Longform

Wednesday's Child Is Full Of Woe

Wednesday's Child feature
Pauline Johnson was transfixed by the beautiful three-year-old on the television screen. The child had a smile that could steal your heart. Her luminous face was framed by dark, wavy hair caught up in pigtails. She was captured playing and laughing as Channel 12's Kent Dana implored couples interested in adopting this "special needs" youngster to come forward.

Pauline had seen the station's "Wednesday's Child" series before but had never paid as much attention as she did this night. She couldn't take her eyes off the child. She yelled to her husband, who was in the midst of his shower, "Cedric, come here! Come see this little girl!" By the time he dashed to the television, Pauline was sure: "She's the one for us; that's our little girl."

The next day she called the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which provides the children, their identity and a summary of their background to the television station for the show. (New Times, however, chose not to use the child's picture or real name.)

DES officials were enthusiastic. Black couples wanting to adopt are in short supply; older minority children are the least likely to find an adoptive home with any color family. But here was a solid middle-class black family saying it wanted the little girl who so desperately needed a stable home. The agency cut red tape at record speed to unite the eager couple and their new daughter. It all seemed so perfect.

FROM THE MOMENT Joy entered Pauline and Cedric Johnson's life, bursting into their awareness like a shooting star on a quiet summer night, they loved her. They loved her as deeply as if she had been their own baby, instead of the child of a drug-using prostitute.

And for a few brief months of her life, it seemed as if Joy had finally found a place where her radiant promise could blossom. She'd been bounced from one foster home to another since she was fourteen months old, coming into state custody as a bruised and beaten baby. Four different families had taken her in. Always lovingly, but always temporarily. Not until she came to live with the Johnsons in August 1988 had anyone ever said to her, "This is your permanent home, and we are your parents."

If the producers of "Wednesday's Child" had scripted a home for the lovely child they featured that night, it would have been like the Johnsons'. And this story should be about what a wonderful family they've become and how Joy is thriving.

But it's not. This is a story with an ugly ending.

IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG for the Johnsons to realize Joy had special problems and to discover the emptiness behind DES' promises of help. Where the couple sought professional treatment for their child, DES offered cookbook solutions and platitudes. In the agency's eyes, the trouble was not its failure to provide needed services but the Johnsons' inadequacy as parents and their lack of commitment to Joy.

As the Johnsons pressed DES to make good its commitment to help their daughter, they were labeled as troublemakers. And DES, perhaps the most powerful--certainly the most secretive--agency in Arizona state government, knows what to do about troublemakers. It gets rid of them.

Acting on the pretext that the Johnsons no longer wanted Joy, DES officials summarily terminated plans for the adoption and removed the child from their home one day last spring, taking her to yet another temporary foster home. When the Johnsons fought to regain custody, pointing out the agency's mistakes in a succession of administrative appeals, DES officials reacted by mounting an inquisition-like campaign to destroy the couple's credibility. Where that failed, the Johnsons claim, DES used delay tactics and its special powers under state juvenile-protection laws to stack the deck against them. For instance, the agency prevented the Johnsons' psychologist from evaluating Joy on grounds it would be too upsetting for her. But DES was able to present its own psychologists' evaluations to the court.

The agency's strategy was heartbreakingly effective. In August--five months after DES took Joy back--Judge Pro Tem Thomas Jacobs denied the Johnsons' petition to regain custody and complete the adoption.

Jacobs flatly rejected the agency's efforts to discredit the couple: "The evidence is undisputed that Petitioners provided the child a wholesome environment and the best of care under most difficult circumstances." But he placed greater emphasis on the child's need for stability, citing her by-now long separation from the Johnsons and the uncertainty of a successful reunion. Just too much emotional damage had already been done by disrupting the original placement, the judge reasoned.

"Risking the unknown as opposed to continuing the present known [foster care] situation is not the function of juvenile law nor consistent with common sense," Judge Jacobs wrote in his decision. "As painful for Petitioners as this situation may be, they are better equipped as adults to cope with the pain than what the child may experience if returned."

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Kathleen Stanton