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Chapter 12

Before Kristin could respond to the sharp raps on her door, Judge Roger Cruz swept in. When she was first elected, Kristin had been surprised to learn that as the chief judge he had surprisingly little power over the sixty judges he supervised. He couldn’t hire or fire them, or adjust their salaries. They were elected or appointed officials with salaries set by the Florida legislature. He could, however, assign them to a remote courthouse location or an unpopular division, like traffic court. Or, he could walk unannounced and uninvited into any judicial office.

Kristin didn’t take her eyes off of her computer screen. She had read Florida Statute 63.082 at least six times in the last half hour, looking for a loophole or ambiguity in the lengthy adoption statute that would give her legal grounds to deny Jordan’s adoption by her aunt, Erin Flynn, and allow her to be adopted by her foster momma, Cecelia Holland.

“Damn,” Kristin spoke aloud, swiveling in her chair to greet the chief judge, who stood in front of her desk more flushed and disheveled than usual in a rumpled white dress shirt that barely buttoned over his barrel chest. Halfway up the chest, tied around his neck was a bright red “Save the Children” tie featuring white, yellow, brown and black smiley faces.

“Good morning, Judge Dahlen.”

“Good morning, Chief. What brings you down to our little Unified Family Court today? Good news, I hope. Maybe more funding for teen court and our other diversion programs?”

“Far down on my list of priorities, I’m afraid, although every time you mention a program it gives me another opportunity to remind you again that you were elected to call the balls and strikes in court, to make decisions, to rule. Not to stick your nose into social work and every screwy idea that costs the poor taxpayers a lot of money.”

“But we’re dealing with kids here, Chief. And diversion programs actually save the taxpayers money. . .”

“Cut the crap,” he snarled, leaning over her desk so close to her face that she could smell the onions from the egg and black bean scramble the cafeteria staff prepared for him each morning.

“I’m here to talk you out of making a big mistake and an illegal decision. State Attorney Clark Stackhouse is hopping mad that you may be fixing to have a best interest hearing in the matter of a foster girl whose aunt wishes to adopt her after her mother signs consents.”

Kristin didn’t miss the sarcastic air quotes around “best interest.”

He huffed right along. “What the hell’s going on, Judge? You trying to play God or something? You can’t interfere in these private family matters. Stackhouse told me there’s a statute right on point.”

Kristin’s attempt to stare him down failed as he towered above her. At least she could go down swinging.

“Did he also tell you that the mother is a long time drug addict, the child has been bounced around foster homes and various relatives since she was a toddler, causing severe emotional problems, and that she has finally found stability over the last three years with a wonderful foster mom who wants to adopt her?

“Did he tell you that it appears to be in Jordan’s best interest to be adopted by her foster mom rather than by a relative she barely knows, who is almost a stranger?

“Did he tell you that the guardian ad litem, who has known Jordan for five years, is strongly recommending this foster mother adoption, once we terminate the mother’s rights? That Jordan tests way off the scale in intelligence, is a straight A student and knows exactly what she wants. Did State Attorney Stackhouse tell you any of those things, Chief?”

“Christ almighty!” he roared. “Guardian ad litem? I don’t care what some weepy, do-gooder old lady volunteer thinks about burnt toast, much less the cases in our court and the law that must be followed.”

“The guardian’s not an old lady. His name is Skip Walters. He’s one of the best we have. He’s an advertising executive who finds time to take on our most difficult cases because he loves children and wants to find permanent homes for them.”

“I don’t give a shit who he is or what he does. Do I have to spell it out for you, Judge?” His face puffed and reddened in front of her. “You might have an argument if there was law on both sides, but there isn’t. Stackhouse and I are up for re-election next year. Neither of us wants to read in the Times that you ignored a mother’s legal request and chose foster care over a relative adoption. You’re sure to be reversed on appeal, but until that we don’t want the bad publicity. So, just cancel the hearing you set for tomorrow and schedule an adoption for the aunt, instead. Pronto.”

Kristin wanted to yank the tie off his neck. “Chief, this is a Chapter Thirty-nine case originating because of the abandonment, abuse, and neglect Jordan suffered for years at the hands of her mother and her mother’s continuing addiction to illegal and legal drugs. Jordan never knew her father, who dropped out of her life as a toddler. The best interest of the child standard governs that entire chapter. I know what that is. The guardian ad litem, Skip Walters, knows what that is. Jordan and her foster momma certainly know in their hearts what is in Jordan’s best interest.”

His face reddened further. Kristin wouldn’t let him interrupt her.

“I want to go ahead with the termination of parental rights trial. If the state convinces me, by clear and convincing evidence, because that’s the legal requirement, that her rights should be terminated, I will do so quickly and Jordan will be adopted, by the person she calls momma. What is wrong with that?”

He stared at her, quiet for a moment, then shook his head in disgust.

“Only that it is against the law.” He paused, smacked his lips together and leaned even closer.

“Once the mother found a relative to adopt the child, this became a Chapter Sixty-three case. The mother has an absolute legal right to do what she’s doing, as the aunt has a favorable home study, according to Stackhouse. Who are you to interfere?”

She had no answer to that.

“Get off your high horse, Dahlen. Follow the law. That’s an order. If you’d prefer to spend the rest of your career in traffic court, you do just what you want to do.”

He took his hands off her desk, pointed a finger at her and backed out of her chambers, slamming the door behind him.

How can something so right be wrong in the law? How can something so wrong and harmful to the child be legal and right?

How could she hire that delivery van to run over Luke Haller before tomorrow’s hearing? How could she slip some arsenic into that egg scramble?

She had to think this through. Maybe food would help.

She picked up the baggie containing her lunch, a sandwich of thinly-sliced ham and geitost, her favorite Norwegian cheese.

She took a bite and then put it down. She picked up her ceremonial gavel and brought it down hard on the ham and cheese.

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