Kristin hugged Anders a little tighter when she dropped him off at school the next morning. He would soon be eleven years old. She smiled as he tugged away from her to hoist his heavy back pack onto his shoulder and wave to his friends in the school yard.
How lucky he was, she thought; no, how lucky they were, to be together as a family unit, loving each other, no risk of being separated. That’s all Jordan and her foster mom wanted, and she was about to take it away from them.
Her cell phone rang. She recognized the number and pushed the button on the steering wheel while balancing a peach Danish on her right hand. So much for hands free.
“So what did you decide to do?” Dr. Mary Visconti went right to the point.
“I was up half the night, Mary. I thought about it the whole weekend. In the end the Chief is right. I really don’t have a choice. The law is clear.”
“I don’t envy you in court today, Kristin.”
“It’s Jordan and the foster mom I’m worried about. There’s a real bond there. In a way, it’s my fault and the fault of the previous judge on the case, and of course the state, for dragging this case out and not terminating the mother’s rights way, way earlier.”
“From what you told me, Jordan’s bio mother made progress. It looked like she was clean, drug free–but then she relapsed.”
“Yes, Mary, that’s clear in the file. But while momma’s relapsing and recovering, Jordan’s moving on to the first stable and loving relationship in her life, and I’m about to end that, if I follow the law.”
Mary snorted. “Best interest should always prevail.”
“Were it that simple. And people wonder why these foster kids have so many attachment problems. It just isn’t fair,” Kristin moaned.
“Well, if detention hearings finish on time I’ll watch your hearing from my office on closed circuit TV. Good luck. Some days suck, but they don’t have to define you.”
“Thanks. The Chief and State Attorney Stackhouse will probably be tuned to their TV sets to make sure I don’t commit an error. Mary, I don’t want to go into details now, but I have some ideas for a sort of compromise. I haven’t firmed them up, and they depend on people’s reactions in court today. I’ll get with you after the hearing.”
Kristin entered the courtroom an hour later and found a somber group standing at the podium in front of her. Jordan wouldn’t look up at her. She wore black jeans, a long-sleeved grey sweatshirt and high top sneakers. Cecilia Holland, the foster mom, stood close to her, looking grim.
Skip Walters, the guardian ad litem, stood behind Jordan, his hand on her shoulder, his eyes fixed on Kristin, imploring, beseeching, begging. He wore his fall-colored plaid sports jacket, one of her favorites, with a yellow tie that complimented his short, blonde hair. He was running his fingers inside his collar, a nervous habit she’d noticed. Don’t pressure me today, Skip, she thought. His determination and tenaciousness, the very things she admired about him, could make things difficult today.
On the other side of the podium, agency supervisor Paula Travers looked smug, while Raphael turned the other way. Jordan’s birth mother, disheveled but smiling, stood next to her sister, Erin Flynn and Erin’s fiancé, Luke Haller, who was rocking on his toes and impatiently glancing at his wristwatch.
After everyone identified themselves for the court reporter, Kristin took charge.
She said, “I’ve spent the last week carefully reading the relevant statutes and case law as well as the rules and regulations of the Department of Children and Families. There is no ambiguity or conflict in the law. The birth parent has the right to choose the adoptive parent prior to her rights being terminated, together with an approved home study of the adoptive parent. Both conditions have been met.”
Cecilia Holland made a tight fist of her right hand and brought it to her face, pressing so hard Kristin could see her lips turn white. Jordan continued to stare at the floor but she began rubbing her hands up and down both arms over her sweatshirt. There were no cries or screams. Kristin admired their control. They had probably prepared themselves for this.
“However, before we proceed quickly to an adoption of Jordan by Ms. Flynn, I want to put something on the record and then suggest a more measured, structured way to proceed.
“First, the child welfare agency and the judicial branch, myself and Ms. Travers included, are to blame for dragging out this case so long that we have allowed Jordan and Ms. Holland to bond without terminating the mother’s rights. Each time we granted the mother an extension of her case plan, we overlooked the obvious emotion and humanity of the situation we created when we found a wonderful, stable and loving placement for Jordan. This can’t be forgiven quickly, and we can’t treat Jordan like a sack of groceries or a suitcase of clothing and simply hand her over to Ms. Flynn.”
“I am hoping that Ms. Flynn understands this, and will agree to the schedule I’m proposing. As Jordan’s aunt, she must have Jordan’s welfare in mind…”
Before Kristin could finish, Luke Haller stepped in front of Erin Flynn at the podium.
“Judge, with all due respect, Erin and I are ready to take Jordan into our home today. We’ve bought…”
Kristin shook her head.
“Mr. Haller, I have no reason to believe anything other than that you care for Ms. Flynn and Jordan very much, and want to create a stable family. That’s good. But, you’ve interrupted me just now as you did Mr. Gonzalez last week. You have absolutely no standing to say anything in court today. Ms. Flynn is the proposed adoptive parent, not you. However, since you’ve inserted yourself into these proceedings and since I recall Ms. Travers saying it was your financial stability that led to Ms. Flynn’s decision to adopt Jordan, with the agency’s approval, I do have a few questions for you. Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
After swearing to tell the truth and wilting a bit, Haller prepared to answer Kristin’s questions.
