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