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A Fragile Peace

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."




A brief escape: Frances
naps in the car.


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.

When the raid began, although the littlest kids were terrified by the stream of men with drawn guns, Frances herself was more annoyed than scared. "The officers were courteous," she says. And, except when the one cop mistakenly pointed a 9 mm at Mando, she was careful to be calm and cooperative, even helping them pull things out of drawers so they wouldn’t accidentally break furniture like they’d done the last time. "I kept thinking, I know they’re not going to find anything, we’re not doing anything wrong, and I’m going to be late to day care." At least Luis wasn’t on parole anymore, she thought, so they couldn’t pop him for some trumped up parole violation. Then the two social workers arrived and suddenly Frances understood there was one terrible thing the police could do that had never, ever occurred to her.

For several minutes, the DCFS workers stalked through the house, their gaze traveling critically over its newly wrought disorder. Finally, Frances cornered one of the women "Be straight with me," she said, "are you going to take my kids, yes or no?" The woman hesitated, then nodded assent. Yes, she said, the children were being taken into protective custody.

After that, Frances’ blood pressure spiraled out of control. She turned to say something but fainted instead. The kids began to cry and tried to run to their mother. The paramedics came. An alarmed neighbor who saw the ambulance arrive called Luis’ brother, who called Luis at work. Luis left his job to go and find his wife.




Awaiting the verdict: Frances
and Luis outside family court


When she was released from White Memorial Hospital, Frances went to Hollenbeck police station in the hope of finding out where the kids had been taken. The desk officer sent her a block down the street to the detectives’ building, where most of the guys from the raid kept their offices. The detectives also claimed to know nothing, so Frances walked back to Hollenbeck — which was where she truly lost it. In the police station’s small blue-and-red-trimmed waiting room, she let go with a string of epithets about "fucking dirty cops, I hope you all die," or words to that effect. The short burst of impotent fury seemed to spend her. She sat down and started to cry.

Frances is a strong woman who has faced a great deal in her life without shattering. During merely the past year, she stood up to wave after wave of disaster — her husband’s arrest, his six and a half months of jail time for charges that were never proved, desperate money troubles, two co-workers’ murders. But having her kids removed from her care was a blow like no other. Frances cried helplessly, her misery spilling itself a disorganized stream. "My little boy peed on himself because they made all the kids go outside, and he had to go and they wouldn’t let him use the bathroom," she said, rocking and crying. "Elijah peed on himself. And he hated it, because he only uses pull-ups at night now. Oh, my God. How’re they gonna take my kids when I was right there? How’re they going to do that? Oh, my God, Oh, my God. Oh, my God."

 

For most of the rest of that first day, Frances pretty much followed where Luis led her — getting drug tested, signing up for parenting classes, looking for some kind of nearby 12-step group — her demeanor withdrawn, her body overcome by cyclical spasms of anguish that left her listless and battered. Even her hair, normally a profuse fog of russet curls, was twisted close to her scalp, where it lay in a lank, dispirited pile.

Yet by the time she arrived at work on Friday morning, the listlessness of the previous afternoon had vanished, and Frances was entirely focused and determined. "I’ve got to be strong for my kids," she says. "I’ve got no choice."

Luis and Frances are directed to show up in court at 8 a.m. Tuesday, November 2, when a judge will make some sort of initial disposition regarding their family. Until then, a DCFS supervisor named Emilio Mendoza explains on the phone to Frances, she and Luis will not be permitted to have contact with any of the children. (Frances sees no reason to mention the phone calls from the night before.) "You could even get your kids back on Tuesday," says Mendoza, but he cautions Frances not to count on it.

In the interim, the Aguilars look for anything that will bolster their case. Father Greg Boyle, Frances’ boss at Homeboy Industries, puts her and Luis in touch with a family-law attorney friend of his who suggests gathering supportive letters to bring to court. So, on Friday, Frances calls everyone she can think of — Robert Barksdale, Estephanie’s school principal, Bola’s homeroom teacher and his school counselor, the shrink Luis had been seeing, the woman who runs the day-care center where the younger children go on weekdays, the former Homeboy staffer who once offered her a job at Para Los Niños, and around a dozen others. Everyone she calls agrees without hesitation to help her.

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.




Reunited: Luis holds Gennisis
as the family packs up in
the foster-home office


While the fate of the 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.

After Frances delivers her packets of letters to all the attorneys, she and Luis sit down with their respective lawyers, who hand each of them a copy of the 59-page petition filed by DCFS alleging that Estephanie, Bola, Julian, Frankie, Elijah and Gennisis are "at risk of physical and emotional harm, damage, danger and death" if they remain in the Aguilar household.

