Sustained, p.21
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       Sustained, p.21

         Part #2 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  “I’m not familiar with the particulars of that case, no.”

  “Hmm. Okay.” I grab another file from the table. “How about Michael Tillings, age fourteen? Are you familiar with his case?”

  Smeed shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Yes, I am.”

  “Good. Please tell the court, Mr. Smeed, what happened to Michael Tillings.”

  “He passed away.”

  He’s hedging, digging his heels into the dirt as he’s propelled closer to a cliff he doesn’t want anywhere near. And I’m just the guy to push him over.

  “Passed away? That’s a very delicate way of putting it. He was murdered, isn’t that correct? While in a group home, run by CFSA—he was beaten by several other boys at the facility?”

  Begrudgingly, he answers. “Yes, we suspect it was gang related.”

  “Gang related or not—the boy died. While in your agency’s custody.”

  Smeed nods, his eyes flat. “That’s correct.”

  I pick up a third file. “Matilda Weiss, age four.”

  The opposing attorney pops up like a rodent in Whac-a-Mole. “What does this have to do with Chelsea McQuaid’s competency as a guardian?”

  “I’m getting there, Your Honor.”

  “Get there quickly, Mr. Becker,” she replies.

  “Tell me about the Weiss case, Mr. Smeed—your signature is on her file.”

  He rubs his hands on his pants, sniffs, and then answers. “There was an allegation of child abuse against the Weiss family.”

  “And you investigated? Visited the home, conducted interviews?”

  “Yes.”

  “What were your findings?”

  He pauses, like he really doesn’t want to answer. But he really doesn’t have a choice.

  “I determined there was not sufficient evidence of abuse to warrant action.”

  My fingers tingle with unspent energy. “So you closed the case file?”

  “Yes.”

  “And two months later, what happened?”

  “A neighbor found Matilda . . . digging through the garbage. Looking for food.”

  “Because her parents were starving her,” I state, my stomach churning.

  “Yes.”

  “Abusing her—even though you had determined that no such abuse was taking place?”

  For the first time he looks me in the eyes, his expression not just strained but guilty. Haunted by the ghosts of lost children and faceless names. “What exactly is your point, Mr. Becker?”

  I walk closer. “You said it’s your job to be critical—to determine who is a fit guardian and who is not. So, my point, Dexter, is sometimes you and your agency just flat out get it wrong.”

  I let the words hang.

  Walking back to the table, I add, “Wouldn’t you agree?”

  “No, I would not.”

  “Oh, no?” I lift a box from the floor and place it on the table. “I have a box full of tragic examples that say otherwise. We can do this all day long.”

  He stutters. “Every . . . each case is different. Just because . . . circumstances may have been overlooked in one instance doesn’t mean there will be errors in the next one.” He takes a breath, composing himself. “You speak of those children, Mr. Becker, rattle off their names and ages—because they’re just names to you. To me . . . they matter.”

  He couldn’t be more fucking wrong. They’re not just names—they’re faces. Riley’s, Rory’s, Rosaleen’s—I saw them all, in every page of those god-awful reports.

  “I will do everything in my power not to fail another child under our care.” Smeed taps his finger on the ledge of the witness box. “Which is precisely why the McQuaid children should remain in our custody. The red flags—”

  I slap my hand on the table. “Red flags—I’m so glad you brought that up. Let’s talk about them.” My movements are swift and sure as I stalk back and forth in front of him. “You said in your report it was the combination of events that pushed you to remove the McQuaid children from Chelsea’s care?”

  “That’s right.”

  “One of those events was Riley McQuaid being detained at a party where alcohol was present.”

  “Yes.” He answers and starts to lecture, “Underage drinking is a sign of lack of parental supervision.”

  I lift my eyebrows. “Are you aware that fifty-one percent of teenagers experiment with alcohol before their fifteenth birthday?”

  “I can’t say if that’s true or not, I don’t know the exact statistic.”

  Again I’m moving forward, closer to him. “But if it was true—fifty-one percent, that would be . . . average, wouldn’t it?”

