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Things Fall Apart

Illustration by Bill Smith

SOPHIA VIDAL DISAPPEARED ON MONDAY, November 29, 1999. At least, that's the day her friend Isabel Trujillo realized she was missing. On the previous Friday, Sophie, 28, had dropped her three boys off at Isabel's house, ostensibly for the weekend. She said she had to work Saturday and Sunday dancing at a strip club and would pick up the kids late Sunday night. "I really need the money," Sophie pleaded. If Isabel could just do her this favor, she'd find a way to pay her back.

Isabel* didn't mind the imposition all that much. She was the godmother to the two older boys: Peter, a preternaturally alert 10-year-old, and James, an agreeable child of 7. She also enjoyed playing with Matthew, the chubby, even-tempered toddler, especially since she had no kids of her own.

Nonetheless, when Sophie didn't turn up as she said she would on Sunday night, Isabel was annoyed. "I figured she was just out partying and would come in the morning. But it was rude of her not to call me." When Monday arrived with no word, Isabel began to worry. Either Sophie was on a serious binge or she was locked up. There could be no other reasonable explanation. "I mean she loves her kids," said Isabel.

In their 15 years of friendship, Sophie and Isabel had helped each other through bad boyfriends, drug flameouts, suicide attempts, a bunch of babies (Sophie's), a miscarriage (Isabel's), and so many deaths you'd assume they'd been in a war, which in a sense they had, since both came of age in the Pico-Aliso housing projects, a community infamous for its lethal gang battles. Both of them had sisters, but, as eldest children in families with no reliable adult minding the store, they had more in common with each other -- namely the experience of being the only grown-up in the house far too early. When they were in their mid-20s, Sophie was the one who usually had a job, a car and the money to assist her friend whenever she needed it. Now, as the two women closed in on 30, Isabel seemed to have found a modicum of stability, while Sophie was losing ground.

"She gave me a number where she said she and the kids are staying," Isabel said. "But I dialed it, and the people who answered didn't even know who she was." This was a bad sign. We agreed to talk again at 10 p.m., by which time, we assumed, Sophie would surface. But by 10:30 Monday night there was still no word.

I MET SOPHIA VIDAL NINE YEARS AGO, WHEN she was 18 and pregnant with her second baby. I was researching a book on Eastside gang members, and her then-boyfriend, Angel, was among the homeboys whose lives I was chronicling. I took to her right away. She had a well-developed sense of humor, and a more penetrating, complex intelligence than her outward circumstances suggested. Yet, it was evident, even before I knew the details of her upbringing, that Sophie was a deeply wounded girl.

To begin with, her mother was a heroin addict who declined to care for her kids, and her father disappeared early on. Her mother dumped Sophie and her sister on their grandmother's doorstep when they were preschool age. Although the grandmother agreed to take the children in, she raised them without any sense of fixed attachment, as if she were merely a temporary worker filling in for somebody else. She was also an Old World woman, easily spooked by some of the most basic requirements of parenting. When Sophie got her first period, the grandmother wouldn't talk about it, instead sending her to a relative down the street for an explanation of her bodily changes. Worse, when some of the men in the family paid peculiar kinds of attention to the pretty young girl, the grandmother simply elected not to notice.

All warm-blooded mammals, humans included, if they are to become functional members of their species, need a period of growth, learning and maturation during which they are relatively sheltered from the rigors of adulthood. Sophie had very little of ã this early sheltering and, perhaps as a result, too often allowed herself to be blown this way and that by the desires of whichever guy she was with at the moment. If he drank to excess, she did too; if he wanted a baby, she had a baby. But when the men left or got themselves locked up, as they inevitably did, she resurrected herself with remarkable resilience.

Sophie worked hard to stay off public assistance and tried to do right by her children. It was really important to her that her sons were baptized, something she regarded less as a religious rite than as an emotional insurance policy. "That way my boys will always have people who'll look out for them," she explained, meaning the godparents. "My kids are going to have things better than I did, no matter what it takes." She said this so often, it was difficult not to believe her. Like a magician pulling flowers out of an empty hat, Sophie always seemed able to generate a fresh supply of optimism each time life knocked her down.

 

Until the last year or so. Instead of incremental improvement, Sophie began to seem trapped in a cycle of sinking and rising, sinking and rising. And each new struggle to the surface appeared to deepen her fatigue. On the downswings, she ran up debts, and bounced on and off welfare. As Sophie suffered, so did her children. Her mothering became haphazard and distracted. She uprooted herself and her kids every few months for flimsy reasons, often leaving behind their possessions in the departure. Peter, the 10-year-old, demonstrated his unhappiness by acting out at each new school. And though she was expert at hiding it, there were signs that Sophie was starting to self-medicate with unsettling regularity.

WHEN, BY TUESDAY MORNING, SOPHIE STILL hadn't called, there were practical considerations in addition to the worry. Isabel was nearly out of money. She'd gotten married in the summer, but Gus, her new husband, was not noticeably energetic when it came to finding employment, so Isabel had to be the breadwinner. Recently, she'd had to quit work to care for her ill mother and three younger brothers. A week ago, Gus had gotten himself arrested on a minor drug charge. Now the family was managing on the barest of public assistance. Isabel didn't mind the added work of Sophie's kids, but three more hungry mouths in the household put her over the edge financially. "The boys don't have any clothes except what they were wearing when Sophie brought them," Isabel told me. "And Matty, the 2-year-old, is out of diapers." Isabel wanted to know if I could send her some cash.

