“Vandalism. Really, Bettina?” I looked over at the girl sitting on the curb but she kept her arms folded and her gaze on her shoes.
It was dark but the red and blue flashing lights illuminated her face enough for me to see the stubborn, defiant expression on it. They also allowed me to see the fear and vulnerability.
When she didn’t give me any sort of response, I walked back over to where the police officers were standing with the two owners of the small Italian restaurant. That same restaurant now had pink, blue, and yellow painted all over the back wall in splotches that made no sense but were there just to be seen. To get attention.
Despite living in the desert, Phoenix was chilly that evening. The January temperatures had been hovering around the mid-fifties during the day and dropping as low as the thirties at night. In that moment, it felt like I was going to freeze to death.
“Are you pressing charges?” I asked the owners and watched as they exchanged a look. The man shrugged his shoulders and it was the woman who spoke up.
“How old is she? Thirteen?”
I shook my head. “Twelve.”
“And you’re her social worker?” the man asked gruffly. “We’ve seen her in here several times with people we assumed were her parents. She’s in foster care?”
“Yes, those are her foster parents.” I suppressed the tired sigh that was building in my chest. “She’s not a bad kid. She acts out when something big happens in her life and scares her. I’m not sure what it was this time but I know it had to be something huge. This is the first time she’s ever done something like this. Something illegal.”
The woman reached out and grabbed the man’s hand while giving me a sad smile. “If she’ll clean up her mess, we won’t press charges.”
Relief filled me and I had to fight to keep my face from showing it. I reached into my bag and pulled out a business card so I could hand it to the pair. “Oh, she will. Thank you so much.”
We all shook hands and I walked back to where Bettina was. Settling on the curb next to her, I finally let the sigh escape and examined her profile from the side. Bettina Kelly had been one of my first cases when I had started my job five years before. At barely seven-years-old, she had already seen way too many things and experienced far too much heartbreak and betrayal, leaving her severely distrustful. I had removed her from her home with her mother and step-father and placed her with an amazing foster family. Bryson and Carin Lampkin had been facing infertility issues and were looking at fostering into adoption. They had both originally been looking for a younger child, an infant or a toddler, but they had accepted the too skinny, too frightened, and too defiant little girl into their home.
And the adoration had ended up being completely mutual. They had spoken to me several times about adopting her but I was receiving a lot of push back from her biological mother. She didn’t want Bettina any more than she wanted the four other children she’d had taken from her over the years, but she refused to allow someone else to have her completely. It was a power struggle and I was still fighting with a judge to end it so Bettina could officially be a part of the Lampkin family. Years of therapy and years of love had finally taught Bettina to trust and her small outbursts of anger had tapered off.
Her long, black hair fell around her like a curtain, hiding most of her face, but I caught a flash of her coffee colored eyes before she stared down at the pavement. She was still a slight little thing but in a healthy way. She had truly flourished in the years I’d known her.
“Well, you owe me a huge Christmas present next year, Betts,” I said quietly, reaching over to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “You won’t be going to Durango tonight, so if getting a free stay in juvie was your goal, that’s too bad.”
Her only response was to wipe her nose with the back of her hand. She was wearing a sweatshirt but I knew she had to be cold. Hell, my butt was a block of ice from sitting on that freezing curb for two minutes.
“Okay, baby girl.” I softened my voice, losing all of the humor to let her know I was serious. “It’s time to talk. What’s going on?”
When she reached up to wipe her nose again, it was accompanied by a sniffle and that’s when I realized she was crying. I dropped my arm across her shoulders and pulled her to my side.
“They’re having a baby,” she whimpered as a loud sob escaped her small body. She turned and gave me a frantic look. “They’re having a baby and they’re going to love it more than me. They’re going to send me away. I just know it.”
She practically threw herself into my lap and buried her face into my shoulder while her body shook uncontrollably. I wrapped my arms around her tight and held her to me as she cried. I rubbed a hand down her back, feeling my heart break a little at the young girl’s insecurities.
“Oh, Betts,” I murmured when her cries quieted down. “They aren’t going to send you away.”
“They will. I’m not their real kid but this baby will be.”
I pulled back and situated us so we were eye-to-eye. “You may not be their blood but you are their baby no matter what you think. They couldn’t possibly love you any more even if you were their blood.”
She straightened up with a look of disbelief on her face but didn’t reply. I reached out and wiped away the tears that were on her cheeks.
“Why did you do this, Bettina? I know you’re frustrated. I know you’re scared but you broke the law tonight. You’re lucky they aren’t pressing charges, kiddo. You’re going to have to clean up your mess.”
“I hate this place,” she grumbled petulantly and I raised my brows.
“What do you mean?”
She gestured to the building behind us. “This stupid restaurant.”
When she didn’t clarify why, I let it go and moved to my feet. “Be that as it may, you’re still in the wrong. You need to go and apologize to the owners so we can get you home.”
The two of us walked back over to where the officer was still standing with the owners and I could see the shame on Bettina’s face when she finally looked up to apologize. It was a weak, quiet utterance but no one tried to force her to do more. I told them all we’d be in contact before thanking them and leading her to my SUV. We were both quiet as I drove and I didn’t say anything until we turned onto her street.
“You should call me next time you’re mad or afraid, Bettina,” I told her, pulling into the driveway. “I would listen and be there for you, kiddo. I could help and you wouldn’t get in trouble.”
Her only reply was to nod but I didn’t push it. It wouldn’t do any good. The porch light was on but the house was dark, which was to be expected since it was almost midnight. Bettina scuffled behind me as we moved up the pathway and she stared at her feet when I rang the doorbell twice.
It took about a minute and a half before a light turned on inside and the door creaked open. A bleary-eyed man stood in front of me with a confused expression on his face.
“Stephanie?” I knew the second Bryson caught sight of the girl behind me because his eyes widened. “Bettina? What’s happened? What’s wrong? Come inside, both of you.”
I followed her in and Bryson closed the door behind us. Carin appeared at the top of the stairs and panic filled her features when she caught sight of the two of us. She rushed down stairs and put her hands on Bettina’s shoulders while frantically inspecting her foster daughter.
“What happened? Are you hurt?”