The two-story Children’s Hospital Center (or Child Protection sits at one edge of the Children’s Hospital campus on Kearny Mesa. Walking through the center’s first-floor hallway, a visitor finds gaily painted rooms furnished with child-size table and chairs and stacked with plush bears, rosy-cheeked baby dolls, wooden trucks, Little Golden Books. In these rooms, evidence is taken from and . evaluations are made of victims of neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
Tuesday mornings, one floor above those cubicles in which children speak of unspeakable crimes, eighteen women sit in a circle. They are participants in the center’s Parent Aide program, one of six similar countywide programs that offer “intervention, education, and support services" to "families at risk or in crisis.”
Since the founding of the Parent Aide program 1976, 600 families have received its services, which include parenting-skills classes, group and individual therapy, health care, and one-on-one relationships with parent aides.
One-third of the clients come to the program after reports of their abuse or neglect of children are filed with Child Protective Services. The remainder are "self-referred” or recommended by hospitals, physicians, and social agencies. Among this latter number are exceptionally young mothers (three fourteen-year-olds are currently in the program); mothers of premature infants and newborn twins; mothers of terminally ill, sexually molested, or physically abused children; and mothers who find themselves unusually isolated or lacking child-rearing experience.
Unique to the Parent Aide program is its pairing of volunteer aides with "client mothers.” Supervised by two part-time professionals and coordinated by a full-time secretary, twenty volunteers last year worked with 107 families and the families’ 193 children. (Of those 107 families, only 38 were headed by a married couple.) The program accomplished this with $80,000 contributed by the San Diego Child Abuse Prevention Foundation, San Diego Children’s Hospital Auxiliary, and various philanthropic and service organization grants.
Diana Bryson-Gordon has directed the program since its inception. A mother of grown children, she is also the assistant director of the Center for Child Protection and has developed a "High Risk Indicators’ checklist," twenty-four items that put a parent "at risk" for child abuse or neglect. Among risk indicators is "poor financial resources/poverty," a condition that beset 70 of 1987’s 107 families. Substance abuse is another risk indicator. Thirty-six parents in the 107 families had histories of alcohol abuse. Fifty had histories of drug abuse.
In Tuesday’s circle, parent aides sit next to their client mothers; the mothers are all in their twenties, the aides are mostly from their mid-forties through mid-sixties. Attending this Tbesday are clients most in need of help. Several appear tense this morning, and several — eyes unreadable — gaze down at the blue carpet.
Seven-year veteran aide Jan Niehaus chats quietly with her “mom” (which is how most aides describe their clients). Niehaus's mom, in skirt and blouse, high heels, is new to the program and is less casually dressed than most of the younger women. Rale — drained, really, of color — Carol fidgets with her wedding and engagement rings. (The names of the clients have been changed for this story.) Niehaus takes one of Carol’s hands in her own, strokes it reassuringly, and whispers, “You look so pretty this morning. You do. Yes." Carol manages a smile. Niehaus laughs, a soft laugh like birds' trilling.
Petite Bryson-Gordon, in heels and denim mini dress, takes her seat in the circle. Eloquently groomed, her polished fingernails matching lipstick, eyeshadow subtly blended, Bryson-Gordon studies each face in the room before announcing in a bright musical voice, "This morning’s topic will be relationships." By "relationships" she means men, husbands, boyfriends. “Before we start,” Bryson-Gordon asks, "do we have any priorities?"
Next to her, wearing a striped shirt and gray trousers, is Donna Montegna, social work supervisor for the Parent Aide program. Montegna pushes back long brown sun-streaked hair from her face and asks, “Anybody have anything that needs to be said, right now?"
"Yes." Judy, maternity blouse flowing over her jeans, toes wriggling in sandals, has a "priority." Eyes turn toward her. "David gets paid Friday. And Saturday, we’re getting married."
As Judy talks, a listener new to the group (of which Judy has been a member, “self-referred," for three years) can piece together her story. She and David, both twenty-three, have lived together, off and on, for a year. She is pregnant with his child and due to deliver in several months. She has a three-year-old daughter, Jessica, by a previous relationship, and Judy and Jessica are supported by AFDC. Judy — who makes reference to her "awful temper" — and David have had terrible arguments. For instance, David wouldn’t get a job. But Judy insisted. "Men work!" Now David has a job. Judy wants to get off welfare, she tells the group, her voice clear and confident. She wants David to support her and Jessica and their baby.
