Ron Carpenter was looking forward to going home. It was shortly before quitting time on a Thursday in early November and Carpenter, a maintenance man at an apartment complex in far East Dallas, was anticipating being greeted by his daughter, Autumn, a pixyish 3-year-old with silky brown hair. He loved the way Autumn rushed to him at the door each night, squealing in delight, her arms thrown wide open.
It had been a tough year for the Carpenter family. On Halloween Day a year earlier, Shallin Carpenter, Ron's wife and Autumn's mother, died of a heart attack. She was only 42, and was pregnant with twins at the time of her death.
Carpenter was left to nurse his grief and to figure out how to be both father and mother to his sad, bewildered little girl who was old enough to miss her mother terribly, but lacked the maturity to comprehend what had happened.
At 4:45 p.m., minutes before Carpenter was supposed to leave work and head back to his Garland apartment, he was called into his boss' office for a phone call. A friend of Autumn's baby sitter was on the line. The man informed Carpenter that several hours earlier, Garland police had arrested the sitter, Cathy White, for delivering crack cocaine to undercover officers. Autumn had been with her at the time, the man said, and the officers had taken her to the police station.
Carpenter ran to his battered 1982 Toyota and sped off to Garland police headquarters, praying his car would not break down as it had a habit of doing. He arrived at the station and fidgeted as the desk sergeant repeatedly paged the officer who had Autumn. Finally Carpenter was told that his daughter was on her way to Child Protective Services on Stemmons Freeway. A division of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, CPS is responsible for investigating accusations of child abuse and neglect, and is charged with determining what is in the best interests of children who find themselves in perilous circumstances.
The desk sergeant told Carpenter to wait at the station for a call from CPS. Two hours later, CPS intake investigator Barbara Anderson called him. She told Carpenter that his baby sitter had told undercover police officers that she had been dealing drugs and engaging in prostitution for the past 19 years.
Carpenter told Anderson he had no knowledge of Cathy White's arrest, but he was aware that she had been in trouble with the law in the past. Carpenter tried to explain to the caseworker that he was in a desperate situation when he arranged for White to baby-sit Autumn. The state had cut his $200 monthly food-stamp allotment making it impossible for him to pay a neighbor $50 a week to watch his daughter. Cathy White had told him she was on parole for a drug charge, but was trying to turn her life around. Carpenter explained that he had gone as far as to meet twice with White's parole officer before giving her the job.
Worried about his daughter's fragile emotional state--having lost her mother and now being separated from her father--Carpenter pressed to know when he could pick up Autumn. All Anderson would tell him was that another CPS worker would be in touch and that a court hearing would be held within 14 days. For the first time, it dawned on Carpenter that it was he and Autumn, more than his baby sitter, who would suffer for White's run-in with the law.
According to an affidavit Anderson wrote the next day, the caseworker had not believed that Carpenter was unaware of his baby sitter's dope dealing. She also believed that Carpenter had "a history of neglectful supervision." She wrote that a nationwide registry of child abusers--called CANRIS (Child Abuse And Neglect Report and Inquiry System)--showed that CPS had removed Carpenter's son from a previous marriage from Carpenter's custody because of "a lack of supervision." This information, however, was not true to the facts.
Cathy White was let out of jail four days after her arrest. No charges were brought against her, and the Garland police can't say whether there ever will be. But for Carpenter, his travails with the legal system were just beginning. It would be five months before he would regain custody of his daughter.
During that time, CPS workers would accuse him of being an alcoholic and demand he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several times a week. They would prevent him from seeing his daughter for almost a month after they removed her from his custody. Finally, they would order him to take eight weeks of parenting classes, causing the already struggling single father to miss a half day of work each week.
Despite Carpenter's pleas to spend time with his daughter, CPS refused to let him call or write his daughter, or allow him to visit her more than once a week. The visits lasted for only an hour, inside a CPS office, where a caseworker--and sometimes other children--were present. Over the months, he watched helplessly as his daughter grew increasingly distant from him. During his first visitation, he says, she sat on his lap sobbing, "I want go home." By the beginning of her fifth month of being separated from her father, she cried for the foster mother whom she called "mommy."
