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She’s wanted, but what’s best for foster child?

Times Staff Writer

As the would-be adoptive parents of a 2-year-old foster child, Glenda and Roger S. thought they had prepared for everything.

They decorated a pink-walled room with Disney princesses, checked their paperwork and lined up medical specialists to see the special-needs child for checkups as soon as the girl, Heaven, was to arrive.

The one thing the Texas couple didn’t anticipate after seven months of working with Riverside County social service officials was that a Juvenile Court commissioner would halt the adoption process to consider uniting the girl with her father -- a convicted sex offender.

Heaven’s would-be parents were crushed by the court’s decision and said they were fearful for the child’s safety. The case is scheduled to come before the court commissioner again today in Riverside County, possibly for a decision on custody.

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“I cannot conceive of a judge sending a child into a registered sex offender’s home,” said Glenda, who asked that her full name not be used in case she won custody of the child. “To me, it’s like putting a mouse in a cage with a snake. You know sooner or later what that snake is going to do.”

Heaven’s father, Thomas Joseph Briere, pleaded guilty in January 2002 to raping a 22-year-old developmentally disabled woman incapable of giving consent, court records show. Briere also pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with her 16-year-old sister and was sentenced to one year in jail and four years probation.

By law, judges may remove children of registered sex offenders from their homes if they find the children are at substantial risk of being abused. The law makes it harder for sex offenders to gain custody of their children who have already been removed from their care, legal experts said.

But each case is unique, and the courts have sided with convicted sex offenders in the past.

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“Generally speaking, parents have a fundamental right to parent their kids. That would include child molesters,” said James M. Owens, assistant county counsel for Los Angeles County, who handles foster child custody cases. “They don’t automatically have their parental rights terminated just because they’ve been convicted of a sex crime.... If it’s statutory rape of a 17-year-old, that may not make someone unfit to parent an infant.”

Still, the Riverside County case has alarmed some child custody and adoption law experts, who said a person’s criminal history was directly relevant to determining whether he or she was fit to parent.

“The law makes it pretty clear that this gentleman should not have been entitled to reunification services,” said Carol S. Bruch, a UC Davis law professor who specializes in child custody cases. “They were just out to lunch when they ordered reunification in the first place. This child should not have been put on ice for this long.”

Riverside County social service officials declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality laws.

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‘I’m a very good parent’

Briere said he desperately wanted to gain custody of his daughter, who was born with severe heart defects, a cleft lip and palate and mild cerebral palsy.

In the last four months, Briere said, he’s done everything county social workers have asked of him. He has a steady job as a motorcycle mechanic. He’s renting a two-bedroom apartment in Moreno Valley and has set up a nursery. He bought a car to show he has reliable transportation.

“I’ve really stepped up,” said Briere, 32, who recently married. “I’ve studied everything. I know what my daughter’s condition is, I know her appointments, I write down her doctors. I keep logs on where she has to go. I know in my heart I’m a very good parent.”

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Heaven was born Jan. 5, 2005, to Kristi Hart. Three weeks later, the court ordered her placed in foster care after county social workers determined that both parents had a limited grasp of the baby’s medical needs, court records show. She has been in foster care ever since.

At the same hearing, on Jan. 31, 2005, social workers were ordered to try to unify father and daughter, beginning with supervised visits, court records show. Hart’s parental rights were eventually terminated.

On Aug. 9, 2006, the court ordered the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services to find Heaven an adoptive home after determining that Briere was unable to properly care for the child, court records show.

“Heaven requires a lot of care and medical follow-up to meet her needs. This requires total commitment, which Mr. Briere has not been able to demonstrate,” Dan Sochan, a Riverside County social worker, wrote on Dec. 7, 2006, court records show.

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Hart, 37, lives in Hesperia and said she was on medication for schizophrenia. She acknowledged that after Heaven was born, she became upset and threw a chair after seeing machines attached to her baby in the hospital.

“They were hurting her,” Hart said. “From the very beginning, I should have taken her home from the hospital. Because she had a cleft palate, they could have coached me and taught me to feed her at home, but they wouldn’t give me the time.”

Briere said he was a fit parent despite his criminal record. He said the 16-year-old he was convicted of having unlawful sex with had told him she was 19.

Briere denied raping her 22-year-old developmentally disabled sister, but acknowledged having sex with her: “She wasn’t mentally retarded. She wasn’t slow. She would talk just like you and me.”

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Many surgeries to come

Heaven’s health problems mean she needs parents equipped to handle her ongoing recovery. She has many more reconstructive and dental surgeries ahead to correct her cleft palate. When she gets older, she’ll need speech therapy.

In central Texas, Glenda had just adopted a 2-year-old special-needs boy. After raising five children, Glenda and her husband, an electrician, wanted to build a second family.

Glenda searched adoption websites in Texas and California to find a younger sister for their newly adopted son, Jon Henry. Heaven’s picture on California Kids Connection, a searchable database of adoptable children in California sponsored by the state Department of Social Services, showed a giggly toddler with striking blue eyes and a few wisps of red hair.

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“We saw her and we knew she was the one,” said Glenda, a stay-at-home mother.

Glenda and Roger put in an application with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services to become Heaven’s parents, and on Oct. 2, they received news that they had been chosen.

Two weeks before Christmas, the couple flew to Riverside County for several hours of medical training and to meet Heaven. Outside Heaven’s foster home, Glenda nervously pulled out the small teddy bear and a cloth purse she had brought as gifts.

The toddler quickly dispelled their fears about rejection, bringing toys to the Texas couple, wanting to play. As the couple got ready to leave after three hours, Heaven crawled into Glenda’s lap and started playing with her hair and blowing kisses.

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“I’m telling you it was a match made in heaven, it was so beautiful,” Glenda said, her voice cracking. “She wasn’t scared of us at all.”

Heaven’s foster mother, Aloa Rodgers of Riverside County, said she was impressed with the way Glenda and Roger prepared for Heaven’s arrival, lining up medical specialists ready to receive the child as soon as she landed in Texas.

“They’re not in la-la land about what needs to be done for this child,” Rodgers said.

Another chance

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In March, Heaven’s social worker recommended that the court terminate Briere’s parental rights to clear the way for her adoption, court records show.

But at a May 8 hearing in Riverside County Juvenile Court, the commissioner ordered social workers to give the father a chance to unite with his daughter, Briere said.

“He said I deserve another chance,” Briere said. “She’s my heart. She’s my soul. It warms me when I see her and hold her.”

Aleia Mayes Briere, his wife of two months, wrote a letter supporting Briere’s last-minute appeal to the judge. “I admit when I found out about his history, it came as a shock,” said Mayes Briere, 21. “But as I grew to know Thomas, I highly doubt he could ever be able to take advantage of a woman.”

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The couple hoping to adopt Heaven will be at home, waiting by the phone, to hear what the court will decide at today’s custody hearing in Riverside.

“I doubt they’ll ever let us have her now,” Glenda said. “But it’s not about that anymore. It’s about what’s best for the child. She’s a beautiful kid, and this is just not fair to her.”

sara.lin@latimes.com


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