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Features

Good intentions

Lillie, 14 and pregnant, needed a mom. Amy, 37 and already raising a big family, gave her a home. Neither was ready for what happened next.

By LANE DEGREGORY
Published May 14, 2006


photo
[Times photos: Melissa Lyttle]
Fourteen-year-old Lillie, exhausted after a long day of big changes, is in her own world as Amy Chandler feeds Lillie’s son, Thomas. “Here, he’s yours, you feed him,” Lillie said as she handed off her baby. It was her first day with the Chandlers, who intended to adopt Lillie and care for her and her baby, adding two more to their household of seven.
Go to photo gallery

 
   Lillie holds her son, Thomas.

“I want to go to college. I want to go to Harvard to be a social worker — either that or I want to do nails or something.” Lillie, 14
The Chandlers’ five children have their own adjustments to make after Lillie and Thomas move in. It is especially hard on the oldest and youngest, Austin, 11, hugging his mom, and Logan, 18 months.

A PLACE FOR EVERYONE
Hundreds of children in the Tampa Bay area need permanent homes. Meet some of the kids and learn how you can help:
Hoping for a home

Mothers Day Special Report

The girl in the hospital bed was pale and shaking, clutching her swollen stomach. She seemed so small and scared. 

"It's okay, honey," Amy Chandler said, reaching for the girl's hand. "You're okay. Your baby's going to be okay."

It was just before midnight on Saturday, Jan. 14. Amy, a sonogram tech at Tampa General, had been sent to the emergency room to examine a young patient. The girl was six months pregnant and suffering from complications. She was biting her lip, trying not to cry.

Amy stroked the girl's forehead.

"Maybe it would help if I got your mom."

The girl looked up at Amy.

"I don't have a mom," she said. "Do you want to adopt me? Me and my baby?"

She said her name was Lillie. She was 14

When Amy got home to Ruskin that night, her dogs greeted her on the cluttered porch. She stepped around the backpacks and PlayStation cases that lay inside the door. Then she padded down the hall to check on her children.

Amy and her husband, Mike, had five kids, ages 1 to 11. Their three oldest boys were snoring in their bunk beds. Their two toddlers were asleep on their dad, who was stretched out in the master bedroom. Amy sat on the edge of the bed and touched her husband's shoulder.

"I have to talk to you," she said. - Amy and Mike had been married 13 years. They had always wanted a big family and had decided early on they wouldn't put their kids in day care. So Amy worked nights at the hospital and Mike worked days at a cement plant. It was a hectic schedule, but for years they had made it work. They carved out time to eat breakfast together most mornings and said prayers with the kids before bed.

Waking up that night, Mike noticed Amy's eyes were swollen. He saw something in her face, a mixture of sorrow and hope. Mike had seen that look before.

"Oh my God. What did you bring home now?"

Amy was always bringing home small creatures. Dogs, cats, box turtles, a bug-eyed chameleon.

"I met this girl today . . . ," Amy began.

On the computer, she called up the Heart Gallery, a Web site filled with photos of foster children who want to be adopted. Lillie had told her to look for her picture there.

"I want you to see something," Amy told her husband.

Mike saw Lillie's freckled face, her forced smile. The Web site had an audio link. Amy turned it up.

"Hi, my name is Lillie." The voice was high-pitched, with a twang. "I'm sweet, smart. I'm a nice person in general. I love to sing, I love to dance to country music. . . . And I'm pregnant. I'm having a little boy. I'm kind of nervous. . . . I just want someone to be by me, and to believe in me."

In the glow of the computer, Amy saw Mike's cheeks shining. She wrapped her arms around him.

"You feel it too," she said.

Mike stroked his wife's hair.

"Let's see what we can do," he said.

That was all Amy needed to hear.

*   *   *

There are more than 5,100 foster children in Hillsborough County. More than 500 are available for adoption. Fewer than half wind up with a family.

Teenagers are the toughest to place. It's difficult finding even temporary homes for them all. Every night, caseworkers scramble to find beds for dozens of kids and wind up shelving them in group homes or shelters. In the overburdened foster care system, caseworkers don't have the time they need to devote to each child. Most look after two dozen or more cases, and their charges are constantly being moved around, called into court, running away.