In the midst of this five-month struggle, Carpenter came to the conclusion that it was the police, not he, who had knowingly endangered his daughter. In an affidavit, one of the undercover police officers wrote that they took Cathy White and Autumn out on drug buys on two separate occasions, a week apart. Carpenter argues that the police had an obligation to alert him that his daughter was in danger after the first incident.
Carpenter's fight for the return of his daughter was a battle he believes he never should have had to fight. But it was a battle he was determined not to lose. As he tried to tell caseworker Anderson during their phone conversation, which is duly noted in her affidavit, "Autumn," he says, "is all I have left."
On a Sunday in early March, Ron Carpenter filled the hours during which he once used to take Autumn to the park building her a wooden canopy bed. In anticipation of her someday soon getting to sleep in it, he carefully stitched the blue and pink canopy. On the headboard he painted balloons and hand-lettered Autumn's name inside them--"without stencils," he says proudly.
Carpenter is a small, intense man, a nonstop talker who recites whole passages--literally chapter and verse--from the Texas Family Code in an effort to show how child-welfare workers did him wrong. It was coincidence that White's arrest put Carpenter at odds with the child-protection system because he had clashed with the system before and had, for a time, been an activist for changing it.
He is also a man who is honest about his shortcomings, including being extremely abrasive when dealing with officials.
A psychologist who conducted a CPS-required psychological evaluation of Carpenter found him to be "arrogant, conceited, stubborn, and overly suspicious."
"You know me pretty well," Carpenter told the doctor, William Tedford, a psychologist in private practice and a Southern Methodist University professor.
But Tedford was careful to add in his report that none of these irritating attributes would prevent Carpenter "from being a good parent." Tedford says he could understand how the stress of recent months may have exacerbated some of Carpenter's traits, particularly paranoia. "It's like the old saying," he says. "Even paranoids have real enemies."
As far as Carpenter is concerned, he's got only one enemy: the child-protection system. "It is a system that assumes without evidence, that accuses instead of investigates," says Carpenter. "It is a system that has total immunity, that is accountable to no one. Child abuse is a horrible thing. But because of the hysteria surrounding it, we have a system that commits child abuse in the name of protecting children."
In this system, Carpenter says, he has encountered caseworkers and police who treated him as guilty until proven innocent, a judge who refused to hear anything he had to say, a guardian ad litem--a lawyer appointed to represent the interests of his daughter--who didn't do anything in the case except pull down a paycheck.
"I may have had bad judgment in hiring Cathy White," says Carpenter. "But since when is having bad judgment a crime? When the police accused child-care workers in the McMartin Day Care Center in California of child abuse, did they blame the parents for putting their children there?
"All I am guilty of," he says, "is being lied to by my baby sitter."
Ron Carpenter's past is littered with three failed marriages and an ugly custody battle that resulted in a felony conviction.
In the early 1980s, Carpenter was living in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh, when he met his third wife, Patricia. She was working at a pizza restaurant near the window factory where Carpenter worked.
They married in 1984 and their son, Jimmy, was born a year later. By then their marriage was on shaky ground. "Her parents and I didn't get along well either," he says. "They were the country-club set and I was a mill hand."
But soon the situation soured. Without Carpenter's knowledge, his ex-wife asked the court to give her primary custody. She told the judge that Carpenter had genital herpes which could pose a danger to her son. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
The judge ordered temporary joint custody until a full hearing could be heard, according to Carpenter.
Carpenter feared a protracted custody battle would ensue. He was running out of money for lawyers, while his wife's attorney was hired by her family. "I could see that eventually they would prevent me from having any contact with my son," he says.
So he gathered up his son and ran. "At the time, I thought what I was doing was right for my son," he says. "But I know I did my ex-wife a great wrong."
Carpenter and Jimmy settled in Crowell, Texas, a farm and ranching town of 1,230 in West Texas--80 miles from Wichita Falls. For the next four years they lived a quiet country life in a community where everyone knew everyone else--or thought they did. Carpenter got a job as a trash collector and his son was looked after by a woman who offered day care in her home.
