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.)
In front of a CPS worker who was providing the clothes, the boys' mother asked a stunned Koop to take temporary custody of the children so that Matthew could attend school. "I had never mentioned it," says Koop. "I thought it was just going to be a night or two." Koop and the mother later signed temporary custody papers with--significantly--no termination date.
The CPS worker who brought the clothes had also filled out a "Child Safety Evaluation and Plan," which Koop now carries in her brief-case. The two-page document calls for the boys' mother to notify CPS of any changes which may affect the care of her children," citing as a possibility, relocation. It also states that an agency "worker will assist with family as needed and requested."
In the evenings now, Matthew sleeps on Koop's living room couch and Roderick shares her bed. Koop has begun taking the boys with her to the Sunday school class she teaches each week at Park Cities Baptist. "She's always has a sense of joy about children," says Linda Alexander, who runs the children's programs at the church.
On a sunny afternoon last week, the boys were kicking a bright orange ball around the matching, pastel-striped and white-washed pine furniture in Koop's one-bedroom Oak Lawn apartment. Twice, the ball threatened a dried-flower-and-calico wreath hanging in the dining room.
"Matthew, y'all settle down now for just a second, you hear, " Koop tells the older boy.
The game ceases, but only for a moment, starting up again minutes later with more bounce than before. This time, there is a loud crack and the bulbs in a ceiling fan blink off as its cord wraps around the blades.
"I knew this was going to happen sooner or later," Koop says as she helps Matthew crawl up on a chair to fix the cord.
"Tell her what you don't like about living outside," Koo tells the older boy, as he joins her on a chair with her and his younger brother.
"The coldness, the hard sidewalk, and the food," he says, scrunching his features at the memory. "Most of the food was nasty, and it always came late."
Matthew says he has been on and off the streets for as far back as he can remember. "I've been in just about every school in Dallas," he brags. Koop confirmed Matthew's claim this past month when she went to the most recent school he attended to get his papers and took the documents to register him at a school near her home. Matthew's teacher at his old school told Koop that Matthew, whom he had only had in class for a few weeks, could amount to college material if he just stayed in one school long enough.
The boys have lived for short periods--eight months was the longest, Matthew says--at the home of the woman whom they call their grandmother. She is the mother of Roderick's father.
But the older woman, Matthew says, didn't want him to stay because he was not her son's child. And she complained Roderick was too little and ran around too much.
His mother and father, Matthew says, have been "straighter sometimes, especially when they come out of rehab." But most of the time, he says, they drink. He doesn't like his mother to drink, he says.
News of Koop's predicament has reached her church and her real estate brokerage office. Friends from both places have begun sending over groceries, clothing, and occasionally baby-sitting help.
"If anyone wants to donate a three-bedroom house that would be great," Koop jokes. In reality, she is getting anxious. The expense of raising two boys even temporarily strains her budget past its limit. Although she sells million-dollar homes, Koop has only been selling two years, and isn't making top dollar yet.
And working itself has become problematic. "I need to sell houses to make a living," Koop says. But going to work regularly has proven nearly impossible. Matthew attends school now but the little one stays with her and she cannot drag a toddler out to show houses.
Koop has asked CPS for some kind of allowance to help defray daycare costs. She has not heard back from the agency about what they can do. Texas Department of Human Services spokeswoman Edwards says although she was not familiar with the specific case, it would be unlikely that Koop could receive such benefits until she formally took on the role as a foster parent, a process that can take three months or longer.
Koop has heard occasionally from the boys' mother, who has telephoned drunk and sober. She has short conversations with the boys. Koop says she has talked to her about giving the boys up for adoption and foster care and the mother has seemed open about the prospect.
For her part, Koop has begun exploring the idea of becoming a foster parent--anything to keep the boys from returning to the county shelter for kids, where they have been before, and, they have told her, they were separated.
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"Was I planning on having kids?" Koop says. "No."
But, as the boys pile on top of her, it's obvious that her plans have been radically altered.
"Roderick follows me everywhere," Koop says. "He doesn't even like it if I take a shower. He pounds on the door."
If Koop were approved as a foster parent, she could receive up to $450 a month reimbursement from the state for each child. But she would first have to pass a 10- to 12-week training course, participate in extensive home studies and, she is afraid, risk losing the boys temporarily--a fear that spokeswoman Edwards says is justified.
"We just never really dealt with something like this before," Edwards says. "I'm not sure how it would be handled.