Lillie's case manager had warned her not to be too hopeful. It was hard enough to find a home for a 14-year-old girl, much less one with an infant. But if Lillie stayed in foster care, she knew the state would take her baby away. He'd end up lost in the system's maze, without a mother. Just like her.

For most of her life, Lillie had been raised in a tangle of bureaucracy, with an army of caseworkers and therapists and court-appointed lawyers looking after her. Lillie didn't want that life for her son. She wanted the two of them to have a real home, together. So that night at Tampa General, when she met Amy during the sonogram, Lillie asked for help. She didn't know anything about the woman or her house or kids. Amy had seemed kind. She had held Lillie's hand. It was enough.

Amy and Mike were gambling, too. They didn't know anything about Lillie, her background, the realities of the foster care system. All they saw was a girl who had grown up without a mother and was about to become a mother herself.

The Chandlers' friends told them they were crazy. With five kids of their own, why would they want to take on two more?

Because they need us, Amy kept saying.

Good intentions were all they had.

*   *   *

First thing Monday morning, Amy waded into the middle of it all. As soon as she dropped her boys off at school, she called the Heart Gallery and asked about Lillie and her soon-to-be-born baby.

Amy was the eternal mother. She could listen to three kids at once, find long-lost Pokemon cards, laugh over spilled apple juice. Shy and soft-spoken, she tried to soothe instead of scold. When she wasn't wearing her work scrubs, Amy was in jeans and Harley-Davidson sweat shirts. At 37, she had just bought her first motorcycle. She was tall and broad-shouldered, always talking about going on a diet. She seldom wore makeup. With five kids, who had time?

That Monday, after checking with adoption counselors, Amy learned she and Mike could be approved as foster parents quickly, without the usual classes and training, because this was considered an emergency case. Lillie was sleeping in a shelter with pregnant women and new moms. She needed a more permanent home.

Foster workers couldn't believe Lillie had found one. To them, the Chandlers seemed a godsend. As in other emergency placements, the workers waived the waiting period, expedited the court date, broke down the barriers.

That same day, Amy and Mike had their fingerprints taken, their house inspected. Mike moved the computers from the playroom. The boys cleared their toys from the closet. Their new big sister - that's what Amy was calling Lillie - would need room for her new clothes.

Amy and Mike didn't worry about how a teenage daughter and her infant son would change their family. They told their kids they were lucky to be able to help. They didn't think about the money they would spend, the adjustments they'd all have to make.

The next day, three days after Amy met Lillie, the phone rang. Lillie was calling from the hospital. She'd had her baby almost three months prematurely. Thomas weighed 3 pounds, 9 ounces.

"He's a peanut," Lillie said. "But he has to have these tubes and stuff to breathe."

That night, Amy went shopping for a crib.

*   *   *

A few weeks later, Lillie sat at the shelter, waiting for Brenda Young, her caseworker from Camelot Community Care, to drive her to the Tampa courthouse. If the judge agreed, Lillie could go home with her new family that day.

Six trash bags full of baby clothes and diapers and stuffed animals were stacked beside her. The women at the Children's Board had thrown Lillie a shower. Now she was loaded with baby stuff. All she had for herself were three dresses and a pair of jeans.

Lillie was tiny, not even 5 feet. Before becoming pregnant, she had weighed 96 pounds. Her hair was straight and long; she always twirled it into a knot. She loved platform sandals and sparkly blue eye shadow. To get ready for court that day, she put on a short, low-cut dress and a gold heart necklace Amy had given her at the baby shower.

"I can't wait to go home," Lillie said. "I don't want to stay here no more."

She still hadn't met Mike, or the couple's five kids. Amy had sent her a photo of her new family. Lillie kept it in her wallet, along with the sonogram picture Amy had taken of the baby that first night.

Thomas, a month old now, was still in the hospital, tethered to a breathing monitor. He had sleep apnea and needed constant doses of iron. The hospital was ready to discharge him, but only when all the details were finalized with the Chandlers.

