From a personal perspective – Let’s start with a little family history. Laying the foundation, so to speak. I am the third daughter. I have two older sisters, a younger sister, a half-brother, and two step-sisters. My oldest sister got pregnant when she was fifteen years old. She is four years my senior. I very distinctly remember my mom calling me into her bedroom and, in private, telling me that my sister is going to have a baby. She then proceeded to tell me how she and my dad were going to have to raise that baby and how they really couldn’t afford to raise another child; and, if I ever wanted to have sex I should tell her so she can put me on the pill. Geez, Mom, great convo for an 11 year-old. Boys were certainly not on the “to do” list at that age in my life (And the world wonders why I am so direct… go figure!).
When my sister went into labor with her first child I went to the hospital and waited in the “Father’s Waiting Room.” That was long before the fancy birthing facilities we have now. I remember hearing women screaming in pain and a doctor yelling at a woman; “Don’t push, don’t push, you’re going to strangle your baby!” The umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. The infant was in distress. The whole ordeal was nightmarish to me and was far more effective than any form of birth control.
As predicted, my mom, for the most part, raised that child along with my sister’s second daughter. My dad hightailed it out of the relationship before the child-rearing was done.
Then came daughter number 3. My sister was in a Florida jail for drug possession when we found out she was pregnant. My sister had met and married a man about a year after her first child was born. Their relationship was extremely volatile, and that friends, is putting it very mildly. He was an addict and it sure didn’t take long for my sister to follow suit. She often had facial bruising from where she “fell down.” I give thanks often for her incarceration. It might have been the only thing that saved that child in utero. My sister spent most of her pregnancy holed up behind bars.
Shortly before the anticipated delivery, my sister was released from jail and put on house arrest. She skipped out of Florida pronto and headed back home to Oklahoma. A month later she was giving birth to her third child. A daughter I whole-heartedly believe was destined to always be mine. From the long brown hair, to the adventurous spirit, to the fierce independence, to the love of mayonnaise sandwiches… Yes, there is no doubt that child was always meant to be my girl!
After the birth, my sister and her hubby were on-again off-again. By this time her addiction was in full force. She met other drug addicts and often stayed with them as well. By now, she was hooked on cocaine as well as marijuana, and who knows what else. She would tote that sweet newborn with her. At the time, I was working full-time, putting myself through college, studying psychology, and fully armed with a determination to change the world, or at least the future dynamics associated with my familial heritage. A chain-link breaker.
My sister would often drop the little brown-haired girl off at my apartment and ask me to babysit. I would oblige her surprise visits. I didn’t mind so much. I was completely terrified of the places she might of otherwise taken her and the things this innocent child would be exposed to if I dared say no.
Before long a few hours here and there extended to a full day, two full days, etc. My girl was just shy of two years old when she moved in with me full-time (and my ex). I was twenty-two years old and had absolutely no idea what I was doing in the child-rearing department.
I moved from my small studio apartment and into a home. I set up a room for this little one, knowing, hoping she was there to stay. I remember looking at her closet and seeing five little outfits hanging on the steel rod. My heart squeezed a little and the air caught in the back of my throat. Her belongings consisted of a few toys and five outfits. Each day I would take her to her new room. I would go around the room and let her know this was her home and these were her things. I would go over each item, one by one, this dresser is yours. This toy is yours. This bed is yours. I wanted her to have a sense of belonging, some sense of ownership of her little world.
You only know what you know, you know? Looking back I cringe at all the things I didn’t know. Things like how to be a parent. If I could do it all over again, certainly there are a thousand things I would do differently. I was making it up as I went along. I was far from perfect, but in an effort to console myself, certainly better than the inevitable alternative (I would tell myself).
After my brown-eyed, brown-haired Princess moved in with me, her bio-dad showed up. He was moving out-of-town and wanted to know if it was okay if she stayed with me. Seriously, now he asks? I knew him well. I knew the answers and my approach depended on whether she would be allowed to stay or if he would use her as a pawn and hightail it out of the state with her in tow (He often employed this method of control. Grab the kids and run.)
“Of course, she can stay as long as you need.” “I’m going to let her stay with you, but just so you know, I am ALWAYS going to be her dad;” he said. Those words rang deeply, echoing in my ears, and came back to haunt me a few years later. Her dad? What does he think that means exactly? My sister, well, she was deep into her addictive lifestyle by now. They both disappeared for months on end. Honestly, it was a relief not having their interference in raising this child. Silence, in this case, was golden.
Then came the day she turned five and had to be enrolled in public school. The district I lived in refused to enroll her because I couldn’t prove I was the legal guardian. No legal papers, no school. Shit! My heart sank. I fumed with anger. What now? If I ask her parents to sign guardianship papers will they refuse? Will they take her away? I had questions, but no answers.
I decided if I was going to take the chance and risk the battle I was going straight past guardianship and going for the adoption. I’d had her now for over three years. I called attorneys to inquire about the process and the costs. Most attorneys wanted a $1,000 to $1,500 just to start the process. For a girl making $7.50 per hour, who maybe had $20 left after paying bills each paycheck, a $1,000 could have easily been a $1 Million. That’s how it felt. Completely out of the realm of possibility. I didn’t have that kind of money. No family to help. It would take forever for me to come up with that kind of cash.
I begged the school district to let her enroll. They refused. I went to the school board. The members listened politely and then dismissed me and my cause. I even showed up at the Governor’s office. He had an open door after four policy. Concerned citizens had to show up before 8:00 a.m. and get on a list to come back and visit with the Governor about their concerns after 4:00 p.m. It was on a first-come first-serve basis.
