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 Children’s Center, 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 those unable, or unwilling, to help themselves.
In an interview, Terah, now 12, says that given another chance, she would not make 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 their 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 Terah 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 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 the case. The social workers’ reports quoted in this story were obtained from Terah’s father, a former Los Angeles city tree-trimming crew supervisor.
Shortly after she called police, Barbara and Ernest Cortez told Terah they were proud of her for what she did. Today, she wants to be back with her parents but reunification is unlikely until the Cortezes comply with Los Angeles County Superior Court orders to obtain counseling and stay off drugs.
Meanwhile, Terah’s emotional turmoil has kept 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.
That prospect terrifies Terah. Her foster mother, Diane Lopez, and Ernest Cortez, who has full visitation rights, also oppose putting Terah in a group home.
Last 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.
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 and she “pretty much knew where most of it was going to go.”
She and her parents went to the Reseda house where her half-sister, Chris Trapolsi, lived with her boyfriend and their children, aged 4 and 3, from separate marriages.
Terah babysat for 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 and 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 other 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’s office decided not to prosecute. Ernest Cortez and Trapolsi’s boyfriend were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor child endangerment, but charges were not pursued.
Terah and one of the two younger children were put in the protective custody of the Department of Children’s Services; the other child was taken in by a grandmother.
Her life with her family was far from perfect before she called police. But, she said, “I was with my parents . . . and it didn’t get as bad as it is now.”
Soon after the arrests, the Los Angeles Superior Court ordered Barbara and Ernest Cortez to obtain counseling and drug testing. 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. Throughout 1987, the family’s home life continued to deteriorate.
Then, in January, 1988, the Cortezes were evicted, beginning an eight-month period of homelessness. Barbara and Ernest lived in their car, or with friends, and 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 has disappeared periodically since the arrest, and Terah currently doesn’t know where she is living. “Terah couldn’t understand how her mother could leave without a word,” social worker Berns wrote. Berns reported to the court that she had missed 43 of 91 days of school last spring.
Finally, last June, she ended up at Lopez’s apartment. Lopez, a 30-year-old legal secretary, who was a friend of the Cortezes, was later certified as Terah’s legal foster mother.
But last November, fearing that her hopes of reunification with her parents were slipping away, Terah attempted to commit suicide by swallowing seven cold pills.
“I was really tired of the situation,” Terah said. “I think I was trying to get the attention of my mother. She wasn’t showing up at court, or anything like that.”
Interviewed at Terah’s foster home last week, Ernest Cortez said that he has not used cocaine for more than six weeks, he has signed up for counseling and he plans to find work soon. 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 for 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,” Ernest Cortez said.
For now, however, she remains with her foster family.
“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.”