In our house, Halloween is more than just Halloween. Try telling that to an amped-up 4-year-old, who has chosen this morning to go all Faye Dunaway-Joan Crawford in her refusal to help us get her ready for school.
Of course, had things turned out differently, the difficult morning my wife and I had today wouldn’t have happened. I guess we have to be thankful even for the minor technical difficulties. In order to understand why, we’ve got to climb aboard the time machine to a time when mornings such as this one didn’t seem possible…
“In re Baby Boy V., B187823, COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT, DIVISION ONE, June 26, 2006,” blinked the Google…
Hmmm…let’s see…where’s the court’s finding?
“Alleged father was entitled to presumed father status under Fam. Code, § 7611, subd. (d), even though he did come forward until eight months after the child became dependent, because it was undisputed that he came forward at the earliest possible moment after learning of baby’s existence and that he was non-offending and financially responsible.”
Dammit! Not good…discovering this case after six hours of research. The clock said 11:30 pm.
I could hear the wife finishing up in the kitchen and heading for the living room. Calling out from the other room, “do you have the case summaries ready for tomorrow?”
“Yes”, with fatigued emphasis added…
“Don’t snap at me.”
“Yes you are,” frustration rising, “you may not realize it, but that’s how it sounds. I’m just trying to make sure everything is ready for tomorrow when we meet John at the courthouse. I’d prefer you not to be digging around to find the papers to give him.”
“Fine,” I responded testily. I was distracted, trying to concentrate and digest what I was reading. Do I tell her about this case?
Meanwhile, words are shooting back towards me from the living room. “Stop snapping at me—I’m exhausted, I want to get to bed…”
“Yes, I’m sorry…(sighing)…everything is basically ready, and I’ve put some of this stuff on the flash drive also. You are going to have your laptop with you, yes?”
Gaining Amber’s acknowledgement that she would, I tried to defuse the rising tension aleady between us as I tried to get her to go to bed. Katelyn, our foster daughter, all of 10 months of age, was already fast asleep, and Bailey, the dog, was in his crate, an early evening victim of his Beagle need to stick his nose into every batch of laundry in the house, clean or otherwise. Neither Amber nor I had had the patience to deal with the dog and now I wanted to be left alone in the office with everyone and everything else down for the night. I needed to read this court case, which was already telling me that we might be in a bit of trouble. Up until that instant, even in a worse case, I had some sort of foolish confidence that we might get out of this in one piece—that Katelyn, technically and legally our foster child, would be ours to adopt, regardless of the DNA test. I had believed the court would find in our favor, and keep in place what we had had in our home since our little girl had been 3 days old.
But now, I wasn’t so sure, and I felt like I was indirectly lying to my wife through the omission of this contradictory information. The 2-year-old case of Baby Boy V. was nearly identical to our own, with the exception of the DNA testing, which the appeals court had ordered, and which ultimately caused the child to be removed from the home of the prospective adoptive parents. Realizing that I needed to, at least, leave some sort of valedictory to the possible ending of my hopes to remain a father, I called up an earlier e-mail from my best friend, Kent, who was wishing us luck tomorrow. 1:00 am in the morning…”Hey Kent,” I began, briefly sharing out my fears in reply before pushing myself away from the computer to stumble to bed. While Baby Boy V. was not a case I would place into my bag for the next morning, I would still be carrying its baggage.
Tolstoy wrote that every happy family is the same but each unhappy family is miserable in their own way. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park has to be some sort of the Ninth Circle of Family Hell —the place where you see the body count from broken family relationships. Despite earlier visits to this courtroom, nothing can ever prepare you for what you see on a daily basis in this place. Edelman seemingly exists more for rendering a broken family than repairing it. As you sit in the worn seats, remnants of failed relationships play out in front of you, full of raw emotion and unedited language. Anger, fear, denial, shock, and, nearly always, some form of tears. Now, it was our turn. Our supposed “low risk” attempt at adopting a child was now spiraling out of our control, and with an alleged father now in the picture, Amber and I had dreaded every day since late November dreading what might result this morning in the courtroom.
