The day I dreaded was finally here, Thursday, the day of the hearing to decide the fate of the boys. How did I get myself into this situation? Why couldn't I have just minded my own business instead of reaching out to a boy who needed help? These questions and a thousand more raced through my mind. I knew the answer to all of them. It was because I was a soft touch. I couldn't say no to helping kids, just like I couldn't say no to Jack when he asked me to help with his little league team.
There are times when I wish I could be a calloused bastard and say no, but I can't. It is a character defect that I can't overcome.
I tried to downplay the hearing to the boys as they got ready for school, but I knew they were worried. Hildy reminded the twins and TJ that she would pick them up at 11:30 to take them to San Antonio. As usual, I drove them down to the end of the lane to catch the bus.
It started to rain as they stepped on the bus and waved goodbye to me. I hope this is not an omen of things to come. My mood was dark enough without the weather adding to it.
Paul arrived to start Joel's lessons giving me two hours to fret before Benjamin Cross was due to discuss strategy for the hearing. To fill the time I went over my notes that explained why I thought that the boys should be allowed to stay with me if I was called upon to present my case. I didn't want to forget anything so I made copious notes on three by five cards.
At nine o'clock, Joel got his first break from his tutoring. Paul came into the kitchen to get a glass of water and to talk to me.
"Joel is usually so sharp in class, but today his mind seems to be somewhere else. Is there something going on that would cause this distraction?" he asked.
"Yes, I don't doubt that he is a little bit distracted today," I replied. "We have a hearing this afternoon to determine whether he and his brothers will be able to remain here with me or be returned to CPS and placed lord knows where."
"I'm sure that's it. By the way, is this an open hearing? Can anyone attend?" Paul asked.
"I don't know. My lawyer should be here in an hour and I can ask him. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I don't know. I thought maybe Joel would like to see another friendly face there. It might make it less stressful if he knew that there were more people who cared what happened to him and were there to support him. You see, I have grown very fond of Joel both as a student and as a wonderful young man. He has great potential and I would hate to see that potential go to waste or be crushed.
"I have personal knowledge of the foster care system in Texas. I was in five different foster homes before I was placed in one where I was loved. In between, I was in their so-called 'group home'. No one deserves that. If there is anything that I can do to help, please let me know," he said with a fire in his eyes that I had never seen before.
"Thanks, I appreciate that. I'll ask Benjamin if you can attend the hearing. If you can, it is in courtroom number 3 in the Bexar County Court House in front of Judge Frank at 1:00," I said.
The gate buzzer sounded a few minutes before ten. The security camera showed a very large black Cadillac waiting to be let in. I activated the electronic gate and the car glided through it toward the house. The only person that this could be was Benjamin.
I stepped out on the front porch as an expensively dressed man who appeared to be about 40 exited the car or more properly limousine.
"I'm Crane Johnson. You must be Benjamin Cross," I said extending my hand to him.
"Yes, it is good to meet you," he said shaking my extended hand in a firm grip. "You have a beautiful place here. I envy you. I live in a high rise condo in downtown Austin."
"Thank you, I enjoy it. This was my parents' vacation home," I told him as we entered the house. "Would you like a cup of coffee? I think Hildy just made a fresh pot."
"Yes, that would be great. Why don't we use the kitchen table? I have a number of papers to show you and to get your signature. That way we can spread them out. Also, may I use your restroom?" he asked.
"Right through there. I'll pour the coffee," I said.
Joel was just coming out of the study on his second break between class sessions when Benjamin returned to the kitchen.
"Joel, I'd like for you to meet Mr. Cross. Mr. Cross this is Joel. Mr. Cross is the lawyer I told you about. He is going to help us," I said.
"Hi, Mr. Cross, are you really going to make the judge let us stay here? Please!" he said as his voice cracked.
"I am sure going to try my best. Do you and your brothers like living here?" Benjamin asked.
"Oh, yes!" he almost yelled. "Uncle Crane is the best! He never hits us or nothing and never locks us up in the closet."
