Moment of truth: Will Autumn return to the mother who gave her life?

By Martha Irvine, AP
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

2 families bond as young mom’s baby comes home

EDITOR’S NOTE — Still living in poverty, a young mother has done her best to bond with the baby that another family has cared for for six months, though she’s still not sure she’s ready to have her baby come home. The mother of the foster family has her own mixed emotions about giving the baby back. Will they make good on the promises they’ve made one another? The last of three installments.

ROUND LAKE, Ill. (AP) — Hazel Evans awoke to the sound of cries from her baby, who was sick with an ear infection during an overnight visit.

The 20-year-old mother of three was exhausted, despondent even. Little more than two months earlier, she’d lost her mother, the person she’d leaned on most for strength and support. Then Hazel’s boyfriend was laid off from his job, leading to financial stress that threatened to break them. Shortly after, a terrible accident left one of her 3-year-old twins in intensive care.

Hazel couldn’t help but question her ability to be a good mother to the 5-month-old baby named Autumn, whose care she had entrusted to a family she’d met through a private social services agency in Chicago.

She’d done it to give herself time to get her life together.

Instead, she felt like she was falling apart.

It didn’t help that lately, when Autumn came for visits like these, her teary brown eyes searched everywhere for Jessica-Anne Becker, the volunteer foster mom who’d been caring for Autumn since she was just 2 days old. “It would almost be like she was homesick, like she missed Jessica and David,” Jessica’s husband, Hazel said. “That broke my heart.”

That night last November, though, there was something different — an awakening, of sorts — as Hazel picked up her wailing baby, rocked her gently and truly saw her for the first time in weeks.

“She just looked up at me so sweetly,” Hazel said. “And that’s when it hit me.”

Her baby needed her, and she needed her baby.

“I love my baby and I want her to come home,” Hazel said to herself as she woke up later that morning. “I love Autumn.”

Autumn certainly was an easy baby to love. By early December, when she was 6 months old and cutting her first tooth, she was sitting up, smiling a lot and more engaging than ever.

“It’s my favorite age,” Jessica said, wistfully. Her heart clearly entangled, she was becoming increasingly hesitant to send Autumn back to Hazel full-time. She had invested a lot in the well-being of this little girl and wanted to make sure she’d be OK.

Hazel also wasn’t quite ready and wanted to put off Autumn’s homecoming another three months, until March, when she and boyfriend Ivan had planned to marry.

That’s when they could begin their life as a family, she thought.

Their caseworker was unconvinced, however, and prodded them to make a decision.

“It’s time for Autumn to bond with her mom,” said Michelle Schaefer, who worked for Safe Families for Children, the agency that had introduced Hazel to the Beckers. “This won’t get any easier if you wait.”

It was time, she said, for Autumn to go home for good.

The pieces of Hazel’s shattered world had indeed begun to come together.

She returned to part-time work at Kmart. Her aunt moved in to help care for the twins. Ivan worked odd jobs and eventually found full-time employment as a mechanic.

Best of all, Hazel’s 3-year-old daughter Desire was expected to fully recover from the head wound she’d gotten when she pulled a dresser on herself. State welfare officials had investigated and deemed it an accident, a finding Jessica wholeheartedly backed.

By now, Jessica was more realistic about the impact she could have in a few short months. As much as they all wanted it, there was never a guarantee of happily-ever-after for Hazel and her girls.

But Jessica also took comfort in knowing that their experience with Hazel was relatively smooth.

She’d heard stories from other Safe Families volunteers about helping single mothers who had four, five, even six kids living with them in a single motel room — and how those volunteers had struggled to send the children they’d cared for back to that life. Some of the children’s parents were drug addicts who’d relapsed. Some were in trouble with the law.

Jessica felt lucky to have developed a close relationship with Hazel and her daughters.

Knowing them, and seeing their struggles firsthand, also had caused the Beckers to soften their view about people who live in poverty and make use of public aid.

“We had a front-row seat to the system, and it’s just so broken,” Jessica said.

