Today I spent three hours in Hell -- the waiting room of the Family Court at the Arlington County, VA courthouse. As the foster parent of an infant, I was a tiny cog in the cumbersome wheel of a five day hearing which was actually taking place nine days after the baby was removed from her mom. But who was counting? Our little group consisted of two county social workers, the birth mom, the cousins of the birth dad and myself. Missing were the Guardian Ad Litem (appointed to protect the rights of the foster baby) and the attorney for the birth mom. A translator would also have been helpful since half our group was not conversant in English.
But enough about us for a moment. In one corner, an attorney was loudly berating a woman holding a baby (which was then translated into loud Spanish) about her lack of parenting skills. As the mom wept into her baby's side, her three-year-old escaped the waiting room and wasn't missed for long minutes. In another area, a harried attorney rushed in, called the name of a young man, and in the space of less than three minutes negotiated a plea deal of 178 days in jail. When he then ran out, the young man stood alone, looking bewildered. Misery coated the walls and benches of the waiting room, punctuated by cries of anguish from a child.
In our time in the waiting room, the attorney for my foster baby's mom never arrived. But the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) showed up long enough to open a notebook, ask the name of the birth mom and myself, and then dashed out as his name was urgently called on the intercom. Clearly, the baby's representation was no one's priority. As lawyers hustled between the waiting area and the two courtrooms, it was clear that any stab as "justice" was hit and miss. No one was spending the time or thought needed to adjudicate cases involving people's lives and futures.
Our case, scheduled for 10:45 a.m., was finally called a little after noon. But it was again delayed as a translator was sought and as the defendant sat alone on her side of the courtroom, without representation. When her attorney arrived, she knew nothing about the case, the defendant, or even what kind of hearing it was. (NINE day hearing, I wanted to shout.) The judge also knew nothing about the case until he opened the folder. And yet, the clock was ticking. The GAL popped in long enough to say he would go along with whatever the county attorney chose to do but he was needed on another case. And then he was gone.
Less than 10 minutes after the judge took the bench, we were all ushered out, shaking our heads in confusion. Turned out the cousins were granted temporary legal custody because, said the judge, "It's better than the baby staying with a complete stranger." That would be me. The foster mom who, for the past 10 days, bathed the baby, soothed her in the night, fed her, took her to the park, invited her birth mom into my home, worried about her runny nose, taught her to hold a spoon, told her I loved her and watched Dora the Explorer in Spanish so I could learn a few words in Spanish. Yes, it is probably better for the baby to be with relatives. Yes, ten days ago I was a complete stranger.
But the fate of a mother deemed neglectful and a beautiful child on the verge of turning one was determined by strangers with little time to weigh the consequences of their decisions or the luxury of thoughtfulness. The wheels of justice moved exceedingly fast today, despite the gravity of consequences. Tonight I'll hand over the baby and her few belongings to a family who will hopefully love her and encourage her birth mom to spend time with her. Sure, I'll cry. I loved this baby and I'm proud to have been a short chapter in her life. But I would feel more confident about her future if I hadn't watched the overworked, overburdened, harried inner workings of a Family Court today.