"Okay, Joel, why don't you get a couple of brownies that Hildy made and a glass of milk and take them into the study? Mr. Cross and I have some business to take care of. Maybe you can read a little of your book before Paul starts his next lesson." I knew that food and his book were irresistible temptations for him.
Turning to Benjamin I said "Paul Coulter, Joel's tutor, was asking if the hearing would be open. I told him I would ask you. Is it?"
"That is up to Judge Frank. Most of the time they are open to the public. There are parts that will be closed especially if the children are on the stand. Mr. Coulter would probably be allowed even in those since he is by his position as tutor an interested party. At least I think we could make that case. Again, everything that goes on in that court room is at the sufferance of the judge," he said.
We spent the next hour going over a stack of papers. Very few of them I had any idea what they were. I was paying this guy an awful lot of money and I sure hoped that he knew what they were for. By the time Hildy came in with the boys' change of clothes my head was swimming and I needed a break.
I introduced Hildy as my cook, housekeeper, and nanny for the boys as well a surrogate mother for me.
Hildy blushed but said to Benjamin "If that damn judge doesn't let my boys stay here he is an idiot and you can quote me. You just make it happen!"
"I will try my best," he gulped very much taken aback by not only her words but her overpowering presence.
"Wow! Now there goes a woman I would not like to cross," he chuckled as she left to pick up the boys.
"She has a heart of gold and loves the boys as much as I do. They adore her, too," I said.
We went back to work, but this time discussed possible outcomes of the hearing and how we would react. After about an hour I was convinced that we had done a thorough 'threat analysis'. At least that is what we could call it in my business.
I peeked in the study to see how the tutoring was going just as they were breaking. "Paul, I hate to cut you short again but Joel needs to get dressed for the hearing. We have to leave in half an hour to meet his brothers at 12:30. I hope that one of these days things will settle down to a semblance of normalcy."
"That's okay. We are ahead of my lesson plans anyway. It is alright with you if I attend the hearing isn't it? I don't want to butt in. However, I would like to be there," he said.
"No, by all means, you are welcome to be there. We may need another friendly face. Thanks," I replied.
I normally don't wear a suit unless I was making a presentation to client management but thought it would be a good idea to wear one today. Joel looked sharp in his dark blue blazer and tan slacks. He had a tie slipped under the collar of his white shirt but had not tied it.
"Uncle Crane, can you tie this tie? Hildy showed me yesterday but I can't make it do it today," he almost whimpered.
"Yes, come here and let me do it. You look so handsome all dressed up like this," I told him. "Hildy made some sandwiches before she left. I think we have time for some before we leave, that is if you are hungry. Benjamin you are welcome to help yourself. Hildy always makes enough for an army."
He declined saying he was meeting a colleague for a quick bite before court. Joel did not decline. He grabbed the sandwiches out of the refrigerator while I got out the chips and milk and poured him a glass.
Joel was very quiet all the way into San Antonio. Neither one of us had much to say. I tried to make small talk but gave up realizing that he needed to think. The rain we had earlier had nearly stopped by the time we arrived. It was still as dreary as my mood.
That is until we got to the court house and I saw the twins and TJ. My mood brightened immediately as they rushed up and gave Joel and me a group hug.
"Hildy said we had to get our clothes changed," TJ said.
"Well let's go do it. You grab your clothes and we'll find the restroom so you can change," I told him.
They nearly ripped the clothes out of Hildy's hands in their rush. We headed to the restroom for what I knew was going to be a circus. When we got in I tried to settle them down and only succeeded slightly.
"TJ let's start with you. Go into this stall and get undressed. I'll hand you your clothes and help you get dressed," I said. We had taken the last stall away from the door so it was fairly private and the restroom was not very busy.
"Alright, Larry, you go next. I don't think there is room for both you and Lenny in there at the same time.
"Come here TJ let me tie your tie.
"Lenny, it's your turn. Larry let me fix your tie.
"Okay, Lenny, your tie is next.
"You boys look so handsome. I wish I had brought a camera," I said with a lump in my throat. "Take your other clothes to Hildy. She'll put them in the car for you."