The Governor, he too, listened and dismissed me. No big corporate interests here. Just some young girl, ignorant about the law and about politics, trying to save her niece from exposure to a life of drug abuse and domestic violence. In his arrogance he had the audacity to ask me; “Have you tried approaching this with a smile? You look like you are ready to explode?” Oh good grief! You think? I AM DESPERATE. A smile doesn’t make you shit a grand, fool. And, what if her bio-dad wants to fight it? What then? Oh my goodness, the doomsday scenarios kept turning over in my head.
I did, in fact, get that little one enrolled in school. After many phone calls one of the adjacent school districts allowed me to enroll her. The Principal there was a kind woman. She told me she completely understood my dilemma as she had several kids in her school who were being raised by their grandparents. No legal documents needed. Thank you, Lord, that woman was truly a guardian angel.
But, what about the next time? What if this lady retires? Will I have to go through this again? I can’t live like this, on pins and needles. Just waiting for the other shoe to drop. After many more phone calls, I found an attorney who agreed to take the case for $500. Still an exorbitant amount of money for this poor church mouse, but better. Possibly doable. I used my tax refund that year to pay the attorney’s retainer for the adoption along with the initial costs. If it wasn’t for that hotly debated earned-income credit money I would not have been able to afford the process.
I had one request of the attorney, please let me know before you serve her dad the papers (“I will ALWAYS be her dad.”) because I need to call and talk with him first. I need an opportunity to explain. To my dismay, she did exactly the opposite of what I requested. She didn’t even give me the courtesy of informing me she had him served. I came home to a very angry voicemail. Shit! Shit! Shit! Panic mode in full gear. Damn it! How could she?
I called the attorney the next day and got what you always get in these kind of situations… excuses. It slipped through the cracks. She meant to call me. Blah! Blah! Blah! Yeah, okay. FINE! The fact is she thought she knew better than I. She didn’t want to risk not getting him served, but she sure wasn’t going to tell me that.
After a few days of dreaded fear and trying to pull my thoughts together and rehearsing the conversation, I finally called and talked with her bio-dad. He was mad, mad, mad! He let me know he had been talking with attorneys. He didn’t understand why I felt the need to adopt her. “Why can’t she just live with you?” Then he said; “You know I can take care of her. I can provide for her.” Oh my gosh, I know where he is going with this. My mind was racing. How do I respond? I know the exact opposite to be true. He can’t, won’t take care of her. My anger is being fueled by each of his words. Searing me from the inside out. Deep breath, Carol. Do what’s right for Sam. Choose your words carefully. “Yes, I know you can. You can take care of her. I’m sorry. I really wanted to talk with you first.”
The words were appeasing to him for the moment. He reluctantly agreed to show up at the hearing and provide his approval to the adoption, or so he said. Oh, he showed up and so did my sister, and therein lies the problem. The minute he saw her the old familiar behavior patterns kicked in high gear. He pulled my sister out in the hall, berated her, and did everything he could to get her to refuse to sign the documents. He wavered back and forth. He was going to sign, he wasn’t going to sign. The courtroom felt foreign and cold as I watched this scenario unfold. The door to the Judge’s chambers opened. My attorney came out and got him. It was his turn to go before the Judge. I was not allowed in the room. I had no idea what was taking place, no idea what was being said. Immobilized by the unknown.
After what seemed an eternity, the door opened and he left. My attorney later told me he wavered but finally signed the documents. It’s over, then? Well….no. There is still the matter of the home study and then the final hearing.
The home study? Oh, yeah, that’s where you have to hire a psychologist or social worker to come in an evaluate you, your home, your relationship with the child. They then file a report with the court. The cost of the home study was as much as the initial retainer. Another $500 I didn’t have.
As I saved money and searched for a person to complete the home study, my attorney remarried and left the state. She told me her firm was aware of the case and would finish the final hearing once the home study was complete.
Luckily (or maybe divinely appointed) for me, I interned for a social worker. I HATE, absolutely HATE, asking for favors or help of any kind (Surprise! I’m not surprised. I know this about myself!). I called the Social Worker and he graciously agreed to complete the home study for a miniscule amount. He did make me pay for the work. He believed everyone must be invested in the change they want for their lives. I agree with him. He, too, was a guardian angel. A person crossing my path, the right time, the right place.
I got the home study filed with the court and then called the attorney. Guess what? Yep! The firm had no idea what I was talking about. Re-play panic mode again. What now? All this time, all this money. What was I to do now? After a few weeks of stewing, contemplating, trying to understand the “Why is this happening” I broke down and asked my boss for advice. My boss at the time had a legal degree but did not practice law. And, although she had never practiced in this area she did inform me of the complaint process. So, I calmly called the firm again and let them know that if the hearing didn’t get completed I was filing a complaint with the Bar Association. I was bluffing. I had no idea if it would work or not. I am not a fan of strong-arming people, but I am also not opposed to the concept when the circumstances require such a method.
It worked. My attorney called me back within 24 hours. I guess the firm really did know how to get ahold of her after all. She told me she was going to be vacationing in Oklahoma in a few weeks and she would set the hearing for a day when she was in town and we could get the adoption finalized.
She was true to her word this time. She made it back to Oklahoma and I had a final court date. Sam and I got all dressed up and went to court. I was nervous, excited, anxious. The Judge held the hearing in a small conference room instead of his very large, overwhelming courtroom. I can’t imagine what he was thinking, but I do remember his kind smile and his courteous demeanor. He treated me with dignity and respect. At the end of the hearing, in the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard, he looked at me and said; “Congratulations! It’s a girl.”