Yesterday we had court for Mary. We didn’t know what to expect except what we had heard, which was mostly, sit back, listen to what they are saying and prepare for this to go any way. That didn’t sit very well with us, but having had other friends who had gone through TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) we know that it can be quite the lengthy process. Kids have to be in foster care any 15 out of 22 months before a TPR is filed and then after that the trial and disposition and finally a decision from the judge. Depending on how long the child has been in care dictates (for the most part) how long the TPR process will take. With Mary having been in care for over 5 years, we kinda knew this was gonna drag on and on and on. Moms reluctance to give her up would make this last even longer! So, we showed up at 9:30am ready to lock our butts into the cold wooden seast and listen to what the caseworker was going to testify to.
Now, when you’re at a hearing, the evidence that is presented is ONLY from when the TPR is filed and before that. Nothing after that. Since the TPR was filed, mom has been pretty consistent (guessing she doesn’t wanna lose her kid) but it’s a little too late. They would be testify and providing evidence from moms WORST year. The year that she disappeared for half of and tested positive on all of her drug tests for the other half and left all her different treatment programs (rehab, anger management, parenting, individual therapy). Not a good look. But we sat in the waiting area with our caseworker, her lawyer, and Mary’s Lawyer. A few days ago Mary’s lawyer came to our apartment to interview Mary. We weren’t allowed to sit in, which was a little unnerving, but Mary has been pretty adamant about being adopted but STILL seeing her mom if she was.
As we sit there, Mary’s mom’s lawyer walked over to us (the whole group, not just Callie and I). The caseworker’s attorney (let’s just call her Alyson) suggested to Mary’s mom’s lawyer that she should sign the consent. The “consent” is a document that’s almost like pleading “no contest” in a court of law, except you admit guilt but no evidence is heard against you. Makes it pretty hard for a judge to determine and prove negligence if there is no evidence, so then we go to the disposition where everyone can make their case, EXCEPT the Department of Social Services (DSS) won’t be able to use evidence from BEFORE the TPR, only AFTER! This is mom’s best option because if we were to use the information from AFTER the TPR, mom has a greater chance of getting Mary back, and Mary could potentially go home.
Mom’s lawyer went back to where Lisa (Mary’s mom) was sitting. She gave Lisa the information and came back about 10 minutes later to explain to us that Lisa would be willing to sign the consent if, and and only if she can get an additional one hour visit every week. Alyson and Mary’s lawyer (Saul) were both completely against it.
“That doesn’t even make sense! We’re in TPR! We can’t give her MORE time with the child! It’s counterproductive. Absolutely not!”
So Lisa’s lawyer went back and told her. She was gone for quite a while. She came back and said that Lisa would not agree to signing anything unless she got more time with Mary. Our car worker called her supervisor to speak to him and see if it was something that was feasible. After several more minutes, and sweaty palms, the caseworker’s supervisor decided that if mom would sign the consent, an additional visit a week would be the best option, and we could proceed with the case and the department would have one less thing to worry about (that’s mine and Callie’s take on it).
“I represent my client and what she wants and there is NO WAY I will agree to one more visit! My client wants to be adopted, and another visit a week is out of the question on the grounds that it would cause too much confusion for my client and remove her from school even more than the 3 days a week that she already is,” boomed a voice from the corner. Saul is a small guy, about 5’6″, bald shiny head, small elvish features and tiny voice, but when his voice came through, we all knew this was a non-negotiable. Lisa’s lawyer called an attorney meeting with the judge.
All 3 attorneys entered the courtroom and left all of us outside to wonder what was happening. What felt like an eternity later (probably only 10 minutes though) all 3 attorneys returned, Saul and Alyson to where we were sitting and Lisa’s mom’s attorney to the opposite side of the area. Saul said the judge said “ABSOLUTELY NOT! We are in TPR and there is no way I would approve an additional visit. This is not a permanency hearing (where they make decisions about visits, treatment, next 6 months) and it’s not beneficial for the child. And I would tell your client that if she’s adamant about seeing her children, she may want to sign a conditional surrender because that’s her only guarantee to see her child. We’re terminating her rights! She needs to understand that.” Callie and I are sitting there not saying anything, kid of taking it all in. This is so new for is, and we had loads of question brut it was all going so quickly but also really slowly and time was crawling but feeling like we were in fast forward. We see Lisa’s attorney walking towards us.
“Do the terms of a surrender stay the same?”
All eyes on Callie and me. Blink blink.
Nods in our direction.
“4 visits a year. Quarterly. No holidays, Mothers’ Day, or birthdays. Monthly email updates with pictures. Anything else at our discretion.”
“What about 6 visits a year? Every 2 months?!”
Callie, “Absolutely NOT!”
She walks away. She comes back.
“She’ll sign the consent.”
Everyone looks at each other and then look at me and Callie. What the heck are they looking at us like that for?
“Wait? She’ll sign the surrender?” says Mary’s lawyer.
SHOCK! She’ll what?!?! She’s gonna surrender her rights?! Somehow Callie and I heard consent, not surrender.
“Yes, she said she’ll sign the surrender so long as those conditions apply and so long as Mary is adopted by Sammie and Callie.”
Callie’s eyes brimmed with tears and Mary’s lawyer told us not to get too excited. There are a series of questions that the judge would ask that most parents, upon hearing, change their minds about surrendering.
“We have to go back to the office and draw up the paperwork. Everyone be back by 1:45pm. I’ll inform the judge that she is surrendering.”
So we left, had lunch with my parents, had a Sangria because THE NERVES, and made our way back to the courtroom, waiting
impatiently for them to call us in.
“PARTY FOR COLLINS. COLLINS!” screeched through on the loud speaker.
Sweaty palms, light feet, we made out way into the courtroom. I don’t know how any mother could have heard the words the judge said and not break down. Are you of sound mind making this decision? Have you had any alcohol or drugs today? Do you realize that you are going to be losing custody of your child today once these papers are signed? DO you realize that a day, a week, a month, a year from now, you cannot take back this decision? All of those were asked, but the one that took my breath away, that left an ache in my heart for what this mother was doing/about to do, “DO you realize that once you sign these papers and walk out of this courtroom, your child will be a STRANGER to you in the eyes of the law?” “Yes, I understand”. My heart broke for Mary’s mother, for the first time since having met her.
A stranger…and it’s double sided because she IS a stranger. She’s BEEN a stranger. But somehow not. And as her penned hand mechanically moved across the paper, probably collecting tears and ink stains along the way, it was not lost on us the gift that she was giving us, the gift and the life that she was giving Mary, and we realized then that she loved this child more than we had expected. That she loved her daughter so much that she was willing to give her away to give her her best chance, and all in one moment I had a new found respect for her. A desire to make it work the way that divorced parents did, because really, more people loving our daughter is something we would turn our nose up to. For the second time, she was giving Mary life, and for a quick moment, I loved her. Genuinely, deeply, and unselfishly.
At 2:28pm on Tuesday, May 10, 2015, the judge announced that Mary was officially freed for adoption. We’ll talk to an adoption worker next week and start the ball rolling on paperwork and interviews and whatever else she needs us to do. In just 3-6 short months Mary Mendez will be an official member of Casa Mendez. It’s been official in our hearts for ages…