Hildy took off with the boys clothes while we found the court room. We had a few minutes to wait before one o'clock so I sat down on the bench outside the door. TJ climbed up on my lap and laid his head on my chest. The twins sat on one side and Joel on the other. I reached out and put my arm around the twins and the other around Joel.
"It's going to be alright, guys. Whatever happens, you know that I will always love you," I said softly.
"We love you too Uncle Crane," Joel whispered.
Benjamin Cross and another man came walking down the hall. "Crane, this is Gary Everett. He is the attorney for CPS."
We exchanged formalities all the while TJ was still sitting on my lap not seeming to want to lose contact with me.
At that moment the bailiff called us to come into the courtroom.
"Okay, guys let's go in and get this over with. Remember what I told you. Just be the great boys that Hildy and I love," I said putting on my bravest face and kissing them on the tops of their heads.
Hildy and Paul Coulter arrived almost at the same time. I think Hildy ran to and from the car because she was out of breath as she sat down in the front row behind us. Theresa and Joyce came in right behind them and took their place at the other table with Gary Everett.
The bailiff called the court to order and announced Judge Frank. I was a bit taken aback at the sight of him. The best way to describe him is he could have been a body double for the late actor W.C. Fields. The judge's most distinguishing feature was his large bulbous nose. When he opened his mouth and started to speak that's where the similarity ended. His "southern accent" was a caricature of the soft mellifluous accent usually associated with this part of Texas.
"Y'all take your seats. I like to run these hearing very informally. For the record will the counsels identify themselves to the court," the judge said.
"Your honor, I am Gary Everett representing CPS."
"Your honor, I am Benjamin Cross representing Crane Johnson."
"Yes, I remember you now. You're that fancy lawyer from Austin, ain't you?
"Very well, let's get started. This hearing is to decide the placement of four minor children identified as: Joel Jay Andersen age 12, Lawrence Jay Andersen age 9, Leonard Jay Andersen also age 9, and Timothy Jay Andersen age 6.
"Bailiff, escort the children into my chambers while we sort out a few details?" he ordered.
The boys looked at me with a slightly frightened expression on their face. "It's alright. Don't worry I'll be right here. Okay?" I said smiling and trying to assuage their fears.
I kept smiling all the time the boys were being led away. My fears did not disappear but I did feel better when I saw a smiling female bailiff as the door opened into the judge's chamber.
"Mr. Everett, please outline for the court the reason these children are under CPS supervision," the judge said.
"Your honor, the complete details of how the children came under CPS jurisdiction is covered in the brief filed with the court. It boils down to the mother was murdered and the father is in jail charged with robbing a convenience store and is under investigation for the murder of his wife. As far as we can determine there are no close relative with whom the children can be placed. Mr. Johnson has had temporary custody as an emergency certified foster parent of the four youngsters. He has submitted all the required paperwork and references requesting to be permitted to continue custody of the children," Everett said.
"And what is CPS' position on allowing Mr. Johnson to continue custody?" Judge Frank asked.
"Although Mr. Johnson has the financial wherewithal to meet all of the requirements of custody and his references all check out and give him glowing recommendations, it has not been the custom of CPS to place minors in the custody of a single male."
"Does that mean you do not approve of extending the custody arrangement?"
"No, CPS simply does not oppose the request for custody. We also do not support it."
"Mr. Everett, this is highly unusual. This is the first time that CPS has come into this court and not given me a recommendation on custodial arrangements.
"Mr. Johnson, why should this court continue the custody of the boys with you?"
I was about to respond to the judge when the courtroom door opened and Dr. Sam and Dr. Adams walked in and sat down behind Hildy. I was not too surprised that Sam showed up but I was amazed that Dr. Adams came.
"Your honor, there are a number of reasons that support my request for custody.
"First, as Mr. Everett stated I do have the financial resources necessary to take care of the boys.
"Second, I have a large enough home to comfortably house them.
