"Your Honor," Darcie started "I think it would be easiest to start with the Andersen children. It is clearest as to terminating parental rights."
"I agree," Judge Riley responded. Turning toward our table she continued, "Are you Ms. Ramirez?"
Hildy stood up before she answered, "Yes, I am Your Honor."
"Would you be so kind and escort the children into my chambers? The bailiff will show you the way."
Hildy gathered all five of the boys around her and herded them after the bailiff.
"Now that is taken care of we can get down to business. Ms. Lin it is good to see you again. I presume that you are representing Mr. Johnson?" she asked more rhetorically than wanting an answer. "And you must be Mr. Johnson," she said looking straight at me or I should say looking straight through me as if she had x-ray vision.
"Ye... yes, ma'am," I stammered.
"Ms. Levin, I have read your brief concerning the incarceration of Mr. Andersen for the rest of his natural life without the possibility of parole and have prepared an order severing all of his parental rights effective immediately. He will be informed by the sheriff's office and will have thirty days to protest the order.
"Now as to the disposition of the children, Mr. Johnson are you seeking permanent custody of the four Andersen siblings or do you only want to provide foster care for them?"
"I want permanent custody and if the court sees fit I would like to adopt them as soon as I can. I believe that I can provide for all of their physical and emotional needs. You have a financial statement of my net worth and can see that I have the resources to do that. The most important thing is that I love them as if they were my own sons and I want them to be my sons. I believe that they love me as well," I said.
"Ms. Levin, what is CPS' position on the placement of the boys?" the judge asked.
"Your Honor, of the four boys, the only one who would have a reasonable chance of being adopted would be TJ, the youngest. The other three would probably remain in foster homes or a group home until they turned 18 or ran away. I believe that the only way that all four of them could remain together is if they were placed with Mr. Johnson. That is my recommendation. I realize that this is a departure from standard operating procedure for CPS. For once, I think it is best that we take the interest of the children and place them first before the bureaucratic red tape and outdated policies of the department. It is for that reason that I believe the boys should be allowed to grow up as a family in a household where they are loved and where they can be given every opportunity to reach their potential," Darcie said.
"Mr. Everett, I noticed in the hearing before Judge Frank that you did not reject or recommend that Mr. Johnson be given custody of the boys. Have you now formed an opinion?"
"Yes, Your Honor I have. I cannot support Ms. Levin in her recommendation," he responded.
"Are their legal issues that support your position?"
"Precedence, Your Honor. In the five years I have been working for CPS there have been only two occasions when children were placed with a single male and in both of those cases that person was related to the children in some way either by marriage or blood. Neither of the cases involved this many children."
"Let me get this straight," Judge Riley said sternly. "You are saying that you would rather have these boys split up and put in foster homes or group homes than have them remain together as a family with a single male?"
"That is not how I think of it. I just don't believe that we should endanger four young boys by placing them with him. Lord knows what goes on out there in the sticks where he lives. I shudder to think. We have to protect the children from the temptations of Satan. They need god fearing families to raise them in the way of the Lord. We need to find them families where they will learn strict discipline. Where they will learn to respect their elders and do as they are told. My information is that Mr. Johnson has never taken them to church even once since they have been in his custody," he said staring at me.
I could see the fire start up in the judge's eyes when she said "This opinion of yours couldn't have been affected by the stinging rebuke that Judge Yates gave both to you and Ms. Gehrig as the result of the last hearing would it?"
"No... I..," he sputtered.
"Sit down Mr. Everett. Don't make a fool of yourself. I don't want to hear that 'religious' claptrap from you again. In my time on the bench I have seen what your so-called 'religious' families can do and believe me it is not always a pleasant sight.
"Mr. Johnson is there a reason why you have not taken the children to a church?" she asked turning to me.
"No, Your Honor, I am not a religious person in the sense that I am a church going person. My parents raised me to believe that to be a good person you did not need to attend a church or believe in any particular religious document or dogma. What made a good person was when you believed in the worth of the individual and rights of others. This idea is embodied in the writings of all three major religions. The so called 'golden rule' probably expresses it as succinctly as any.
"I have never denied the boys the opportunity to attend church with Hildy. In fact, she asks the boys every Sunday if they want to attend church with her. So far they have not accepted her invitation. If they wanted to go I would encourage them. If they don't want to go I will not force them. I believe that it is more important to provide a good role model for them than to force some religious dogma on them. However, if the court ordered me to take them to church as a requirement for keeping them I would do so," I said.