Katelyn had entered our lives thanks to a phone call from our social worker in late May last year. Picking her up from the nursery at the hospital where she was born, her mother had left Kate behind at 3 days old. Since the birth mom had previously lost another child to social services, our own social worker essentially guaranteed to us that Katelyn’s adoption would be a mere formality, and, indeed, in early July, the court had set a date the following January to officially terminate parental rights, our first step in our journey to become Katelyn’s adoptive parents. But, embodying John Lennon’s notion that life happens while other plans are made, an alleged father had stepped forward to Social Services after he was told by the birth mother that he was the father of her child, our child—Katelyn, in other words. January didn’t see parental rights terminated after all, and, instead, I found myself in mid-February taking the baby to get her cheeks swabbed for the DNA test that would prove paternity, or not. Today, March 3rd, we would find out the results.
After an anxious and frustrating drive up to the Eastside to the courthouse saw little attempt on either mine or Amber’s part to hide the tension already boiling up inside both of us. Arriving at last, we began a tortured vigil outside our 3rd floor courtroom, looking at, and then looking for, any potential man who could be her father. Is it possible, I thought, to despise a man whom I never met? When I meet him, what do I, or can I, say?
Enter the lawyer, stage left. Our attorney, John, had not been inspiring all of the confidence in the world. With sunlight beginning to pour itself through the high windows behind our seats, Amber and I tried to do all we could to stay busy while we waited for him to appear. All along I kept thinking of him and associating his tepid reassurances with the crappy kid who you would stick in right field and hope no one would hit the ball his way. But I did feel John was doing his best. That would have to be enough. Snapping back to the present, with the first groups of people walking through the waiting area towards their assigned courtrooms, our counsellor spied us as he moved down the hallway, turned towards where we were sitting, and as he approached us, summed it up when he met us by noting that the day would be nothing if not “interesting”.
By this time, as John walked back towards the courtroom door to check in, Amber, a school principal, turned away towards her e-mail browser, resuming distracted curses under her breath at something going on at her school in her absence. Left to myself, and ignoring the homework I had brought to grade, all the while I found myself looking at people who might or might not resemble the baby. At a certain point, I locked on to several possibilities until I acknowledged to myself that almost anyone could look like Katelyn. Is that him? Could that be the baby’s grandmother with him?
Icy feelings shot through my hands, and even with the sun hitting my back through the window, not even the typical county building air conditioning unit could account for how cold my hands felt. I was afraid. Baby Boy V. was never far from my thoughts.
Except for the DNA test part, which was, in that specific case, not immediately ordered, this was almost our situation. I knew that if we had to argue the merits of keeping the baby in our home, we had the “best interests of the child” argument down cold, but the alleged father had what was called the “liberty right” to not only have his paternity proven but to argue that he should be considered for reunification. Had that happened, our only hope was to grind out the process through a protracted battle of legal briefs, semantic word play, and court dates. There could be no guarantees at that point. No, there couldn’t be, as Baby Boy V. appeared to trump what flimsy arguments we could muster up on our own end. A good attorney for this guy could have cited that case as overwhelming precedent. I didn’t feel that we were going to pull this out…then, worse, slumping forward and looking towards the ground, glanced at my left leg…
“Is that a stain?” I thought.
F-in’ A…at this point, losing my focus about my daughter over a sartorial slight appeared to be more than a just punishment for robotically grabbing what appeared to be clean slacks off the chair this morning. I lost myself in that thought, muttering about “just desserts” and Catholic ideas of guilt and punishment.
At around 8:45 am, our attorney returned to our end of the floor. John had been moving around to the various court rooms (he had several cases throughout the building that day). After a few moments, he came out of the courtroom’s scheduling room with a smirk on his face. I didn’t really know what this means…was that a look of disgust, or satisfaction?
John reached Amber first, as she had been standing in line to check in with the bailiff. Lightly taking her arm, he walked her over to where I was sitting. I got up and headed towards them. John brought the wife and I together, then spoke:
“0% probability. He’s not the father.”
A negative test. By the skin of our teeth, we had escaped. This guy was not Kate’s biological dad. For the first time in my life, I spontaneously started crying.
POSTSCRIPT: Our March court date on that day, 3 1/2 years ago, finally set us firmly onto the path towards finalizing the adoption of our little girl. But today, Halloween, marks the 3rd anniversary of her official “Adoption Day”, which took place in that same Family Court courtroom where the above hearing had taken place the previous March. It is a special feeling and one in which the wife and I took time yesterday to acknowledge to our daughter and to each other. Every Halloween since that time will forever now be something a bit beyond candy and dress-up for our little family.