"Third, I have hired a full-time housekeeper-cook-nanny, Mrs. Hildy Ramirez, who is sitting behind me here in court.
"Fourth, I can provide Joel with the psychological help I believe he needs as a result of being physically and sexually abused. To that end I have engaged Dr. Owen Adams, who is also present in the courtroom, to do a preliminary evaluation of him tomorrow. Dr. Adams is one of the most highly respected adolescent psychiatrists in this part of the country. Another reason for seeking the help of Dr. Adams is the belief on my part, and confirmed by Joel, that he actually witnessed the murder of his mother.
"Fifth, I can provide for all of the children the best medical care available in the area by way of Dr. Samuel Greene. Dr. Greene is also present today. Joel is already under the care of Dr. Greene for various medical conditions.
"Sixth, it is my intention to enroll the boys in Corinthian Academy at the beginning of their next term. Corinthian is the fifth highest rated private school in the state.
"Seventh, the chances of all four of the boys being placed in the same foster home are infinitesimally small. Only TJ would have a reasonable chance of being adopted if they were put up for adoption. Mr. Paul Coulter, the gentleman sitting here behind me, has related his experience with foster homes to me. He was in five different homes before being placed permanently. His experience in the group homes is something I do not want these youngsters to be exposed to. I offer the chance for all four of the boys to grow up together.
"Eighth and most importantly, I have grown to love them as much as any father could love his own sons and I believe that they love me as well," I said and sat down.
Benjamin Cross stood up and said "Your honor, I have prepared a number of documents in support of what Mr. Johnson has just told the court. Included in this is a financial statement from his accountant and copies of his tax returns for the last three years. A copy of the latest audit of the company that he is 80% owner of by an independent auditing firm is also here. One other document that might be of interest to the court is the background check done by the best private investigation team in the state."
"Thank you, Mr. Cross," the judge responded. "Ms. Gehrig or Ms. Shannon, have either of you talked to the boys about where they would prefer to live?"
"Yes, your honor we have," Joyce stood up and said. "We both talked with them right after their mother's funeral. They appeared to be happy where they were and expressed no concerns about living with Mr. Johnson. Although the doctor that examined the twins and TJ have not re-examined them it appears that they, and Joel for that matter, have put on weight in the last ten days. They were all somewhat undernourished when they came to my attention."
"You are their caseworker, what is your recommendation as to what their placement should be?"
"I would only echo the comments of Mr. Everett. I explained to Mr. Johnson the other day that I would not actively oppose his request for continued custody but I would not support it either," Joyce stated.
"I must say, Ms. Gehrig, I am disappointed with CPS in this matter. Is there some reason that you have not revealed for your reluctance to either support or oppose the placement?" Frank said with a slightly menacing tone in his voice.
"No, your honor, the only reason for our stance is that it has never been the custom of CPS to put foster children in the care of a single male," Joyce responded rather timidly.
"I think y'all are scared of that high priced lawyer sitting over there. That's neither here nor there.
"Dr. Greene, Mr. Johnson indicated that you were treating the oldest boy. Would you explain to the court just what it is you are treating him for?"
Sam walked and stood by the table where I was sitting before he said, "When Joel was brought to my attention he had been severely beaten on the back, buttocks, and thighs by what looked like a belt. I also observed that he had been sexually abused both anally and orally and have submitted the required paperwork to the police. He was also suffering a jaundice-like condition or yellowing of the skin and eyes which was caused in my opinion by blows or kicks to the liver or kidneys or both. As a result of the sexual abuse, I have started a series of tests for HIV which will continue for the next six months. At the end of the series we should be able to say definitively whether he has been infected with the virus."
"Thank you, doctor. Dr. Adams, do you have anything to add to this matter?"
Dr. Adams came forward as Sam returned to his seat. "Your honor, I have not yet assessed the boy's psychological profile. But from talking to Mr. Johnson and taking a brief history of the boy, I would be extremely surprised if he did not need long term psychological support. Having been involved in the assessment of some of the children in CPS' care I am acutely aware of the lack of follow up and psychological support that the majority of those needing it actually receive."
