Four-year-old Noel* is a happy, outgoing girl who just finished her first year of preschool. You would never know that her life has been filled with so much instability. But it has.
Noel’s young mom struggles with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts that have gotten her into scrapes with the police. Her dad is absent. And Noel and her mom have lived with several relatives since she was a baby.
The bright spot? Throughout it all, she’s had Grandma Dee (pictured left, with her Children's Law Center attorney Rebecca Goldfrank on the right).
Grandma Dee has been there through good times and bad, always making sure Noel had a safe place to stay. She’s helped her celebrate birthdays and holidays. And Grandma Dee has taken her in, time and again, when Noel’s mom was arrested.
Turns out Dee is actually Noel’s great aunt – but Noel prefers to call her grandma. “She said it wasn’t fair that someone else got to call me grandma so she wanted to call me grandma, too,” Dee says with a laugh.
The two are very close.
Last year, when Noel was three, the police caught Noel’s mom driving at a high speed through a residential neighborhood. Drugs were in the car. And Noel was found in the front seat. That’s what finally landed Noel in emergency foster care.
Dee was willing to bring Noel to her home again – but this time there was a catch.
Noel’s mom wasn’t getting along with Grandma Dee anymore. She requested that Noel live with another relative while DC’s child welfare agency determined whether or not it would be safe to have Noel live with her mom again. Unfortunately, that arrangement fell apart, leading Noel to be placed into foster care.
Grandma Dee was granted permission to visit Noel. “Noel seemed so withdrawn; she didn’t seem like the same child anymore,” Dee said. She was determined to get Noel back.
At long last, Noel’s mom agreed to let her daughter live with Grandma Dee. But by this time, the child welfare agency said it couldn’t license Dee as a foster parent. Even though Dee had cared for Noel in the past – and had a stable work history and owned her own house – she was already caring for an adult relative who had a disability. The agency was concerned that Dee couldn’t handle caring for another person.
“It was frustrating. I felt like I was getting the run around,” Dee said.
She wasn’t deterred. Instead, she found Children’s Law Center through an Internet search and quickly connected with attorney Rebecca Goldfrank. Rebecca leads the Families First program, which helps relatives and other caring adults seeking to provide a permanent home for children in foster care or at risk of entering the system.
The two hit it off.
“When I met Dee I thought: she’s just like your aunt or my aunt,” Rebecca said. “She loves her great niece and knew there was just no reason Noel had to live in the home of a stranger. She was very focused.”
The feeling was mutual.
“I really truly needed Rebecca,” Dee said. “I was frustrated and needed someone to hold my hand through the process of getting Noel back. Rebecca was very thoughtful, detailed and very concerned with my concerns. And she moved the case forward.”
Rebecca’s first step was to make sure Grandma Dee could have regular visits with Noel. Then she navigated a number of complex, bureaucratic hurdles to get Dee licensed as a foster parent. It took many phone calls, meetings and discussions – and finally, the agency licensed Dee.
When Noel finally got to live with Grandma Dee again, it was a welcome homecoming. But getting bounced from home to home was taking its toll.
“Noel kept thinking someone was going to come and take her away from me,” Grandma Dee said. “She kept hiding under the chair or under the table.” Dee brought Noel’s belongings to her house and put up pictures of Noel on the walls with the other grandchildren. Slowly, Noel started to believe that she was staying.
Dee decided it was time to show Noel that she was really home forever.
“Since we had to go back and forth to court so many times, with her mom changing her mind about who she wanted, I didn’t want Noel to live like that,” Grandma Dee said. She decided to adopt Noel. “I felt it was better to have the permanency of adoption,” she said.
It’s been a long process. First, the child welfare agency had to conclude its investigation and the family court had to determine whether or not Noel could safely be returned to her mom. When the court decided it wasn’t safe for Noel to reunite with her mom, Rebecca and Grandma Dee began adoption proceedings. That process is almost done winding its way through the family court; Noel’s adoption should be finalized by the end of summer.
Noel has now spent a year living with Grandma Dee, the longest time she’s lived in any one place. And she also attended preschool, bonding with her teachers.
“She’s happier and more outspoken, more outgoing,” Grandma Dee said. “She loves her school and everybody in the school knows her name and knows me.”
Despite her bumpy early years, Noel’s future is looking brighter and brighter. “I’m looking forward to my niece growing up and blossoming into an independent, self-sufficient woman,” Dee said.
It’s a happy outcome for a little girl who desperately needed an end to the instability in her life. All because of the love and strength of her Grandma Dee – and the skilled legal advocacy of her lawyer Rebecca from Children’s Law Center.
*We work hard to protect the confidentiality of our child clients. That’s why Noel and Grandma Dee’s names have been changed in this story. All other details are true.