Their life together ended when the authorities stumbled upon them by accident. A CPS worker was investigating an unrelated case when she happened upon Jimmy's day care. The investigator ran all the children's names through a computer and Jimmy's name came up as having been abducted four years earlier by his father. Pennsylvania authorities had issued a warrant for Carpenter's arrest.
Foard County Sheriff Bobby Bond, who knew Carpenter and Jimmy, reluctantly arrested Carpenter. "It was a hard thing to do," Bond says. "I know he took good care of the kid. He was always with the boy when he wasn't working. He was a good, hardworking guy who never caused any trouble."
In her investigative report, a CPS caseworker, who accompanied Bond to pick up Carpenter and Jimmy, wrote: "Mr. Carpenter started explaining to Jimmy that they have been found out and that he would be going to live with foster parents until his mother came to pick him up. Jimmy started crying and at one point ran and hid under a table in the bedroom."
Initially stunned, the community rallied to Carpenter's defense. They raised money for his legal defense and for his fight to regain custody of Jimmy, according to newspaper accounts in the Foard County News. A Pennsylvania court awarded Carpenter's wife full custody and found Carpenter guilty of custodial interference--a third-degree felony. He got a seven-year probated sentence.
Carpenter has not seen his son since, though they talk frequently and exchange letters and pictures.
With his son gone, Ron Carpenter began reading about child-custody issues and how parents frequently level false charges of child abuse in order to win custody. He was convinced by his experience that custody issues needed to be taken out of an adversarial arena.
With the help of Paul Shaffer, a Crowell resident with a background in computers who had helped him fight for his son, Carpenter set about trying to bring together various organizations that were fighting to change the system--including Fathers United for Equal Rights and Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL)--to create a national group that he and Shaffer founded and named Justice in Child Custody Inc. They felt they would be more successful if they presented a united front.
Carpenter collected mailing lists from other organizations, put in an 800 number, and began contacting members of assorted groups from around the country. One person he reached was a divorcee who lived in a small town in Indiana. She was listed as being a member of a VOCAL chapter in her town. In truth, she was the entire chapter.
The woman's name was Sue Ellen Everitt. Friends called her Shallin. Shallin was trying to fight her former father-in-law--a retired judge--for custody of her two sons, one of whom he had recently placed in foster care. CPS had removed them from Shallin's care amid allegations of neglect and alcoholism. Shallin denied the allegations.
Carpenter and Everitt talked almost nightly for several months. They were falling in love even before he finally met her. He brought her back to Texas where they married.
For a while, Shallin, a registered medical assistant, worked in the Crowell Nursing Center. But what she yearned for was to be a full-time mother to a houseful of children. Autumn was born in early October 1993 and Shallin quit her job to care for her daughter. Despite her physician's advice that her heart was too weak to withstand another pregnancy, Shallin got pregnant again, this time with twins. In her 20th week, her dream of a life among children ended when she died from a heart attack.
Carpenter was working two shifts for the city when his wife died. He cut back to one so he could spend more time with Autumn to help her through the tragedy.
Last spring, he left Crowell figuring if he moved to a bigger city, he could get retraining and find a job that would make him more money--or at least enough that he could forgo a second job and spend more time with Autumn.
He and Autumn moved to Dallas last April. For the first month they stayed with Carpenter's old friend Paul Shaffer and his wife, who had moved to Dallas in 1993. "I should have been such a father," says Shaffer of Carpenter. "He doted on that little girl."
Carpenter got a job as a maintenance man for the Diamond Ridge apartments at Buckner Boulevard and Loop 12. He was making $7 an hour, almost double his salary in Crowell. He found a two-bedroom apartment in Garland. He scrambled for childcare; all he could afford was with mostly Spanish-speaking women in the complex who watched children in their apartments.
Carpenter and Autumn settled into a nice routine. Autumn loved to climb on his lap after dinner and look at pictures of her mother that he had scanned into his computer. A few times, Carpenter took Autumn to Crowell to place flowers on her mother's grave. Autumn finally was beginning to understand that her mother was not coming back.