  “That doesn’t make it permissible—”

  “No, Dexter, it doesn’t. It just makes it normal.”

  I flip the page of the file with a snap and trail my finger down the center. “Your next issue? Rory breaking his arm?”

  “That’s right. Grave injuries, fractures, are always cause for concern.”

  “Even though over seven million people broke a bone in the US last year?” I inform him. “Even though the average adult will have sustained two bone fractures within their lifetime? Rory is a healthy, active nine-year-old, so again, by these statistics it’d be more surprising if he hadn’t broken his arm at some point.”

  He sighs. And rubs his eyes. Because I’m wearing him down. Stressing him out.

  Good.

  “What else caught your attention on the red-flag parade?” I ask.

  “Rory McQuaid’s arrest, as well as the physical altercation between one of the other minors and a classmate at school.”

  “The other minor’s name is Raymond. And again, a schoolyard quarrel really isn’t atypical for a boy his age.”

  “No”—Smeed adjusts his glasses—“but when you add it to the other issues, it compounds—”

  “You are aware these children lost both their parents—violently? Unexpectedly?”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Did it occur to you that they were acting out? Struggling to deal with the emotional trauma they had to endure?”

  “However—”

  I take a step closer, my voice rising with my anger. Because he didn’t take the time, didn’t bother to see any of them. All because he thought he knew better. “Did it for one second occur to you that the reason the flags were so numerous is because there are so many kids? Perfectly normal children experiencing everyday milestones—they’re just doing it all at the same time!”

  “No. You don’t know—”

  “I’ll tell you what I do know, Dexter,” I spit. “I know that you wrenched these kids away from the only family they have left. You took them from the only home they know—where they were wanted, and loved, and most of all, they were safe!”

  “They weren’t safe!” he shouts back, pointing in Chelsea’s direction. “She’s not capable—”

  “You wouldn’t know capable if it came along and bit you on—”

  The judge’s gavel bangs and she calls for order.

  I take a deep breath and reel it in.

  I hold up a supplicating hand to the judge. “Just one or two more questions, Your Honor.”

  She doesn’t look happy. “Proceed.”

  My voice is even as I ask, “If Robert and Rachel McQuaid had survived, and if all the ‘red flags’ had unfolded the same way—would you have sought to terminate parental custody?”

  This is the big one. More important than the stats I’ve cited or the counterarguments I’ve given.

  “I deal in facts, Mr. Becker. Truths. I’m not going to entertain your hypotheticals,” he sneers.

  Until the judge speaks up. “Actually, that’s an answer I’d like to hear as well, Mr. Smeed. If the children had been in the custody of the biological parents, would the situation have been dire enough—given the information you have—to warrant their removal from the home?”

  He blinks and swallows. Stares and shifts. But he’s not dumb enough to lie to a judge. “To the
extent that I can predict such a thing, Your Honor, if it had been a two-parent household, with the biological parents present . . . no, it is more than likely we would not have sought custody of the children.”

  “Would they have even been on CFSA’s radar?” I ask. “A broken arm, a fight on the playground, a busted-up keg party—would you have ever even heard of the McQuaids?”

  He looks down, fidgets again, and then says, “Most likely . . . no.”

  Swish. Nothing but net.

  “I’m done with him, Your Honor.”

  • • •

  After the CFSA questions Smeed—reinforcing his bullshit claims about dire consequences and the potentially unsafe environment Chelsea’s guardianship poses—he’s excused from the stand. I squeeze Chelsea’s knee under the table, then I stand up and call her as a witness. She gets sworn in and sits in the witness box, looking small—timid.

  I catch her gaze and give her a smile, then I lean back casually against the table.

  “Are you nervous, Chelsea?”

  She glances at the judge, then back to me. “A little bit, yeah.”

  “Don’t be. It’s just you and me, having a conversation.”

  She nods her head and I get started.

  “Tell me about the kids.”

