Most children would welcome being handed $100 for a toy store spending spree.
But 10-year-old Terah Beth Cortez was bright enough to recognize the offer as a ploy to keep her busy while her parents abused cocaine.
Tired of such tactics, weary of being told to leave the room when adults visited and bored with watching TV while her mother slept all day, Terah did what she thought was sensible. She turned her parents in.
It was 2 1/2 years ago that the Reseda girl climbed out a window and called 911 to report that her mother and half sister, 24, were freebasing cocaine. Her half sister escaped but her parents--Barbara Cortez, 48, and Ernest Cortez, 57--were arrested and Terah was taken to MacLaren Hall, the county’s juvenile facility.
What has happened since that October day in 1986 provides a sad and unusual glimpse of how difficult it can be for a family torn apart by cocaine to pull itself together. It also demonstrates that law enforcement and social welfare authorities’ efforts to help in such cases are often stymied by people unable, or unwilling, to help themselves.
Wouldn’t Make Call
In an interview, Terah, now 12, says that given another chance, she would not have made the call that led to what she sees today as an emotionally draining series of court hearings, meetings with lawyers, therapy sessions, and confrontations with social workers and educators.
“They never tell you what is going to happen after” a child turns the parents in, said Terah, who seems articulate in a way well beyond her years. “You figure, oh, they’re going to take care of me, and everything is going to be OK. But in some cases, it turns out, the child . . . feels they are being punished . . . because of what they did.”
Since making the call she has lived in two foster homes, with various friends, in two apartments with her parents and in her parents’ car. Five months ago at an especially bleak point, she took an overdose of cold pills. She now shares a one-bedroom apartment in Reseda with her foster mother Diane Lopez and Lopez’s 11-year-old daughter, Angela.
Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services officials, who have legal custody of Terah while she is in a foster home, refused to comment on her case. The social workers’ reports quoted in this story were obtained from Terah’s father.
Shortly after she called police, Barbara and Ernest Cortez told Terah that they were proud of her for what she did. Today, she would like to be back with her parents. But reunification is unlikely until the Cortezes comply with Los Angeles Superior Court orders to obtain counseling and stay off drugs.
Meanwhile, Terah’s emotional turmoil has prevented her from attending her seventh-grade classes for almost six months. Formerly an “A” student, she now refuses to leave the school nurse’s office, breaking into hysterical sobs when forced to go to class.
Terah’s social worker, Hilary Berns, has written that the girl’s foster home is a nearly perfect setting for her. But because of her problems at school, she is considering recommending that Terah be placed in a group home for severely emotionally disturbed children.
The prospect of that terrifies Terah. Lopez and Ernest Cortez, who has full visitation rights, oppose putting Terah in a group home.
This past week, Berns appeared to retreat from the possibility of institutionalizing the girl. According to Lopez, she agreed to refer Terah’s case to a school psychologist for evaluation. That should trigger daily one-hour home visits from a teacher until a more permanent solution is reached, school officials said.
Made National News
It was Oct. 27, 1986, when Terah made national news by calling police from a pay phone about 7:30 p.m. and becoming what was believed to be the fourth California child to turn in a parent for drug abuse.
Earlier that day, she said, her father had gotten a $1,200 disability check. She “pretty much knew where most of it was going to go.”
She and her parents went to the Saticoy Street house in Reseda where her 24-year-old half sister, Chris Trapolsi, lived with her boyfriend and their 4-year-old and 3-year-old children by separate marriages.
Terah baby-sat the younger children and put them to bed, then she was sent to the bedroom herself. Through the keyhole she saw her mother and Trapolsi freebasing cocaine.
She remembered school drug abuse prevention presentations and had heard about Deanna Young, the 13-year-old Tustin girl who turned her parents in for drug use the previous August, and two children in Northern California who had followed suit.
She left a note and ran to make the call. “They told me to go back home and act like nothing had happened,” she said.
As a result, Barbara Cortez was arrested on drug charges, and her bail was set at $2,500. The Los Angeles city attorney held a hearing on the charge but did not prosecute. Ernest Cortez and her sister’s boyfriend were arrested on charges of misdemeanor child endangerment. They were later released.
Terah and one of the two younger children were put in the protective custody of the Department of Children’s Services. Typically in such cases, a social worker is assigned to make recommendations to the Juvenile Division of the Superior Court on what is best for the children.
The court may order parents to do a variety of things such as maintain a stable home, stop using drugs or obtain counseling to win back custody of the child. Eventually, if the parents comply, the child may be fully restored to their care. Periodic hearings are held to examine all the evidence.
