Friday, July 30, 2004

PART 25 - Daniel

Oh Elton, he of the outrageous costumes and equally outrageous glasses. He's all classy now with his hairpieces and his steady boyfriend, but give me Bennie and the Jets anytime.

Daniel
Elton John

Daniel my brother, you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky . . .

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If I could point to a golden era, it would have been that first summer in the sweet yellow gingerbread house. Our energies were blended and concentrated on common goals, and we never tired of working to adorn our pride and joy. We loved nothing better than staying at home. Soon after we moved in, we added a pool, and by that time we had a pair of boxer bulldogs that loved nothing better than taking a dip in the heat of the day and sunning on the deck. We delighted in having friends and family over for cookouts and swim parties. To me, it was paradise.

We had set up our 2nd bedroom as a home office, and the 3rd bedroom was reserved and furnished in anticipation of the little visitors that we were expecting. We had completed all of our foster parent certifications, so we were "on call" with DFCS. We had been designated as a first response emergency placement couple, since we had no other children, we had a bedroom that was empty and equipped to accommodate up to 2 little kids, and we could respond to a late night call without disrupting other children.

The summer slipped by without any calls, and no placements. Of course, as much as I was looking forward to having little people in the house, I was also relieved that no children seemed to be in crisis at that point. FedEx employees received travel discounts, and taking advantage of what might be our last break for quite a while, he and I booked a cruise to St. Croix.

It was almost too much to believe or bear. I felt like I was living in a dream. My job was interesting and lucrative, our house was beautiful, he and I were in a comfortable groove, and we were planning a romantic getaway. Our weeklong cruise was like a fantasy; we were catered to, we rested and sunned and enjoyed each other's company with no distractions or schedules or outside interferences. We both returned well rested, with golden tans and souvenirs for all the kids.

The last days of summer dwindled away, and we closed the pool for the winter. The days got a little shorter, and we spent less and less time outdoors. It was about this time that I received a call from a DFCS officer late one Friday afternoon. There was a boy in need of placement, and even though we had requested to have placements of very young children, this boy was 11. There were no other suitable accommodations available, and the DFCS officer was frantically trying to find a placement before the weekend. The few details that I got on the phone were that he was removed from him father's home for suspected abuses, and he was to be placed in foster care until court hearings could take place. I could feel the tugs on my heartstrings, and I invited the caseworker to bring him over.

His name was Daniel. He was a beautiful child, tall with an angelic face, glittering blue eyes, sandy blonde hair, and a dark tan. He was quiet and polite, and seemed so nervous. He had next to nothing with him; the caseworker said that they weren't able to locate much clothing for him at his father's house. Within 15 minutes, the caseworker was gone, and Daniel and I were there, alone, in the silence. He fidgeted, and couldn't quite seem to meet my gaze. Pretending not to notice, I asked him if he had eaten dinner yet, and he shook his head silently "no". He followed me into the kitchen, and as we sat at the table together, he picked at his plate while I tried to make conversation. I was busily chatting away when I glanced at him and noticed his eyes full of tears, his mouth still full of food. He carefully put his fork down, and bolted from the table to the guest bathroom, wrectching and vomiting, sobs shaking his thin body.

After the vomiting subsided, he was mortified, slumped on the floor of the bathroom, trying desperately to clean his face with toilet paper. I wet a washcloth with cool water, tenderly wiping his face, and wanted so desperately to do something, ANYTHING, to make him feel better. "Cooking's that bad, huh?" I said to him, a look of worry on my face. That seemed to shock him temporarily out of his misery, and when I cracked a smile at him, he giggled. That seemed to alleviate some tension. "Come on, let's go watch TV," I offered, holding my hand out to help him up. He stood, and I put my arm around his shoulder, and we retired to the couch to watch tv. Within 10 minutes, he was fast asleep.

When my husband got home at 7:30, Daniel was still sleeping soundly. "So, what's the deal with him?" my husband whispered to me in the kitchen. I told him what I knew, and my husband then asked me the question that EVERYONE asked EVERYONE in that town. To me, it was the strangest custom, but for locals, it was as natural as two strange dogs sniffing each other's butts: he wanted to know who Daniel's "people" were.

When I had first moved to that town, I was taken aback by the abruptness of the question. It was asked of me at the grocery store, at Belk's (the only department store in town), at the gas station, and pretty much every where that I went and encountered a stranger. The question was used primarily to "size you up", to find out what kind of stock you were from. Usually, I dodged the question altogether, answering, "Oh, I am not from here," which usually shocked people enough - very few people in that town WEREN'T from there. A slight variation on the question was, "Oh, who are you married to?" Asked for the same reason, it was a way to categorize you based on your extended family and their social position in the community. I learned quickly from the looks of shock and discomfort I encountered early on not to let on who my "people" in that town were - and I more clearly understood my husband's unrelenting efforts to change the mindset of an entire town.

I paused when he asked me the question. What WAS his last name? Daniel . . . Daniel . . . . . . hmm. I thought and thought and realized that I had never been told. Daniel awoke just enough to steer him to bed. He smiled at my husband's greeting of "Hey buddy," and crawled into bed, falling back into a deep sleep as soon as I put the covers over him.