Judy is one of eleven members of a Thursday afternoon therapy group led by Montegna, and Judy and her husband-to-be have also been in Montegna's "couples’ therapy." Montegna straightens in her chair and smiles. “Judy, how do you think things will change after Monday? After you’re married?"
“I’ll feel safer married. I’ll feel like he’s committed to us. He is marrying us," Judy cocks her head to one side, speaks directly to Montegna. David likes Jessica, loves her. And Jessica calls David “Daddy." Judy believes she, David, and the children can make it as a family.
"There are things that are improving!” says Bryson-Gordon.
Talk turns to “relationships.” When that subject is finished, it is Carol’s turn. Halted by intermittent tears, she explains how she came to be here. Married to a salesman who is out of town during the week, geographically distant from family, Carol had recently given birth to the couple’s fourth child. The infant became ill, cried seemingly night and day. She became frantic, frenzied. Was exhausted.
All eyes are on Carol. The only sound other than her voice is of a stomach rumbling.
Carol has been charged with injury to the infant, and all four children have been removed from the home until such time as Carol completes therapy and parenting classes and demonstrates to Child Protective Services that she is able to cope with and properly care for her children. As Carol, weeping, tells her story, the atmosphere turns increasingly solemn, even grim, and when Bryson-Gordon, looking weary, notes that the morning’s session is over, no one is smiling.
Every Thursday morning at 9:30 parent aides join Bryson-Gordon and Montegna for a three-hour “case supervision." Walking together into the room, the two women each have in their arms sets of files. The files hold information on families approved for entry into the Parent Aide program, families Bryson-Gordon hopes this morning to place with aides. "I could use,” Bryson-Gordon says to the group, "eighty of you!"
Thursday’s discussion opens with a report by Sharon Howlett, another seven-year program veteran. Howlett is a registered nurse, wife of an obstetrician, and mother of college-age children. For three years she has been Judy’s parent aide. But this morning, it is Sandy about whom Howlett is concerned.
When Sandy, a mother of two, entered the program five years ago, she had a history of heroin addiction. This summer, after being clean for two years, Sandy began to use crystal methedrine. She went many nights without sleep, became increasingly paranoid. Recognizing that she needed to have her children in a more secure situation, Sandy sent them to Missouri to her mother and aunt.
Last week, feeling on the verge of suicide, Sandy checked herself into the hospital, then abruptly signed out. This morning Sandy telephoned Howlett. “Sandy’s so panicky,” says Howlett. “I suggested she get back into the hospital, but she said she felt worse there."
Her children being away, Howlett believes, triggered Sandy's suicidal episode.
"At least the children are physically being taken care of," offers Bryson-Gordon. "At least they are physically safe."
Agreeing. Howlett says, "I am going to see if I can talk her into going back into the hospital. But I guess I can't keep beating my head against the wall about getting her to go if she doesn’t want to go."
“Are you able to say to her," asks Bryson-Gordon, “ ‘Sandy, if you want to talk to me, I will listen. But there’s nothing I can do for you if you won’t listen to what 1 think is best for you?"
"Going into the hospital for seventy-two hours is not going to do any long-term good," Howlett says. "It might keep her from committing suicide, but it won’t help her. Once she gets herself past feeling this way, then she will go ahead until it happens again."
“Also in seventy-two hours," suggests Montegna, “she could be back on her feet again."
"True," Howlett says, "true.”
"Well, good luck," Bryson-Gordon’s eyes linger for a moment on Howlett. “Give us a call, Sharon, if you need to."
Folders spread out before her, Bryson-Gordon then reads from case reports of new applicants. “Thirty-year-old mom. Sixteen-month-old child. She’s married, he works. It’s their first baby. She’s very isolated, wants to learn to manage anger.
"Seventeen-year-old single mother of three-month-old girl, a preemie. Mother has been drug user, lives on street. She has been sexually molested. Caseworker referred to her as a lost soul. Child Protective Services not involved.
“Twenty-year-old single mother with horrendous childhood history of childhood rape, went into foster care when she was four. Her baby may be product of rape. Caseworker describes mother as ‘very simple person, tries hard, needs help with parenting skills.'
"Twenty-eight-year-old mother, positive tox screen [a positive toxological screening indicates drug use). Newborn, positive tox screen."
An aide interrupts. "Tell me again, Diana. Why do we do this?"
"Because there’s no one else." Bryson-Gordon says firmly. "Because there’s no one else."
