her distress on the phone. They haven’t talked in days, she says, and when they do, they say terrible things to each other. Maybe she should leave Luis, she says. But, by the time morning comes, the two have managed to forge a fragile truce, and, as Frances and Luis walk into the court building, Luis reaches for his wife’s hand and she tentatively lets him take it.
Victor Mojica, Mando’s dad, is in court again too. It seems that the one true miracle out of this whole nightmare is Victor, who is still sober, still well-dressed, still working at his new job with American Apparel that he seems to authentically enjoy. Yet most notable is his newfound determination to do whatever is necessary to have Mando come to live with him permanently. "He’s my son," Victor keeps saying. "I’ve got to be there for him."
Everyone has warned Luis and Frances not to expect to get the children back today, although the main reason for the retention seems to have changed. In the initial report, the county reserved its harshest criticism for Frances. But now the focal point appears to have shifted to Luis, who is being characterized as a major drug dealer, according to his attorney, a tall, model-thin brunette. "The case against me was dropped," protests Luis. "The evidence was falsified." Evidently the police and the county see it differently, she says.
After several trips back into the courtroom, Frances’ attorney asks her what they would want to do if it came down to Luis moving out of the house to get the kids back. When the question is posed to Luis, he shrugs. "Yeah, whatever, I’ll move out. I’ll do whatever’s good for the kids." His voice is neutral, but his expression suggests that some deeper part of him has taken a significant blow. "I’ll move out," he says again. "What the fuck. Whatever."
As Luis and Frances enter the courtroom just after 11 a.m., they both look defeated. But when they surface almost an hour later, their expressions have shifted. "The judge is giving us the kids back," says Frances, her voice still unnaturally subdued. "I don’t think he planned to do it. But it’s like halfway through something happened. He kept saying to the county lawyer, ‘Is that all you got? Well, if that’s all you got, that’s not very much.’ "
It is only a temporary reprieve. The kids are being returned pending a mediation session scheduled for December 20, and another court date on January 31 that should essentially settle the case. Something could still go wrong. But everyone believes a corner has been turned.
Even Luis’ and Frances’ attorneys are unexpectedly emotional at the outcome. "I’ve been doing this for 20 years," says Luis’ lawyer, her eyes tearing. "And I’m pretty cynical. But sometimes there’s a case that just gets to you, where you know in your gut the county’s really got it wrong."
It takes a few long minutes before Frances and Luis themselves can show much elation about the news, and, even then, they do so awkwardly. "Damn! I don’t get to move out!" giggles Luis. "I was looking forward to that." Frances swats at him with self-conscious playfulness. "Cabron!" she says.
When they go to pick up the kids at Hannah’s House, a foster-care office at Eastern and Bandini, Estephanie, Bola and Julian are already waiting. The younger kids arrive 10 minutes later. Like their parents, the kids seem happy but subdued, like survivors in a war zone unable to trust that the bombs have really stopped falling.
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