Sometimes during those first few weeks, when Lillie could beg a ride from the shelter to the hospital, she would hold Thomas, practice being a mom. Diapers and bottles were hard enough. She also had to learn to check his monitor, remember to give him medicine. Some of the nurses told Lillie she should give Thomas up for adoption.

"I'm keeping him," she remembered telling them. "My new mama's gonna help me."

*   *   *

At the courthouse, Amy rode the elevator to the second floor. When the doors opened, she saw Lillie sprinting toward her, arms outstretched.

"Mama! Mama!"

Amy hugged Lillie, kissed her cheek. "Did you pack everything? Are you nervous?"

Lillie nodded yes, then no. The two of them walked arm-in-arm. Amy explained that if the judge granted her and Mike temporary custody of Thomas, they could take him home from the hospital that day.

The thought of it made Lillie bounce on her toes. She and her baby were getting out of the system.

Lillie looked around, grinning at the bailiffs, the court reporters and lawyers. She had been in this courthouse many times before.

"The last time I came in here,'' she told Amy, "I was in chains. Only they couldn't fit the chain around my belly, it was too big and pregnant."

Amy wasn't sure what to say. Chains? The caseworkers hadn't told her anything about Lillie's past.

"I just had chains on my wrists," Lillie said, "so I still could've run."

Amy didn't press for details. She pulled Lillie close.

"You don't have to run anymore," Amy said.

On a bench outside the courtroom, sitting with her caseworker and Amy, Lillie volunteered the scattered details of her life.

"We lived in a nasty trailer. Daddy was always drunk or passed out. Mama, she can't read or cook or nothing. We'd go to the neighbors and beg food."

Her dad's friend molested her when she was 5, she said. That same year, her dad went to prison - "for something with a gun."

Lillie said she had three older sisters and a big brother, and they'd all been raised in foster care. Lillie had lost track of them. In nine years, she had moved 10 times. The last place she had been was a group home. She had hated it, she told Amy, so she ran away. She had lived on the streets, on and off, for more than a year.

"I was 12 years old, doing crack, prostituting to pay for it."

Amy listened, trying not to look shocked. Lillie's caseworker winced and shook her head.

Lillie wasn't proud of her past. But she wasn't ashamed. She had made a lot of money, she said, sometimes having sex with 10 men in a day.

"The court's trying to find my baby's daddy right now," she told Amy. "But I don't even know who he is. I was so high all the time, I didn't even know I was pregnant till I got arrested."

That was two months ago, she said. Her friend had stolen a car, they had gone joy-riding and crashed into a fence. At the jail, she had found out she was five months pregnant.

"I'm glad now, though," Lillie said, beaming. "If I didn't have a baby, I wouldn't never have been adopted."

Amy didn't answer. What was she getting herself into?

"Don't worry, Mama," Lillie said. "I'm ready to settle down."

She smacked her gum.

"I am."

*   *   *

When it was time for the hearing, Lillie and Amy sat outside the courtroom while Lillie's lawyer and caseworker talked to the judge.

It was unusual to find a family willing to take in a teenage mom, the caseworker said. So the judge gave the Chandlers temporary custody of Lillie and Thomas.

"I'm so happy he actually did it," the caseworker told Amy, coming out of court. Then she handed Lillie's paperwork to Amy and said, "She's all yours."

The caseworker explained that Lillie did not have to give up her parental rights to Thomas. If she wanted to keep her son, she would have to finish a parenting class and a drug education class, go back to school and promise not to contact friends from her former life. She was still on probation for the stolen car.

For now, the judge had ruled, Lillie couldn't be left alone with her baby. But he was allowing Lillie and Thomas to go home that day with the Chandlers.

"I'm a happy little kid today!" Lillie bubbled.

Her court-appointed attorney scowled at her.

"You just remember how you feel right now," said Norman Palumbo Jr. "When you get mad, when you want to run again, just remember this chance you got. You won't get another one like this."

*   *   *

Lillie's new life started in Amy's van. From the courthouse to the shelter to pick up Lillie's bags. From the shelter to the hospital to gather Thomas and his breathing monitor and his medicine and diapers. From the hospital to the drive-through at Taco Bell for a chicken quesadilla, so Lillie's stomach would stop growling. Then, finally, home.