"No, this court would never do that. I think that would overstep the boundary that separates church from state although some of my colleagues have differing views. I agree that a positive role model is far more important. I'm going to talk to the children. We will be in recess until I have finished" she said and quickly strode to her chambers.
I wish that I could have been in the room with the boys. The wait was agonizingly long. At least it seemed to be. Darcie, Karen Lin, Jack and I sat around and talked. Gary Everett sat by himself sulking at the other table.
It wasn't forever, it just seemed that way before Judge Riley and Hildy entered the courtroom surrounded by the five boys. The boys rushed to our table and sat down but not before we had a six way hug.
Judge Riley took her place and the bailiff called the court to order. It took a minute or so to get the boys calmed down before she started speaking.
"I have talked to all of the boys. I have read all of the briefs submitted to the court by all parties. I have listened to the parties involved. I have also spoken to Ms. Ramirez whose opinion I give great weight. Now as to the matter of the four minor Andersen children it is the order of this court that they remain in the custody of Mr. Johnson on a permanent basis. If at the end of 90 days from today Mr. Johnson is still willing to adopt them, this court will entertain a petition for their adoption and will consider it favorably. My clerk will prepare all the necessary paperwork for my signature to make the custody arrangements permanent. Are there any questions?"
No one spoke up but I could see that Gary was getting much redder in the face. I was ecstatic over her announcement but what she had said did not seem to sink in on the boys. I had hoped so hard and had done things like enrolling the boys in Corinthian Academy in the belief that things would work out that now I was overcome with relief. But we were not finished. Chris' custody arrangement was still to be determined.
"Ms. Ramirez I think that the boys would enjoy a snack about this time. Would you please take them to the snack bar and get them some ice cream?"
"Of course I will. Come along boys. Let's get your snack," Hildy said.
She hardly had the words out of her mouth when the boys were literally pushing her out the courtroom door.
"Now in the matter of Christopher Mathew Martin, the parental rights issue is not as clear cut. Although both of his parents are currently in jail, it is not the judgment of this court that the offences are of such gravity that their rights can automatically be revoked. I am aware that they did desert the child and seemingly only returned for him when it was discovered that he was a beneficiary of his aunt's will.
"The papers filed with this court do not spell out just how much the inheritance is for Christopher. Is there any information on the exact terms of the will of his aunt?" she asked.
"Your Honor, I received some preliminary information just before I came to court that I have not had time to prepare for the court. The information that I have learned from contacts in Ohio is that the estate is worth between $5.5 and $6.0 million before taxes and other fees. His aunt was prepared for her own death and was also acutely aware of her sister and brother in-law's attitude and treatment of Chris. She placed most of her liquid assets in a trust fund for Chris with the provision that her sister or her husband never have any control over it. As I understand it the executor has the authority to appoint the trustee to oversee the trust. Also any monies left over after the sale of the real property and payment of the duties and fees is to be placed in the trust. I have the name of the executor and his contact information and will provide it to the court."
"Yes, please give that name to my clerk and thank you for that information."
"Ms. Levin, what is your recommendation for the custody of Chris Martin?"
"Although I do have some concerns about placing Chris with Mr. Johnson, it is not because I feel Mr. Johnson would not make a good foster parent for Chris. On the contrary, I believe that he would be an excellent foster parent. My concern is only the number of children that he is taking on," she said.
"Have you talked to Chris about his feelings?"
"Yes I have."
"He is adamant about wanting to stay where he is. He told me that it is the only place he has ever been where nobody yelled at him all the time. He has strongly indicated that he was verbally abused and harassed by his parents for as long as he can remember. The other boys love him as if he were one of their brothers and I know that he loves them in return."
"Mr. Johnson, how do you feel about taking on a fifth child?"
"I really didn't notice that much difference when he first came to live with us. I was just getting used to the other four and it didn't seem like there was that much more impact between having four boys than there was with five. He fits in well with the others. The only real difference I notice is in the grocery bills," I said.
"Are you saying that you are willing to take responsibility for raising him at least temporarily?"
"Yes, Your Honor I am."