She recalled how a pediatrician and a pharmacist treated her coldly when she used Autumn’s state-issued medical card, until they found out she was volunteering to care for Autumn. She witnessed the bureaucracy — how flooded the public social service system was, the waiting for appointments or phone calls about health care or other services for Hazel or her girls.

Jessica had thought money was tight for her family. But now she felt a little ashamed, seeing how difficult it was for someone who makes little more than minimum wage to stay afloat, let alone get ahead.

“Those people who are in that situation have to want it so much more than I ever wanted to move up the ladder, because they’re not even near the ladder yet,” Jessica said.

Their act of kindness was never going to fix all of that.

But Hazel and the Beckers all took heart in knowing they had kept their most basic promises to one another. Hazel had her own place and a job. The Beckers had given Autumn the best of care.

It wasn’t a victory, but it was a step in the right direction.

Now, five days before Christmas, on a chilly Sunday morning, Autumn was going home, six and a half months after the Beckers had first taken her in.

“Has to be like a Band-Aid. Has to be like a Band-Aid — quick!” Jessica whispered to herself as she rushed around her house in Johnsburg, Ill., packing bottles, teething rings, baby clothes and a brown grocery bag full of toys.

With those belongings she included a blanket, a mix of pink, yellow and purple squares that she’d made for Autumn, staying up until 2 a.m. that morning to finish it.

Jessica had thought she’d have more time, but the decision to send Autumn home had happened more quickly than anyone expected — the youngest of the Beckers’ three daughters, Helene, included.

“But she’s my sister!” she cried out when she realized that Autumn was going home.

Jessica had suspected it would be hardest for Helene, but she was taken aback at the emotion. “I’ve never heard her cry harder than she cried then,” she said.

The day Autumn went home, the girls said quiet goodbyes as Jessica dropped them off at a friend’s house. Then Jessica, David and Michelle, their caseworker, made the short drive to Hazel and Ivan’s apartment, with Autumn in tow.

The Beckers remembered how excited their own girls had been when Autumn arrived in their home last June.

This time, Hazel’s place buzzed with excitement, as Autumn’s twin sisters gathered around her, singing to her softly and bringing her stuffed animals.

This time, Hazel was the consoler, just as Jessica had been for her when Autumn first went to live with the Beckers.

“It’s not goodbye,” Hazel said, as they hugged and cried in Hazel’s crowded kitchen. “I’ll just say, ‘See you later.’”

Jessica took Autumn in her arms and hugged and kissed her, then handed her to Ivan. “Take care of my girls,” she told him and then departed quickly, saving her biggest tears for the parking lot.

Inside, Hazel and Ivan sat with the three girls on their bed and played and laughed and smiled. It was one of those picture-perfect — if temporary — family moments.

In the weeks that followed, there were struggles in both households.

At first, Hazel did everything she could to avoid being with her three daughters by herself. The very thought of taking all of them to the grocery store by herself was, in itself, overwhelming.

Stressed about money, she and Ivan fought, sometimes so much that Hazel slept on the living room couch. They put their wedding on hold.

Jessica knew they were having difficulties, even if Hazel didn’t always say so. It still brought her to tears when one friend too many asked how she was doing without Autumn. But mostly, she channeled her worry by offering to take Hazel’s girls overnight to give her an occasional break, or by inviting Hazel over to do laundry.

It was something a mom would do. And with her own parents gone, Hazel would become increasingly willing to let Jessica take on that role of mother, and grandmother to her girls (though Jessica prefers to call herself “Aunt Jessica,” or “A.J.,” for short).

“You’re the closest thing to parents I have,” Hazel had told the Beckers shortly after her mom’s death in September, just three months after they’d met.

Now, it seemed, all three of them were truly starting to believe it.

These two moms from different worlds had formed an unlikely bond — a connection they hoped would last, for themselves, for the twins and especially for the sake of the wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked baby girl they both loved so much.

“David and our girls will be a part of her life for the rest of our lives,” Jessica said, “As long as that’s OK with her mom.”

This was family, redefined.

On the Net:

Safe Families:

Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine(at) or

will not be displayed