Little Girl Lost

No hush fell over the courtroom as the judge looked up from the papers scattered across his bench. The restless shifting of impatient bodies and hiss of whispered conversations filled the stale air with a low buzz. But my blood stopped pumping and my breath stilled as I waited for his words.  Had my argument carried its needed weight?  Had I prevailed against the common wisdom?Blocks reading "Child Custody"

It was late March, 1967, but winter still held a grip on Chicago and even inside the courtroom most of us wore heavy coats and jackets to keep warm. Even so a chill ran up my spine and down my arms as I stared across a sea of heads at his clean-shaven, craggy face.

He cleared his throat. “Beatrice Hill, you may approach the bench.”

A thin redhead whose curly hair stuck out all over her head, slipped out of her chair and walked toward the judge. “Yes, Your Honor?” Her speech slurred sleepily and the judge’s eyes narrowed. Yet, he continued, “Sole physical and legal custody of Victoria Ann Regan is hereby awarded to her natural mother, Beatrice Hill.”

Mrs. Hill turned immediately and glared at me with icy blue eyes that screamed, “Showed you.” My heartbeat thumped into rapid pace as I gripped the side of my wooden chair, gritted my teeth together, and willed myself to silence.  I had lost. Worse than that, Vicki and the Kaufmanns had lost. I had failed them miserably. I rose and walked out of the room so that no one would see the tears streaming down my cheeks.  Social workers should remain emotionally uninvolved in their cases, but Vicki had tugged at my heart strings from the day I met her a year before.

She waited for me at the front door of the neat brick bungalow in the Edison Park neighborhood of Chicago. Although ten years old, she flashed with the exuberance of a younger child, bouncing up and down so much her patent-leather shoes squeaked. “Mom said to show you into the kitchen,” she squealed. “She has coffee ready for you.  Dad will be home soon.” She grabbed my hand in one of her pink chubby ones and pulled me down the hall.

The Kaufmanns, whom Vicki called “Mom” and “Dad” had been her foster parents for five years, but I had recently been assigned her case because they wanted to adopt the little girl they’d come to think of as their own. A few weeks before Vicki had been placed with them, neighbors of her natural parents had alerted the police that Vicki and her two younger brothers had been left alone in their apartment for three days.  An emergency hearing assigned custody to the Department of Child and Family Services. The police took the children to a temporary foster home until more permanent placements could be found for them. No one had room for all three children.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

The Kaufmanns had married in their late thirties and had been unable to conceive a child.  They applied for adoption but had been turned down because of their age.  Foster parenting had been a way for them to fulfill their deep desire to parent. Having the chance to make room in their home and their lives for five-year old Vicki with her round blue eyes and wavy blonde curls had been a dream come true for them.

Until recently, Vicki and her brothers had not been eligible for adoption because their parents had not relinquished custody. But last year their father had appeared after a four-year absence. He claimed his wife had abandoned him and he had gone to look for her without success. He had decided he said to give up his children for adoption.  The necessary procedures were initiated and the papers signed.  The father disappeared once again.

Both the Kaufmanns and the family who were fostering the boys immediately began adoption proceedings.  The boys’ adoption went smoothly because their foster parents were a couple in their mid-twenties.  But the court delayed Vicki’s adoption for further observation because her foster parents were now in the forties, and in the mid-1960s that was consider almost grandparent age.  Eventually, however, I was able to build a case for Vicki’s adoption.

I described her” pinkalicious” bedroom with its canopy bed filled with the stuffed animals Vicki loved.  She created characters for each of them and enacted little theatricals for me whenever I visited. I included photos of her

Photo by Alex Gruber

wardrobe, one that Shirley Temple would have envied.  Mrs. Kaufman loved to sew and Vicki, much to her foster mother’s delight, adored all things ultra-feminine – the more frills the better. The girl’s school reports, I could demonstrate, were those of a child who clearly enjoyed school and was able to maintain fairly good grades in most subjects.  Vicki advocated for herself, writing an essay, “Why I want to be Vicki Kaufman.” That went into the file.  I felt certain we had a winning case and told the little family not to worry.

Then the axe fell. Vicki’s biological mother reappeared.  She was remarried and had two more children. “I had to leave Chicago,” she insisted, “Because my husband was always beating me up.  I was afraid he was going to kill me and maybe the kids too.”

I asked why she hadn’t tried to contact the agency. “I didn’t want nobody to know where I was. It wasn’t safe. And I heard the kids were in foster care.  I thought if I tried to visit them, Sam would find me and he’d really get me this time.”

Two women talking
Photo by Chris Hume

“Aren’t you still afraid?” I asked.

