Accidental angel

A single Dallas businesswoman stumbles into parenthood

On a rainy evening a few days after Christmas, Linda Koop and her friend Rip Parker were handing out food to homeless people near Dallas City Hall.

Koop, a 31-year-old single woman who sells multi-million homes in the Park Cities for Ebby Halliday, was tugged by an urge to help the disadvantaged about a month earlier. So she offered to join Parker, a fellow Park Cities Baptist Church member, who makes charitable journeys downtown every weekday evening and weekend afternoon--something he has done for years. Koop had stuck with it, going with Parker nearly every day since Thanksgiving.

But on this wet December evening, Koop saw for the first time children living on the streets with their parents. Matthew, 11, and Roderick, two and a half, were drenched, tired, and sleeping on the sidewalk concrete.

"I was shocked. It was freezing cold. I don't know, I just expected that everyone is going to have enough friends that they can at least call one friend so kids aren't sleeping on the street," Koop says.

As she spoke to the homeless family, a police officer approached, Koop says. The cop told Koop he would call Child Welfare and Protective Services (CPS) and have the children removed from the parents. The boys' mother objected. She claimed her family was only on the street until they reached a brother on the telephone who would provide them with shelter.

Koop, who came to Dallas from her East Texas hometown of Rusk six years ago, accepted the mother's story. "I thought, 'Why should this lady's kids be yanked from her,'" Koop says.

The do-gooder real estate agent told the officer that she and Parker would take responsibility for getting the family into a shelter. The cop shrugged and walked off. Koop and Parker took the children and their parents to the Dallas Life Foundation, which provides shelter for families.

But less than a week later, on New Year's day, while again downtown delivering donations with Parker, Koop was appalled to see Matthew and Roderick on Cadiz Street with their parents. The 11-year-old worried her the most. He had been vomiting all day and had trouble breathing.

This time, when Koop took the boys with their parents to Dallas Life, the shelter officials wouldn't let the family in because the father was drunk and Matthew was too sick. (Dallas Life director, Lanny Thomas, says the family would have been advised to send Matthew to a hospital.)

Dismayed at the notion of leaving children--particularly a sick one--on the street, Koop talked to the mother. "Let me take them with me," she said. "I'll meet you back here in the morning. And we'll figure something out."

Koop took the boys to her one-bedroom Oak Lawn apartment to sleep that night. They have spent every night--and day--there since.

In the ensuing weeks, Koop has discovered that neither the parents nor Child Protective Services are in any rush to retrieve the children. At a time when people as powerful as Newt Gingrich are floating radical ideas, like government orphanages, to deal with the problems of disadvantaged kids, Koop finds herself an unconventional, somewhat reluctant, one-woman alternative. She doesn't quite know what to make of her situation. Nor do others, for that matter.

"It is very unusual," says Linda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Protective Services, "for someone to just take in children off the street."

But Koop has done just that--largely because she can't figure out a humane alternative or bear the thought of returning the boys to the street.

The boys' parents have not found an apartment. Nor have they participated, as they promised Koop they would, in the Dallas Life Foundation's program to gets jobs and housing, according to the social service agency director Thomas.

CPS workers have been slow to return Koop's phone calls since they asked Koop to meet them and sign papers jointly with the boys' mother assigning the real estate agent temporary custody of Matthew and his brother Roderick. "I guess they're just real busy," Koop says, recalling that one time when she called, an agency worker told her that 11 homeless children had been turned over to the agency already that day.

With the shy younger boy Roderick clinging to her legs most of the day, Koop has begun mulling the idea of becoming a foster parent. At first, she says, "The whole point of me taking the kids was trying to help the parents get settled." But now she finds everything less defined. "We are doing it one step at a time, one day at a time," Koop says.

It was when the boys' mother called the morning after the first night at her house that it began to dawn on Koop that she had gotten herself into a longer-term arrangement than she had intended. The mother wanted Koop to meet her with the boys downtown so that a CPS worker could give them some clothing.

CPS was already aware of Koop's temporary arrangement. Before taking the boys home, Koop and Parker had taken Matthew and Roderick to Children's Medical Center to get treatment for the older boy who was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. At the hospital, Matthew had to wait for hours so Koop took Roderick to her apartment and Parker stayed with the big brother. Koop's friend told a CPS worker stationed at the hospital about Koop's deal with the mother. The CPS worker approved the informal plan but took down all the pertinent information about Matthew, his brother, his parents and Koop, Parker says. (Local CPS officials declined to comment on the matter and referred all queries to their Austin offices, which has yet to return calls.)

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