  Chelsea practically glows as she talks about the strong-minded woman Riley is growing into, Rory’s precocious energy that will one day lead him to do great things. She smiles as she discusses Raymond’s kind nature, and how no one can be in a room with Rosaleen and not smile. She gets choked up when she mentions Regan and how she learns from her brothers and sisters, and what a good baby Ronan is, how badly she wants to be there to watch him grow into the amazing kid she knows he’ll be.

  “You’re twenty-six,” I say. “You had a whole life in California—friends, an apartment, school. And you put that all aside and came here to be a guardian to your nieces and nephews. Did you ever consider not raising them? Letting child services find new homes for them?”

  She raises her chin. “Never. Not for a second.”

  “Why?” I ask softly.

  “Because I love them. They’re mine. Raising them is the most important thing I’ll ever do.” Her eyes are wet as she turns to the judge. “And some days it’s hard, Your Honor . . . but even on those days, there’s so much joy. They’re everything to me.”

  I give Chelsea a nod, letting her know she did great. Then I sit down and the agency’s lawyer gets her turn.

  She stands. “Miss McQuaid, what is the nature of your relationship with your attorney, Jake Becker?”

  And I’m on my feet. “Your Honor, unless opposing counsel is suggesting I pose some type of danger to the McQuaid children, this type of questioning is completely out of line.”

  “I agree. Move on, Counselor.”

  She does. Trying to spin the incidences with the kids into some kind of negligence on Chelsea’s part. But there’s no damage done. When there’s no smoke, there’s no fire.

  After Chelsea is excused, I submit the statements from the pediatrician, which attest to the kids’ health and how they’re all up to date on their well visits. I also submit statements from Sofia, Stanton, and Brent, corroborating Chelsea’s competency as a guardian and to show that she has a support system. CFSA stands by the argument that originally won them custody and we both rest our cases. The judge says she’ll deliberate and return with her ruling as soon as possible, then court is adjourned.

  After the judge leaves the courtroom, Chelsea turns to me. “What now?”

  “Now . . . we wait.”

  25

  We stay close to the courthouse for lunch, and despite Brent’s most annoying efforts, Chelsea doesn’t touch her food. Two hours later, court is back in session. Chelsea holds my hand in a death grip under the table as the judge clears her throat to render her decision.

  “As one of nine children¸ I feel particularly qualified to rule in this case.” She peers down through her glasses at us. “As Miss McQuaid stated, raising children is hard—particularly six children between the ages of six months and fourteen years. Whether there is one child or ten, however, it is still the court’s responsibility to ensure these children are raised in the custody of a guardian who will care for them and provide a safe environment that allows them to thrive. After reviewing all of the evidence presented, I believe Chelsea McQuaid is just such a guardian . . .”

  Mentally I shout in victory and Chelsea starts to cry.

  “And so I am ordering that physical and legal custody of the six minor children be returned to Miss McQuaid, effective immediately.” She turns her attention to the Children and Family Services side of the room. “CFSA is charged with not just the task of judging parental performance but assisting them as well. Our job is not to tear families apart and claim they are better for it, but to find a way for families to stay together. Children and Family Services will provide the court with monthly updates on this case, and rest assured, I will be looking for increased involvement by that agency when it comes to providing assistance in all areas.” She glances at Chelsea and smiles. “Good luck, Miss McQuaid. Court is adjourned.”

  Chelsea throws herself into my arms, while Brent, Sofia, and Stanton are all smiles too. She looks up at me. “Can we go get them?”

  “Yeah, we can.”

  “Right now?” She bounces.

  “Right now.” I laugh.

  • • •

  We pick up Chelsea’s brother’s truck, then, with the information Janet provided, we drive about an hour north of the city to get the monsters. Chelsea talks and smiles the whole way there, looking so damn overjoyed. Janet notified the foster family that we were on our way, so they’re not surprised when we show up at the front door. It’s a nice place—a big house, a quiet street. The pretty blonde who answers the door tells Chelsea the kids are in the back. We open the sliding glass doors and step into the backyard, and you’d think they haven’t seen Chelsea in two years instead of two days.