This presented a bit of a problem. I'm a single mother myself and was battling my own unpleasant cash crunch as the holidays approached. I could comfortably afford to send 50 bucks or so, but that wasn't going to go very far. On the other hand, my son and I have a nice home, an SUV and a few shares on the NASDAQ. Isabel had next to nothing and was caring for three boys who might never see their mother again. Should I sacrifice my own family's Christmas to send her the money she needed? Damn Sophie! I thought. What the hell is she doing?

I tried calling Father Greg Boyle, the Eastside priest known for his work with gangs, to see if his office could ante up any support. Father Greg knows Isabel and Sophie as well as I do. "It's clear what needs to be done here," he said when I reached him. "Somebody needs to call Child Protective Services. Those kids need some stability. They need to be in foster care, and Sophie needs to be in rehab. Anything else is a Band-Aid."

"No," blurted Isabel emphatically when I relayed Father Greg's suggestion. She agreed about Sophie and rehab, but not about foster care. "I won't let those kids get in the system. First of all, they'll separate them, you know they will, and that'll break the baby's heart." Isabel had been in foster care as a girl, and knew the system from the inside. "My sister and I had a pretty good foster family. But for my little brothers it was terrible. Those people made them feel like they were nothing. Lower than nothing. I know how it feels to be in somebody's house where you don't belong, and I don't want that to happen to Sophie's boys." A pause. "Maybe I could find a way to keep the kids while she's in rehab -- you know, apply for emergency aid or something."

Father Greg had given me the name of a man named Henry Marquez, a social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services. I called him, thinking he might have an idea how Isabel could get some kind of emergency financial assistance. Once I'd outlined the situation, Marquez -- a sympathetic and sensible man -- described several options. Sophie could write out and have notarized a plan indicating her intention to place the kids with Isabel for a given period of time. Isabel could then take the document and apply for additional aid, which Marquez surmised she could get fairly quickly. Or Sophie could let the kids enter the system voluntarily, indicating that she needed time to go into treatment and get her life in order. "This would give her a little more power in the eyes of the court when it comes time to get her kids back," said Marquez. But both of these scenarios required Sophie, who was still nowhere to be found.

 

Marquez wanted to know if there was a blood relative who could take the kids. I said I didn't think so. Sophie's mother was still using; the boys' father, Angel, was in prison; Angel's mother had a felony record and was furious at Sophie anyway. "She's in favor of turning the kids over to the county right now," I said. Isabel, on the other hand, was willing to take the boys, and they seemed comfortable around her.

"Well, let's hope we can make it work," said Marquez. "You don't want these kids to enter the system if you can help it. The county doesn't make a very good parent."

SOPHIE'S SONS ARE PRECIOUS TO ME BECAUSE I know them. I know that if you ask Peter what birthday or Christmas gift he wants, his too-responsible reaction is often to mention the needs of his little brothers first. I know that James is an overcautious middle child who has learned not to make any waves, and that Matty is Sophie's miracle baby, the one whose birth had given her the courage to rise (at least temporarily) above a depression that had threatened to engulf her. Yet, apart from the personal, the most distressing part of the boys' uncertain situation wasn't its uniqueness, but its dreadful ordinariness.

We live in an era of contradictions. Despite the yo-yoing of the stock market, the state's economy is booming, and Silicon Valley still manufactures millionaires at an impressive clip. Yet, at the bottom layers of the economic hierarchy, the poor are getting poorer, and parental neglect -- even more than abuse -- is a relentlessly rising tide.

As of late last year, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had 65,996 children under its supervision, making it the biggest dependency system in the nation. Three-quarters of those children have been pulled from their parents' care because of neglect. According to a 1998 study conducted by the California League of Women Voters, neglected kids are the fastest-growing segment of the foster-care population and are the ones likely to stay in the system the longest. The League also noted that young children who are neglected score 10 to 20 IQ points below those who are not.

Of course, for every one of these kids we know about, there are undoubtedly many more who -- like Peter and his brothers -- are teetering on the edge of disaster outside the range of our collective vision. In part, this is due to the fact that neglect, unlike abuse, is tricky to identify. A social worker can document if a child is being hit or deprived of adequate food, clothing or shelter. But the more subtle benchmarks that constitute general neglect are not easily determined in a brief visit or telephone call. That's, of course, presuming a social worker is alerted to the situation at all.

Right now, one-third of L.A. County's 2,537,449 children live below the poverty line. Statewide, one-fifth are being raised in single-parent households. On a national level, 1,900,000 California children have one or more parents in prison; 180,000 of these children have incarcerated mothers, numbers that are expected to increase by at least 7.8 percent a year. As of January 1, 1998, anyone convicted of a drug-related felony in California may never again receive any kind of public assistance. This means that a mom who gets out of prison with the intention of leaving drugs behind and building a new life bloody well better be able to do it on her own.

