Coos and giggles of two toddlers added a kind of harmony to the babble of lawyers, clients, social workers, guardians, all whispering among themselves, scurrying in and out of a chaotic little courtroom.
Applause broke out as the smiling judge pronounced their adoption official. He descended from the bench to pose for photographs with the happy parents and the squirming twin boys with the new last name.
The happy parents were teary — a contagious condition in the courtroom. Even an old cynic like me, there to see about another case on the morning docket, could feel emotion nibbling at his composure.
It wouldn’t be the last weepy moment in Broward Circuit Judge Kenneth Gillespie’s courtroom that morning. But the subsequent tears were elicited by wretched circumstances suffered by children. One heartbreak after another.
We heard prison inmates (one serving a life sentence) connected to the courtroom by speakerphone, telling the judge from their various lockups that they intended to contest efforts to terminate their parental rights. Despite the inevitable outcome. Despite the best interest of their children. Maybe because some future hearing in Judge Gillespie’s child welfare court would break up the monotony of prison life. “I don’t know why we’re playing games here,” the judge wondered aloud.
Then came another speakerphone conversation, this time with William, an 11-year-old residing in a group foster home, placed there with his little sister after the Florida Department of Children and Families rescued them from a shabby life with a drug-addicted mother. His father was in court Thursday seeking court permission to take the children back to his home to Georgia.
The courtroom listened as the father tried to convince his son that a better life awaited him in Georgia. This after some coaching by Judge Gillespie, who suggested firmly, “I’d start out telling him, ‘I love you.’”
The mother made her courtroom entrance. I had seen her earlier seated on a bench outside the judge’s office, earbuds attached, her jarring voice echoing down the courthouse hallway as she sang along with music no one else could hear.
The negligent mother, talking to the judge in tones that didn’t suggest remorse, admitted she had fallen back into her old drug habits. “I’m in a relapse,” she said, as if relapse had been the consequence of random bad luck.
The judge pleaded, “You can’t do that if you want your kids back. You’ve got to stop. These kids, they love you unconditionally.”
I doubt many of the men and women in the courtroom, most of them employed by state and local agencies charged with protecting children from the neglect, stupidity and cruelties of incompetent parents, had much faith that the mother would re-order her priorities.
But little William told the judge that there was one thing that worried him about going to Georgia, away from foster care, to a better life with his father. And the sorrow behind the kid’s words knocked me low. He told the judge, “I don’t want to leave my Momma all alone.”
That would have done it for me. Hardly an hour into the Thursday morning docket, if I had been Judge Gillespie I would have slouched out of that courtroom and headed to the nearest bar. The actual Judge Gillespie stayed to deal with the even more profound misery we all knew was coming.
A few moments later, the judge was listening to a distraught soliloquy from the father of Baby Ricardo, in court to seek sole custody of his seven-month-old child. A custody order would allow the father to make an awful, wrenching decision.
Baby Ricardo was born with such catastrophic brain damage that he is barely sentient beyond an ability to feel pain, a constant factor in his young life. He breathes through a ventilator, takes nourishment through a stomach tube. The child has suffered a series of seizures and heart attacks. Each time doctors pull him back from the abyss, the baby’s pain escalates.
The judge summarized the conclusion of medical experts. “I hate saying these words: no probability of recovery.”
Last month, the father signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. But the mother, who has had little to do with the child since his birth, refused to add her necessary signature to the document. And another tragic case fell into Judge Gillespie’s court.
“I really believe, looking at this case, that if Ricardo could speak, he would say, ‘Mom and Dad, I ask that you consider what has happened to me and make the best decision based on what you know. I love you. Make the best decision.’”
The judge said that such a profound life-and-death decision ought not to be relegated to the state or a judge. That it rightfully belonged to the family. The lawyer for the mother announced that the woman, who wasn’t at Thursday’s hearing, had withdrawn her objection. So the decision was once again with the father.
But he was torn between anger and anguish. He had already made this decision once, albeit with miserable reluctance. “I had prepared for the end.” Then came doctors and lawyers and social workers and child advocates and a mother, he said, who had “never been involved from day one,” suddenly intervening. “The whole time I’m thinking about my baby suffering, kept alive,” he said.
And now he must go through that same painful process again. It would be no easier than before.
The 47-year-old father rambled on. The judge ordered DCF to expedite the bureaucratic procedures required by state law before he could sign the custody order. “Make it happen,” he told the DCF attorneys. “I’ll sign it today.”
The father tried to describe his conflicted state of mind. “I’m confused,” he told the judge. “This is like snakes and ladders,” he said, referring to the board game in which players negotiate a journey through a tangle of setbacks.
By then, I was utterly wrung out by what had been just a typical harrowing day in the life of Judge Kenneth Gillespie. The judge heard the man out, listening to a stream-of-consciousness discourse that in some less compassionate courtrooms would have been regarded as an intolerable breach of decorum.
The judge leaned over the bench and asked, “Do you trust me?”
The father nodded yes.
The judge gave him until March 12. Then the Baby Ricardo decision will come back to the court of tears.
“I’m with you,” he told the father.