By her own count, Katherine Wheatfall has provided a foster home for about 50 children since 1999. She’s about as seasoned a foster parent as one can imagine.
But when siblings Angel and Gene—8 and 6, respectively—went to live with her, in the fall of 2011, she encountered two children unlike any she had met before.
“When they first came here, we couldn’t ride an elevator or escalator. I couldn’t take them to church. I couldn’t take them to the mall,” Katherine explains. “They had just been kept in the house, not going anyplace, not doing the things normal children do.”
Their mother had been incapacitated for years after the death of another of her children in a fiery car accident. Unable to care for herself, she struggled to meet her kids’ most basic needs.
So by the time Angel and Gene were taken out of her custody, they were unique even among kids in the dependency court system. Both had been diagnosed with autism and mental retardation. Neither could speak in any meaningful way, or use the bathroom, or leave the house on their own. They had never even been to school. They were among the hardest children to place in foster care.
In Los Angeles County, finding a foster home for even a single child can be difficult. Finding one for siblings is even more remote. But finding a home for siblings with special needs is an Olympian task. Angel and Gene got very lucky.
“I feel like if you bring children into your home, there’s been a problem in their past or they wouldn’t have ended up with you,” Katherine says. “They need you to accept them unconditionally, as your family member. And that’s the way I accepted Angel and Gene.”
And they soon flourished in her care. Over the next nine months, they began attending school, learned to use the bathroom, and became comfortable on car rides and walks around the mall. They even joined Katherine on cruises—one of her favorite pastimes since retiring from the postal service.
“It wasn’t easy. I had to learn a lot,” Katherine says. “But through trials and tribulations—and love—I believe I won them over. And I believe they got me, too.”
So in July 2012, Angel and Gene’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Danielle Hanne, felt confident recommending Katherine’s home as a permanent placement. The kids’ mother wasn’t visiting them and there were no other family members responding to the social worker’s efforts to place them.
But when Danielle arrived for the court hearing, this happy and very unlikely ending suddenly seemed to have been scuttled.
The children’s father—who had never lived with the family and hadn’t seen them in around two years—heard the kids were in foster care and decided he wanted them to live with him and his girlfriend. He wasn’t present when they were removed from their mother’s custody, however, and, due to an administrative error, his legal custody had not been terminated.
Danielle could see that there was no legal reason to deny the father custody of Angel and Gene and that he could walk out with them that very day.
“It was one of those times,” she remembers, “when you wondered what would have happened if there hadn’t been a CASA there to speak for them.”
Although this was her first case as a CASA, Danielle understood the stakes all too well. A former special education teacher, she had been handpicked for Angel and Gene by her Senior Program Coordinator at CASA of Los Angeles because of her expertise in working with children with special needs.
“If the kids had gone with the father, they would have lost their placement with Katherine,” Danielle says frankly. “Foster homes like hers are in high demand, so if that placement doesn’t work out and they get re-detained, where would they go? Where could they go?”
So she advocated for them to be transitioned into the father’s care. It was a maneuver to keep the kids with Katherine for as long as possible while giving the father time to build a relationship with Angel and Gene and demonstrate he was fit to be the custodial parent of two kids with very special needs.
Alas, he didn’t. Over the next year, time and again the father failed to meet the requirements placed on him by the court. So in July 2013, the judge on the case decided neither biological parent was an option for placement. Family reunification would be terminated for both of them. It looked like Katherine would finally gain legal guardianship of Angel and Gene.
But like so many epic stories, this one had a false ending.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which originally removed the children from their mother’s care, refused to recommend the children remain with Katherine. She was pursuing guardianship and not adoption, and DCFS, to its credit, always seeks to have foster children adopted.
So again the court would look to Danielle to speak for the children when they couldn’t speak for themselves.
“I wrote a six-page report making the case for placing the kids with Katherine as their legal guardian,” she says. “But the judge probably didn’t need much more convincing. She had been reading my reports for almost two years.”
At last, at a hearing last September, the judge agreed with Danielle and overrode DCFS’s recommendation. This family would stay together, and Katherine would become Angel and Gene’s legal guardian.
As the kids, now 11 and 9 respectively, arrive home from school one afternoon in December, they’re greeted with kisses from Katherine on the front porch. Angel eagerly asks for something to eat, while Gene remains in the front yard, waving to the school bus until it’s out of sight.
“These kids can go anywhere now,” Katherine says. “They’re not the same kids.”