Obviously, poverty doesn't necessitate bad parenting. The majority of poor single mothers manage to do right by their children in the face of staggering obstacles. But for those who are too broke, too stressed, too strung-out to be adequate parents, we have little patience and few forms of support.

SINCE THERE WERE SEVERAL LARGE HURDLES TO clear before Isabel could keep Sophie's boys, it seemed practical to at least consider a worst-case scenario. Let's say there was no other choice but to put Peter, James and Matthew under the care of the county -- what exactly would that entail? With a few quick calls to DCFS officials, I learned that the sequence of events would likely unfold as follows: One of us -- Isabel or me or Father Greg -- would make a call to the Child Abuse Hotline. We would explain that the children's mother had disappeared, that the boys hadn't been in school for several weeks, and that their needs were generally not being met.

 

The DCFS would then spring into action. Based on our hot-line call, a report would be generated that would, in turn, be referred to an Emergency Response worker. There it would be reviewed, prioritized, and assigned to an individual social worker, who would be required to make a personal visit to the household. In most instances, the worker has a five-day window in which to make the home visit. In more severe cases -- if the child, say, is in immediate danger of physical or sexual abuse -- the window is narrowed down to a two-hour response time. In the case of Sophie's boys, a meeting would likely be arranged within 24 hours.

After the worker's visit, if he or she decides it's necessary to remove the kids, a foster placement is located as quickly as possible, often that same day. In the case of Sophie's boys, the worker would look for a family willing to take all three. "We always try to keep siblings together," an official told me, "but it's getting harder and harder at the rate kids flood into this system." DCFS figures put the likelihood of siblings being separated at around 40 percent. ã

Whether they were placed individually or jointly, once the boys were in the home of their new caretakers, they would try to settle into some semblance of a normal life. However, it's at this point where the efficacy of the system would start to collapse. According to DCFS estimates, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the children placed in (nonrelative) foster homes have two or more placements. In plain language, this means that, within a few months, something would go wrong at the boys' first foster home. As a consequence, they would be uprooted again and placed with a second family. After that, maybe a third, or even a fourth. The longer kids are in foster care, the more likely they are to have more than two placements.

These so-called failed placements occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the foster parents simply don't like the children, Gene Gilden told me grimly. Gilden is the division chief for quality assurance at the Department of Children and Family Services, the section that keeps tabs on the well-being of the county's charges once they are placed. "Other times the parents decide they don't want to be foster parents anymore, or the kids are angry and act out, which is understandable, but the foster family feels it can't handle them." In still other cases, Gilden said, the kids are so unhappy they run away repeatedly. And then, of course, there are the true nightmares in which foster parents abuse the kids they are supposed to be protecting. "In these cases," said Gilden, "we remove the kids, and label the family 'Do Not Use.'"

Gilden estimated that the department gives a "Do Not Use" designation to approximately five to seven foster families and/or group homes per month. "We know that multiple placements are extremely rough on children," she added, "particularly since all these kids have already been traumatized. So we're working hard to change the situation. I just wish we could change it a little faster."

McLaren Children's Center is among the county's largest juvenile shelters, and the site where the boys would probably be housed between failed placements. Mac, as the kids have named it, is a well-run facility located on 10 acres of grassy land a few blocks off the 605 freeway in El Monte. I drove there one afternoon and chatted with a group of prepubescent girls in one of the center's pleasant day rooms. The girls I met were from varied ethnic backgrounds, but all possessed a similar fragility, like china cups that have been shattered and pieced back together. Most had learned to veil their take-me-home expressions with a thin veneer of toughness.

I talked longest with a girl I'll call Tessa, an exceptionally bright 11-year-old who admitted she'd been back to Mac five times, meaning she'd had five foster-family washouts. I asked her if she was hoping for a reunion with her own mom or dad. Tessa shook her head decisively in the negative, then cranked up a well-practiced smile. "No," she said. "I'd like to go forward to a family who wants me." I told Tessa that anyone with any sense should be proud to have her as a daughter. Then I left, wondering as I drove if that's how it would be if Peter and his brothers wound up in the system: bouncing from one unfamiliar house to another, hoping each time that some family would find them acceptable enough to keep.

 

TO AVOID FOSTER CARE FOR SOPHIE'S BOYS -- even in the short run -- we clearly needed an immediate source of money. After a night of hand-wringing, I woke up with an idea. My birthday was coming up in a few days on December 13. Maybe I could throw a potluck party. But instead of bringing presents for me, I'd ask friends to cough up clothes and toys for the kids plus enough cash to buy Isabel a little time. I e-mailed everyone I could think of, and within hours, enthusiastic responses started rolling in. In a season of mall and e-commerce fever, people seemed delighted at the opportunity to give where there was truly a need. The party idea didn't remove any fears about Sophie's whereabouts, but at least I could do something concrete for her boys.

Late Wednesday morning, Father Greg called again, hoping for good news.

"I don't want to sound negative," he said, "but have you phoned the hospitals?"

Which hospitals? I asked him. "She could be in L.A. She could be in Orange County. She could be in fucking Tijuana."