In late August, Carpenter received a letter from the Department of Human Services informing him that because his income had increased, his food stamps and Medicaid benefits would stop at the end of October.
"I was panicked," Carpenter recalls. "It was either find cheaper day care or not feed my family." He contacted Child Care Dallas, among other places which provide subsidized day care, but was told there was a two-year waiting list. He contacted a program that helps retrain people stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs. But the only thing they offered was training as a pharmacist's assistant, a job Carpenter felt certain he could never get because of his felony conviction. He also contacted the Texas Employment Commission, hoping he could find a better-paying job. But the jobs available paid less than what he was already making. To make matters more desperate, DHS cut off his food stamps nearly two months early, in September.
One day, while he walking to his mailbox, a woman approached Carpenter for a light for her cigarette. They struck up a conversation and Carpenter listened to the woman's tale of woe--how she was unfairly evicted from her apartment and was now living in a motel, but was running out of money. The 43-year-old woman said she suffered from epilepsy and survived on a little more $400 a month in disability.
Her name was Cathy White. They talked on the phone a few times after their initial meeting. Carpenter wondered if she might be interested in caring for his daughter. He could not pay her, but he could provide her a place to live and free food--a desperate idea, but he figured it just might work for both of them.
"I thought it sounded like a good idea," Cathy White told the Observer. "I always wanted a little girl."
White told Carpenter that she had been arrested two years earlier for possession and sale of crack cocaine. "She told me she was on parole and that she wanted to turn her life around. Being a Christian man, I thought I should give her a chance."
Still, before the new arrangement could begin, Carpenter wanted to talk to White's parole officer. Emanuel Ogar, the parole officer, came to Carpenter's apartment one weekend afternoon. He told Carpenter that White was under intensive supervision, which meant she had to report to him at least once every two weeks.
"I told Cathy that I was going to talk to the neighbors and anytime they told me anything negative I was going to write her up for a violation," Ogar told the Observer. "She told me she was going to try her best to take care of the child. I felt badly for the man. I told him he was taking a chance with Cathy. But he was in a desperate situation. I think Cathy was a blessing for him."
For the first month, Cathy White appeared to be the answer to Carpenter's prayers. He liked the idea of Autumn being cared for at home. Autumn was very fond of White and White, in turn, took good care of her. She took her regularly to the park and to McDonald's, often paying for her meals out of her own pocket. She had Autumn bathed and in her pajamas waiting for Carpenter when he got home from work.
Carpenter and White admit they had a brief sexual relationship, which ended by mutual consent. Carpenter also helped Cathy locate her son, who was living with his father in East Texas, and offered to help her regain custody.
Carpenter says White was free to go out most evenings. She often went out for a ride on her 10-speed bicycle. He assumed she was going to 7-Eleven for coffee.
Sometime during one of these evening forays, White's friend, William Hardin, who told the Observer he is an informant for the Garland police, introduced her to two men who were interested in buying drugs. They arranged to meet one evening. They gave White money and she took them to an apartment complex. The two men waited in the car until she returned with drugs.
Instead of arresting her then and there, the men scheduled another rendezvous with White, for during the day. One of the men, Garland police investigator R.D. Burns, says he was shocked when White showed up with a little girl--Autumn Carpenter--in tow.
The drill was the same as last time. White took them to an apartment complex. Autumn waited in the car with undercover police officers, while White went upstairs. After White delivered the crack, the men drove her and the girl home.
Investigator Burns says the police didn't immediately act to protect the child because, "We weren't prepared for it. We weren't sure why the little girl was there. If we arrested White then, she may have tried to fight and the child could have gotten hurt. We wanted to wait until we had a plan."
The plan they devised called for setting up another drug deal a week later. White brought Autumn along again, on a drug buy scheduled for November 9. Again Autumn waited with the undercover police officers in the car. White completed the drug purchase and handed over the goods. At that point, a patrol officer who was standing by, arrested White, and Burns took Autumn into protective custody.
"I'm glad the situation came to an end," says Carpenter. "But my child could have gotten killed. Why did they wait for a second time to arrest Cathy White? Why did they leave my daughter in that situation for seven days? Why aren't they being charged with child endangerment?