Over coffee, Vivian Fuller talks about why she works as a parent aide. Dark hair pulled back into a loose chignon at the nape of the neck, Fuller wears a white linen dress, simple gold jewelry. She considers herself an unusually fortunate person. Her mother and her doctor father moved from Hungary to Mexico during World War II. “Our parents were very caring, very concerned about what was good for us. We were treasured."
Three years ago, when Fuller moved with her husband, a lumber importer/exporter, and their college-age children from Mexico City to San Diego, she felt “very alone, very confused. My English wasn't good. I was having great difficulty. I had to look for something to do with my life.
"I got involved in the program, and it really stirred me up! Some of the women we see need really a mama, a Big Mama, to take them to the doctor, to be sure if their children have what they need. "Many have been brought up in situations where they were so badly treated, so neglected. Many don’t know how to treat their children and how to take care of them. Sometimes they don’t want to. Some can’t think of the child. They can only think of themselves.”
As an example, Fuller mentions a Mexican-American couple, both on drugs, parents to an infant child. They were referred to the program after their baby was taken, with seizures, to an emergency room. “The mother was twenty-one, the father twenty. The first time, they didn’t want to see me.
They already had lots of official people coming in. The social worker once a week. A nurse once a week. The couple had been asked so many questions. They were so troubled by that. “So our first visit was very cold. I didn't sit. I stood back and talked to the mother about myself for a while, what I was doing, why I was there. The second visit was better, the third even better, the fourth they closed the door on me, literally.
“But I kept going back, if I didn’t come one week, they’d ask me, ‘Where were you?’
"Often, when I’d arrive, the mother would be in a fetal position asleep. They all really looked sick, very, very sick. Probably because of the drugs.
“I was so disturbed. The house was filthy dirty, sickening. Often there was no food, no milk for the baby. She was feeding the baby Kool-Aid. They would sleep during the day. They would forget who had last fed the baby. And the baby was not normal. He couldn’t see.
“When you talked to the mother, she was like a baby herself. And 1 didn’t imagine their background. For the father, when he was sixteen years old, his mother left him to go to Germany with another man. He had to care for himself. The mama at the age of thirteen, she was raped by an uncle.
“Little by little, we became friends. But I couldn’t get through to them that there is a better way for them. I couldn’t get them to go to parenting classes, to try to get help from the Chicano Federation.
“I was frightened for this child. I started harassing my supervisors. Because I felt this child was neglected. Child Protective Services eventually took the baby. I have talked with the foster mother. The baby just turned a year old.
Now he has more seizures. The last time the birth mother talked to the foster mother was in the spring. The baby is going to be brought up in foster care, because the mother is not interested in the baby. And the mother is pregnant again.” Feeling for her clients, "feeling a deep respect for them," says Fuller, "that is very important. So they don’t feel I am above them. I have a difficult time. Because just looking at me, I don't look like them. Sometimes they are the ones that ask me all the questions. I can bring something to them, yes, but they also bring me something to me.”
Judy and David moved into a North Park apartment several days after they married. In the living room this Saturday morning, David turns the volume low on the television set and watches a football game. Judy’s three-year-old, Jessica, plays quietly on the carpet, waits for blueberry muffins to come out of the oven.
In Judy and David's apartment, even the glass-topped coffee table has not a fingerprint on it. Kitchen counters are spotless — toilet, bathtub, spotless.
Expecting her and David’s first child, Judy gained more weight than she wanted. She feels uncomfortably large. Even too heavy, her face, with clear skin and strong, even features, blue eyes, is pretty, fresh. When she walks from the kitchen into the living room, her straight, brown hair, pulled to the back of her head in a ponytail, bounces. She sits down in the recliner, folds her hands over her belly. Tattooed across her right hand, beneath the knuckles, is MOM, DAD.
Born in San Diego, Judy was her parent's fifth and last child. “An all-girl family,” she says. Her father, an army enlisted man, disappeared when Judy was two. “Nobody has ever seen him again. It's like he's gone, gone off the face of the earth."
Her mother, says Judy, "actually cannot read or write. I know nothing of her parents. But she was working by the time she should have been going to school. That much I know.”
Judy’s oldest sister left home when she was thirteen. The other girls went back and forth between their mother and foster homes. Why her mother put them in foster homes, Judy’s not sure. Her mother didn’t drink, didn’t use drugs. And after Judy's father vanished, her mother had nothing to do with men. They got a welfare check. But often they’d end up penniless.
“We'd go to a shelter. Back in the early Seventies, shelters weren’t the way they are now. I remember, I would sleep on the floor next to an actual street bum.