"Right," he said bleakly. "What about calling the police and asking if they have any Jane Does?"

"I don't think we're there yet," I said.

Later that day, though, Isabel voiced what we both had secretly been thinking. "Why wouldn't Sophie call if she was alive?" She was silent for a long moment. "Peter cried for a long time last night," she said. "He knows something is wrong. They all know something is wrong. Even Matty, the baby, keeps crying for his mom. I don't know what I'm supposed to tell them."

LOOKING BACK, WE SHOULD HAVE SEEN SOPHIE'S smashup coming; even the club gig was a red flag. Lately, dance clubs had become Sophie's fallback position whenever she was out of work. She was small and curvy, with a Gerber-baby face and cascades of long, red Venus-on-the-half-shell hair -- a beautiful toddler with grown-up boobs, just what the men at the clubs wanted. But the club jobs ultimately took more away from Sophie than they returned. Some women might work strip joints without trashing their psyches; Sophie couldn't -- too many men in her girlhood had used her as if she didn't matter. The club patrons, with their brazen stares, brought the worthless feeling back again; soon she might have found herself thinking, fuck it, whatever, let them do what they like.

Maybe that was what happened, Isabel and I theorized. Something occurred at the club that triggered a colossal breakdown. "If she's messing up, I can understand it, that's on her," said Isabel. "But it isn't fair to the boys. They deserve better."

This past summer, I sat next to Peter at Rosemary's wedding. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, I was startled when he turned to me and blurted without preface, "I wish I had a safe place to live." I asked what he meant. "You know, a house where we didn't have to move around all the time, a place so I could just go to school and come home and keep my stuff there, and never worry that it would be taken away from us." Peter stated this without complaint in his voice, as if he were talking about some minor desire, like a TV show he wanted to watch. But at the back of his eyes, the longing shimmered. And now his mother was pulling this insane disappearing act.

WHAT IS IMPORTANT IF A CHILD IS TO THRIVE? Love, certainly. After that some encouragement, the feeling of belonging, a sense of emotional and physical safety. Peter had love of a kind, although much of the time it had been questionably demonstrated. Encouragement? Well, maybe. What he clearly did not have, what he'd said he wanted, was safety and a place to belong. If these needs aren't met soon, chances are he'll take them into his own hands -- which in L.A.'s poorer neighborhoods usually translates as gang membership, armed and on the street.

Certainly it's the intention of the Department of Children and Family Services that the children in its care should be provided with at least most of the items on the short list of fundamental requirements. But that goal is met only sporadically.

In Los Angeles County there are currently 8,598 foster-care providers in two different categories: those licensed by the state and those run by private foster-family agencies known as FFAs. While there is no average profile of a foster parent, DCFS's Gilden suggests that there are a couple of common types. First, she said, there are the people who adore children and become foster parents purely out of kindness and compassion. "But the majority do it as a way of staying home while also earning a living," said Gilden. In other words, they do it for the money.

 

The monthly per-kid fee paid to foster parents ranges from around $400 at the lowest end, up to $1,400 for a child with severe medical problems requiring intensive attention. Most fees fall into the $550-to-$700 range. Since the state allows up to six children in a household, at $650 apiece, that would be $46,800 a year, tax-free.

"Of course, the fact that they're treating it as a business doesn't mean they aren't excellent foster parents who are interested in children," Gilden said. "On the other hand, I think the reason some people go bad is that they think foster parenting is going to be easy. Then they find it's quite different when it's not their own kid. So they end up losing it in one way or another." The dynamic is further complicated, says Gilden, by the fact that every child coming into the system is, by definition, a high-needs kid coping with an array of painful emotional issues.

All right, if foster care is a business, then surely quality control is of paramount importance. Gilden admits, however, that monitoring the care children receive is another area where the system needs significant improvement. Each kid has a social worker who is supposed to check in -- at least cursorily -- each month. But in state-licensed foster homes, the only oversight of the actual home consists of a single annual inspection to determine whether it still meets basic certification standards. Foster children are not interviewed during the visit, nor are they even required to be present. Beyond this solitary yearly visit, the single thing protecting the child's emotional and physical safety is the vigilance of the general public. In other words, if a neighbor or a teacher thinks a foster parent is beating on a kid, they can call the Child Abuse Hotline. Then, as with any other family, a social worker will investigate the complaint. Otherwise, kids in state homes are pretty much on their own. The Child Abuse Hotline receives nearly 150,000 calls a year. Of those, approximately 2,400 calls are related to kids already within the county's care, nearly 500 of which eventually prove to be documentable cases of abuse or neglect.

The monitoring of FFA homes seems to be better -- on the surface anyway. Under the FFA system, social workers visit the house once a month and are instructed to interview the children with an eye to potential abuse. There is a vast gray area, however, between the supportive, nurturing foster parent and the one who does outright physical harm. It's this middle ground that Isabel described when she talked of her brothers' foster-care experience. No one hit them or assaulted them sexually. But no one appeared to care about them, either.

"I have a horrible suspicion," said Gilden, "that this middle ground we're speaking about is very large, ã although we have no way yet to quantify it. Part of the difficulty is the fact that a lot of kids coming into foster care get so confused that they no longer expect to be loved. They just accept the emotional abuse and never say anything to the people who might be able to help them."