  That’s how happy they are. How fast they run to her. How loud they scream when they see her. How long they hug her—like they never want to let go.

  “You’re here!” Rosaleen yells while her aunt tries to hug them all at the same time. “I knew you’d come, I knew it!”

  “Can we go home?” Rory asks Chelsea.

  “Yes—we’re going home.”

  When Regan loses her footing in the mass of hugging bodies and falls on her ass on the grass, I scoop her up. I hold her high for a minute, then settle her comfortably in my arms. She puts her little hands on my cheeks, looks me in the face, and squeaks her third word.

  “Jake!”

  And the whole world goes blurry.

  “Damn, kiddo, you’ve got a way with words.”

  • • •

  It’s around four o’clock by the time we get back to the house and get the kids unpacked. They’re all so hyped up, so excited to be home again, they convince Chelsea to throw a party.

  And she agrees.

  There’s a distinct possibility she’s never going to be able to say fucking no to them again.

  A few hours later, there’s boxes of pizza, soda, streamers, and balloons. Stanton, Sofia, and Brent come, Janet comes, the neighbors come, as well as a bunch of the kids’ friends, and their parents. I kind of hang in the background, leaning up against the wall, watching.

  Distancing myself. From all of it. Drinking a cup of soda and really wishing I could mix it with that bottle of Southern Comfort that’s back to being buried in the freezer.

  It’s dark by the time I step outside, onto the back patio. Bright purple and white hyacinths bloom all around, their heavy perfume making me feel like I’m gonna puke hard. The noises from inside echo out—shrill, delighted childish screeches, music, Stanton’s deep rumbling laugh, the steady drone of adult conversation.

  Even though the weather is on the cool side, I start to sweat.

  I remember the scripture from yesterday, when I went to church wi
th Chelsea. It was about Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for a pardon that would never come.

  Let this cup pass from me . . .

  Seems pretty ironic right about now.

  “You’re gonna dump her, aren’t you?”

  My head jerks toward the corner of the garden, hidden in shadow from the lights streaming out of the house, where Riley is standing.

  And she sounds pissed.

  “I see what you’re doing—the way you lean away from her. The way you’ve been avoiding her all night. You’re acting like one of the boys in my school, right before he dumps his girlfriend in front of the entire cafeteria.” Her anger gives way to confusion and hurt. “How can you do that? Aunt Chelsea is the best person ever. And she loves you.”

  “Riley—”

  “She does! It’s obvious. She’s so happy with you. Why would you take that away from her?”

  I rub the back of my neck. I’ve argued in front of judges with a lifetime of accomplishments behind them. Truly great judiciaries—some of them I studied in goddamn law school. And I was cool as ice.

  I can’t say the same as I try to explain myself to a fourteen-year-old.

  “Riley . . . it’s . . . complicated. I’m trying . . . you can’t . . .” And I go with the old reliable. The ultimate cop-out. “When you’re older, you’ll understand.”

  Fucking pathetic.

  She makes a disgusted sound, then slices me to pieces. “That’s the first time you’ve ever talked to me like I’m some dumb kid. And the truth is, you’re the stupid one!”

  Riley shakes her head at my silence. “You don’t deserve her. You don’t deserve any of us.” She stomps past me, a swirl of furious brown hair. “You’re an asshole!”

  She wrenches open the door and disappears inside.

  And I whisper to no one, “Yeah. I know.”

  Before the door slams shut behind Riley, Chelsea steps out onto the patio.

  “There you are. Riley doesn’t look happy.” She wraps her arms around my neck and leans against me. “Teenage drama already?” Her perfect lips drift closer. “I thought we’d get a few days’ reprieve.”

  I lean back and grip her forearms, slowly sliding them off. My voice is a feeble whisper. “Chelsea . . . we can’t do this.”

  At first she’s confused, still smiling. But then the smile fades, and she understands. Her arms fold around her. “I thought we already were. I thought we were doing really well.”

  We were. But it’s too fucking much. Too fast, too intense, too . . . distracting. I meant what I said to her yesterday—I can’t think of a single thing
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