New York Times
Solomon's Sword: Two Families and the Children the State Took Awayby Michael Shapiro
In an era when headlines often seem dominated by horrific stories about abused children, Solomon's Sword weaves together the elements of two painful custody battles into a memorable book that no reader who cares about children will be able to put aside. The first story unfolds around Gina Pellegrino, who, in 1991, hours after giving birth to a daughter,/i>
In an era when headlines often seem dominated by horrific stories about abused children, Solomon's Sword weaves together the elements of two painful custody battles into a memorable book that no reader who cares about children will be able to put aside. The first story unfolds around Gina Pellegrino, who, in 1991, hours after giving birth to a daughter, abandons the child in a Connecticut hospital, and Cynthia and Jerry LaFlamme, a childless New Haven couple who have waited five years for an adoptive baby. When asked by a caseworker to name their highest prioritydo they prefer a boy, a girl, an infant, a toddlerthe LaFlammes say they simply want a "risk-free baby," one who can't be taken from them under any circumstances. Four months after the baby girl has come to live with themand soon before their adoption would become legalPellegrino reappears, hoping to reclaim the child.
Next, Michael Shapiro describes the Melton sisters, living with nineteen children amid squalor and vermin in a drafty Chicago rowhouse. One snowy night in February 1994, policemen discover the children and evacuate them as a TV camera rolls, searing into our collective conscience shameful images of the officers emerging from the house with child after child in their arms. Though the children are not victims of outright abuse, their neglect compels authorities to hold the threat of permanent removal over their hapless mothers.
In examining the collision between Gina Pellegrino's belated commitment to her daughter and the LaFlammes' threatened adoption of the girl, as well as the Meltons' inability to understand their parental shortcomings, Shapiro meets judges,lawyers, social workers, clergy, and therapists who must advocate a course of action not only in these two cases, but in thousands more every year across America. Reading about these dedicated people who are in the vanguard of new approaches to the problem of mistreated children will leave readers hopeful that we are finally learning how to ameliorate this enduring national disgrace. Solomon's Sword sheds new light on a dire social problem in a powerful book that will influence public policy for years to come.
New York Times
...this book will enlighten anyonewho works in or cares about this field...
Read an Excerpt
The child, known first as Megan Marie and later as Angelica, was born at 1:35 in the afternoon of June 26, 1991, at the Hospital of Saint Raphael in New Haven, Connecticut. She was delivered vaginally and without complications. Her skin was pale and her hair dark. She weighed seven pounds. She cried immediately. She arrived a week before her due date, a fact that at the moment of her birth mattered little to her mother, who was brought to the hospital by ambulance after collapsing on the street. Her mother would later insist that only upon hearing the results of an ultrasound did she understand that the pain she felt on the street was the onset of labor and that she was, in fact, pregnant.
"How far along am I?" asked the mother.
"You're due," she was told.
The mother had received no prenatal care, but there was no evidence that she had abused either drugs or alcohol. The child required no special newborn attention. The hospital record indicated that the mother gave her name as Christina Becolli and her age as twenty-two. Both were lies. She was not accompanied in the ambulance nor through labor, and she received no visitors in her room. She said she lived on the streets and that the child's father was not involved in her life. She said she was a twin, which was the only truthful statement she made. The hospital record noted a "poor social situation." Nine hours after the child was born, the mother disappeared.
The child was alert and vigorous, if somewhat fussy. She had some difficulty feeding. The hospital social worker contacted the Department of Children and Youth Services. The department placed the child under its guardianship and recommended foster care.The department would later insist that it had no way of finding the mother because it had only an assumed name, a false age, and no address. It did not occur to staff within the department to track down the ambulance driver, in the hope that the driver might help them find the mother. On the sixth day of the child's life, the department was awaiting the legal paperwork that would seek a termination of the unknown mother's parental rights and free her daughter for adoption.
The child was twelve weeks old on September 11 when Cynthia LaFlamme took a call at her desk from a caseworker with the Department of Children and Youth Services. Cindy worked as an underwriter for the Aetna Life and Casualty Company. She and her husband, Jerry, lived upstairs from Jerry's aunt and uncle on a street of small and aging homes in New Britain, a working-class town. They had just celebrated their third wedding anniversary.
Cindy was thirty-six years old and childless. Her attempts to have a child during her first marriage had ended with eight miscarriages and the birth of stillborn twins. She and her first husband had spent $16,000 for in vitro fertilization that was not successful. At twenty-eight, after almost dying during her last two miscarriages, Cindy had undergone tubal ligation, ending any chance of her giving birth. Cindy wanted a child. And in the final year of her first marriage she placed her name on the state's registry of prospective adoptive parents.