"From my speaking with him I believe that removing him from your home would be a traumatic experience for him that I would not like to inflict. This court orders that Christopher Mathew Martin remain in your custody until such time as the rights of his parents are terminated or their custodial rights are reinstated. I sincerely doubt that will happen in this court. I will also have the executor of his aunt's estate informed that you are to be named as the trustee for his trust fund with the additional stipulation that all monies expended from it be reported to this court monthly. You are ordered by this court to expend the money in a fiscally responsible manner. I will not hesitate to hold you in contempt if I believe that the money is being mishandled. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Your Honor. As far as I am concerned there will be no money taken out of the trust until he starts college or goes out on his own. I will raise him and pay his expenses the same way I plan to pay for the other boys," I told her. "I will have my accountant provide you with the status of the trust monthly. I will actively manage the assets with the intention of increasing the value of it over time as I do my own money."
"Good luck, Mr. Johnson, I will see you in 90 days if you are still intent on adopting the Andersen boys," Judge Riley said. "If there are no other matters to bring before this court we will stand adjourned."
Everyone shook hands except for Everett. He stormed out of the courtroom like he had been shot out of a cannon. When I enquired of Darcie how Eric was coming along with his move to San Antonio she responded that he would be in town on Wednesday to begin looking for a place to live. In the mean time he would be living with her.
"He really liked the country atmosphere at your place and wondered if you knew of any property that was for sale in the area," she said.
"As a matter of fact the property one place removed from mine just went up for sale over the weekend. I think the property is around five acres but I don't know the condition of the house or the asking price. I met the owners a year or so ago. They are an older couple in their late 70's or early 80's who were talking of moving into San Antonio to an assisted living housing project when I met them. I'm sure there are others in the area also. He should contact one of the local realtors if he is interested in moving to the lake area," I said not wanting to sound too anxious.
We left the courtroom and had started down the hall toward the snack bar when I spotted Hildy and the boys. They saw us at the same time and broke into a run and all five of them tried to jump into my arms at once.
"Do we really get to stay with you forever and ever?" TJ asked excitedly.
"Yeah?" came a chorus from the others.
"Hildy said we did. Didn't she?" TJ continued.
"Yes she did," Joel said.
"Okay, let me explain what the judge said. She said that Joel, Larry, Lenny and you, TJ, are now officially and permanently my foster sons. Chris you are my foster son also. I don't like it but someday, maybe, when your parents get out of jail you might have to go back to them. I will do everything I can to prevent that from happening. But that won't happen for several years, so don't you worry. You are all my sons now," I said with pride.
I gathered all of them into a big hug and kissed each one of them on the tops of their head. Hildy was standing several feet from us with tears flooding down her cheeks.
"Are you our dad now? Really?" Lenny asked.
"Yes, I guess I am," I replied.
"Can we call you daddy?" Larry asked.
"Yeah, can we?" the rest chimed in.
My eyes were clouded with tears and my voice failed me. All I could do was nod my head.
We spent the afternoon after we got home going over the lessons that the boys had missed at school that day. Since there were three in the same grade it wasn't all that bad but I was pooped by the time we were finished. I was more than relieved when Hildy called us and told the boys to get washed up for supper. She apologized for not having one of her usual feasts prepared for us. I thought it was great and so did the boys from the way they devoured the pork chops, dressing with brown gravy and baked beans. Dessert was a peach cobbler topped with whipped cream.
After their showers I went to tuck the boys into bed. Chris and the twins were first. As usual they were all in the same bed.
"Chris, are you sure that you don't want your own bed? We do have that spare bedroom," I said.
"No, I like sleeping with Larry and Lenny," he replied.
"What about if you guys each had your own bed but were in the same room. How would you like that?" I asked.
"But how would we get three beds in this room?" Larry asked.
"I wasn't thinking about this room. You know that I am going to have the upstairs remodeled and there is plenty of room to make a big room where you could each have a bed. You would still be together but you would each have your own space," I said trying to make it sound as good as I could. I really thought that it would allow them to have a better night's sleep if they were not all in the same bed. Whenever I would check on them after they had gone to sleep they would be a mass of arms and legs all intertwined. I know I could never be comfortable that way. What if you had to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? How would you get untangled before you had an accident?
"Okay," Lenny said not totally convinced.
"We'll talk about it some more later," I said and gave each of them their goodnight kiss and tucked them in.