THURSDAY EVENING, FOUR DAYS after Sophie's disappearance, everything changed. Driving back from a meeting, I got a call from Isabel: Sophie was alive. Isabel had tracked down her younger sister, who admitted Sophie was staying somewhere in Santa Ana. Thank you, God. The relief was quickly replaced by fury. If Sophie was alive, uninjured, in Orange County, then nothing prevented her from calling her kids. She simply chose not to.

"The bitch was out getting her kicks," Isabel said. "And me, like a stupid, picks up the slack, just like she knows I will. That's it. I'm making the call. I love those kids, but I'm not going to keep busting my butt for them just so their mother can go out and party." And with that Isabel hung up.

By the time I reached home, Sophie had also phoned. Her voice on the tape sounded lifeless and mechanical. "I'm so sorry," she said dully. "I really messed up. I finally realized I can't take care of my kids. I can't even take care of myself. Tell the kids I love them and I'm sorry. And tell Isabel thanks, and I love her too."

 

After listening to the message twice, I was unsure how to interpret it. It had a very goodbye-cruel-world tone, and Sophie had a history of suicide attempts. It was also, no doubt, in part a manipulation. On the other hand, maybe she was actually ready to accept the help she clearly needed, that the kids needed. I prayed for the latter answer to be the right one.

I left Sophie several urgent messages on the pager of the friend Isabel said she was staying with, asking her to phone me that night, no matter what the time. It was 4:45 a.m. when the phone next to my bed finally rang. Groggily I fumbled for the receiver and heard soft sobbing. "I'm so tired," Sophie said over and over again. "I'm just so tired. I don't want to do it anymore." Do what? I asked her. "Anything," she said.

I asked why she was in Santa Ana, of all places. "I got a job," she said. "I'm trying to start over and make a home that the kids can come back to." I told her I thought she had passed that point now, that she needed to make some hard decisions about her sons or they would soon be made for her. "There's a whole list of people who are ready to call the county on you," I said. Then I outlined the alternatives that Henry Marquez had suggested, reiterating that if she didn't agree to go into drug rehab and complete the steps necessary to have the kids temporarily placed with Isabel, the choices would soon be removed from her reach.

"I won't let my kids go into foster care," Sophie said, her voice unexpectedly forceful. "I won't. I don't care what anyone says. I won't do it. I won't lose my kids."

KIDS DO GET LOST IN FOSTER CARE. Henry Marquez admitted it. Sometimes the court takes them away and then, even after the mother has gotten herself straightened out, is reluctant to give them back. Sometimes kids get killed in foster care. In fact, by the spring of 1999, enough Los Angeles children had died at the hands of foster parents that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors figured it had better do something. And so a task force was created to assess the entire foster-care program. The task force, headed up by attorney and child advocate Andrew Bridge, executive director for the Alliance for Children's Rights, did five months of detective work, and held 11 public meetings. The resulting report, released in December of last year, was blistering in its conclusions.

"Once taken from their homes, children in Los Angeles foster care remain at risk of further harm in a system that lacks adequate safeguards to provide constant levels of quality comprehensive care," the report stated in its introduction. "Both state-licensed foster parents and foster-family-agency-certified parents should act as surrogate parents and should provide nurturing and emotional support to the child. However, monitoring and support systems do not ensure that these requirements are actually accomplished. Studies and anecdotal data indicate that an increasing number of children in Los Angeles County enter the foster-care system only to be re-abused or re-neglected. In short, Los Angeles County lacks the ability to know the full nature of the quality of care foster children actually receive, the full extent of harm children may face in foster care, and how to protect children from harm in the future."

After reading the task-force report, I called Henry Marquez to ask whether, if worst came to worst, he could protect Sophie's kids by ensuring they got a good placement. "I'm afraid not," he said. "I wish I could. But the system doesn't work that way. It's all luck of the draw."

When I talked to Andrew Bridge, the advocate/attorney who headed up the task force, he was even less encouraging. "You know what I sometimes think?" Bridge said bitterly near the end of our conversation. "I think we ought to just be honest with ourselves. We ought to just stand up and say, 'Look, we have substandard schools in California, substandard care for poor children. We know that, and it's okay with us.' Let's at least admit what we're doing to the kids of this state, rather than turning our heads away and pretending it isn't happening."

NOW THAT WE KNEW SOPHIE WASN'T dead, the game plan was to get her to complete the guardianship paperwork quickly -- then begin six months of residential rehab. Isabel could keep the kids while Sophie got well. In the interim, Father Greg forked over enough money to get Isabel through the weekend. My party was set for Sunday, so by Monday even more resources should have arrived.

 

Sunday morning, my 14-year-old son helped me polish the silver and whip up a snappy array of hors d'oeuvres. The evening was awash in cheap champagne and good feelings. The next morning, I loaded up my car with gigantic bags of clothes and toys, plus an envelope stuffed with cash, and drove the lot out to Isabel.

