By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
After the visitation, the caseworker gave Carpenter some of Autumn's newly acquired toys to take home: several bags of stuffed animals and a bicycle with training wheels.
"Frankly, I feel like I'm competing for my daughter's affection," Carpenter says. "I can't give her these kinds of things. I don't have a lot of bucks to begin with. Here I am losing work for parenting classes, paying for Dr. Tedford, being financially raped trying to prove my innocence."
Soon, he'll have other expenses. Beginning Monday evening, he will take Autumn to a colleague of Dr. Tedford's, who specializes in counseling children. He also will have to buy another car: His Toyota finally died several weeks ago. But at least he will not have to pay for childcare for the next six months. CPS, as part of its client services, will pay for Autumn's childcare for six months--"the only beneficial thing they've done for me," says Carpenter bitterly.
On the morning of March 22, the court proceeding was over almost before it began. Briana Curry and Damon Rowe told the judge that the parties were in agreement that Autumn Carpenter could return home. Curry told Carpenter she would deliver Autumn between 12:30 and 1 p.m.
Autumn marched into her father's tiny one-bedroom apartment--he moved recently into the complex where he works--proudly brandishing a plastic bear filled with candy. Carpenter is afraid to hug her. "I don't want to push her," he explains later. "She's used to hugging me when our visits were over and I was leaving. I don't want to confuse her any more than she already is."
And, after four months of foster care, Autumn is confused.
As she checks out this new, strange place, her eyes widen at the sign decorated with balloons, and at the fish tank, in which her father has fashioned a house that she can light up with the flick of a switch. But as she looks around in wonder, she keeps repeating like a mantra, "My mommy coming. My mommy coming."
The first few times, Carpenter and Briana Curry ignore the comment. Then Curry tries to explain to the little girl that she is going to stay here now and that the other woman was her foster mommy, not her real mommy.
Autumn looks momentarily bewildered and her eyes fill with tears. Then she's off exploring the apartment again. She finds the cake her father has baked and wants some now. Carpenter cajoles her into eating a bologna sandwich first. She wanders around the apartment, opening drawers, poking her head into her new bedroom.
"I want to go home," she says, almost to herself. "I want my mommy. My mommy's coming."
No one says a word.
Finally, Carpenter says as nonchalantly as he can. "You are home, honey.