When they turned into Amy's driveway, all but one of the Chandler kids were waiting. They tumbled off the porch, rushed the van.

"Lillie looks like that?" said Dawson, 5.

"She doesn't look big enough to have a kid," said Coletin, 10.

"Is that a real baby?" said Lauren, 2.

Amy laughed. Lillie looked overwhelmed. There were so many of them, all coming at her. Coletin grinned at Lillie, cleared his throat.

"Want to meet my chinchilla?"

Lillie wasn't sure what that was. "Okay," she said. "But first I have to get my baby."

Thomas was still in the car seat Amy and Mike had bought for him. Lillie picked him up and followed Coletin inside. His big brother, Austin, was in one of the bedrooms, lost inside a PlayStation game.

"Don't you want to meet Lillie?" Coletin said.

Austin, 11, didn't look up. After being the oldest all his life, suddenly he had to contend with both a big sister and her new baby. His playroom had been turned into Lillie's bedroom.

"She's really nice," Coletin said.

Austin said nothing. His eyes stayed on the screen.

That evening, while everyone else ate dinner, Lillie unpacked. She'd never had her own room. She couldn't wait to settle in.

"Time for bed!" Amy called at 9:30.

Lillie looked surprised. It had been years since anyone had told her to go to bed.

"What time do you get to stay up to on weekends?" she asked Coletin.

"Like, at least 10," he said.

Lillie groaned.

"Okay, sometimes midnight," he said.

"Well, one weekend we're going to have movie night in here," Lillie told him. "We'll spread a blanket on my floor and make popcorn and hang out. All of us."

"Really?" Coletin asked.

"Sure," Lillie said. "And we'll stay up even later than midnight."

Amy and Mike came in. Thomas was asleep in their room, in his new crib. Because the judge said Lillie couldn't be alone with her baby, Thomas had to sleep in the same room with Amy and Mike.

"It's time for prayers," Amy said. They all piled onto Lillie's bed and held hands.

"Father, we thank you for your blessing and for giving us Lillie and Thomas," Amy began. "We thank you for this opportunity to let her know she's loved. . . . Please, Lord, bless this family. And help us all get a good night's sleep. Amen."

That night, Thomas' breathing monitor went off seven times.

Lillie slept through it. Amy got up every hour.

*   *   *

The first few days were a blur. Amy and Mike would get up at dawn, change three diapers. Then they'd fix breakfast, pack lunches, get all seven kids dressed and load the van. Their boys kept getting tardy slips at school.

While Mike was at work, Amy's days were spent driving Thomas to the pediatrician, signing Lillie up for her drug education and parenting classes, meeting with Lillie's probation officer. Everywhere Amy went, she had to haul four kids under age 6.

One Sunday after church, Amy and Mike were headed for the parking lot when Amy remembered: They'd forgotten Lauren and Logan, their two toddlers. They'd left them in the child care room.

Amy was getting only four hours of sleep after her night shifts at the hospital. And Thomas' monitor kept going off. Amy would have to get up, make sure Lillie's baby was still breathing.

Lillie never wanted to go to bed. Long after midnight, she would lie awake, watching TV. She was trying to get used to being part of a family, but she didn't know how. She felt that all these other people were constantly hassling her with chores, expectations, rules. She wasn't allowed to eat whenever she was hungry; Amy made her eat when everyone else ate, at the table instead of in her room. And she made her have a meal, not just Doritos.

It was strange to be back in school, too. Amy had enrolled Lillie in a school for girls with special needs. Lillie should have been in ninth grade. But she had missed so many semesters, she had to start over in sixth.

"I want to go to college," Lillie told Amy. "I want to go to Harvard to be a social worker - either that or I want to do nails or something."

Lillie wanted so many things. She had never had anything before, so she figured she had nothing to lose by asking. Everywhere Amy took her, Lillie begged for clothes, DVDs, stuffed animals. She never said thank you. She wanted to get her nose pierced, wear short skirts and high heels, go on dates. Amy wouldn't let her. Lillie kept saying she was bored.

