Family Afoul

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

It's a nice sentiment, but it can often come across as elitist to birth mothers without the social and economic advantages of some of the women who take care of their children. Angelia Gomez has seven children, but currently has custody of none of them. The older five children live with different family members in different cities, according to a partial case plan for Max and Sarah: "Mrs. Gomez has an extensive history with DCF for abuse and neglect of her three older children, the parental rights of which were terminated in 10/31/01." Because of this history, when Max came along, DCF case workers knew what to look for.

When he was nine months old, Andre says, a nurse examining him overheard Angelia and her husband talking about "playing with the boy's dick and it got hard." The nurse reported the incident, which, along with obvious signs of neglect, caused DCF to place Max in foster care. A DCF investigator found the home to be "unclean with clothes strewn about and the kitchen and floors unclean with a distinctive odor."

Noma Bliss
Noma Bliss

Max was a mess when he came to Andre's house, but has shown dramatic improvement after months of speech, behavioral, and occupational therapy. However, as the case worked through the court system, Andre says Angelia threatened the nurse. The nurse decided not to testify and thus the state dropped the molestation charge. The neglect charge stayed on the books.

Then matters grew complicated. Angelia had claimed that two different men were Max's father. After paternity tests, it turned out neither man was. The man living with Angelia, her husband Marvin Gomez, wasn't charged with Max's neglect. Andre thinks he should have been, since he was clearly aware of the situation at home. But because he's not really the father of Max, he wasn't legally responsible.

When Sarah was born, Marvin Gomez signed the birth certificate. Legally, that makes him her father, although Andre says Gomez refuses to take another paternity test to confirm that he's the biological father. In any case, Andre argues that if Gomez is the father of Sarah, his history in allowing her brother's neglect should be considered, if not outright disqualify him.

The state tries to get children out of foster care and into a more permanent situation within a year, but Angelia has not made its clumsy attempts easy. Angelia was referred to all manner of counseling services, including individual therapy, domestic violence, sex offenders, and parenting classes. The record shows that she's tried to get her life in order, but it's been a half-hearted effort at best.

An October 2004 report from the Children's Home Society (which took over case management from DCF) notes Angelia's history of noncompliance and flatly states that her mental and emotional problems affect her ability to parent. She hasn't gotten it together in three critical areas: employment, child support, or therapy. "She is not motivated," the report notes. A therapist's letter further states that Angelia "continues to deny any responsibility" for having had her children taken away; instead she "minimizes or normalizes her actions, which are indicative of abuse/neglect of her children."

After more than a year, the state moved to terminate Angelia's parental rights. The attempt has been hampered by constant changes in overworked personnel, some of whom Andre says were distressingly indifferent. When it became clear Angelia couldn't get Sarah back, her husband told the state that since he hadn't been charged with neglect, he wanted his daughter. "I about died," Andre recalls. "I'm thinking, What if he hurts her? What if the mother hurts her? I have pictures of the little boy, what if she comes back in that condition? I'm freaking out. I don't know what to do."

The Gomezes do visit Max and Sarah once a week for a few hours and observers have noted on many occasions that they both demonstrated affection. However, the files indicate neither is yet well suited for the rigorous demands of full-time parenting. Although Gomez was never charged with anything, a psychological evaluation indicated he was "not found to be a fit parent."

Andre says Angelia has directed much of her rage and blame at the foster mother she sees as an enemy trying to steal her children. "I was almost in tears last time when she attacked me [verbally]," Andre claims. "It's like you're giving time, money, and your home because they fucked up. I've had her kids for almost two years now. If she had got herself together, she would have them back by now." Gomez, on one of the few occasions she would say anything at all, maintains that Andre's allegations are "a bunch of lies." "She's been very negative and ever since she's had my kids she's been fighting to take my kids," she complains. "I will fight this lady till the end."

In November the battle shifted toward Andre's side of the field. At a hearing in a courtroom at the Juvenile Justice Center, all the players in the Gomez case come together. There's the social worker, the guardian ad litem, the therapist, a rep for the social worker, and a lawyer for DCF, milling outside the room until the judge is ready. The Gomezes are also in the waiting area. Angelia is wearing blue jeans and a black top, her blond hair swept up and back. Her husband, a youthful-looking Central American, wears a green checkered shirt and a look somewhere between confusion and boredom. Occasionally, the lawyer assigned to them sits down in one of the chairs to confer.

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