I went into TJ and Joel's room to say goodnight to them. I wanted to see if they would like separate bedrooms but really didn't know how to approach the subject knowing how dependent TJ was on Joel. I knew at sometime Joel would want his own space. All teenagers do. Anyway I chickened out and didn't bring up the subject. I just said goodnight, gave them a kiss on the forehead and tucked them in.
The rest of the week went by rather quickly. I talked briefly with Eric on Wednesday when he got into town. He was curious about the place down the road that was for sale. I gave him the realtor's number that was on the sign and offered him any assistance I could to make his transition to San Antonio go smoothly. Friday evening I received a call from Bruce Gordinier, the father of Joel's friend John. He wanted to make sure that I was aware that Joel had invited John to visit on Saturday. When I confirmed that I was he was much relieved.
"John doesn't have many friends," he said hesitantly. "He is very shy, but every since Joel has started going to Corinthian he seems to be coming out of his shell. I'm glad that he has found a friend."
"I am too. Joel doesn't have many friends either. He and his brothers have just recently been placed in my custody so he hasn't had much of a chance to make friends," I said. "I don't know what time Joel said for John to come, but I think if he were here around 9:30 or 10:00 that would be about right. If you don't have any other plans I will bring him home after we have supper. That would probably be around 8:00. Does that sound alright?"
"Yes that is fine. I hope he will not be any trouble," he said.
"No, I'm sure he won't. With five other boys, counting Joel, I'm sure he will have a great time. Be sure to send his swim suit. The boys I know will want to go swimming at least part of the day. Do you know how to get here?" I asked.
When he said he did not, I gave him direction and told him we would see them tomorrow around 9:30 or so.
Saturday morning Joel was nervously waiting for John to show up. At nine-thirty he turned on the security cameras at the gate and didn't take his eyes off the screen until a car drove up at ten minutes to ten. He was out of the house like a shot after he hit the gate release. He hardly waited until the car came to rest before he had his hand on the door latch trying to open John's door. When the door opened he grabbed his friend by the arm and started toward the house.
"Joel, haven't you forgotten something?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm sorry Uncle Cra... I mean dad. This is my friend John. This is my new dad," he said to John.
"Hi, Mr. Andersen. That's my dad, too," John said to Joel pointing to the man getting out of the driver's side of the car.
"Hi, Mr. Gordinier," Joel said and again grabbed John's arm and headed toward the house.
I just shook my head at the two as they ran. Turning back to John's dad I said, "Mr. Gordinier. I'm Crane Johnson. It's nice to meet you. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?"
"It's good to meet you also. It's Bruce. I don't want to pry but is Joel your step-son?" he asked looking confused. "I noticed that John called you Mr. Andersen."
"No, Joel and his brothers are my foster sons. Their last name is Andersen. I also have another foster son, Chris Martin. It is a long story. Let's go have a cup of coffee and I'll tell you about," I said as I led him into the house.
I found out that Bruce and his wife had four children, one boy, John, and three girls. John was the oldest at 13. The girls were 10, 8 and 7 years old. We talked for nearly an hour before he excused himself to go back to his house. I got directions from him on how to get to their place and told him I would have John home by eight.
All six of the boys were outside playing a game of softball (of sorts). Lenny was pitching and the other boys were trying to hit his pitches without much success. TJ was content to chase any foul balls that the others managed to hit. I decided it would be more fun for them if I pitched and at least gave them the satisfaction of hitting a ball. I think that we all enjoyed the game but were just as happy when Hildy called us to get washed up for lunch. She didn't need to call twice.
After lunch Joel took John to see the video games that he had begun to accumulate. Of course the rest of the boys followed and kibitzed from the back as they played. This soon lost their interest and they drifted away to play with other toys. This gave me the opportunity to talk to Joel and John alone.
I made small talk with the boys for a while before broaching the topic that I really wanted to talk to them about. Finally I thought that John was comfortable with me so I dove right in.
"John, Joel has told me that you and he kissed each other the other day. Is that right?" I asked.
The reaction that I got was not one that I expected although I should have been prepared for it. John broke down in tears and curled up in a ball not unlike what Joel did when he discovered me drinking whiskey. I had been sitting on Joel's bed talking to the boys who were sitting on the floor.
Responding to John's reaction I joined them on the floor and cradled him in my arm. "It's alright. Don't be afraid. Nothing is going to happen to you. There is nothing to be afraid of."
Joel joined in holding John. "My dad said we didn't do anything wrong. Please don't cry, Please."