One night, a week after Lillie moved in, she crept into the hall and got the cordless phone. The other kids were asleep. Amy was at work. Mike was changing Thomas in his room. Lillie dialed a number she knew by heart.

After Mike had gone to bed, headlights appeared in the driveway. Lillie tiptoed to the front door, crossed the yard, opened the gate. She threw her arms around the man in the truck. His name was Julio. He was 23. Lillie had stayed with him on the street.

Hours later, Lillie called Amy at work.

"Mommy," she said. "I did something bad."

*   *   *

Amy hadn't even known Lillie had a boyfriend. She certainly didn't want some 23-year-old who had lived on the streets coming over to her house in the middle of the night.

But she and Mike weren't sure how to punish Lillie. Yes, she had violated their rules and her probation. But she had apologized. They didn't want to be too strict. What if she got upset and ran away?

The foster care system wasn't much help. Because this had been an emergency placement, Mike and Amy had taken no classes, received no training. The Chandlers were relying on experience. But nothing in their experience had prepared them to take care of a child with Lillie's sad history.

In the end, Amy talked to Lillie about trust and made her promise she'd never call that man again. Amy disconnected the kids' phone line, just in case.

*   *   *

Lillie said she wanted to do something for her new family. She offered to make them all dinner.

"My specialty: lasagna."

So Amy took seven kids to Winn-Dixie, pushing one cart in front and pulling another behind. Lillie wasn't helping; neither were the older boys. They were running up and down the aisles, asking for treats.

"I want ice cream."

"Candy! Candy!"

"Dawson's got gum in his hair!"

When an elderly woman walked past, Lillie came back to the cart and picked up Thomas from his infant seat. She didn't hold her baby much, but she loved showing him off. She flopped Thomas over her shoulder, tangling him in the monitor cords.

"You're going to drop him! Put him back in the cart," Amy said.

"Okay, okay," Lillie said. "Mama says you gotta go back."

Amy looked surprised. "You're his mama, Lillie," she said. "You'll always be his mama."

"Unh-uh. Not forever."

Lillie walked away. Then she called over her shoulder, "Can I get some Honeycomb?"

Back at home, the kids dashed for the TV while Amy unloaded groceries. From the other room, Amy heard Lillie erupt. "That's my bear! Lauren, out!" The 2-year-old had spilled Coke on one of Lillie's stuffed animals. "Out!" Lillie repeated.

Lauren started to cry.

"Try to include 'please,' Lillie," Amy called from the kitchen.

" 'Please' is not one of my words," Lillie answered.

Amy hoped she was kidding.

"Do I see a DVD player that's about to get taken?"

"Please," Lillie said, retreating to her room.

Coletin knocked. "Can I come in?"

Amy stomped into the hall. "What did I just hear you ask her?"

Coletin's head dropped. His dad had told them: No boys in Lillie's room, not even her new brothers.

When Lillie finally came out of her room, she went straight to the kitchen. Amy had laid out all the ingredients for lasagna.

"Mama! Come tell me how to do this," Lillie called.

Amy, feeding Thomas, gave her a look. "I thought you knew how."

"Not really," said Lillie. "I just wanted lasagna."

It was a small moment, but telling. Amy had begun to see how Lillie could manipulate a situation to get what she wanted. Lillie was straddling two worlds. Part of her wanted to be grown, to say she could cook dinner. The other part was still a little girl, someone who wanted more than anything to be taken care of.

That night, when Mike cut the lasagna into bite-sized bits for the toddlers, Lillie slid her plate to him.

"Cut mine for me too, Daddy."

*   *   *

Lillie wanted a puppy. She kept bugging Amy.

Too many dependents, Mike said. Too much money. In the first month, they had spent more than $3,500 on Lillie and Thomas. They weren't licensed as foster care providers, so they didn't get the $12 a day that the state pays for taking in kids. The only financial support they got was Medicaid and some WIC coupons.

Lillie wanted her own money. Her $5-a-week allowance wasn't cutting it. She wanted a job. Plus, she wanted to get away from the kids, including her own. Her baby cried too much, she said. She told Amy she needed a break. So Lillie started bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie on the weekends.

Amy bought her a goldfish.