"Do you know what the authorities would have done to me if I brought my daughter on a drug buy?" Carpenter says, his voice rising with anger. "They would have thrown the book at me."
The night of Cathy White's arrest, Ron Carpenter left the Garland police station dejected. He had expected to take Autumn with him. But he figured the whole mess would be cleared up soon and Autumn would be home in a matter of days.
Carpenter went home and changed his locks to prevent White from returning. He alerted the apartment manager that White was no longer allowed on his premises. That night, White called Carpenter and asked him to deliver her epilepsy medicine to her in jail. He refused, fearing that she had stashed illegal drugs in the medicine cabinet and he would be implicated--further jeopardizing his custody situation. He says White threatened to get even with him.
The next morning, April Smith, a caseworker from CPS, and Garland police Detective Lana Burke paid Ron Carpenter a visit. Burke told Carpenter he was under investigation for "neglectful supervision of a child."
"It was like being under the hot lights and beaten with a rubber hose," Carpenter says. "I was shaking like a leaf. I didn't have a lawyer present and they started asking me all these questions. When I told them how I fell in love with my late wife--over the phone--they said, 'See, you have a history of letting people you don't know into your house.'"
Caseworker Smith asked him how much he drank. "I told them I have overindulged on occasion. I overeat on holidays and sometimes I drink to excess. They implied that I drank to the point I couldn't hear if my daughter cried in the night."
Carpenter felt trapped. CPS and the police were blaming him for hiring the likes of Cathy White, then they turned around and used her as a witness against him.
Cathy White confirmed in an interview that she had told the police she thought Carpenter was an alcoholic, imbibing, she says, a quart of vodka every few days. She also told them he locked his daughter in her room. (Cathy White also told police she lives in "several worlds at the same time," according to police affidavits.)
Carpenter denies ever locking his daughter in her room and says White exaggerated how much he drank, but admits he probably drank more than he should have on occasion. "I did it to fill in the empty spaces in my life," he says. "But I'm not an alcoholic. I don't need a bottle to survive. It never interfered with my work or in being a parent."
Carpenter told Smith and Burke he wanted his daughter home as soon as possible. He reiterated how he hired Cathy White in a moment of desperation, and then only after first checking with her parole officer. He tried to no avail to show them his wife's death certificate, and the legal documents surrounding the case with his son.
A few days later, Carpenter packed up some of Autumn's clothing and possessions, including her favorite doll, which he had given her in October for her third birthday, and pictures of himself and her mother. Paul Shaffer brought them to a CPS-run safe house in Garland. CPS didn't deliver them to Autumn for four weeks.
A court date was set for November 20, in the courtroom of State District Judge Sheryl Lee Shannon.
Barely making ends meet as it was, Ron Carpenter could not find an attorney who would represent him for less than $1,500. So he decided to represent himself. Before his scheduled hearing, he met with Assistant District Attorney Mike Smith and Briana Curry, the CPS caseworker assigned to the case. They wanted Carpenter to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He agreed to do so, only if, after submitting to a psychological and chemical-dependency screening, the test results indicated he needed treatment.
Carpenter also told the district attorney and caseworker he did not want to see his daughter spend any more time than necessary in the foster-care system. Desperate again, Carpenter told them that if his situation did not come to a rapid conclusion, he would be willing to have his daughter adopted by Paul Shaffer's daughter and son-in-law in South Carolina.
The judge approved the agreement the parties had reached and scheduled the next hearing for mid-January.
For the entire month of November, Carpenter was barred from seeing his daughter. Apparently the caseworker had misunderstood Carpenter when he talked of possibly having his daughter adopted. He meant it only as an alternative to Autumn spending an inordinate amount of time in the limbo of foster care. The caseworker thought he was abdicating his rights to the state. Even so, Carpenter wonders why they wouldn't let him see her.
He was prevented from seeing his daughter the third week in November because of the Thanksgiving holiday. Briana Curry told Ron Carpenter she liked transporting the children herself and was not able to do so that week because of her vacation.