"Joel is right John. You didn't do anything wrong but I do want to talk to both of you about it. Is that alright?" I asked as his crying slowed down and he uncurled slightly. "That's better. Now then, kissing each other is not wrong! Having said that there are a lot of people who would not understand when two boys kiss. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Getting two nods I continued, "It is very important for boys of your age to be like every other boy your age. That is called peer pressure. Most boys of your age do not kiss another boy. Am I right?"
Again I received two nods. "If some of the other boys at school saw you kiss each other, what do you think they might do? Would they tease you or make fun of you?"
This time John responded, "Yeah, I guess."
"Would you like that?" I asked.
"No," John said.
"Well, what do you two think you should do if you don't want to be teased or made fun of?"
Joel responded this time, "I guess, maybe we shouldn't do it at school,"
"How do you feel about what Joel said?" I asked.
"Okay, I guess. Other boys tease me anyway 'cause I don't talk much and some times have a hard time making the words come out of my mouth," he said. "We can still be friends, can't we?"
"Of course you can be friends. You are welcome in our home any time. I'm glad that Joel has made a friend at school and I'm glad that it is you. Now, why don't you guys get into your swim suits and let's get in the pool," I said getting up from the floor.
"You won't tell my dad, will you?" John pleaded.
"No, but you might want to talk to your mom or dad about the way you feel toward Joel. But that is your business," I told him.
All of the boys seemed to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. We swam and played water tag and generally wore ourselves out in the water. Hildy fixed ice cream with sliced peaches for their afternoon snack. My boys were used to getting hugs from me any time and for no particular reason. John first thought it was a little strange but before the day was over he too was receptive to the hugs I gave him.
"Thanks Mr. Ander... I mean Mr. Johnson my dad hardly ever gives me a hug. I know he loves me. He just doesn't hug me. I wish he would," John said the last time I gave him a hug.
"Maybe if you gave him a hug he would feel comfortable hugging you. Do you think that might work?" I suggested more than asked. "You know some boys your age don't want their parents to show affection toward them, especially in public. They think it makes them look like sissies. I don't agree with that. I think it feels good to give hugs and even better to get them."
The boys stuffed themselves on Hildy's supper. It's a good thing we didn't have a dog that depended on table scraps because there were very few that were ever left after a meal.
Joel and I took John and started for his house shortly after 7:30. They were as animated as they were when John first arrived. I was very pleased that Joel had found a friend outside of his brothers. I wasn't sure that I was completely pleased with all aspects of the friendship but that was only because I didn't want to see Joel hurt in any way. He had been hurt enough in his short life. I knew I couldn't always protect him from everything but I sure wanted to protect him from as much as I could.
John and his family lived not to far from Rebecca Creek Golf Course in a very nice neighborhood. It only took us about 15 minutes to get there from our house. It was starting to get dark as we drove up and the front porch light was on. Bruce and a woman I assumed was his wife came out of the house as we exited the car.
John ran and threw his arms around a very surprised father, "I had the greatest time. Can I go again?"
"Whoa, John don't you think you should wait to be invited?" Bruce said.
"But, Joel asked me. He really did," John said.
Bruce looked up at me still a little surprised and then realized that he had not introduced his wife, "Crane this is my wife Pauline. Honey, this is Crane Johnson - Joel's foster dad."
We exchanged pleasantries before I responded to John's request of his dad to visit us again, "We would be happy to have John visit us again. Maybe next time we could go out on the boat and do a little fishing. My boys love the lake and think it is great fun to fish. They are actually getting pretty good at it."
"That's very kind of you," Pauline said. "We would like for Joel to visit us also. With three sisters, Johnny doesn't get to do boy things very often. And there are no other families near us that have children his age."
"We'll have to do that" I said. "Joel, say goodbye to John. We need to get back home. It was nice meeting you, Pauline."
"Thank you Mr. Johnson," John said as he threw his arms around me. "I had a great time."
"I enjoyed your visit. You are welcome to come back any time," I said as I gave him a hug.
We waved goodbye to the speechless Gordiniers as we drove out of the driveway. Joel reached over and squeezed my arm. "Thanks for being nice to John. He really likes you 'cause you talk to him like he's not a baby. You're a great dad. I love you."
"I love you too, son. I'm glad that you have a new friend," I said and gave his shoulder a pat.