By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Andre and her sister sit three rows back and strain to hear the conversations. They hear a woman from DCF tell Gomez she's going to recommend to the judge that her parental rights be terminated because she didn't comply with therapy. Gomez begins an excuse, but the woman cuts her off. "Here's the problem," she explains. "Tick tock."
Andre offers commentary: "The judge said two hearings ago no extensions, and then last time gave her one," she sighs. "Nobody remembers how bad it was when [Max] got to me. It's just scary that so many people have so much to say about [Sarah's] life. And all she wants to do is be safe and live and stay with her brother. This woman lost seven children. Can you imagine?"
Hilda Vallejo, a social worker, wanders over to Andre. Vallejo wears comfortable black pants and white sneakers. She exudes a friendly competence. She explains that what Andre wants -- the termination of parental rights for both Max and Sarah -- seems unlikely. "There's no grounds," she adds. "We're looking for something."
The hearing is closed to the press, but when it ends, Andre (who attended so she could show a picture of Max to the judge) exits in a state of agitation. "They [agreed to terminate parental rights to] Max, but they don't know what to do with the little girl," she reveals. "The father is a önon-offending parent,' so he could get the baby. I'm so upset."
But the guardian ad litem, a perky blonde in her twenties, and Vallejo assure Andre that even a small victory is significant in this system. "Don't be pissed," Vallejo soothes. "We pulled a hand, an arm, and foot through on this one. The hardest [termination] to get is the mother. They wanted to extend it and I said, öHell no.' We need to nail her to the wall. That's how you get these parents."
Andre stresses that she's not always out to keep foster children away from their parents. When she believes their best interests are served by returning them to a parent, she will fight to do just that. Jason Goodson, an electrician whose ex-girlfriend bore his daughter Maya (now age four) before sliding into drug addiction, credits Andre with helping him get custody. He says that at first Andre was "real defensive" and suspicious of him because she'd heard from the mother that he didn't care about Maya. But once he proved himself, she did everything she could to help him, including taking Maya to get a DNA test that proved Goodson was the father. "It went from her trying to keep her to protect her, to going to court on my side," he narrates. "I thank her for that. I owe her everything. I had nightmares when I didn't know where my kid was."
Now the nightmares belong to Joan Andre. In January, she made the mistake of letting Max and Sarah's guardian ad litem know that she had contacted the media about their story. In less than half an hour, DCF swooped into her house and removed both children to another foster home.
Andre had contacted New Times because she thought media inquiries (she also sent several e-mails to Gov. Jeb Bush, who referred her back to the DCF) might make the judge and case workers extra scrupulous about Max and Sarah's case. But she hadn't followed the rules about not revealing personal information about foster children, so the state had grounds to take them from her. Even though she is the only mother they've really known. "I just feel like my heart's been ripped out," she whispers, her voice rough from crying. "When you are a foster parent, you are asked to love these children and take care of them, but you have no recourse. None. If you see the kids are getting lost in the shuffle, there's nothing you can do."
Andre can appeal to a judge, but it's probably too late. The children are gone. She may never see them again. "It's so fucked up because the ones that are getting hurt are those two little kids who are in a strange house," she says.
Editor's note: The names of the two foster children in this story were changed to protect their identities. The surname they share with their birth mother and her husband was also changed.