“We’d be in a shelter like a week, maybe, and then we'd end up in a foster home for a couple of months. Our own apartments were always dirty. Unlivable. We’d come home and funnel through heaps of filth to get to the kitchen. We’d go to school without clean clothes; sometimes we didn’t have underwear or socks."
When Judy was six, a family member sexually molested her. “I’m sure my mother knew. But she didn’t do anything."
There is a relative whom Judy remembers as “like a horrible beast." One day the girls came home to their East San Diego apartment, the relative was there, and their mother gone. "He had poured catsup all over to make it look like blood, and he told us our mother was dead. We were all crying and screaming, ‘Mom’s dead.' And then our mother walked in the door.
“When I was twelve, I started trying everything. From heroin to anything. I tried it all. Not that I used. I only tried heroin twice. But lots of drugs I used more than twice. Drank. You never saw me without a bottle."
At school, Judy got into fights. She was kicked out of school. “They put me in a mental hospital when I was thirteen. Vista Hill. I’d never even heard of suicide. In there I learned. So I said, ‘Well, when I get out, that’s what I’ll do. I'll go home and kill myself and then I won’t have to worry about what to do next.’
"I cut my wrists. It’s a good thing I did, because that put me back into the hospital. Which in turn put me into a reform school. Stepping Stones, a state group home in Redding, took me when I was going on fifteen."
Judy liked most of the counselors at Stepping Stones. But she found many of them naive. “A college degree ain’t gonna do nothing for them kids. And there were counselors there whose only degree was college. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. They couldn’t give me advice. Because how could they know what I’d been through?"
In Redding, townspeople referred to girls from the home as “the Stepping Stones whores." There were, she explains, “hookers there who’d been put in for prostitution. I would barely ever go to town. I was embarrassed, the way people judged us. I’d look at those people and I’d think, ‘You ain’t no better than me.’
“The first year there, I stayed closed up. Just followed rules. Figured, ‘I’ll be good, I’ll get out in a year. Go back home.'"
Judy holds up the hand on which MOM and DAD are tattooed with the ink from a ballpoint pen. “I did that at Stepping Stones." She caresses the blue letters and says, “I was trying to make myself a mom and dad that way.
"When I turned sixteen, I said, ‘Well, I guess I get to go now.’ They said, ‘No, you’re here until you’re eighteen to twenty-one.’ I said, ‘No, you’re crazy. I didn't do nothing. You can’t keep me here.'
"So I decided to be bad for a year. I was horrible. When I was seventeen, they caught me with a can of spray paint. I was huffing it. Which was the easiest way there to get high.
“I’d never been violent with any of the counselors. I would jump in and help the counselors, always, when other kids beat on them. But when they caught me with the paint, I went crazy. I wanted to be high so bad that I was not going to give up. They had to call the police.
“Stepping Stones said they were going to send me to a hospital. ‘You need help,’ they told me, ‘and you need to be shown we won’t tolerate your behavior.’
"When they send you from reform school to a hospital, they send you back to your county. So they transported me to Vista Hill, where I’d been, by then, three times. At Vista Hill, I cried. All I wanted to do was to get back to Stepping Stones. That was the only home I’d ever had. Because my mom’s home was not a home. I always had to leave there, my mom’s home. But I didn’t cry. And I was crying over leaving this damned reform school.
“When I got back to Stepping Stones from Vista Hill, I decided, ‘Okay, this is it.’ All the people there were the only friends I had. I got in drug counseling twice a week. I went to AA. I saw my therapist and a psychiatrist. I did what they wanted me to. Because I didn’t want to leave.
“I worked in a preschool for two years in the winter, and the next summer the school hired me, because I was good with kids."
Meanwhile, Judy had not learned to read and write. When it came time to take her high-school proficiency test, the test was read to her. “I passed it with a R Because I’m smart. I knew the answers. But I couldn’t read the questions and I couldn’t write in the answers.
“When I turned eighteen, I had to be really good because I wanted to stay there until I turned nineteen." After her eighteenth birthday, Judy began to try to figure out what to do with her life after Stepping Stones. “I decided I would join the military. I had nothing. I was institutionalized. I had been for most of my life. I figured I’d join the navy. It would be a structured environment. Someone would tell me what to do."
Three months before Judy was due to leave Stepping Stones, she took a written test to get into the navy. She couldn’t read or write well enough to pass it.