"I thought this was a system that worked in the best interest of the child, not the best interest of the caseworker," says Carpenter. Curry and the other CPS workers involved in the case declined to be interviewed, citing CPS policy that prevents them from talking about specific cases.
In early December, Ron Carpenter was scheduled for a psychological and chemical screening with Janice Young, a psychologist who offices inside the Department of Human Services.
Ron Carpenter's meeting with Young went poorly. The interview ended prematurely, Carpenter says, because Young felt "I was being hostile."
Carpenter walked next door to the CPS building to meet with Briana Curry. She handed him his case plan. Though Young clearly hadn't had time to do a thorough evaluation, Curry's case plan called for Carpenter to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week, plus an eight-week parenting class. The plan also called for Carpenter to find suitable day care for his daughter, "to be more understanding of his daughter's needs and her capabilities," and, "he will make wiser decisions regarding his daughter's care and protection instead of finding quick and easy solutions."
Even with the expense and work loss, Carpenter didn't object to the parenting classes. "Everyone can learn more about how to be a parent," he says. He does think he would have gotten more out of it had he had his daughter around, so he could have tried out some of the things he learned.
But he objected to attending AA. It was time-consuming and unnecessary, he says. "I'm not an alcoholic, so why should I admit to something that's not true. What does that teach my child?"
Before signing off on the case plan, Carpenter wrote that he wouldn't attend AA. He also wrote: "I feel additional visitation is needed to reduce the trauma for my daughter and will continue to raise this concern until such time as her return or additional visitation is scheduled." His request went unanswered.
Carpenter got CPS' blessing to hire his own psychologist to evaluate him. A member of Fathers United for Equal Rights recommended William Tedford, a psychologist and professor at SMU. (Tedford has no formal connection with groups like Fathers United. "I've had maybe one to two dozen cases with them," he says. "In general, I believe in the concept that fathers shouldn't automatically be presumed the inferior parent. But the Fathers United group is a little bit extreme and extremely bitter. I can do without referrals from that organization. I try to help out if it's a situation I think I can help.")
Tedford saw Carpenter once a week for four weeks. He administered two tests--a personality test and a substance-abuse screening. "It is my professional opinion that Mr. Carpenter is not chemically dependent and does not have an alcohol problem," Tedford wrote in his one-page report.
He based his findings partly on the results of the tests. In addition, Carpenter had offered to submit to periodic urinalyses as proof that he had quit drinking. Tedford suggested, instead, that Carpenter take a daily dose of Antabuse, a pill that makes a person violently ill if they drink alcohol within three days of taking the pill. Carpenter readily agreed and his boss at the apartment complex where he worked volunteered to supervise his pill-taking.
"The fact that he readily agreed to his plan, and has had no difficulty in following it, is a strong indicator to me that there was no problem," Tedford wrote.
Tedford has worked on almost two dozen cases that have involved CPS. In every case except one, he says, he thought CPS mishandled the situation. He thinks CPS did wrong by Ron and Autumn Carpenter.
"There was no reason to keep the child as long as they have," Tedford says. "It was quite reasonable to keep the child overnight. With enough bureaucratic incompetence, maybe they keep her a week. But that's all.
"It seems to me that once CPS gets their teeth in a case, egos get involved and it becomes a game," Tedford says. "They want to win rather than looking at what's in the best interest of the child. They seem to make up their minds in the first 10 minutes. A parent can burn a child with a cigarette, scald them with water, and if the parent says, 'Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, I'll take an abusing parent class,' the child is put right back in."
Autumn Carpenter had been in foster care for almost two months by the time of her father's next court date--January 16. Carpenter hoped that Autumn would be released to him then. He had done everything that CPS had required of him: He had found suitable day care (the Child Life Learning Center was holding a spot for Autumn); he had finished his parenting classes, taking two in one week to get the course finished in time for the hearing; and he had completed the court-ordered psychological tests. Tedford, in fact, had come to court, to testify about his findings.
But CPS delayed the hearing. This time, Briana Curry told the judge that CPS had yet to have Autumn evaluated by a doctor for developmental delays. (Curry would set up an appointment in the next few weeks--at the same time as Carpenter's regular visit with his daughter--forcing his visit to be canceled.)