The next morning, I awoke to hear the television on and Daniel and my husband talking. I dressed and descended downstairs to join them for breakfast. Daniel was eating cereal, talking with my husband, and when Daniel saw me, he excitedly said, "Hey! Rita! He knows my dad!" I glanced over at him, reading a newspaper, and he gave me a quick glance and with raised eyebrows, I knew just about all I needed to know: this kid's dad must be a doozy.

Being a fireman, he knew every cop in town, and being a local, he knew every family and damn near every story in town. Rising from the table and folding his paper, he announced that he was going to fill up his truck and pick up some mulch for the flowerbeds. "Hey Daniel, wanna ride with me?" he asked, and Daniel lit up like a Christmas tree. He gulped his cereal down, and I watched the two of them pull away, Daniel's window rolled down, sun on his face.

I spent the morning calling family, letting them know about Daniel. All of the nieces and nephews were anxious to meet our "new kid" and despite our repeated attempts to tell them that he was just staying with us temporarily, they insisted on referring to him as their "new cousin".

Daniel spent the day outside, mulching flowerbeds and meeting the kids in the neighborhood. Like the night before, Daniel went to bed early. He seemed to need alot of sleep and alot of food, and I was beginning to wonder what he had been through before he got to our house. Sitting on the sofa that evening with my husband, I was given a brief overview of Daniel's "people":

No big surprise, my husband declared Daniel's father a complete waste of air and space. He was from a family that was considered to be even lower and trashier than our own, and his arrest record was long and varied. He was a drug addict, and had been busted over and over for possession and selling of all manner of narcotics. The extended family inhabited a cluster of old trailers on a small patch of family land, and were generational welfare recipients.

Hearing this, I was shocked that Daniel was allowed to lived with his father. There was an answer for that too: his mother had gotten pregnant with him after being raped at 13, and had long fled the town after leaving Daniel behind with his paternal grandparents to raise while Daniel's dad did time for statutory rape. Evidently, she had seen Daniel sporadically over the years. She eventually married and now had 2 young children, but had recently cut all ties with Daniel. I was beginning to get the picture.

As I was buying clothes for Daniel the next day in preparation for his return to school, I wondered what kind of abuse he had suffered at the hands of this man, and why he had finally been removed. What could have driven the authorities to FINALLY step in after a seemingly endless string of events had happened that could have terminated parental rights long before now? Foster parents are generally given basic information about kids in their care, but some information is kept confidential for the protection and privacy of the kid and his family, especially when there are outstanding charges of some kind. I asked our social worker a few questions that she deftly sidestepped, just as she had downplayed his family. She had worked in the town long enough to know how to sidestep the pitfalls. So I was left with my thoughts and suspicions, but no real information.

Over the next few weeks, we got to know Daniel better, and he got more comfortable being at home with us and at his new school. We had a few little bumps . . . he was written up on the bus for picking on some smaller kid, and he had been a bit too rough with the nieces and nephews during a birthday party, but I just chalked that up to sugar and overexcitement. He was a sweet kid overall.

One afternoon, I retrieved the mail and saw an official-looking envelope addressed to us from the county. I figured it was some kind of form or something that needed our signature, and I left it in the pile of mail on the kitchen counter while I started dinner. Daniel was playing basketball outside - we had installed a goal on our lower driveway, and the neighborhood boys usually had an early evening pick up game going at our house most days.

As I was laying dinner out on the table, and calling Daniel in to eat, my husband pulled in from work, took the mail and retired to change his clothes and take a cool shower. In a few minutes, he was back downstairs, still dressed in his uniform, and handed me the opened letter from the county. It was a copy of a summons notice, requesting Daniel's appearance in court at the end of the month. "Yeah, so?" I said, handing him the note back, "We knew he was going to have to go to court."

"Yeah, but we didn't know he was the defendant," he said, handing me the letter back. There were a few other pages stapled to the summons copy, some kind of complaint. I scanned the forms, wanting to get to the part that might have some information, anything to give me a hint.

There, at the bottom of the form, was the plantiff's name. It was his mother. She had accused him of raping and sodomizing his two little half sisters the last time he had visited. The police report was there, along with doctor's reports from the emergency room. It made sense now. He was an emergency placement because of the charges, and there were no other accomodations that would work because he couldn't be housed with other kids.

I felt sick. This kid was a rapist. He had raped little girls. He was in my house, and he played with my little nieces. I didn't know, no one told me. I wanted to run. My breathing got faster, I started feeling the room spin. I gripped the kitchen table, and the next thing I knew, I was looking at the ceiling, watching the fan spin, my husband standing over me, patting my hand, urging me back. I had passed out from the shock.

As I got to my feet, Daniel came in the front door, glowing from the game, smiling, with the basketball under his arm. He looked like an All-American kid, and he was crowing, "Man, I wiped the COURT with those guys!" Seeing me, his smile faded, "Hey, are you ok?" Wordlessly, I stepped past him, up the stairs, into my room. I nervously sipped a little water from a glass on my bedside table, and I crawled into bed, feeling an overwhelming need to hide. I remained there until bedtime, when my husband joined me. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you about the papers before I gave them to you," he said, thinking that I was upset by the receipt of the notice and trying to soften the blow.

There was no way to explain my reaction. I was paralyzed with fear and overcome with a black dread the likes of which I had never experienced. I had to protect him, I had promised to care for him. I had to protect our kids from him, and I couldn't divulge anything about why without risking charges. But more than that, I had to protect myself from my memories. Heavy doors, bolted shut long ago in my mind, were being flung open, and the bats were flying out in every direction.

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