“I was humiliated." Judy wipes a tear off her cheek. She says she still doesn’t read that well — that reading Cinderella, for instance, to Jessica, she mostly makes up the story.
“You had to be out of Stepping Stones by your nineteenth birthday. When you leave, you’re not allowed to call, you’re not allowed to write. You’re allowed no contact with anyone. So these relationships I’d had for four years, my only home I had had all my life to that point, was over with. To me, that was the worst of anything. That was abandonment.
"They drove me back here. I’d worked. So I’d bought dishes, chairs, towels. Most of the kids had their clothes, their stereos, that was it. But I had my own stuff. My room was like a house. That room was my home."
She lived with one of her sisters. “She had told me everything had changed, that they wanted me back. I loved my family. I really wanted to believe that they would accept me."
Her first year back in San Diego, Judy was always upset. She partied. “I was drinking all the time. I ended up getting involved with my sister’s husband. What I was thinking, then, was, I'll get you, I’ll hurt you in your heart, the way you guys hurt me.’"
When Jessica was born, Judy was twenty. “It was such an emotional thing, giving birth. It was so much love that it hurt. I never knew I could love that much. I remember, my heart was actually physically hurting. I felt I was having a heart attack, I loved her so much."
Judy was frightened. "I had been around nieces and nephews, but I never had to raise no kid. Mostly I was thinking, ‘I can't let happen to my child what happened to me.’ But I didn’t know how to keep that from happening."
At two weeks, Jessica contracted a virus. She was hospitalized for five days. "I would not leave," says Judy.
"Not to eat. Not to shower. I was not leavin’ my child."
A hospital social worker recommended Judy enroll in the Parent Aide program. "1 was living in East San Diego. I had no friends. I was on AFDC. I was scared shitless to go out of the little studio I was renting. I kept my windows and doors shut and locked at all times. If I had to go to the store, I panicked. I couldn’t wait to get back into the house."
Sharon Howlett was assigned as Judy’s parent aide. “Sharon," says Judy, "she’s a typical rich woman. She’s an RN. Her husband is an ob/gyn at Sharp. At first I felt really uncomfortable around her. I liked her, but I thought, ‘How am I even going to connect with this woman?’
“Sharon would take me shopping after Parent Aide meetings, and we would go to lunch, then we’d come back to the apartment and Sharon would stay, with Jessica and me, and we’d talk for an hour or so. She knew I didn’t have nothin’. That I watched TV from mornin’ to night."
The first time Judy "connected" with her parent aide, she says, "I had had sex with somebody and I told her. And she asked, 'Judy, do you have birth control?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t have nothing.’ And she brought me over this foam. And she had to tell me how to use it. Because I had never used birth control.
"After that, I knew I could feel comfortable around her. I never thought I'd be still talking to her years later. If you look at Sharon, she looks — if you’re me — like she’s been rich all her life. But Sharon, she's struggled. When her husband was in medical school, she had to work, and then when they started out, she was real poor.
"And Jan Niehaus? Cute little Jan, she’s struggled, she’s had a hard life. She’s been married like forty years, and —" Judy laughs — “she tells us: ‘Marriage is a job, not just a romance story.’ ”
Sometimes, Judy wishes Sharon Howlett were her "real mom." She sometimes thinks about Howlett’s children. “They're all in college. I met one of her kids, and she is the type, you can tell, she can get what she wants, she knows that she can have it. I’m sure she knows she has to work for it, but she can get it.
“So, I think, 'Why did God give us the parents we got? Why did I have to get this fucked-up mother? Why didn’t I get Sharon?’"
Had she not entered the Parent Aide program, Judy guesses, "I'd probably be sheltered here and never go out. I wouldn’t have Sharon for a friend. I wouldn’t have learned to take Jessica’s temperature, wouldn’t have quit smoking or made David smoke outside when I got pregnant. I wouldn’t be in therapy. We wouldn’t have Donna for marital therapy.
"Donna, she’s a good therapist. Only because she knows from experience. She knows more than books. Me and her," Judy grins, snaps her fingers, "we're a lot alike. So, we connect.
"Me and David also see Donna as a marriage counselor. We had a hard time in that therapy in the beginning. David said, at first, ’I'm not going to go see that woman.’ He likes her now."
What she's going to say next Judy hopes won’t be taken wrong. "You see, I don’t go to the parenting program only to learn. I think I can contribute to a lot of the other mothers in there. Like this one lady in parenting class, her husband was in jail for abusing their child. She said. All I want is my husband out of jail. My daughter is fine. She’s with my mother. She’s being taken care of. I’ve got to think of my husband now.’ "My heart, my whole body was hurting so much from hearing her say that, I had to restrain myself to sit in that chair. I told her, 'Your daughter when she grows up is going to hate you. You are choosing him over her.’