Sorting through the clothes, we chatted optimistically. I told her I thought she was heroic. "The way I look at it," she said with her throaty Ethel Merman laugh, "Sophie's kids will get me in shape for when I have my own someday." She paused to squint at a pair of pants, deciding whom they'd be most likely to fit. "At least with me, Sophie can come by and tell the boys, 'We'll be together soon.' In foster care, Peter would be flipping out, I just know it."

Of the three kids, Peter was taking things the hardest. The night before, Isabel had sat him down and told him he had the right to be mad at his mom and his dad. "Of course you can be mad. I was mad my whole life," she said. "And if you want to talk it out, we'll talk it out."

Peter appeared to be relieved by the conversation. "It's okay here," he said to me afterward. "I'm not afraid when I'm here." When I spoke to his mother still later, Sophie appeared eager to hit all marks set for her. Maybe this story would have a happy ending after all.

NOTHING IS EASY. SOPHIE TALKED with a Legal Aid attorney who told her that, in order for her to get the guardianship documents, every single one of her children's close relatives also had to sign off on the plan. This meant Sophie would have to serve legal notice to her two sisters, her brother, both grandmothers, plus Angel, the dad in prison. In the meantime, Sophie agreed that she would come to Isabel's house and spend Christmas Day with the kids. "I'm still really pissed off at her," said Isabel, "but I think it'd kill them if she wasn't there. I mean, they've never been without their mother at the holidays."

On December 23, I drove presents I'd bought for the boys out to Isabel, then spent the next two days focused on my own kid and family. I didn't call either of the women again until December 26.

Isabel's voice was flat when she picked up the phone. "Sophie didn't come," she said. "The boys waited for her all day. I made tamales, and they opened gifts from you and my sister and me and Father Greg. But their mother didn't even call them. It's one disappointment after another, one heartbreak after another."

After hanging up with Isabel, I reluctantly dialed Sophie, who had a zillion excuses. The guy who was supposed to bring her flaked out, the dog ate her bus tokens, the sky was falling. I asked if she could imagine a day in the future when she would be able to rebuild her family. "The real truth," I said.

Sophie was silent for several seconds. "No," she said finally. "I don't know." I told her I understood there must be times when she felt like running away, assuming a new identity and starting over as a young woman without kids. "Yes," was all she said.

Of course. It was all so clear. Sophie didn't go to see the boys on Christmas because she intended to abandon them. That was what she'd been thinking all along. It was the only plausible explanation for her behavior. For a moment I thought irrationally that, if I were God, I'd set Sophie free to start over, to be the young woman she never had the chance to become. But I'm not God, and Sophie brought three wonderful little boys into the world of her own volition. Tearing herself loose from their golden umbilical cords would mean that she and they would bleed forever.

A few days later, Sophie once again promised the moon. Once again she didn't follow through. By January 2, Isabel was exhausted and near the end of her rope. "The baby has a rash," she said, "and I told Sophie I can't take him to the doctor until she sends the papers for his Medi-Cal, but she hasn't sent them. She was going to send me money out of her paycheck, and she hasn't done that, either." The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Isabel's mother, who suffered from severe diabetes, had just gone to the hospital to have her leg amputated at the knee. "Dancing was always one of my mother's favorite things," Isabel said.

 

By January 6, the baby's rash was spreading, and still nothing had arrived in the mail from Sophie. The next morning, Isabel's little brother, Tito, turned up with the same rash. When Isabel's mother heard about the contagion, she blew up. "I can't come home from the hospital and get an infection. You have to call Sophie and tell her to come and get her kids." Isabel argued, but her mother was adamant. "I've had it," she said. "That girl is just playing you. You've got to look out for your own family."

Isabel was unhappy, but she made the call. "Look, if it was up to me, I'd keep 'em," she told Sophie. "But it's my mother's house. You've got to come and get them today." Sophie said she'd take a bus after work. "Have their stuff ready, and I'll be there tonight," she said.

At 5 p.m. that evening, Isabel splurged and took everybody to Hometown Buffet. "The boys just had a ball," she said afterward. "It's a kid's dream, all-you-can-eat ice cream and sodas. Matty was eating everything." Then she told the two older boys to pack. Isabel packed for the baby, crying as she did so. The kids played in the living room as they waited for their mom. But Sophie didn't come.

IN SOME WAYS, THE ABUSES THAT occur in foster care aren't its most disturbing aspect. It's the fact that, even at its best, foster care predicts failure. In 1986, for example, a UC Berkeley researcher named Richard Barth studied the experiences of former foster youth in the San Francisco Bay area and found that most were struggling with ill health, poor education, severe housing problems, substance abuse and criminal behavior. Barth concluded that the odds of moving easily into independence are stacked against foster children. According to a more recent Berkeley study, kids who have been in foster care for four years or more, and who then mature out at age 18, have a 50 percent likelihood of being homeless after two years.

That last number took me a while to take in, so I'll say it again. Fifty percent of those who graduate from long-term foster care on becoming adults will be homeless two years later. Good God.