Before her divorce, Cindy found it painful to explain her childlessness. She enjoyed a respite from the questions about children when she was once again single. But with her marriage to Jerry the questions resumed. Cindy, who could be brusque, replied to questions about pregnancy by saying "I'm not 'cause I can't have a kid."
All through her crumbling first marriage, her divorce, her two years living with Jerry, and their marriage, Cindy kept her application for adoption on file, even though a year on the waiting list was added to her case because, she was told, her divorce raised questions about the stability of a home she could offer a child. Still, nine years after she first applied for a child, the Department of Children and Youth Services called and told her that the time had come for her and her husband to start attending parenting classes.
The state may be powerless to control the sorts of parents people become when they conceive a child. But in the cases of those whom the state can select as parents, it imposes the sort of scrutiny reminiscent of the periodic calls on newspaper editorial pages for a licensing examination for parents. The LaFlammes joined the other prospective parents in classes on parenting skills, classes generally reserved for parents whose children the state had taken away. The LaFlammes were asked about the form of discipline used by their own parents and whether they intended, say, to hit their child. "Spanking," replied Cindy, "didn't work for me." Cindy was asked whether she planned to work (she did), whether she had a history of drug or alcohol abuse (she did not), whether she drank (no), and whether she and Jerry had been rebellious when they were young. "He was," she replied. "I wasn't." She and Jerry were asked what sort of baby they wanted, a baby born to an alcoholic or drug addicted mother, a baby that had been taken from an abusive parent. More than a healthy baby, the LaFlammes told their screener, they wanted a "risk-free baby," a baby whose birth parent had lost any legal claim to the child. The three-hour classes met once a week for two months. The screener, eager to make sure that the LaFlammes were not proceeding with an unwise fantasy of who their child would be, asked, "Do you think everything will be okay when you get this child?"
Cindy replied that she understood that "this would be a child with a past."
The state arranged to visit their home. Cindy had twenty-four hours to get the apartment ready. She washed the walls and ceilings, even though Jerry reminded her that all the caseworker wanted to see was that the house was clean. "I was taking no chances," Cindy said. The LaFlammes' apartment was small and narrow. It had two bedrooms and a living room that looked out over the street. There was a yard in the back. The room Cindy and Jerry intended for their child was next to their own. The caseworker measured the size of the rooms and opened the medicine cabinet to check its contents. She inspected the outlets to make sure that safety plugs had already been installed for a child whom they had yet to be awarded.
As eager as Jerry was to become a father, it was Cindy who assumed the responsibility of talking with and satisfying the agents of the state. Jerry, a truck driver who had been out of work since injuring his back, was a quiet man with thick shoulders, a heavy gut, a drooping black mustache, and sad eyes. Cindy was altogether different. She was quick and incisive. A woman with brown, curly hair, Cindy possessed considerable wisdom and insight about her circumstances and herself. She was determined, above all, to be a parent, but was careful not to let herself dream too fancifully, considering the pain that had for so long attended her dream of a child.
The screening ended in the spring. Then, in August of 1991, Cindy detected what she remembered as the early signs of pregnancy. Medically, she knew, this was impossible. Still, her period was three weeks late, and she was growing nauseous. She began shopping for baby things, pacifiers and "onesies." In early September, not at all sure what was happening to her, Cindy was at her cubicle eating lunch when she took a call from the Department of Children and Youth Services.
"You don't know me," the caseworker said. "Do you have a minute to talk to me?"
Cindy assumed she was calling to schedule yet another home study. When the woman explained that she was the LaFlammes' caseworker, Cindy replied that she already had a caseworker. The woman explained that she was the new caseworker because the nature of the case had changed.
"We have a baby for you," she said. "She's two months old, and that's all I know about her."
Later, Cindy would remember that the caseworker told her, "I know you're not listening to me anymore. Call me back when you get it together."
"So," Cindy later told me, "I'm hysterical at my desk."
Friends walked by and asked what had happened, and when she told them "Jerry and I have a baby," they asked, "When are you getting her?" Cindy first replied that she did not know and then decided to call Jerry and then the caseworker, who told Cindy that she and Jerry had best choose a name. Cindy, remembering the admonition in class that adoptive parents not change a child's name, asked what the baby was called. The caseworker reassured her that the child was known officially only as Baby Girl and to her foster parents as "sweet pea." The child, the caseworker told her, was indeed "risk-free."