Although she knew that cocaine abuse was building a barrier between her and her mother, before she made the telephone call, “I was with my parents . . . and it didn’t get as bad as it is now,” Terah said.
Soon after the arrests, the court ordered Barbara Cortez to obtain individual and family counseling and drug testing. Ernest Cortez was to go for counseling, but later, because of evidence that he was again using cocaine, drug testing was added. Terah was to receive regular counseling by a therapist.
The Cortezes’ compliance with those orders has been sporadic at best, according to the reports of Terah’s social workers.
Terah stayed in a foster home for a few months before she was returned to her parents in February, 1987. When she went back, according to a report by Iris Obrand, her social worker at the time, Terah felt suspicious every time her parents closed their bedroom door.
The tension between Terah and her parents mounted, leading Obrand to conclude that there were “serious problems” and to recommend weekly family therapy. But throughout 1987, the family’s home life continued to deteriorate.
Then, in January, 1988, the family was evicted, beginning an eight-month period of homelessness. Barbara and Ernest Cortez lived in their car or with friends. Terah was moved from place to place, sometimes alone, sometimes with them. It bothered her, she said, to have her toys and clothes scattered in places across the San Fernando Valley.
About a year ago her school attendance began to falter. Her mother had disappeared and “Terah couldn’t understand how her mother could leave without a word,” social worker Berns wrote. Berns told the court that Terah had missed 43 of 91 school days last spring.
Finally, in June, she ended up at Lopez’s apartment. Lopez, a 30-year-old legal secretary and friend of the Cortezes, was later certified as Terah’s legal foster mother.
As a result, “Terah appeared much brighter and happier than in recent interviews,” Berns wrote in a report. “Her parents attributed this to the consistent care Terah received with Mrs. Lopez. Mrs. Lopez finds it a pleasure to have Terah in her home. . . . Terah finds companionship with Angela, Mrs. Lopez’s 10-year-old daughter.”
Although Terah said she liked living with Lopez, her school attendance did not improve. She was transferred last fall from Sutter Junior High School in Canoga Park to Mulholland Junior High School in Van Nuys but has missed almost the entire school year.
“I kept trying to go, but I couldn’t deal with it,” said Terah, who also told Berns that the children there were mean. She said she was distracted, wondering where she would eventually end up living, “because the way things were going it didn’t look like it was going to be with my parents.”
Lopez and Ernest Cortez said they oppose placing Terah in Penny Lane, the psychiatric group home for youths in Sepulveda that her social worker raised as a possibility. They would like Terah to receive home instruction until she is able to cope with school.
“We have to work something out here because the child needs an education,” Lopez said. “I don’t think it’s that she’s being stubborn because she was a good student before. She has too hard a time, with all the other problems going on in her life, to concentrate. We have her in counseling, and we’re doing everything we can.”
In November, her parents were evicted from the first apartment they had managed to move into after getting off the streets.
Fearing that her hopes of reunification were slipping further away, Terah attempted to commit suicide by swallowing seven cold pills.
“I was really tired of the situation,” said Terah, dressed in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt that seemed at odds with her grown-up insights.
“It’s been three years and I think I was trying to get the attention of my mother,” Terah said. “She wasn’t showing up at court or anything like that.”
Interviewed at Terah’s foster home, Ernest Cortez said he has not used cocaine for more than six weeks, has signed up for counseling and plans to either get a job or start a business as a masseur. A former Los Angeles tree-trimming crew supervisor, he has been living on a $650-a-month disability check for what he said was a nervous breakdown.
A Juvenile Court hearing is planned in June to determine where Terah will be permanently placed. “If I don’t have my thing together, so to speak, by June I won’t get custody of her,” Cortez said. “It’s a matter of me keeping her or losing her.”
Not Best Authority
Cortez, a powerfully built man who helped raise two of his own children and three of Barbara’s to adulthood before they had Terah together, acknowledged that he is not the best authority on how his daughter should be treated.
But he seems sincere in his concern for his daughter’s welfare. Terah said she wants to be with him.
For now, however, she remains with her foster family.
Her stuffed animals are equally spaced along three edges of the bed in the room she shares with Angela, her foster sister. Pictures of preteen heroes such as singer George Michael and actor River Phoenix are on the wall. And Charlie, Terah’s blue, white and gray parakeet, lives in a well-tended cage on her dresser.
It is an island of order in Terah Beth Cortez’s otherwise disordered life.
“This is the aftermath when . . . children are encouraged to dial 911,” Ernest Cortez said. “It invariably causes separation from home, family. Depression. Anxiety. It’s the enforcement of the law, fine. But they’re not prepared to deal with the aftereffects at all. It’s very traumatic.”