By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Her daughters informed Esther they would not return for Christmas if Richie was in the house.
"I took little Richie to his family, so my kids' Christmas wasn't corrupted," said Esther. "I was miserable. I was so hurt at the way my daughters acted."
At Christmas she gave Richie a modern-day erector set he'd had his eye on.
"He gave me a unicorn. It was his mother's favorite thing," Esther said.
The Phone Call
In the first week of December 1995, Barbara called Esther.
Barbara's husband, Lennie, had been dead for 17 months. Helen had left home and was now living with her grandmother.
Barbara had hit bottom. Her new boyfriend, a pimp and a drug dealer, beat her senseless and then stole the government checks meant for her and her kids. That was the story. The rent was due.
Esther had heard about the boyfriend, Dion, from Barbara's children, whom he terrorized. The paramedics had rushed to Barbara's aid after one particularly vicious pounding.
"I will kill that black son of a bitch," Richie promised during one interview. "He was always hitting the little kids, not me. I wouldn't care how tall he is. He's so skinny. Just hit him in the back with a bar, and he'd fold in half."
Now Barbara expected Esther to do something--mainly, come up with the rent money. But Esther was no longer new to this game, and she knew that Barbara gave whatever cash she could muster to Dion. With her own pressing concerns for Christmas looming just a few short weeks away, Esther's patience wore thin.
She gave Barbara contacts and phone numbers at several emergency shelters. But Barbara did not pick up the phone. She did not want to end up in a battered women's shelter, away from Dion. Instead she sulked, complaining because no church had "adopted" her for Christmas, as had happened in past years.
After two years of work with the Blandons, Esther wondered what good she'd accomplished.
"You've heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child? Well, an entire goddamned city of social workers reached out to Barbara, and nothing changed," said Esther.
The state's official guardian of the young, Child Protective Services (CPS), now was watching Barbara and her kids. An inspector showed up and told the mother there had better be food in the refrigerator.
"Barbara would buy food, cook it and not let the kids eat it," said Esther. "She'd put it in the refrigerator to look like leftovers in order to fool the social worker."
Shortly after the 1995 holidays, a friend at the downtown YMCA tipped Esther that Barbara was on the streets. Two of the kids had been dropped off at the grandmother's apartment, and Richie was camping out with his mother to protect her.
Richie spent time with Esther, on temporary passes signed by Barbara. When the young boy next joined his mentor, Esther discussed with him the possibility of calling CPS on his own mother.
Did he think it was a good idea, she asked.
A call to CPS could be a drastic tip in the balance of Richie's family life. The agency might sweep the children up and away from Barbara--perhaps permanently.
But little Richie agreed that things were so bad, calling CPS made sense. When Esther phoned the agency on January 2, 1996, the young boy sobbed throughout the call. She told the authorities she had Richie in custody.
Esther did not talk her decision over with her husband.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," said Esther.
But, obviously, with Richie sitting in their home, Esther and Josh had to deal with an escalated responsibility, unless they were prepared to dump the boy on CPS. That was unthinkable.
CPS snatched Barbara's other two minor children out of school and put them in a state institution, a holding pen. They would wait there until the state could match Richie's 7-year-old brother and his 10-year-old sister with foster parents. Richie stayed with Esther.
Consumed with fear that he'd never see his family again, Richie corkscrewed into a deep depression. For 10 days and 10 nights, he threw up everything he ate. When the vomiting subsided, he slept.
"This is worse than when my father died," he told Esther.
She tried to comfort the pitiful child.
"I told him that at least his brother and sister would have a safe environment, somewhere good to sleep and clean clothes. But he said, 'Esther, it's not the food and the clothes, it's the love.'"
A couple of days into the ordeal, Richie discovered where Dion and Barbara now crashed. He phoned the motel.
"Dion answered the phone," said Esther. "He told Richie his mother wasn't there, but Richie could hear her in the background screaming, 'Hang up the phone. Hang up the phone.'"
Esther saw for herself where the state placed Barbara's other two kids when she took Richie to visit them. It caused her to question the decision to phone CPS.
Community Justice for Children is a grand name for the staging depot where little Tabatha and John Blandon awaited their fate.