The LaFlammes chose the name Samantha Elizabeth but then decided to pick a back-up, in case the child did not look like a Samantha. Cindy thought Samantha suggested a blond child with a button nose. Their name in reserve was Megan Marie.
The child had been living since shortly after her birth with Betty Lou and Louis Cortigiano, licensed foster parents. The state had not found the mother. On July 25, when the child was a month old, John Downey, the presiding judge of the Connecticut Juvenile Court in New Haven, waived the standard twelve-month statutory definition of abandonment--as the law permitted him to do--and terminated the absent mother's rights. Notice of the termination was published in the New Haven Register, as was required by law, listing the assumed name the mother gave at the hospital. It advised her that she had twenty days to appeal the judge's ruling. Twenty days passed, and she did not appear. There was no reason for the caseworker to believe she was wrong when she told Cindy LaFlamme that the child was free for adoption.
Jerry drove to Cindy's sister's house in New Jersey and picked up a crib and dresser. Cindy bought Playtex bottles and formula and worried whether she had gotten the right brands. Another caseworker called. Her name was Patricia LeMay, and she asked Cindy and Jerry to come to the department's office in nearby Hamden to complete some forms. She also had a picture of the child to show them. Patricia LeMay told them what she knew of the circumstances of the child's birth, how the mother was a woman with dark hair and appeared to be twenty, perhaps twenty-five, how she gave a false name and said that she came from Florida. The department assumed the mother panicked and fled but could not be sure because she never returned for her child.
Cindy had told Jerry's aunt and uncle and Jerry's mother but was waiting to tell her own mother about the baby. Then she saw the picture of the baby. The baby had dark hair and dark eyes. She looked nothing like a Samantha. She looked, Cindy told Jerry, like a Megan. "Now," she said, "she's real to me." Cindy felt she could call her mother to tell her about her child.
Patricia LeMay came for yet another inspection of the LaFlammes' home. She checked to make sure that they had bottles and formula. Then, a month after Cindy first got the call about the child, Patricia LeMay took them to see her. She had told the LaFlammes to bring a stuffed animal to leave behind so that the child could get accustomed to their smells, to Jerry's cigarettes and Cindy's perfume.
They saw the child for the first time late on a weekday afternoon. She was now almost four months old. Betty Lou Cortigiano wanted her husband to be home for their visit. The Cortigianos had four children of their own. The baby slept in a bassinet in their bedroom. The Cortigianos were pleased that Cindy and Jerry were Catholic.
They asked, "Are you going to bring her up Catholic?" and the LaFlammes replied that they would. They chatted for five minutes, and then Betty Lou said, "Let me go get your baby."
They stayed for two hours. Betty Lou gave the baby right to Cindy. They talked about her sleeping habits and about the foods she liked. The Cortigianos said she liked peaches and bananas. The LaFlammes wanted to know how the child reacted to the Cortigianos' dog. The LaFlammes had a cat and wanted to make sure this would not pose a problem. The Cortigianos showed them the diary they had kept of the child's life with them. It marked the first time she sat in a wading pool, the first time she went to McDonald's, and the first time she threw up on Lou. The smell of cologne made the child vomit. The LaFlammes left the stuffed animal behind. They returned the next day without Patricia LeMay. This time Cindy fed her dinner and gave her a bath. Cindy was happy because when she took the baby in her arms, the baby put Cindy's finger in her mouth.
The LaFlammes were supposed to take the baby home on the Friday of that week, but it was decided they could take her a day early. Cindy could not sleep that night. She woke Jerry and whispered, "She's coming home tomorrow."
Cindy picked out a white dress with hearts for the baby. Patricia LeMay joined them at the Cortigianos. Cindy and Jerry promised the Cortigianos that they would keep in touch. The Cortigianos took pictures of the baby and then, weeping, asked Cindy and Jerry not to linger. They took the baby to their car but could not figure out how to get her into the baby seat. Patricia LeMay helped strap her in. That night Jerry's mother came over, as did Cindy's parents and Jerry's aunt and uncle. They hung a welcome home sign outside. Cindy and Jerry fed Megan cereal and peaches for dinner and put her to bed at eight o'clock. Cindy lay awake in bed, listening to her breathing on the monitor.
Meet the Author
Michael Shapiro's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times Magazine. The author of three previous books, he teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and lives in New York with his wife, Susan Chira, and their two children.
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