“When and where did you meet Ms. Flynn?”
“About a year ago, at a sports bar.”
“When did you learn about Jordan and what were you told?”
“After we were together a few times, Erin mentioned that she had a sister who had addiction problems and a thirteen-year-old niece in foster care. She showed me a picture of Jordan, a real red-haired cutie. She said that Jordan had been in a foster home for a couple of years and that she wished she could adopt her but she didn’t have the resources to make the commitment. She also said her sister didn’t want to talk about the case.”
“And what did you say or do?” Kristin tried to make it short.
“I said that I knew Ms. Travers here,” he nodded to her, “and that I’d get Erin a current update on the case and the state’s position.”
“How did you know Ms. Travers?”
“I’m a partner in an insurance agency in town and Ms. Travers had some family insurance business that we handled.”
It might have been wishful thinking, but Kristin thought she saw the officious woman flinch and come as close to looking uncomfortable as she ever had in Kristin’s court.
“So what did Ms. Travers tell you about a case that’s confidential insofar as strangers are concerned?” Kristin could feel her blood pressure rising but kept her expression as non-committal as possible.
“She confirmed the foster care placement for Jordan. She said the mother’s rights were about to be terminated. I told her that Erin and I had a committed relationship and that Erin would be interested in adopting Jordan.”
“Had you ever met Jordan at this point?”
“Had Erin spoken to Ms. Travers before you did?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So what happened next?” Kristin couldn’t take her eyes off him, completely amazed that he had no idea that all of his knowledge was obtained illegally.
“Ms. Travers said she would have to do a background check on me. We discussed that. The next thing I knew she called me to tell me I’d passed. So I called Erin and surprised her with the news that she could adopt as I could provide sufficient resources to address her concerns.”
“Resources for Erin?” Kristin asked.
Kristin turned to Erin, who looked nervous. During these proceedings, Erin had never even looked at Jordan, much less smile at her or comfort her.
“Is that right, Ms. Flynn?”
“Yes, Judge, it was a complete surprise to me. Luke said he’d greased through a background check and that we could be a family. Luke, me and Jordan.”
“How much contact had you had with Jordan at this point?”
Erin looked at her sister. “I’d seen Jordan when she was allowed unsupervised visits with her mom, my sister. We got along fine.”
“Unsupervised? So that was more than a year ago, before she relapsed and was hospitalized for overdosing again on prescription pain pills?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Kristin saw Jordan rub her arms and sweatshirt up and down. She wished she would look up, as Kristin couldn’t tell if she was trying to get her attention, or if something else was going on.
Just then Sandy spoke up. She was the court clerk, sitting to Kristin’s right and officially in charge of the five volumes of court files on this case.
“Judge, you have a phone call. They say it’s important.”
Kristin couldn’t imagine a worse time for an interruption.
“Tell them I’m busy in the middle of a hearing, please, Sandy,” she said. It was probably the Chief getting agitated and wanting her to finish.
“She says it’s very important, Judge,” Sandy said, her hand over the handset.
She? Not the Chief. Who could it be?
“Ok, Sandy. Just hand me your phone. That’s easier.”
“Hello. Judge Dahlen here.”
“Kristin, it’s Mary, you need—”
“I’m in the middle of this hearing. Can’t it wait? I told you how important—”
“Listen, I tried to instant message you on your computer, but it’s not turned on.”
Kristin looked at the laptop in front of her. “I never turn it on in court. It’s just a distraction.”
“Kristin, listen to me. I’ve been watching on our TV and I’ve seen what Jordan may be doing.”
“Just ask her to step up to the bench, and ask the guardian ad litem, Skip or whatever his name is, to come with her. Let all the others stay back at the podium until we know what’s going on.”
“Okay, then what do I do?”
“Ask Jordan to roll up her sleeves, both arms. I’ll be able to see from here and tell you the next steps.”
Kristin did as Mary directed. Jordan and Skip walked slowly up to the bench and stood in front of her. Everyone else looked puzzled. The court reporter moved her chair closer to the bench to pick up the dialogue.
Jordan pushed up the sleeves of her sweatshirt when Kristin asked. Skip turned white and looked away.
Kristin looked up, eyes turned away from Jordan.
“We have a situation here that requires a recess. I’m going to take Jordan back into my chambers, along with her guardian ad litem. The rest of you can wait here. I hope to return in about fifteen minutes and give everyone an update, as well as a suggested schedule for further proceedings. In the meantime, as you know where I’m going with this case, you can talk about a shared arrangement that is in Jordan’s best interest.”
She rose from the bench, looking again at Jordan’s arms.
On the right arm I’m Ugly was barely visible as blood leaking from the wounds blurred some of the letters. It looked like it had been cut with a serrated knife.
On the left arm Kill Me stood out plainly.
“Oh my God,” Kristin said softly. Jordan evaded her eyes, but Kristin held Skip’s gaze. Kristin almost didn’t’ hear Mary’s voice.
Mary spoke into the phone, firmly and professionally, ’You did good, Kristin, now wait. I’ll be there in minutes.”