*   *   *

One morning, Lillie climbed into bed with Amy. "I want to show you my diary," she said. She leaned against Amy's shoulder so they could read together.

Dear Diary, the neat print began. Every day now is hard for me.

She loved Thomas, she wrote. But with a job and school, she couldn't focus on him.

I decided to give him up for adoption to my parents, the Chandlers.

The original idea had been that Amy and Mike would adopt Lillie and help her regain custody of her son. They would care for Thomas, but he would still be hers. Now, with the diary, Lillie was telling Amy: He's yours. She was ready to give up her parental rights, just as her mother had done. Only this was different, Lillie said. Her mom had given her up to the foster care system. Lillie was giving Thomas to a good family. And she'd still be with him.

Of course we'll raise Thomas, Amy told Lillie. But she urged her to think it over.

Lillie said her mind was made up.

*   *   *

The goldfish died. Lillie kept forgetting to feed it.

Everything was so much harder than any of them had anticipated. Amy had to remind herself about the quiet times, when she felt they were really a family.

Like one afternoon, when she painted highlights into Lillie's thick hair while Lillie parted Lauren's curls into ponytails. And that morning when even Austin jumped on the trampoline with Lillie.

Still, these moments were rare. Every night, Lillie called Amy at the hospital, sometimes five or six times. Her baby was fussy. One of the kids stole her candy. Someone was bugging her.

Amy was approaching her breaking point. Lillie wasn't doing any of her chores. She kept begging Amy to let her go on dates. She was making the little kids cry. When Coletin accidentally stepped on her foot, she slapped him in the face.

Everyone needed an outing, Amy decided. So one Friday, she packed all seven kids into the van and headed for Apollo Beach. While Amy settled Lillie's baby in the shade and her little ones ran after sea gulls, Lillie took off for the water.

"I'm going swimming," she said over her shoulder. "Bye."

"No, you're not going swimming," Amy told her. She wasn't sure Lillie knew how to swim. And she didn't want the little kids following her. Amy couldn't look after them all in the surf.

Lillie kept walking.

"Come back!" Amy yelled.

Lillie got smaller and smaller. She waded into the water, up to her knees, and stood there for what seemed like forever. She knew she had already crossed one line, disobeying Amy. Now she couldn't decide whether to turn back to the beach or dive in.

*   *   *

It was a Saturday night, April 1, and Lillie had been with the Chandlers for almost two months. Amy was at work and the little kids were asleep. Mike had gone into his room to change Thomas. Austin and Coletin and Lillie were in the living room, watching TV. When Mike returned, Coletin and Lillie were gone.

Lillie's door was locked. Mike pounded on it.

"Just a minute," Lillie said. When she finally opened the door, Coletin tumbled out and dashed into his room.

Lillie said she had been showing Coletin her secret stash of candy. Coletin told his dad Lillie had wanted to show him something in a movie. In Lillie's room, Mike found a DVD: Unfaithful.

When Amy got home at 2 a.m. and heard what had happened, she started shaking. Lillie had asked her to buy Unfaithful a few days earlier. Amy had refused. Lillie must have bought it when she was working at the grocery.

Before confronting Lillie, Amy skimmed through a few scenes. The R-rated movie, starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, was about a married woman having an affair. Watching a man and a woman slapping each other and having sex in a toilet stall, Amy felt sick. Her 10-year-old had seen that?

Amy and Mike had wanted so much for Lillie. She had never seen mountains, so they'd promised to take her camping in Tennessee. When she was older, they had told her, they would buy her a car, send her to college. They had rearranged expectations, celebrated small victories, hoped for the best.

Amy could take almost anything Lillie could do to her. But now Lillie was corrupting her son.

"What were you thinking?" Amy shouted, entering Lillie's room. "What gives you the right to introduce that world to my son?"

Amy told her she would have to move out.

Lillie, in bed, pulled the comforter over her head.

*   *   *

At 3 a.m., Amy called Brenda Young, Lillie's primary caseworker, and left a frantic message. Then she called the caseworker's boss. She left a third message with the adoptions supervisor for Hillsborough Kids Inc., the agency the state contracts with to manage its foster children.