"Thank you, Dr. Adams.
"I'm going to talk to the boys. This hearing will be in recess until I complete my talk," the judge said.
We all stood as he left for his chambers.
The minutes seemed like hours as we waited. It turned out that we only had to wait just over 20 minutes before he returned. While we were waiting Benjamin talked to both Dr. Sam and Dr. Adams as well as Hildy and Paul Coulter.
As Judge Frank took his seat behind the bench my attorney remained standing after the rest of us had taken our seats.
"Mr. Cross, do you wish to address the court?" he said.
"Yes, your honor, I do. To preserve the right of appeal by either party, we request that the information elicited earlier be given under oath," Benjamin said.
"Mr. Everett, how does CPS respond to this suggestion for the court?"
"Your honor, CPS does not intend to seek an appeal of the decision made by the court no matter what that decision is."
"Well, Mr. Cross, do you still wish to have sworn testimony seeing that CPS will not appeal?"
"Yes, your honor, we believe that any evidence upon which the court relies on to assist it in making its decision should be sworn."
"Your request is denied, Mr. Cross. You may sit down. Bailiff, bring in the children," the judge ordered.
"That doesn't look good for our side," I whispered to Benjamin.
"Don't worry, that is exactly what I wanted him to do. He fell for it. I can't believe he is so stupid," he whispered back to me.
Just as I was turning back around the boys entered the courtroom. TJ looked around taking in everything before running across the room, around the table where I was sitting and jumped up on my lap. The other boys were more controlled and merely walked rapidly to our table and surrounded us.
"We get to stay don't we?" TJ pleaded looking me straight in the eyes.
"I don't know little one. The judge has not told us yet," I said trying to keep my voice from quivering.
"Bailiff, escort the boys to that front row bench over there," the judge said.
"It's alright," I said. "Go sit down over there. It's okay."
TJ hopped down off my lap and followed his brothers to the bench the judge had indicated. I wished that I could follow them also but knew that wouldn't be the smart thing to do. However, I was pleased to see that Hildy got up from where she was sitting and went to sit beside TJ.
"Thank you," I mouthed as I caught her eye.
"Let's get this over with," the judge stated. "I have talked to the boys and they all say that they want to remain in the custody of Mr. Johnson. The court has to consider that into its decision. It is the court's conclusion that the boys' statements have been bought and paid for by the petitioner and can, therefore, be ignored. Without the recommendation of CPS as to the fitness of the petitioner to continue as a foster parent, the court has no option but to deny Mr. Johnson's petition for custody.
The four minors are remanded to the custody of CPS who will determine the best placement for them until the parental rights of their father have been terminated or are returned to him if that is practicable.
"Are there any motions to be presented to the court before this hearing is terminated?
"No, your honor."
"Yes, your honor. We request that it stay its order until the petitioner has the opportunity to appeal the order to a higher court."
"Request denied! Anything else?"
"Yes, your honor, with all due respect to the court, I have one of my associates meeting with Justice Yates of the Appellate Court in Austin at this very moment. He has presented all of the documents to her that were presented to this court and has informed me via my digital pager that Judge Yates is prepared to issue a stay in the case that this court will not," Benjamin stated.
I could detect just the hint of a smile on his face as he addressed Judge Frank. The judge's face did not reflect the same. It was getting redder by the minute. His nose, which was already large, seemed to get even larger and took on a glow that would have made Rudolph proud.
As Benjamin was speaking a man entered the courtroom, approached our table and handed a note to him.
Opening the note Benjamin continued "I have just been informed that the stay order has been signed by Judge Yates. In a separate decree, she has ordered that a transcript of this hearing be delivered to her in Austin no later than 10:00 AM on Monday morning. Copies of her orders are being faxed to your clerk as we speak."
"You son of a bitch," the judge fairly screamed. "One of these days you god damned high priced Austin lawyers will get what's coming to you. This hearing is terminated."
With that, he banged his gavel and stormed out of the courtroom before anyone even had a chance to stand up.