"A lot of the parents, I can give them the point of view of what their kids is going to end up feeling, because of what they’re doing to them. Because I am one of the abused kids."
Jessica has come to stand between her mother’s knees, laid an ear against Judy's swollen belly. “Hello, little sister," she whispers. "Hello."
Judy pulls Jessica onto her knee. “It’s not that I think I’m better than the other moms,” she says. I have problems. I yell at Jessica, and I cuss a lot. It's all unnecessary. I know. He, David, speaks to me. Since I’ve been pregnant, I’ve been more impatient with her. To admit that, it is hard. But if I go there every week to the parenting group and say it, that I have problems, it helps. And I have to keep saying it, making myself aware, because if I don’t, I might accidentally hurt her. And I’d rather cut my arms off than hurt her.
"1 don’t want Jessica to have to know the street life from having to live the street life. But I want her to know about the street life. And I tell her, ‘Jessie, baby, the world is mean. The world is cruel.’ And it is."
Tanned, slender Jan Niehaus looks a decade younger than her sixty-four years. A blonde bob feathers around her ears, falls above her eyes in Mamie Eisenhower bangs. Driving from Children’s Hospital to a nearby neighborhood to visit a client, Niehaus talks about her involvement with the Parent Aide program. Her husband had retired from the air force, and they’d moved to San Diego and bought a house. Their four children were gone. She’d done volunteer work, tried selling real estate. "But I wanted something. You know," says Niehaus, taking her glance off the road for a moment. "Something." In the Union she read that Children’s Hospital needed volunteers. “I guessed they wanted someone to read to children. I thought, ‘Mmmm. That would be very pleasant. Reading to children.’ ’’ Niehaus laughs.
“I went to Children’s Hospital, to the volunteer office. The woman there asked, ‘Have you heard about the Parent Aide program?’ I hadn’t. But I thought, 'Maybe that is something I’d like to do.’ ”
So Niehaus signed up. "They probably looked at me and thought, ‘Oh, dear, this lady won’t be able to handle anything tough.' Because I was told, ‘Now, you won’t have to deal with anything seamy, nothing like drugs, that kind of thing.'
"I think, today, about that. Because if we said that today, we’d have to give up the whole program. Near as I can see, at least eighty percent of our problem mothers and families have trouble with alcohol or drugs, or both." Jan opens her blue eyes wide. “Honest. Crack, that seems to be more down in the Southeast community. But crystal meth, that’s pervasive, that’s everywhere."
The first mother assigned to Niehaus was twenty-one. Her baby had been born prematurely and had many problems. “Now, I’m a friendly person and I like people," says Niehaus, "but I felt terribly shy the first time about going to see her. After they gave me her name and number, I called her several times. I’d say, ‘When would be a nice time to meet?’ and she’d always put me off. I’m sure she must have been thinking, ‘I don't want anything to do with this woman.’
“I got up one morning and thought, ‘I’ll just have to go. Not call her or anything. Just go, knock on her door.’ So I drove to Escondido, to her apartment house. I drove around the block four times. I could not get up my nerve to go knock on that door!
"But I finally knocked, went in, and here’s this poor little thing, sitting on the couch. A wreck, she was a wreck! Chain-smoking. And this little baby is sitting in a carrier on the table in front of her. He’s a little tiny mite of a child. She’s been up day and night with him, because he’s constantly crying.
“ ‘I wish I could take him back,’ she said that first day. She had a great deal of guilt over the baby’s being premature, his problems. She’d done drugs, all these things, while she was pregnant. But by the time I left, we were hugging each other and we were friends."
The relationship between Niehaus and her first mother prospered. Over time, says Niehaus, “she just pulled her act together. She is a dear person. We still keep in touch. That little boy now goes to school. His motor development is slow. But she says, ‘That’s all right. I don’t care if he never plays soccer.’ ”
About the family she's on her way to visit, she says, “Now that’s a happy story! Although,” she adds, turning into a block along which rise small, neat homes bordered by green lawns, “it didn’t start out happily." The person she’s going to see is one of the program’s fathers — Keith Gilliland. But the program's initial contact, explains Niehaus, was through the woman —
Mary — whose child Gilliland had fathered. Mary and Keith, explains Niehaus, met when they were both living at the beach. She was young, eighteen. He was almost thirty. They moved in together. Things were going fine. Life was a party. Then Keith ran out of money, and life wasn’t a party anymore. Soon Mary got pregnant. Keith began a little business, fixing cars. He worked hard. Some months he was bringing in $15,000.