For the rest of the night, Amy paced in the dark, trying to figure out how to get this girl out of their house. She was still up at 8 the next morning, still wearing her hospital scrubs, when Lillie walked into the kitchen in a short dress and platform sandals.

"Aren't we going to church?" Lillie asked, as if nothing had happened.

Amy sat her down. She needed to understand. Why?

As Amy would later recall, Lillie told her she missed her freedom, her old life, her boyfriend. The movie had made her feel better.

"But why drag Coletin into it?"

Lillie didn't answer.

*   *   *

The caseworker finally called back - 32 hours after the crisis.

"You're telling me it'll take three weeks to get her out of my house?" Amy asked.

The system is slow, the caseworker told her. Besides, Amy remembers her saying, you knew Lillie had problems when you took her in.

Amy was incredulous. She knew about Lillie's past only because Lillie told her. The caseworker had never talked about Lillie's background, never warned Amy that she was taking a former child prostitute into her house.

"I feel like you all set us up to fail," Amy told the foster worker. "And now, when we need help, you're abandoning us."

Mike called Hillsborough Kids Inc. "We're bringing Lillie back. If you all won't come get her, we'll drop her on your doorstep."

*   *   *

As Amy describes it, the next day went like this:

She packed Lillie's belongings while Lillie was at school. When Amy picked her up and Lillie saw the suitcases inside the van, her face crumbled.

"You don't have to do this," Lillie said.

She was sobbing. So was Amy. The other kids were in the van, watching.

When Amy turned into the office of Hillsborough Kids Inc., Lillie told Amy to pick up her paycheck from Winn-Dixie that Friday.

"You have to send me my money," Lillie told her. She narrowed her eyes. "And I'm not going to let you adopt Thomas now."

Amy parked the van. "Don't do that to your baby," she told Lillie. "He'll end up bouncing around in foster care all his life, just like you did. You can come see him with us," Amy said. "You know we love him and will take care of him."

Lillie wasn't listening. She unbuckled Thomas and carried him across the parking lot. She stood outside the office door, kissing and kissing her son.

Amy finished unloading the suitcases and reached for Thomas. Lillie cradled him. She glared at Amy, turned her head and finally handed over her baby.

She ran into the office building, crying.

*   *   *

A week after Lillie went back to foster care, a caseworker called. They were coming to take Thomas.

"What?" Amy cried. "Why?"

Lillie didn't want her child in Amy's home, the foster worker said. Amy had been allowed to have Thomas only because she had agreed to take Lillie. Now the deal was off. Someone would be there to get Thomas in a half-hour.

"This is the only home that baby's known," Amy told Mike. "What's going to happen to him?"

The caseworkers arrived and took Thomas. On paper, Amy still had custody of the baby. The state had to take that away before foster workers could place him somewhere else. That meant there was still a chance the Chandlers could get Thomas back.

Amy started looking for a lawyer.

The emergency hearing was the next day.

*   *   *

The last time they'd met at the courthouse, Lillie had run to Amy's arms. Now Lillie wouldn't look at her. She walked past Amy and Mike and their three youngest children and sat with her caseworker a few seats away.

Lauren, the 2-year-old, climbed down from her dad's lap. "Lillie! Lillie!" She scrambled up beside her.

"You look pretty," Lillie said.

While Lillie played with the little girl, Amy met the attorney she and Mike had found. The lawyer had heard about Lillie and Thomas at a meeting of the Children's Board. She had heard Amy was taking them both into her home.

"Everyone thought you were God's gift to the world," the lawyer, Tracy Sheehan, told Amy. Now the system seemed to think they weren't good enough. Sheehan said she'd represent them for free.

In the courtroom, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Broomfield told the judge that the Chandlers shouldn't be allowed to keep Thomas. They weren't interested in reuniting Lillie with her son, the state's lawyer said. All they wanted was that baby.

"Lillie didn't want her son," Amy whispered to her lawyer. "We were only going to adopt him because she had asked us to."

Lillie was doing well, the assistant attorney general argued. She had gone back to school, gotten a job, enrolled in drug education and parenting classes.

Amy looked at Mike, her eyes wide. All those things they were praising Lillie for, Amy had done for her. Lillie just wanted to sit in her room and watch TV.

