What's One More Story to a City in Chaos?

I can't think of a thing to say. The 6-year-old girl, at the urging of her grandmother, has pushed back her sleeve to show me the scars on her arm.

There they are: two small dark circles, just above the wrist.

"Tell her how you got them," Grandma says.

"(He) burned me with his cigarette," says the girl.

"Tell her about your eye."

"We were in bed and (he) told me to close my eyes, and then he hit my eye."

Nausea and rage compete for my attention. I would like to find this man and kill him right now. Instead, I take a deep breath.

He is not the girl's father. He is, however, the father of her 3-year-old sister. He is also the alcoholic, child-molesting ex-boyfriend of her drug-addicted mother. The drug-addicted mother is Grandma's youngest child.

The number of beleaguered grandmothers--women who ought to be thinking about how they will spend their golden years but who instead are thinking about toilet training and schoolwork--is growing in Los Angeles County.

Both children live with Grandma in a modest house in a modest Los Angeles neighborhood.

A couple of months ago, Grandma tells me, chest pains landed her in the hospital for two days.

I can only imagine how she feels.

It's not a pretty family portrait, but these days, it's certainly not an unusual one.

*

The number of beleaguered grandmothers--women who ought to be thinking about how they will spend their golden years but who instead are thinking about toilet training and schoolwork--is growing in Los Angeles County.

According to the spokesman for the county Department of Children's Services, which oversees the removal of children from the homes of wayward parents, more than half of the nearly 40,000 children in the system are living with relatives--mostly grandmothers and aunts--rather than foster parents.

This particular grandmother, a state employee who cares for her own elderly mother, has called me in a panic. She pays for the girls' private school, therapy, baby-sitting and food. She has also plunked down $2,500 for a lawyer, who has petitioned the court to allow her to have standing in proceedings affecting the girls.

The $500 a month she receives from the county barely puts a dent in the expenses, but money, she says, is besides the point.

She is terrified, she says, because last month a social worker submitted to juvenile court a report that suggested, under a section titled "Case Plan Goals," that the court consider returning the younger of the two girls to her father in October.

And she has every reason to be fearful.

Last September, he pleaded nolo contendere to charges that he molested a 14-year-old girl and spent time in jail. According to court documents, he enrolled in a sex offenders program in March, and in April, he enrolled in a parenting course. He told the court that he also attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week and is in therapy.

"I am glad he is doing all this and I applaud him for that," says the grandmother, but she does not believe that someone with a history of alcohol and child sexual abuse can change enough in six months to provide a healthy, stable environment for a small child.

Could anyone believe it?

*

I sure couldn't, so I phoned Renee Powers, director of the policy section of the Department of Children's Services, whose social workers are monitoring this and thousands of other families in various states of decomposition.

Although I did not identify the family, Powers commented about DCS procedures. She said the social worker has undoubtedly chosen October because the matter will automatically return to juvenile court then for a review, and state law requires that social workers project a family reunification date. Far from being a done deal, she assured me, the court will simply want to know whether the father has continued to attend his various rehabilitation programs and will not require the child to be handed over if he is deemed unfit.

"It's not set in stone," Powers says. "In October of '94, the worker could be talking about the father's progress. Has he been attending these sessions? What is the progress? What is the prognosis? The recommendation of the therapist? The court makes the final decision whether or not to accept the social worker's recommendation."

The little girl's fate probably lies with a juvenile court judge. A friend who is a children's social worker tells me that some judges lean toward family reunification more readily than others.

Anyway, this situation is hardly extreme.

As the grandmother tells it, a detective once assured her after the older child was flicked in the eye: "Your granddaughter, compared to others, looks like a princess."

"What do you mean?" the grandmother demanded. "The child has a black eye!"

The detective is said to have replied: "I know a child who is 2 years old, who was battered by her father and who is now on life-support systems, and he only got two years for it."

I am sure the grandmother felt tremendous relief.

What's a black eye or a couple of cigarette burns, after all, when there are babies on life support?

These days, I guess, you take your comfort where you can.

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