By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
And on September 23, 1996, a hearing was held to determine Richie Blandon's future. Esther Gould and Dr. Josh Goldstein hoped to gain legal custody of the boy.
In a hallway, before the custody hearing, Esther was distraught. A day earlier, Richie failed, for the second time, the test to become a soccer referee. Esther was consumed with doubts.
After all, this was not her child.
"I am not a person who shares Richie's background. In some ways, I'm really not an appropriate match for him; I'm a great provider, but I don't know what to say to a kid who fails a soccer test because he doesn't read well enough," worried Esther.
"Maybe it's not a good emotional match. He might as well be from Thailand, an exchange student."
On top of her doubts, remorse over Barbara shattered Esther.
"This whole thing is ridiculous," she observed. "Even if Barbara wasn't a crack head, she couldn't meet the court's standards. Yet I feel guilty because I know she must want her children."
And then it just spilled out.
"Does Barbara hate me?"
How could she not?
At a Mexican taqueria after the hearing, Barbara ate enchiladas and ripped into Esther between mouthfuls.
"I loathe that woman. She said she wanted to try to help me and my family, but I see what she did now clearly. She wiggled her way into my life. I thought she was a friend.
"I should have stayed where I belonged. She moved us into a better neighborhood, and inside a month my husband was dead. Less than a month.
"I was working, he wasn't. I took his pride away. I hate her.
"But she showed me what money and power can do. Now my son's into it."
Barbara asked if she could be dropped off after lunch at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. She'd heard they were hiring part-time help at the hot dog stands, and a job might help get her head straight.
Everything about the hearing disoriented Barbara. In the hallway, before the judge was ready to see them, Richie sat quietly with Esther. Ten yards away, his mother stood alone. Someone had given her a ride to the hearing, and she had not yet figured out a way home afterward. Barbara daubed at her eyes and nose with clotted tissues, every single thing about her life wrong.
When the troubled group entered the judge's chamber, Barbara stood before a total stranger who wore a robe. She explained why the state of Arizona should not take her children. She said she was busy looking for work.
Everyone in the room, including her son, knew she was lying.
What else could she do?
In a room sealed off from everyone except the immediate parties, a decision was put off. All will return again for the final verdict in January.
At the end of the hearing, Barbara walked outside and stood in the parking lot. She spotted Richie striding across the asphalt in the company of a social worker.
"I love you," she shouted to her son.
Richie continued walking, looking neither to the right or the left.
At lunch after the hearing, Barbara said she wanted her children to demonstrate that they still love her before she cleaned up. The court had demanded that Barbara pass two urine analysis screenings to prove that she is off crack before allowing visitation with the kids.
"All I'm asking before I go through this test stuff is to see my kids, so that I can know that it's worth it. I want to see if they still love me. I met with Richie in an office before the hearing and asked for a hug, and I couldn't even get that."
Though it is true that her son shunned her, this lament of Barbara's is such an obvious emotional con that she has constructed other dodges.
To Barbara, the urine tests waste her time.
"CPS told me to go into rehab; I told them, 'Forget it. I don't have to. I used to be into crack real heavy. I spent $1,500 one day. I went back for possies [small amounts of crack advanced on credit], and ran up another $500 that I owed. I'm lucky if I do $10 a day now. I control it. It doesn't control me. I only do it when I want it."
For all of her comebacks, Barbara is, nonetheless, resigned.
"I feel, in the end, they'll get my kids anyway. They know I can't do this. They know already that they've won. I lose."
The reality left her frustrated and bitter.
"Everything is, 'The Kids, The Kids'--the kids are just fine. In all of this, I have one person [a court-appointed advocate]. I can't remember his name. He doesn't contact me. No one's thinking about me.
"The court says I have to provide a home. How am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to come up with a three-bedroom home? I'm hooking on the street. I'm even afraid to do that. Remember when I said I was in jail for prostitution? Now I hear there's no information on the computer that I served my six days. I'm afraid to walk around. They'll arrest me."