Family Afoul
Noma Bliss

Family Afoul

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.

Fear is a natural state for parents, even temporary ones. Foster parents have to be especially wary of falling into the trap of becoming overly protective and/or possessive because, ultimately, the children they watch over are not theirs to keep. Add to that the often confusing milieu of the legal system -- in which the welfare of the child is imperfectly weighed against the rights of the parents and the responsibilities (not to mention liabilities) of the multitude of individuals acting on behalf of the government. Enough stories have been written about the Department of Children and Families and the courts in recent years that it is generally understood the system is unwieldy and underfunded at best.

Andre thought she understood this. After six years as a foster parent, she had seen plenty. She'd dealt with wacked-out parents, indifferent social workers, weary judges. It had taken years to adopt Jennifer, Christian, and Morgan, after the legal process of terminating their mother's parental rights began.

Andre had begun by taking in baby Morgan, who was tiny and suffering from numerous health problems owing to pre-natal exposure to crack. Her respiratory problems were exacerbated by her suffering through chemical withdrawal. Watching the baby fight to breathe made Andre angrier than anything she can remember. "You just wanted to go find the mother and bitch slap her," she recalls. Instead, she got a breathing machine for Morgan and closely monitored her medications. Three months later, a nurse revealed that Morgan had two older siblings, still living with the mother.

A DCF investigator checked it out and, according to Andre, found both parents smoking crack in front of Jennifer and Christian, then ages five and three. They were holed up in a filthy trailer off Biscayne Boulevard. DCF brought the children directly to Andre. "They were covered in seeping bruises, and the dirt was literally caked on them," she remembers. "They were so skinny. I thought, Oh my god, how do you let kids get like this? They were scared to death." Like most children abruptly plucked out of the only home they knew, they were scared of their new family at first. Jennifer, a pretty, almost coltish girl of ten with brown hair and eyes, remembers being frightened and not sleeping much. "When we stayed awhile, I liked it," she says. "I felt more protected than I ever was."

As it happens, the day the siblings were deposited at Casa Andre, the house was filled with relatives in town for a wedding. Alexandra, swanning about in a pink tutu, didn't know what to make of her instant family. The children were also covered in lice, so the entire house full of guests had to be treated. Andre bought nice clothes for the kids and took them to the Rusty Pelican for the reception. She says she caught Jennifer going around to all the tables and collecting mints in her skirt. She explained to the surprised grownups that if they got hungry, she had all this treasure to eat or to sell.

For months, both children squirreled away extra food whenever they were fed. "They would take the food and hide half of it," says Jené Andre. "We'd find it in drawers upstairs. They wanted to make sure they had food when they needed it."

Joan Andre says extensive therapy revealed that both children had been sexually abused -- Jennifer by a neighbor boy, and Christian most likely by one of his mother's tricks. "The mother claimed it never happened," Andre snorts. "But he has peri-anal warts and the doctor said that's the only way he could have gotten them. He has to have an operation on his little butt every year."

Andre initially attempted to help the mother get her act together, in terms of work and a place to live, and supplies for the children when they were in her care. But eventually, when she judged the situation to be hopeless, she began the process of adopting all three children, which was finalized about two years ago.

Jennifer and Alexandra then hatched a plan to bring more troubled children into their home. Andre remembers the day the children trouped into her office with a sweet entreaty. "They said, öMom, we've been talking about it. We have a big house. Can't we help some other kids?' We had a family meeting and decided to do it." Jennifer says her and Alexandra's motivation was mainly to have a baby to dress up and play mommy with. "We wanted another baby," she confides. "They are just so cute."

Andre enjoys giving her children what they want, part of her tendency to indulge. For instance, she says a large part of her motivation in becoming a foster parent was to quickly provide Alexandra with the little sister she wanted. Similarly, she thought Christian ought to have a little brother to play with. She adopted a cat for each child because she'd read somewhere that it was a good way to teach them about adoption. "I had supportive parents and a great childhood," she says. "I was so loved, this is my give back."

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."

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.

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.


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