“Nope, I’m married again and Elmer, that’s my new husband, he’d kill Sam if he tried to touch me.  Besides I’m only staying long enough to get my kids.  Then we’re heading home to Alabama.” Her gaze wandered around my office. She wouldn’t look me straight in the eye and I didn’t trust her.

“I can’t just take you to see the children. The boys are legally adopted. I need to talk with my supervisor about the best way to proceed.”

“That ain’t fair,” she protested. “I never would have give me kids up for adoption.”

“But you did abandon them. Please come back tomorrow.”

Fortunately, I knew she had no way of knowing where the children were presently living.

My supervisor and I took the case to the head of our division.  Our attorney was quite certain that the boys’ adoption couldn’t be overturned although the Mom might be able to obtain visiting rights.  But since Vicki’s adoption wasn’t finalized, we would have to get the courts to formally take away Mrs. Hill’s parental custody.

I was asked to visit the Hill’s home to make an assessment of their ability to take custody of Vicki. The couple and their two children lived in a dark, ground level apartment on a noisy street. Someone buzzed me in without acknowledging me.  As I stepped into hall, the small of urine overwhelmed me.  I tried to take shallow breaths. The apartment door stood partially open and I pushed it a little way in.

Photo by Christian Chen

“What the fuck you want?” a tiny voice piped. I looked down to realized a toddler in a sagging diaper had addressed me. Across the room, a chuckle rumbled, “He’s a hellion that one,” Mr. Hill said and blew out a stream of cigarette smoke.

“I need to ask you a few questions,” I managed to force myself to say.  I really just wanted to turn and walk out. “Wife’s in the kitchen. She’ll do the talking.” He waved toward a dim doorway. As I followed his direction, the floor felt sticky underfoot. In the kitchen, Mrs. Hill also smoking and drinking what looked like a beer was reading a magazine while a baby played under the table with some old spoons. I kept the interview as short as I could.

In the end, all my misgivings didn’t count. Beatrice Hill, the judge reasoned, was Vicki’s natural mother and the court always favored keeping families together if it could.

Two days later, I drove to Edison Park. A teary-eyed Arthur Kaufmann met me at the door.  His wife, he said, was in their bedroom with the shades drawn.  Vicki came out from behind him, clutching a worn Teddy Bear in one arm, a small suitcase gripped in her other hand. She was wearing saddle shoes, a pair Elsie Kaufmann had saved from her teen years. I bit the inside of my lip. Social workers don’t cry.

“Come, Vicki,” I whispered. We were both unnaturally silent on the trip to Chicago’s west side. Vicki, I’m sure, was sad and apprehensive. I had no consolation I could offer. Mrs. Hill met us outside on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building. I hugged Vicki even though it wasn’t protocol. “I’ll be coming for a visit next Monday,” I told her mother.

“What for?” she barked.

“Supervisory visits are mandated for six months after a custody hearing.” This was true, but I hoped I’d find something that would mean I could take Vicki back to her real home.

“Okay, I guess.”

I yearned to kiss Vicki good-bye, but it would have been unprofessional. “I’ll see you soon,” I promised. There was a haunted look in her big blue eyes that told me she didn’t believe me. Grown-ups, in her experience, didn’t keep their promises.

I never saw her again. Mrs. Hill never returned my calls. Checking with the building management I discovered that they had left without paying their rent just two days after I brought her to them. They left no trail the agency could follow. Vicki had been right.  I couldn’t keep my promise. As many times before and many times after, Love’s Lesson was the love is very often all about loss.

“I know that’s what people say– you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. Oh, youll be happy again, never fear. But you won’t forget.’

Girl alone in woods
Photo by Andrew Neel

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


This Other Little Life

girl and cat
Things that go bump in the night
Dark living room
Photo by Morgan Vander Hart

There is was again – that strange creaking sound. I stopped scribbling notes on the large yellow pad of legal paper propped on my news and held my breath.  Did it come from the bedroom or maybe the kitchen? I twisted my head slowly to the right to glance into the dark shadows of our tiny Rogers Park kitchen. An alley light cast just enough brightness to assure me that no one or nothing moved between the counters and the appliances.

The creaking ceased. I bit my lip and chided myself for being afraid.  But I pushed back into the sofa cushions a little more tightly and pulled the fuzzy red afghan more securely around my waist. Hopefully, Jay wouldn’t be too late tonight.  I hated that preparing for the next day’s trials regularly meant he kept late night hours at the State’s Attorney’s office. Although exhausted from a long day at work and an evening of study, I couldn’t fall asleep.