After Jennifer arrived, life again became difficult. When Jennifer was still an infant, Mary, who had been raised in a series of foster homes, took Jennifer to her own foster mother and said, “Here, you take her.” Which brought the Parent Aide program, and Niehaus, into the picture. “Twice,” notes Niehaus, pulling along the curb in front of a wide-windowed stucco house, “Mary put Jennifer up for adoption. It was a terrible situation.”
Tall, husky, thirty-three-year-old Keith Gilliland and Niehaus embrace. Jennifer, three, is curled up, napping on the living room couch. Gilliland invites us to sit at the dining room table, which looks out onto the back yard. A wading pool is set up. Toys are strewn around the pool. Gilliland moans. “Oh, I didn’t clean up the back yard!” “Forget it,” Niehaus pats his arm. “Bless your heart, I don’t care. You know I don’t care.”
He offers iced Pepsi. With the glasses, he brings a framed photograph of Jennifer. “She looks like you,” says Niehaus.
“I think,” says Gilliland, leaning from his chair to gaze with Niehaus at the dimpled child smiling out of the photo, “she looks like Shirley Temple. Her face. Her curls.”
“Maybe you and Shirley Temple,” teases Niehaus. Her voice turns serious as she asks if he’s heard from Jennifer’s mother. He hasn’t. “Neither have I,” she says.
“Your news?” Niehaus asks, leaning forward, chin in her palms. He’s still managing the used-car lot. But he’s gotten his own dealer’s license, to buy and sell cars, and he's looking for a location. “Isn’t that great? Great!” she says.
Niehaus and Gilliland met after Mary handed Jennifer over to her foster mother, which brought social services and the Parent Aide program onto the scene. “When I first knew Mary, there were a lot of things she needed,” Niehaus says. “Oh, she was a frantic mother. I’d go to visit her. She’d look around at the apartment and the baby and say, ‘I’m tired of this.’ And she went into rages. Scary rages. One day when I was there, she showed me where she’d taken a knife to the couch. Slashed it. That was very scary to me.”
His tone bleak, Gilliland says, “I don’t think she was mentally all that well.”
“She had a terrible childhood. She was as young as a twelve-year-old on the beach.”
“In her mind, she was young. But you know, Jan, where I grew up, back in Oklahoma, back when my father was young, a lot of women were married and having children by the time they were thirteen or fourteen.”
“But she wasn’t ready for that. She may be never ready for that. It may have been because of her own earlier life, being so painful.”
“I knew Mary was losing it.” Gilliland shifts in his chair, looking over his shoulder to see if Jennifer is still sleeping. “And when you came into the picture, Jan, I could see, ‘This is somebody we need.’ Mary didn’t know what to do with a baby. All I knew to do was to make money. I didn't trust the system a lot, but I knew you were on Jennifer’s side.”
Drumming the table with his fingers, Gilliland notes that because he doesn’t trust bureaucracies, he was relieved, when he met Niehaus, that she wasn’t “attached to the county, that she was doing this for herself, because she wanted to.”
“Eventually,” recalls Niehaus, “when Jennifer was a year old, Mary took the baby to a Tuesday morning Parent Aide program support group meeting, handed her over to us, said, ‘Here is the kid,’ and left!” Gilliland interjects, “I think that she left because she thought she was doing the right thing. She couldn't raise a kid. I think she left to keep from causing us any other problems. Meantime, there was Jan, stuck right in the middle.”
“I didn’t know him very well." "And Mary’s been telling the women in the program I’m a monster.”
“She did. Then, you came over to the hospital and talked and we began to get to know each other." Niehaus admitted she worried. Gilliland and Jennifer’s mother weren’t married. Niehaus feared social services wouldn’t permit Gilliland to keep the baby.
"They don’t always have time to get to know people. But I spent lots of time with Keith after Mary left. I kept saying to social services, ‘He’s a fine father. He’ll do a good job.’ But I was worried."
"I told Jan, ‘If you find I’m not a fit parent for my daughter, I want you to say so. I want her to have the best.’ ’’
To take or not take Jennifer, says Gilliland, was, for him, "really no decision. My dad spent twenty-eight years in the Marine Corps, and I grew up with the belief that you take care of your own. There’s no welfare in my family, no handouts, no turning your back on your kids, no old folks’ homes. That’s what it was about to me. Too many fathers walk away from responsibility.”
