King Solomon’s Baby
It was an unusually warm October in Brooklyn; the men had switched their puffy coats for crisp white tank tops, and the young mothers pried back the plastic casings on their strollers. All two thousand people from the Roosevelt housing projects seemed to be tumbling outdoors, leaning on cars or gathering at the bodegas, slanting their faces toward the sun to soak in the last bits of warmth before winter. You couldn’t tell, on a clear morning like this, that the Roosevelt Houses still tipped the scales in the 81st Precinct with their homicide rates, that by nightfall the bodegas would fill with toothless addicts buying loosies for a quarter. A bright morning like this could make anybody grateful.
Slicing through the center of these projects is DeKalb Avenue, with its run of single-family homes and middle-class aspirations. But that fall, one of these houses stayed locked up tight against the sunshine. The eleven kids, most of them teenagers, weren’t allowed to go outdoors. In that house, in that family, outside spelled temptation, and besides, it was the Sabbath. So the kids, sequestered in their jewel-colored Nikes and their tight jeans, had to swallow their frustration and excess energy like a belly full of bees.
The house on DeKalb had a history. One hundred and twenty years before any Nike sneakers thumped up its three long staircases, and sixty years before the projects rose across the street, the place had been an evangelical “House of Rest.” Such houses dotted the East Coast at the turn of the century to provide divine healing along with rest, teaching, and “spiritual quickening” for the sick or the wayward. In a way, the essence of the place had reemerged. In a way, beyond the stone lions that flanked the stoop and behind the beveled glass front door, a kind of holy crusade was revving up.
Bruce Green, a tall black man of forty with round cheeks and a quick smile, had bought the house on DeKalb in 1999. He grew up in the Roosevelt projects on his block, and most of his children are foster kids, raised on the same rough street diet he was—in Brooklyn, or Queens, or the Bronx. His wife, Allyson, is from Belize, and, although she may be more stridently religious than he is, they both wanted a large home to raise a large family, to protect their children against the many dangers of their city through the power of their God and their unwavering attention. What they didn’t expect was that their children would come directly from the city itself, and that they’d be embroiled in several battles that would test their faith in just about everything.
The latest and largest battle was over a baby, born to a mother addicted to drugs and delivered to the Green family, after placements with a few other foster parents, when he was just over a year old. When I met baby Allen that Sunday some years ago, he was two and a half, and his biological father, also a former addict, was working with the courts to win him back. And at the core of this battle spun the core questions of foster care itself: Who decides the correct way to raise a child? Who makes the moves on the moral chessboard where a family’s right to privacy opposes a child’s right to protection from harm? And who should get to keep a child: the parents who nurse and tend him, or the parents who brought him into the world?
At the beginning, Allyson put the quandary in biblical terms. She told me the story of King Solomon.
In the story, two mothers are arguing over a single baby; both women believe the child to be hers. King Solomon procures a sword and offers to cut the baby in half so they can share. One mother agrees to the deal, but the second pleads: she’d rather have the baby alive and with the other woman than dead. Allyson is this second mother—she knows that if Allen were remanded to his birth father, destructive as this father may be, she’d rather have Allen physically and spiritually alive than eventually feeling imprisoned with her. Plus, she knows all of her foster children understand that if they leave, they can always come back. Allyson will always be “Mom.” She hopes, in fact, that some of the other birth parents orbiting the Green household can make bigger strides and do right by their kids.
“I was blessed to have four children of my own, that I gave birth to,” Allyson said, her thick Belizean accent pounding her harder consonants. Allyson is four years older than Bruce, and she’s pretty; makeup rarely graces her chocolate skin, but her hair is straightened and highlighted and it falls in loose waves down the fitted blazers and silky blouses she wears, even on warm days. Next to Bruce’s baggy jeans and T-shirts, Allyson’s leather boots and stockings render her the sophisticate at first glance. But she’s the one doing the dirty work: changing diapers and making dinner, wiping up the endless spills. “Then you have this other parent, who’s been through hell and back—the dad, the mom, any one of them—say they want to turn their lives around. It would be very inappropriate of me when I have the right to raise my own children to not give him that fair chance. Why would I want to take away his one little thing when I’ve got four of my own?”
But that was at the beginning. That was back in the fall, when the case with Allen’s dad was still theoretical and it looked as if the courts would lean in Allyson’s favor.
Bruce and Allyson fell into foster care the way anyone falls into the traumas or miracles of their lives: by a mix of happenstance and hope. The year was 2000, and they already had three kids of their own at home—two little boys, Jalil and Bruce Junior, and a daughter named Sekina who was just becoming a teenager. (Allyson’s other son, born to a different father, was back in Belize.) Then one night, they got a phone call from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS)—the organization that handles child welfare for the five boroughs of New York. Bruce’s sister’s kids, then two and four, were being removed from their home; it wasn’t safe for them to even stay the night. Could Bruce and Allyson take them? Of course, they said. Anyone would.
Bruce, who looks a little like Jay-Z with his bald head and soft jaw, stayed pretty private about the exact circumstances surrounding his sister’s ordeal, but typically, this is the way a child is removed:
First, anyone who suspects abuse (by seeing marks, hearing shouts, noticing absence from school, and so on) can call a hotline. There are certain “mandated reporters”—doctors, police officers, teachers, daycare workers, and social workers, mainly—who are legally obligated to make these calls, but really, anyone can do it. The local city or county agency sends an investigator to the house to interview the parents and the kids, and to look around the rooms. A child abuse investigator can enter anyone’s home at any time without a warrant.
Usually, the investigator just opens a file on the family and follows up on anything that seems suspicious or untoward on that first visit, but if the parents pose an immediate danger, he can take the kids then and there. This is what happened with Bruce’s nephews.
Then the investigator has to find a place for the kids to go. He brings them back to the office, where a social worker starts making calls—usually to family members. In child welfare-speak, ...