Since the day of the raid, all the Hollenbeck officers who will speak on the subject have steadfastly insisted that the cops had nothing to do with the children’s being taken into county custody. Yet, the petition and its attached support documents suggest -otherwise. It states right up front that, according to the police, "The [Aguilar] home is known for criminal gang activities" and that there is a "recorded history of individuals being arrested for drug-related charges stemming from the reported address," that both parents have a "drug lifestyle," that both "engage in . . . criminal gang activity," and that the children are subjected to all of the above, plus "extremely deplorable living conditions." The report also makes clear that the DCFS workers who came to the house on the day of the raid are not run-of-the-mill social workers, but part of a newly formed Multi-Agency Response Team — or MART — that works in tandem with the police to protect children in homes "associated with high levels of illegal gang, firearms and narcotic activity."

Like most households with lots of children, two working parents and no paid housecleaner, the Aguilar home tends to go from clean and scrubbed to messy and back again on a regular basis. In addition to the gang and drug allegations, the other main charge is "general neglect." To support this, the social workers catalog a list of offenses. The house is "unsafe and hazardous," they write. The refrigerator has "insufficient food" for the number of people living in the residence. Dirty clothes and toys were found "scattered and piled throughout the floor." What is not mentioned is that the scattering of clothes and toys was mostly a product of the raid.

 




Splintered dreams: Luis sands
sands a rough doorway to
prepare for inspectors


"I do my big shopping on Sunday, but I get stuff every other day, especially if a lot more people are eating, the Food 4 Less guys could tell you." Frances rattles this out wretchedly as she reads the report. "Some of the clothes were on the floor because I was sorting them for washing. Bola and I did those two loads early in the morning. I was going to do more in the afternoon. How else am I supposed to sort the clothes?"

Certainly, a few of the allegations listed are legitimate. A window in the bathroom has a broken section. It’s high enough to be out of the kids’ reach, but a broken window is a broken window. In addition, one of the closet doors in the boys’ room has been pulled partially off its hinges, and although Luis had already done plumbing and other fix-it jobs around the house since his release from jail, he had yet to get around to re-hanging the closet door.

Other listings are mystifying. For instance, the report cites that the "front entry door was cluttered with strollers, car seats and other objects," including a "computer desk and an entertainment center" — a situation that the report labels a fire hazard and a "way of deterring law enforcement access to the home by the front door." This would be a reasonable criticism if it were true. In reality, the Aguilars’ front door is usually never obstructed in any way. The only reason the passage was blocked on the day of the raid was because the police moved all the offending items from their usual locations while searching (some were taken from the attic) and stacked them in front of the door — a fact that the social workers could easily have determined with a single question to an officer. In a similar fashion, much was made of the bare mattresses in the children’s rooms, another artifact of the raid produced when police yanked off sheets and blankets in search of contraband.

Several prominent areas of the report are devoted to Frances’ demeanor on the day her kids were taken from her. Rather than characterize her as a distraught mother, the report presents her behavior as damning. For instance, it states that Frances swore at the social workers and looked at them in a "hateful and threatening manner." There is a long passage about her first telephone call to a social worker following the raid in which Frances is described as being "aggressive," "erratic" and "so offensive" that the worker "had to hang up the phone," although others, who actually witnessed the call (including me), saw a justifiably upset woman who managed to hold herself in check. Even her angry outburst at Hollenbeck Police Station is mentioned in minute detail, which suggests that some LAPD officer actually took the time to make notes on the 15-second incident, dutifully passing them along to DCFS.

The report concludes that there is "substantial danger" to the "physical health of the children," as well as danger of their "suffering severe emotional damage," and that the only way to prevent such an outcome is to remove the children from their parents’ custody. Taken as a whole, it is difficult not to see the report as an energetic attempt on someone’s part to stack the deck against the Aguilars.

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.




Overwhelmed:
The Aguilars
together again


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.

 

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."

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.

During the children’s first week home, each family member’s demeanor — including that of the baby — fluctuates between tentative and frantic. Gennisis will not sleep in her crib, but demands to be held by either Luis or Frances. Even when she is held, she tends to grab whichever parent is holding her in a tiny-fingered death grip. Estephanie has become anxious about keeping the house clean. "No, Mom," she tells Frances if the least bit of mess develops, "it has to be really clean. Really clean."