Being alone for any length of time spooked me. My family home, set in the midst of a crowded Detroit neighborhood, had always bustled with the activities of three sisters and two brothers, presided over by a stay-at-home Mom. Every day, but Sunday, friends came and went pretty much at will. Knocking and doorbells ignored as uncalled for formalities.  Unused to solitude, I easily transitioned to dorm life at St. Mary’s, and later found it totally acceptable to share my first apartment with fifteen (yes, really) other young women.

Antique bedframe
Photo by Bianca Capeloti

What was that rattle? It definitely came from the bedroom.  The bedroom window latch refused to close securely. I needed to check it. Taking slow sliding steps in my stocking feet, I crept out of the living room, into the short hall that led to the bedroom. I reached my hand around the door frame and switched on the light. It revealed a room stuffed to the edges by an antique bedroom set, handed down to us by my grandmother. That was all.  No menacing presence greeted me.

I can’t be doing this, I thought. Being spooked by every little sound ruined the peace of my evenings, the time needed for study or I’d never finish college. I had to feel less alone. And I knew just how to remedy the situation.

When Jay arrived home, I greet him with a big hug, a long kiss, and the exclamation, “I need a kitten.”

He pulled back, cocked his head, dropped his heavy briefcase with a thud, and laughed. “You never cease to surprise me.  What brought this on?”

I shared the tale of my fears over cups of cocoa.

By the time I finished, he was smiling broadly. “A kitten wouldn’t be much of a guard animal.”

I punched him gently in the shoulder. “I know that. But if we have a cat and I hear an odd noise, I’ll just tell myself, ‘Oh, it’s just the cat.’ Then, I won’t be so scared.”

“Do you know how to care for a kitten,” he asked.

“I’m sure I can learn. I’ve wanted a kitten forever. My mom hated cats for some reason. So, she never let me have one.”

Jay held on to his doubts, but he did feel bad about leaving me alone so many nights and he desperately wanted me to be happy.  As a new husband, he believed that making your wife happy constituted part of the job description. I didn’t see any reason to disabuse him.

Litter of kittens
Photo by dimitri Houtemann

Making my wish come true proved far easier than expected. Jay’s former college roommate and his wife lived in Evanston, just north of our Rogers Park neighborhood.  Their cat had recently given birth to five sweet little tabby kittens. Delighted that we wanted to adopt one, they let us have the pick of the litter. We choose a little female, whom we named “Champagne” for no logical reason whatsoever.

Waiting for her to wean so we could bring her home proved difficult. We learned that growing creatures take time. They cannot be rushed, a fundamental lesson of parenthood. The day did come, however, when Jack and Kathy called to say, Champagne could leave her mother. Elated we spent Saturday morning in a pet shop, acquiring a litter box, litter, a climbing tree, feeding bowls, cat food, and a cat bed. We had a great time choosing all this equipment but had quite a nasty sticker shock at the cash register. Bringing a little one into your life, we discovered doesn’t come cheap. Undaunted, we coughed up the moola and headed for Evanston.

On the ride home, I realized we’d missed an important purchase – a cat carrier.  I envisioned holding my warm, fuzzy little friend in my lap all the way home.

Cat looking out
Photo by Alireza Attari

She, of course, had different ideas. True to her nature, Champagne was curious about this new space that rumbled and moved. She remained in my lap just until we pulled out of our friends’ driveway. Then she wriggled free, crawled up to my shoulder and leaped to the back seat of our old Volkswagen. Petrified that she’d crawl under the seat and wedge under the driving pedal, I made Jay stop the car. We didn’t want to open a door and let her escape. Instead, I hung over the front seat and managed, after several missed attempts, to snare her. She hissed and scratch my hand. Oww!

Kitten on bed
Photo by Anthony de Kroon

At home, I gingerly place the kitten on the floor. She scurried under the twin bed we used as a makeshift sofa. We rolled it away from the wall and she took off for the bathroom. Running after her, I quickly closed the toilet, realizing that I’d have to be more careful about that from now on.  Come bedtime, we found out one of our purchases, the cat bed, had been totally unnecessary.  Champagne had no intention of sleeping anywhere, but with us – the first in a long line of youngster who would crawl into the “family bed.”

Champagne did alleviate my fears. She loved to curl up beside as I studied at night. Now, Jay often found the two of us asleep on the sofa when he arrived home. It warmed his heart, he said because when he saw us curled up like that, he realized we were “family” in the true sense of the word.

If you have ever learned a Love Lesson from a pet, please share it with us here.

“Way down deep we are all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them.” Jim Davis

Cat under blanket
Photo by Vinicius de Moraes