"But you never did that, you never walked away."
“I was ready to sometimes. Still sometimes, I think, ‘Am I doing the right thing?' But it's starting to show, the work. Jennifer’s in real good shape. And I’m more responsible. My life is more organized"
Once social services determined that Jennifer could stay with her father, money and time became Gilliland’s major problems. “A mother," he says, "is an amazing person. She wakes up at work, she goes to bed at night at work, and if her work wakes her up in the night, she's at work. There's no break."
"It was tough on you!"
"It was easier on me than it would have been on a woman. As a man, people see I’m trying to take care of my daughter so I get immediate help, even an overabundance of it."
"That’s true. You’re right about that. I feel somehow I should always look after you because you’re a guy."
He thinks, sometimes, that the housework will never get done, and when it's done, Gilliland tells Niehaus, it seems as though minutes later it's all to be done again. Did she ever feel that way? Did she ever regret, he asks, staying home all those years with her children?
“In my twenty-four years at home, Keith, oh, the miles I must have pushed that vacuum cleaner. You know, I have a sign on my vacuum cleaner: Are we having fun yet?’" She laughs.
"But in my case, how can I put it? Let me put it this way. I have many friends who, when they reached their forties, they felt their life had been a waste. But no, I wouldn’t take those twenty years back. Of course, I was lucky. I came from a home where we were all loved and wanted. I married a comforting husband who was there for us, with the money and everything else we needed. If I got tired of the dirt, I could hire help.
"Some nights when Joe came home, I’d say to him, ‘I think I’ll go crazy if I have to listen to another hour of three-year-old conversation.’ And he’d say, ’Okay, Smoke, let’s go out somewhere.’ ”
"Smoke? Is that your nickname? You never told me that."
It’s a long story, Niehaus says, how she got the nickname. Gilliland urges her to tell him, and she does. "It was wartime. We’d gotten married at Davis Field in Tucson. Joe had already done his missions overseas, and he was there, training. The very first year Joe and I were married. Well, Keith, I was such a doll. Only twenty years old. Long blonde hair down to here, curly.” Niehaus draws curls through the air, down past her shoulders. “We had a little cottage. We’d just moved in. I got up in the morning, and I was trying to be a nice wife and do everything right, and I was going to make biscuits. I turned on the oven and it blew up. The gas had accumulated. Overnight. I was like this, a match in my hand, all the hair went, whoosh. Right in the face I got it. On my chest. On the arm that was holding the match.”
"Oooh,” Gilliland groans.
"How that must’ve hurt"
"Oh, yes. And only married a couple of months. All I could think of was my face. And I was screaming, the pain was so bad.
“Well, the B-29s were new then, and they crashed a lot. So they were experienced at that hospital with burns. I was a mummy, encased in bandages. It was terrible. I was a mess. I was still encased like a mummy when Joe took me home."
“I bet your relationship with your husband went through a lot then."
“You know it. Only my mouth wasn’t sealed in bandages. Joe would light cigarettes for me, I’d drink through a straw. My nerves were so shot. I was impossible to be around.”
“You were young, you were frightened."
"When they took the bandages off, i had black skin. I’d lost all that beautiful hair. And there weren’t good wigs in those days." She laughs. “It must have been terrible on Joe. But I was always thinking only about me."
“I bet you were scared of the oven from then on.”
"You’re right, Keith. The rest of the time we lived in Tucson, I wouldn’t even start dinner until Joe got home to light it. To this day, I don’t trust gas. That was a terrible time. But," Niehaus claps her hands, “that’s why Joe calls me ‘Smoke.’ ’’
While Niehaus was telling her story. Jennifer, yawning and rubbing her eyes, walked into the dining room, hopped up on her father’s lap, and turned her face into his chest. She looks around, shyly, at Niehaus. “Do you remember Jan, honey?" her father asks. She nods, yes, she does. “We don’t see Jan a lot anymore," he explains, “because she has people who need her help more, now, than we do.”
Niehaus, smiling, gazes at Gilliland and Jennifer. “So we just keep in touch with each other."
At the door, Gilliland and Jennifer wave good-bye. "Jan,” Gilliland catches Niehaus’s hand as she steps off the porch, “Jan,
I want you to take Jennifer to Child Protective Services someday and show them. ‘Our system works’"