Luis still is without employment, and his jobless state increasingly abrades his state of mind. When he gets a $1,600 check from the union for long-past accumulated vacation pay, it covers one more month’s mortgage. Frances’ salary can just cover the four-month $783 water bill but not much more. "I wanted to decorate the house for Christmas, because I have decorations I’ve saved from before. But I decided not to, because we don’t have money for gifts. Not even for little gifts. I don’t want to get the kids’ hopes up."

And, in the manner of abused children who take out their misery on each other, Frances and Luis are still fighting.

By Tuesday, December 14, their quarreling has reached the point that they aren’t speaking again. On Wednesday, Frances even goes so far as to look at a separate apartment. The one bright spot is that, with the help of a new therapist on staff at Homeboy, Platicas, her proposed discussion/therapy group for homegirls, has actually gotten off the ground and is meeting every Tuesday morning at 10. "Right now I need the support as much as anybody," she says. "I just don’t know what’s going to happen with me and Luis."

Then, out of the blue, on the morning of Friday, December 17, the world changes all over again. Luis gets a job. But it’s not just any job. It’s the gig that, for months, he’s been applying for, and now it has come through. He will be working on a five-year underground construction project for the city. "I’m making $24 an hour now," he says happily. "But if they put me on the underground crew — which I think they’re going to do — it goes up to $28."

Like browned grass that revives with the rain, this single turn of events gives husband and wife the needed incentive to reach out to each other again. And, on Friday afternoon, Christmas spirit has also been resurrected, and Frances takes the two littlest boys with her to the holiday toy giveaway organized out of Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa’s office, where she scores presents for all six kids. The police are also giving away gifts, and Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza comes to the Homeboy office to ask Frances for a list of families especially in need, telling her to be sure to add her own. When he comes back to collect the list and sees her name missing, he wants to know why. "We’ll be okay," she says. Instead, Frances has included one of her neighbors, a woman who also happens to be particularly active in the Neighborhood Watch Committee that has worked for months to get rid of the Aguilars. When she tells the neighbor that the toys, plus a $50 gift certificate, will be delivered to the woman and her three kids, the woman stares at Frances for several long moments. "Oh, gracias," she says. Frances nods. "No hay de que," she says. Don’t mention it.

 

Saturday night, Luis unexpectedly encourages his wife to go out with her women friends, volunteering to watch the kids in her absence. When Frances returns just before midnight, a Christmas tree is standing in one corner of the living room. "Luis and I got it," brags Bola. "It’s a little on the dry side," laughs Frances. "But we don’t care. We love it. It’s our tree!"

By midday on Sunday, the tree is fully adorned with the stored decorations — candy canes, bright plastic Christmas balls, long tinsel garlands in red and green, miniature stockings, one for everyone in the family. "At the gift giveaway, there was a craft table set up for kids, so Elijah and Frankie made 10 snowflakes out of Popsicle sticks," says Frances. "I think they’re very creative." The snowflakes, which are covered with glitter and oversize metallic confetti, now grace the tree too.

"So I guess we’re having a real Christmas after all," she says. "I told the kids, ‘Look, we’re going to have a small Christmas.’ But it’ll be a good Christmas, because we’re together, and that’s the most important."

And it is good. On Christmas Eve, Frances makes pozole, a traditional Mexican soup thick with pork, garlic, onion, chile peppers and cilantro. The kids agree to wait until midnight to open the gifts, but by 11:35 p.m. they can’t stand it anymore so, with Frances’ and Luis’ permission, everyone unwraps in a cheerful frenzy. "Santa brought me this Power Ranger because I’ve been good," Frankie says gravely, as he holds up a huge stuffed action figure, acquired in the Villaraigosa giveaway. "Very good," says Frances. "You’ve been very good, honey."

On Christmas day, Luis takes the family to the movies and begins making New Year’s resolutions. "Moving away is the big one," he says.

On Monday, December 27, Luis is back at work, but Frances is home with the kids. She looks happier than she has in a long while. "I think we’re going to be okay," she says. "One of the social workers from Para Los Niños came over and told us they want to help us move out of here, away from this area. They have these lower-income apartments at Seventh and Santee downtown that rent for like $300 a month. And, if that happens, Luis wants to turn our house into a Section 8 rental so we can make money on it." Frances says she is still scared about the police, about her relationship with Luis, about the fact that the kids’ new wounds and angers aren’t going away quickly. "But I’ve seen things — qualities — about myself this year that I didn’t know before, that maybe I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We’ve been through a lot, but we’ve learned from it too," she says. "That’s the way I tell the kids we have to look it all. We’re not broken. I think we’re going to be okay."

To read Celeste Fremon's Family Analysis of the Aguilars, click here.


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