For the state, Lillie and Thomas had been a package deal. The state's lawyer said the government wasn't sure the Chandlers could care for a child like Lillie, who had a history of abuse and neglect. The Chandlers already have five children of their own in the home, she said.

Mike was so angry that he walked out of court. Their attorney noted that the state didn't have a problem with the Chandlers when they had placed Lillie and Thomas with them just two months before.

The judge wanted to know where Lillie and Thomas were staying now. The caseworkers explained that they had been unable to find another family to take them both. They couldn't even find a home for Lillie, they said. She was still in the shelter. Thomas was with a new foster family.

In the end, the judge decided it was best to keep Thomas where he was, rather than move him again.

After the hearing, Amy and Mike met the new foster dad and gave him the crib, the swing, the baby clothes - everything they'd bought for Thomas.

*   *   *

That night, Amy didn't want to close her eyes. She lay in the dark, staring at the corner where the crib should have been, wondering what else she and Mike could have done.

They had wanted so much to give Lillie and Thomas a home. Now both mother and child were back in the system, and Amy worried that her own son had been traumatized. How had everything gone so wrong? Should she have given Lillie another chance? Where should they have drawn the line between helping someone else's child and protecting their own?

Amy's 1½-year-old woke up, climbed out of his toddler bed and wandered to her side. Amy pulled him to her and finally closed her eyes.

EPILOGUE

A month after Thomas was taken from the Chandlers, he is still living with his new foster family. His new foster dad says the breathing monitor isn't going off as much. Thomas is gaining weight, starting to smile.

Lillie has vanished. She stayed at the shelter for three weeks, waiting for another family to take her. On April 23, she ran away.

Jeff Rainey, CEO of Hillsborough Kids Inc., said that by law he cannot discuss any child's specific case. Speaking generally, he said it is always hard to find appropriate homes for foster teenagers, many of whom have troubled pasts.

"This is a no eject, no reject situation," he said. "We have to take all of these kids, and we have to do our best with them. Does everything work out the way it should or the way we would like it to? No, not always.''

At this writing, Lillie's smiling photo still appears on the Heart Gallery Web site, where the Chandlers first saw it. A different photo has been posted on another Web site for missing children. A note at the bottom says:

Lillie was last seen wearing a halter top, blue jeans and white sneakers.

Amy, who bought her those sneakers, still logs onto the site, hoping Lillie will be found.

In her wallet, Amy keeps photos of Lillie and the baby. Her favorite is a family portrait of all the kids grinning on the porch swing and Lillie cradling Thomas in her lap.

After the state took the baby, Amy pasted a copy of the family portrait in a scrapbook she made for Thomas. Knowing that Lillie never had any baby pictures of herself, Amy wanted Thomas to have memories from the first two months of his life.

It's not much consolation, Amy told Mike, but maybe they helped a little. Because of them, Lillie was able to be with her baby for a few weeks. Even if Thomas never sees his mother again, at least he'll have photos. He'll know what his mom looked like. And he'll see that for a short while they were together and were part of a real family.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com Melissa Lyttle can be reached at (813) 226-3363 or mlyttle@sptimes.com.

About this story

In January, Times staff writer Lane DeGregory got a call from the Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, asking her to write about a pregnant teenage girl named Lillie who was up for adoption. A few days later, Lillie had the sonogram where she met Amy Chandler.

This story, which chronicles Lillie's and Amy's time together, is based on four months of reporting. Most of the scenes, including the ones at the courthouse and inside the Chandler home, were witnessed by the reporter and Times photographer Melissa Lyttle.

The opening scene at the hospital, and the one where Amy and Mike look at the Heart Gallery on the computer, were based on interviews with Amy, Lillie and Mike. The section on Lillie's meeting with her boyfriend was based on interviews with Lillie and Mike. The night of the movie incident, and the morning after, were based on interviews with Amy and Mike; by then, Lillie was no longer in the home and was not allowed to speak further with the reporter. The scene in which Amy drops Lillie off outside the office building was based on interviews with Amy and her children.

[Last modified May 12, 2006, 16:23:01]


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