Armed with these and other statistics, I went to see Anita Bock, the person who, as of last December, has taken over as director of L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services. Bock is a blond, slender, very smart woman with good taste in suits. She was recruited to come to Los Angeles after she successfully overhauled Miami's smaller but similarly ailing foster-care system. When we met, I liked her because she resisted the temptation to be upbeat and announced right away that she agreed with nearly all of the task force's conclusions. Then she ticked off a list of other problems she feels her agency faces.

"Most of our social workers have 50 or 60 cases, which is quadruple the nationally recommended number of 15. That's clearly unworkable. We also have a bureaucracy that actively prevents people on the frontlines from making decisions that are in the best interests of the child, and tends to meet its own needs first." She smiled wryly. "Which means it's doing whatever it can to avoid liability. We can't afford to operate like that anymore. We have to put the needs of the kids first, the needs of everybody else second."

Bock also described the required training for foster parents as woefully inadequate. "And we should do a complex psychological and social evaluation before we place a child, in order to determine their specific needs and match them with an appropriate family," she said. "Instead, we thrust children into care without any kind of effective assessment. That's just a recipe for problems."

So what to do?

Bock sighed. "We have to gently and humanely unravel the mess that is L.A. County foster care," she said. "And the community needs to step up to the plate as well. There's a good reason that all these kids are flooding into the system. American children are in deep trouble. That's obvious everywhere you look." Still she insisted that she is optimistic. "I think in six months or a year, this agency is going to really surprise everybody -- not just the state but the whole country."

Of course, six months or a year will be too late for Sophie's boys. "Look," Bock said, "I know better than anybody that, while you and I are sitting here talking, children are suffering. That's an enormous emotional burden everybody in this department carries every day."

 

WE HAD RUN OUT OF OPTIONS. ON Saturday, January 8, Isabel and I decided that Monday morning she would take the boys directly to a social-service office, where I would meet her. "Sophie dealt the cards," I told Isabel.

Although she agreed there was no other alternative, Isabel was miserable. "The thing is, I've gotten used to having them here," she said. "Especially Matty. I've gotten really used to him." She told me how, the night before, her little brother overheard her talking to me and ran and told Peter, "My sister's going to take you to a foster home, and you're going to be crying."

"Well, you'd be crying if your mom left you," said Peter.

Despite Isabel and Peter's unhappiness, I was secretly relieved. To be truthful, I'd often wondered what kind of woman Isabel could have been if she'd stayed with her nice, stable foster family. It was only after she went back to live with her mother that everything really went to hell; her younger brothers were dumped on her to care for; she rebelled by dropping out of school, joining a gang, and drinking and using like crazy. Putting Sophie's boys in foster care is a gamble, but maybe we'd get lucky and they'd be placed with ã great foster parents. There are, after all, a lot of decent people out there too.

Late Sunday night, 12 hours before our deadline, Sophie unexpectedly came for her sons. She wanted to take Peter and James right away, but asked if Isabel could keep the baby just a little while longer. She explained that she could pay somebody to watch the two older boys after school, but the cost of all-day child care for Matty was, at present, more than she could afford.

Isabel agreed to the plan -- even though it meant going to war with her mother. Sophie also claimed she was still planning on going to rehab. "She told me she was scared about it," said Isabel. "She doesn't want to have to talk about the past -- you know, all the stuff that happened when she was little." Isabel had been in rehab some years ago, and did her best to reassure her. "I told her when I went, I was scared too. But at rehab, they taught us how you have to talk about your problems if you want to get better. I told her, 'Look, your kids are depending on you.'"

Sophie brought Isabel medicine, diapers and wipes for Matty, but she failed to bring his medical information. She swore she'd mail it the next day. Two weeks passed without the necessary paperwork arriving. At the beginning of week three, Isabel decided to call it quits. She called Sophie and laid it all out for her. "My mom told me that all you wanted is to have me here baby-sitting for no money while you got drunk and got high. And now you're in a different mood and you're ready to be a mother for a while. But you aren't taking care of your kids, so don't think you are. So come and get Matty. And after you get him, don't call me. I don't want to see you. I don't want to talk to you ever again. You have lost me as a friend."

On January 21, Sophie came to fetch the baby, and Isabel relinquished him. Most of the next day, she cried about letting the kids go. Father Greg was, by then, on sabbatical in Europe, but we corresponded by e-mail. When I related what had happened, he told me there was no choice but to drop the dime on Sophie. "It's time," he said. But I dithered. She wasn't hitting the kids. Peter and James were back in school. And yet, there was no doubt that in another couple of months Sophie would crash and burn again. We could set a clock by it.

I talked to Henry Marquez one more time. After all, he'd initially counseled me against contacting the county. "Call the hot line," he said. "This mother may love her kids, but she's sending the message that she can't take care of them." For 24 hours I tried to force myself to make the call, but couldn't shake the feeling that I was an executioner pulling a switch. Once I even picked up the receiver, then put it down again and dissolved into a crying jag. Late at night, I e-mailed Father Greg about my failure of nerve. "I have to wait until she's on a downswing again," I said. "Don't worry," he wrote back. "I tell you what you ought to do, but I'm not sure I could do it, either."

 

Over the next few weeks, I did my best to cheerlead Sophie into formulating plans and goals. "I've been trying to figure out when it all went bad," she said dreamily one day on her lunch break. "I was making progress, then suddenly I wasn't anymore." She recalled her last serious boyfriend, who had seemed nice in the beginning, but ended up beating her up about a year ago. She left her apartment and all her possessions to get away from him. "I think that's when the downhill thing started," she said.

In the beginning of February, Sophie quit her job and moved again, this time to an apartment in Rialto. "I wanted to start over fresh," she said.

"It's the maybe-if-I-move-to-Mars-things-will-be-better syndrome," commented Father Greg in an e-mail.

Near the end of February, in one last gasp of hopefulness, I managed to locate a terrific residential rehab facility that houses both mothers and their children. I pulled every journalistic string at my disposal in order to secure the necessary places for Sophie and her kids. To demonstrate her good faith, Sophie had only to make a single phone call. Deadline day came and went, but she didn't make the call. Nor did she make it the next day, or the day after that. "I'm just not ready," she said. "I keep telling myself I'm not that bad off."

"But you are," I replied.

Sophie was silent for a long moment. "Here's how it is," she said finally. "I'm okay for a while. Then I get scared and I start to panic. So I try to find some new guy to take that fear away. A year and a half ago, I had a good job, I had my car, I had the kids in good day care. I had everything paid. Now I've lost it all." A pause. "I keep wanting my life to be the way it was before. When I can't make that happen, I don't feel good about myself. So I want to be around someone who will help me feel good. Even if it isn't real."

After Sophie stopped talking, I told her I thought at her core she was a strong, good woman, but she had bones that were broken long ago, none of which had ever had a chance to heal. I said I loved her and the boys, but I had run out of ways to help. So I was taking myself out of the game. She was on her own now.

WE WRITERS ARE AN ODD BREED. We do our work in part to communicate, but mostly to make sense of our lives, to order the confusion inside us through the words we unfurl on paper or across the electronic screen. As I draft the story of Sophie and her kids, I realize it has no good conclusion. It's not so much that it ends terribly (which it does), as that the ending is aesthetically wrong. The narrative drive demands a final episode that none of us has had the courage to provide.

Once, about six weeks ago, when Sophie was out of the apartment, I called and got Peter on the phone. "How're things going?" I asked him. "Okay," he said.

"Were things easier at Isabel's or now with your mom?"

"I'm glad to be with my mom again," he said, his voice sounding small and tired.

"But things are pretty hard," I said.

"Yeah," Peter answered.

When I questioned him further, I learned that nearly all the clothes and toys given so recently to him and his brothers had somehow been left behind. It was unclear whether Isabel, in her anger, had failed to pack the stuff, or Sophie had failed to take it. Whatever the reason, it was one more loss for these boys, one more piece of each of them left abandoned on the road.

If we could just be sure of this one small thing: that in foster care Sophie's sons would be looked after with the kind of concern and affection that anybody who loves children can muster for any kid, then the course of action would be clear. But there is no such assurance. Maybe if I were a better person, I'd take these boys into my home, tuck them under my wing, but in the end I can't. Or won't.

 

MAY 15, THE DAY AFTER MOTHER'S Day, Father Greg calls to tell me he's gotten a letter from Sophie. "It's postmarked Colton," he says. "But there's no return address. In the corner of the envelope where you'd normally write it, she's just printed the boys' names." Peter, James, Matthew. Inside the envelope was a glossy studio photograph of her three sons, plus a business card with a phone number.

Two days later I get the same envelope, photograph and business card. When I call Sophie it's a relief to hear her voice. She tells me she is working for some kind of computer-training company. Her bosses have promised to put her through the training, a prospect that excites her. She's got her own apartment, she says, and a new boyfriend. And she's clean, she tells me. She's not drinking or doing any kind of drugs.

"Do you believe her?" Father Greg asks when we talk again.

"I don't know," I answer. "No. Not really."

He sighs. "Most addicts I know don't get clean without some kind of rehab." He is also uneasy about the fact that, as it stands now, no one is monitoring the boys' welfare: "I mean, unless something really alarming occurs and they come to some authority's attention," he says. "At least in foster care, there'd be a modicum of oversight."

Greg's voice suddenly sounds extremely weary. "You know, every kid I encounter in a juvenile detention facility speaks of abuse, neglect, abandonment and emotional terror," he says. "There are no exceptions to this. I mean, every single kid. And maybe one or two kids had those abusive experiences in a foster family. Everyone else was abused at home."

So there you have it. Six of one, half-dozen of the other, the devil and the deep blue sea, frying pan and fire. Bad choices everywhere you look.

The next day I learn that Isabel has also gotten the same photo -- sans card and phone number. "The boys look good," she says. Then there is a long pause. "I've been feeling a lot of resentment toward Sophie, you know, because of the kids. But I've been going to church a lot and that's helped. For a while, I thought maybe I should try to get in touch with her. But finally I decided all I can do is pray for Sophie. She's broken so many . . ." Isabel's voice trails off and she doesn't finish the sentence.

"Hearts," I say finally.

"Hearts," Isabel agrees.LA

*The names of Sophia Vidal, her children, Isabel Trujillo, Angel, Gus and Henry Marquez have been changed to protect their privacy.


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