Family Afoul

When you open your heart to foster children, as Joan Andre has done,you also open the door to heartbreak

Joan Andre is an emotional woman. She is given to generous, even extravagant, impulses, which she can often indulge because life has left her financially well off. She is 53 years old and a successful real estate agent with a lovely home in Coconut Grove. After four marriages followed by four divorces, she's unwilling to travel the path of romance again anytime soon.

But Andre hasn't given up on familial love. Eleven years ago she adopted a baby girl, naming her Alexandra. Almost six years ago and newly single, she allowed Alexandra to pester her into becoming a foster mother to another baby girl, named Morgan. Soon, she found herself adopting not only Morgan, but her two older siblings, Jennifer and Christian. All three had allegedly been neglected by their junkie-prostitute mother and the elder two had suffered sexual abuse.

Being a mother to four young children, especially considering their backgrounds, would be consuming enough for nearly anyone. But Andre kept opening her home to refugees of the dysfunctional child welfare system. Most would quickly pass in and out of her life, as their real families negotiated a return to some level of responsibility. Finally, though, two more children stuck. A boy named Max, who came to Andre at nine months old, and his half sister Sarah, who was given to Andre the day she was born, brought to six the number of kids under her care. Max is now almost three years old; Sarah is a year younger.

In many ways, Andre's home is the dream palace every child should have the opportunity to enjoy. The five-bedroom house is fashioned like a miniature coral-rock castle and is situated on a dead-end lane pleasantly cloaked in the vegetative riot common to the nicer parts of Coconut Grove. There's a cottage on the side, a koi pond with waterfall, numerous plastic toys liberally strewn about the yard, and a ten-foot fence holding it all in. The second story juts up like a turret and the interior is a marvel of old woods and gracious design, as one might expect in a structure built before World War I. It's prehistoric by Miami standards.

Besides the six children, the place is overrun with a half-dozen cats, two dogs, Andre, and her older sister Jené. Andre has a home office, overlooking the koi pond, that is dominated by paperwork, scattered toys, an elderly Dalmatian, and a self-cleaning litter box, its motor endlessly whirring. Throughout the house there are the sounds of children running, of objects hitting the floor, of occasional disagreeable screams from baby Sarah.

It is all rather pleasant, if chaotic. But Andre is about to break down. She feels at the end of her emotional resources because she thinks that after almost two years in her home, Max and Sarah might be returned to their mother. Andre does not like their mother. "She's pathological," she cries, pushing straight blond hair away from brown eyes. "She's so out there."

The mother is a piece of work. At just 31 years old, Angelia Gomez has given birth to seven children, all taken away from her at some point. Andre describes the stocky blonde as an angry woman who blames her problems on others. She lost Max to foster care because he was judged to be neglected and possibly sexually abused. Andre and her sister say that when Max came to them as a nine-month-old, his head tottered weakly on a pitifully undernourished frame. His eyes seemed unfocused and he drooled constantly. He didn't take to being held. "I thought he was a Down syndrome baby," Andre claims, "puffy eyes and big encephalitis head. His hair was falling out and his teeth were gray."

Christian, the only boy in a house overflowing with girls, had wanted a brother, but when he saw the pathetic drooling baby, Andre recalls, he was less than impressed. "Is that it? Oh great," Christian said. "It was sad to look at him." Alexandra, by general consensus the princess of the bunch, is more direct. "Max was really annoying at first because he wouldn't let anyone touch him," she says, adding, "He got used to us."

Not long after Max arrived, Andre found out Gomez was already pregnant again. Sarah was lucky, brought from the hospital to Andre's home the day she was born. The difference shows in the siblings. Max is shy, cautious, and attentive to other people. For instance, he knows Andre changes shoes when she comes home, so he brings her the pair of black flip-flops she prefers to wear around the house and puts the others away. Then he hugs her, his serious face lighting with quiet joy when she hugs him back.

Sarah is a diva. A brilliant manipulator, she lunges through life on waves of hubris rarely seen outside a celebutante reality show. Even the dogs have learned to interpret her screams, the various alert levels that indicate a minor jurisdictional dispute over a toy, a real crisis, or merely the lusty squalling of a child who loves to hear her own voice.

Andre fears for her most of all.

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