In addition, Curry submitted to the judge a harsh status report on Carpenter. She wrote that Autumn needed to remain in substitute care so further evaluation of her emotional needs could be done and the risks of her home environment could be evaluated.
About Carpenter, she wrote:
There has been little progress made toward alleviating the existing problems in the family. While working with this family, additional concerns have come up. Mr. Carpenter is extremely uncooperative, at times hostile, and has refused all services provided by Child Protective Services. He is not willing to work with his caseworker and will not take any responsibility for his actions that place his child in a potentially dangerous situation. Mr. Carpenter has made poor decisions regarding the care and protection of his child and has not displayed behavior that would suggest he understands this. A psychological and a drug evaluation were set up for Mr. Carpenter but he refused to complete them. Mr. Carpenter became very hostile toward the counselor who was performing the evaluation so the test could not be completed. This counselor has recommended additional intervention, such as AA or in-patient treatment, but Mr. Carpenter denies any substance-abuse problem. Autumn's behavior during the weekly visits has been very disturbing and has caused alarm. From the beginning, Autumn has cried throughout the visits, and refuses interaction with her father. She begins crying when she sees her father. This behavior has added to the concerns with the family and will require additional services. Mr. Carpenter needs to accept his responsibilities and show a stronger commitment to improving his lifestyle before progress can be made. In the future, cooperation with the Child Protective Services will be helpful.
The judge set the next hearing for the end of March. Autumn was to stay in foster care until then. The guardian ad litem, Damon Rowe, concurred, based on CPS' allegations, that Carpenter was not cooperating with the agency.
Between mid-January and mid-February, Dr. Tedford conducted several more psychological exams of Ron Carpenter. Although Tedford had administered the same tests Janice Young had attempted to do on Carpenter, caseworker Curry complained that most reports she gets are longer than the one-page he wrote on Carpenter.
"I gave him more tests and they came out almost exactly the same," says Tedford. "That's an example of the kind of garbagey things CPS does."
One of the tests evaluated Carpenter's parenting skills. "It showed he was an above-average parent," says Tedford. "I believe this guy is really interested in his kid. Clearly I can't sit here and know if someone is lying. If I did I would be a professional poker player. But I think he was being very truthful."
Tedford admits that Carpenter took a risk in hiring Cathy White, but is impressed that he checked her out as much as possible. "He interviewed the parole officer, which seems like to me he went the extra mile," says Tedford. "[Carpenter] figured she was under the gun of being supervised."
Tedford's findings did not speed the process any. The next hearing was set for March 22. At the beginning of March, Briana Curry had informed Carpenter that it was likely his daughter would be coming home after that hearing.
The Autumn Carpenter case is but one of 10 pending cases in which Damon Rowe has been appointed guardian ad litem. He sees his job as taking neither the state's, nor the parents' side, but "ferreting out what's in the best interest of the child."
Damon Rowe has a unique vantage point from which to view the world of child-protective-service cases. His mother, Ora Lee Watson, the former principal of the Townview Magnet School, has been a foster parent to some 14 children over the years, some of them crack babies.
By mid-March, Rowe had met with Ron Carpenter only once and had never visited Autumn. "Most ad litems do that before the process ends," Rowe explains. He was surprised to hear that the Carpenter case was scheduled to end in the coming week. Rowe says he has concerns with both sides of the case. He is not sure the child should have been away from her parent for as long as she has been. But he is also concerned with Carpenter's decision to hire Cathy White and CPS' allegations that Carpenter was not complying with the case plan.
On the evening of March 21, the night before his daughter was scheduled to come home, Ron Carpenter was busy. He baked a cake and laboriously hand-lettered a banner that said, "Welcome Home Autumn."
He was excited--and more than a little nervous. "I know this is going to be traumatic for her," he says. Earlier in the week, during Carpenter's Tuesday visitation with Autumn, as they sat in the CPS office blowing bubbles, Autumn kept saying, 'My mommy's coming, my mommy's coming,' in reference to her foster mother.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston