Marie’s outbursts terrified her new parents. The 6-year-old threw furniture. She howled obscenities and gave them the finger. She hurled things at them while they drove.
Moe and Hollis Leary had adopted Marie’s sister Noelle, now 12, as a baby years earlier. With enough love, they thought, they could help Marie, too. But her rage was overwhelming, and within weeks the Learys sought an emergency psychiatric evaluation.
That was when, in a stark hospital room, the waif of a girl in a pink flamingo T-shirt and shorts calmly confided her dark plans to a nurse. She would wait until nighttime. Then she would creep into the Learys’ bedroom with a gun and shoot them while they were sleeping.
Marie’s pain and fury were long in the making. Before coming to live with the Learys in Florida in February, she had been shuffled among at least 11 foster homes in Massachusetts while her mother, recovering from drug addiction, fought to keep her. For nearly four years, she’d lived in limbo, whisked away as a toddler from her mother and handed off to an assortment of relatives, family friends, and strangers.
All the while, the state’s Department of Children and Families vacillated on whether to reunite Marie with her mother, or free her up for adoption in Florida by the Learys. The couple dreamed of their daughter growing up with a younger sister.
As months and years went by, Marie devolved from a happy-go-lucky toddler to an out-of-control 5-year-old seething with anger and grief. She was expelled from two Massachusetts day care centers, and had such a violent tantrum in school that her kindergarten had to be evacuated.
Marie’s precarious home life, documented by the Globe through state records, personal files, and e-mails shared by family members, and interviews, is all too common for Massachusetts foster children. Massachusetts takes longer than most states to decide how much time is reasonable for parents to pull their lives together, and how long a child should wait for that often-elusive stability. The opioid crisis has prolonged the indecision: Social workers, hoping for a parent’s recovery and a family’s reunification, hesitate to turn to the “nuclear option” of terminating parental rights, even as they fear the toll that uncertainty can take on a child’s mental health.
Such delays, specialists say, can have the biggest implications for the littlest children, who desperately need to form attachments in their first few years of life.
When the Learys were finally cleared to take Marie home with them to Florida in February, she reveled in her new family’s attention and romped in her comfortable new home, a five-bedroom house with a pool. But she also clearly needed psychiatric help: When she was angry, she unraveled: biting, swearing, knocking over furniture, and scratching herself, telling her new teachers she was going to get them fired by saying the teachers hurt her.
The Learys tried to get her therapy, but DCF hadn’t set up insurance for Marie, according to DCF correspondence and the Learys. While DCF and Florida social workers tried to resolve the confusion and arrange care, Marie’s condition deteriorated. In April, Moe Leary called a county crisis hot line. Counselors recommended emergency psychiatric commitment as the quickest path to getting help.
Later, by phone, a DCF worker counseled the frantic couple to let the department bring Marie back to Massachusetts to receive state-monitored, intensive trauma therapy. Then, the supervisor said, they’d work on returning Marie to Florida.
DCF declined to discuss with the Globe what happened in Marie’s case, citing confidentiality rules.
The Learys agonized even as they drove Marie to the airport. A tearful Moe Leary reassured the little girl the separation would only be for a short time.
But on the flight to Boston, Marie burned with indignation.
“You lied to me,” she screamed hysterically in a Facetime phone call with Moe upon landing in Massachusetts. She said the social worker she traveled with told her she wasn’t going back to Florida.
Then she was driven off to live with strangers in yet another foster home in Massachusetts.
* * * * *
Two decades ago, Congress passed a law aimed at shortening the time children that languish in foster care and quickening the pace of adoptions. It said states must move to terminate parental rights if a child is in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. Adoptions increased and long stays in foster care declined.
But the opioid epidemic has reversed that trend. Children are mired in foster care for increasingly long stretches as swamped state agencies need more time, and significantly more addiction treatment and mental health services, to repair so many splintered families.
Loopholes in the federal law allow states to get around the time limit. They stop the countdown to the loss of parental rights if a child is in a foster home with a relative, as Marie was for several of her placements, or if a state documents a “compelling reason” why terminating those rights is not in the child’s best interest.
Additionally, children typically must wait for a judge to sign off on adoptions, another significant delay, said Carol W. Spigner, a former commissioner at the US Department of Health and Human Services who administered federal child welfare programs.
“Some of the delays are related to both the capacity of the courts to move these cases through and the willingness of the court to make these hard decisions,” she said.
Still, Massachusetts is an outlier, taking more time than most other states to decide whether adoption is the best outcome for a child. Roughly one quarter of the children who were adopted from DCF in 2017 had been waiting four years or longer, according to federal data. Only New York, Illinois, and Mississippi had a greater percentage of children waiting so long in limbo.
Roughly 40 percent of DCF cases that were closed last year in Massachusetts after children were reunited with their parents, adopted, or assigned legal guardians, had been lingering for more than two years — the outside limit set by Juvenile Court administrators. That translates to about 1,775 children caught and often suffering in bureaucratic limbo.
The effect of these delays can be devastating for children. Kids who are removed from their parents when they’re still toddlers and repeatedly shuttled to different homes often grow distrustful and have problems forming relationships, specialists say. The trauma releases a cascade of stress hormones. They get stuck in survival mode, and extreme behaviors can follow.
“Every disruption in a child’s life puts them at risk for problems in development and long-term health challenges,” Spigner said. “We know that ambiguity about where you live and who you belong to has profound consequences on children.”
DCF and Juvenile Court administrators say they’ve recently made changes intended to create speedier resolutions. The overall number of adoptions has risen significantly in the last five years, but the total number of children in foster care has also increased.
Judges have been directed to schedule trials more quickly if parents aren’t making significant progress, and social workers are aiming to set goals for the outcome of each case earlier.
DCF noted that the vast majority of kids whom the department works with live with their families or are reunited after foster care. But, it said in a statement, cases where that doesn’t happen can take time to resolve, especially when the matter crosses state lines.
“Family dynamics are complex and the legal processes around child custody and termination of parental rights are significant,” the agency said in a statement. “These issues become even more complicated if potential placement opportunities are identified that are out of state.”
* * * * *
Even at birth, in April 2013, Marie faced adversity. At just under 6 pounds, her tiny body was fighting the effects of Suboxone, which her mother had taken to treat her opioid addiction during pregnancy.
Within hours, DCF assigned a social worker to assess Marie’s progress. For the next nine days, she remained in the hospital, attached to monitors. Then she was released to her mother, Mary Chamberland, who was struggling to stay off heroin.
At home in Winchendon, tensions were high. Chamberland and her boyfriend, Kyle, were stressed with caring for their infant while battling addiction and mental health problems.
Then one warm evening in August, in the heat of a fight, Kyle heaved a fan at Chamberland, who was cradling Marie. The fan missed them, but Chamberland called police, and wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked Marie, now 4 months old, was removed from the home.
Soon after, Moe Leary’s cellphone rang down in Florida, a bolt out of the blue. Leary, 47, was unpacking after the family moved to a new house and almost didn’t answer her phone.
It was a DCF social worker. Your daughter Noelle has a 4-month-old sister named Marie, the worker said. She needs a foster home. Would you be interested?
(The Globe is identifying the children by their middle names to protect their privacy.)
For a moment, Leary, a vivacious woman, couldn’t speak. Her mind cartwheeled, imagining a sibling for her daughter, a small baby to hold, even for a little while. And, she dared to think, maybe longer.
“Absolutely,” she replied.
But the worker, reaching Leary on her cellphone, hadn’t known that the family had moved to Florida since adopting Marie’s sister, Chamberland’s firstborn, in 2007. That proved a problem; the department was searching for a foster family in Massachusetts because its goal was to reunite Marie with her mother. The two needed to have regular visits.
“If something changes, if foster care doesn’t work out, we are here,” Leary told the worker, not ready to let go of the moment. She sat there, cradling the cellphone, after the social worker hung up.
* * * * *
It’s not clear how many foster homes DCF placed Marie in immediately after that combustible August night. But within a few weeks, DCF sent her to Fitchburg to live with some cousins, a family with a big backyard and lots of laughter. Marie flourished, learning to crawl and tasting her first baby food, apple and banana puree.
About four months later, DCF determined it was safe for her to go home. Marie and her mother — the baby’s father was seldom around — spent the next year and a half hopscotching around several apartments in Winchendon and Gardner, even briefly moving to Kentucky in the fall of 2014 to avoid the critical eye of DCF, Chamberland said in an interview.
Around that time, DCF received a report that she was abusing drugs, again.
Chamberland soon moved back to Massachusetts with her daughter; at 2½ years old, Marie was clean and well fed, relatives recall. She loved to play outside, but was often parked in front of a TV with Chamberland and was months behind in her speech, only capable of saying a few words, including “eat,” and “more.”
Throughout the summer of 2015, DCF received at least three more reports that Chamberland was again abusing drugs. Then came a report alerting DCF that tests had revealed heroin in Chamberland’s system six times from May through late August. On a golden afternoon in early September 2015, DCF showed up at Chamberland’s door to whisk Marie away, again.
Devastated, Chamberland waged what would become three years of legal wrangling, trying to win her daughter back.
“I feel like I failed her,” Chamberland, now 30 and clinging to sobriety, told the Globe recently. “For a mother, it’s the hardest thing in the world knowing your child is out there and you can’t protect them.”
Chamberland knows better than most the pain that Marie is feeling. She had spent her own childhood in a dizzying number of foster homes, at least 30, she says, by the time she was 13. Finally, DCF deemed her family stable and sent her home.
She didn’t stay long. Instead, Chamberland, who had developed a streetwise swagger but few family bonds, moved in with a man twice her age. She was introduced to cocaine at 14 years old, and heroin at 16, according to DCF documents shared with the Globe.
By 18, she had her first child, born with the same translucent blue eyes and wide face as Chamberland, and quickly lost her to DCF because of addiction. Chamberland tested positive for cocaine and Valium during labor, and her newborn, whom she named Emily Rose — her initials are tattooed in a rose on Chamberland’s back — also had cocaine and Valium in her system, DCF records show.
Social workers tried to coax Chamberland into addiction treatment and reunite her with her baby. Barely an adult herself, Chamberland kept dropping out of programs. Emily Rose was put up for adoption, and the Learys, then living in Massachusetts, eagerly took the 9-month-old home and renamed her Noelle.
* * * * *
CHAMBERLAND BARELY KNEW her first-born daughter when DCF took her. But with Marie, it was different. There was a bond.
As Chamberland fought to regain custody, she also struggled to get control of her own life. DCF documents chronicle a repeating pattern of two steps forward, one back, and a department that accommodated that dance in the hopes that one day mother and child could be together again.
When Chamberland showed progress in addiction and domestic violence counseling, parenting classes, and mental health therapy, DCF social workers changed the goal in Marie’s file, deciding she could be reunited with Chamberland. But when Chamberland faltered, adoption was back on the table. The objective reversed at least three times.
In Florida, Moe Leary would call DCF every few months to remind social workers the family had adopted Marie’s older sister and would love to help with Marie.
In Massachusetts, several of Marie’s family members stepped forward to care for her. When those arrangements frayed, the toddler would mark time with strangers in foster care.
One of her first stops, in the fall of 2015, was with her 25-year-old aunt, Nicole. Then a college student, Nicole had just moved in with her boyfriend, Ben Buteau, and two cats in a tiny apartment in Springfield. Marie was an energetic toddler who, frustrated by her limited vocabulary, often threw tantrums. But with intense speech therapy in the couple’s home, she started chattering and the tantrums dissipated.
“We didn’t have a bathtub, just a shower stall,” said Buteau. “I’d fill a 19-gallon storage bin with hot water when Marie took a bath. She had a blast. Loved bubble baths.”
And stickers. Once Buteau peeked into her room because she had been so quiet, only to discover she had covered herself, head to toe, with stickers. Another time, she decorated one of their cats.
But as months ticked by, Marie grew confused.
She was supposed to have visits twice a month with her mother in a Leominster DCF office. Sometimes, Marie would excitedly ready the Play-Doh and bubbles she’d brought, and Chamberland, who was living in New Hampshire at the time, wouldn’t show up. She lacked transportation or enough cash to get there. Marie would be devastated.
“She would cry, ‘Where is Mommy?’ ” Nicole said. “I would say, ‘Mommy is sick, but she loves you.’ ”
When she did appear, Chamberland arrived with toys and a promise: Soon, they’d be reunited for good.
Dozens of times Marie heard that. It never came true.
Yet when Nicole picked her up from those visits, Marie would confide, “I am going to live with Momma.”
By the spring of 2016, after they’d cared for Marie about six months, the couple’s relationship deteriorated, they said, and DCF needed another home for her.
Moe Leary’s phone rang in Florida. It had been almost three years since that first stunning call from a DCF worker. Now, the department wanted to know: Would they be interested in adopting Marie?
Moe Leary didn’t hesitate.
“We said yes,” she said. “And we were told we better buckle our seat belts, because it’s going to happen fast.”
* * * * *
Suddenly, the prospect of Marie’s becoming a part of the Learys’ lives seemed very real. The couple hustled to ready their home and take a required 12-week foster parenting course. Moe Leary allowed herself to do something she hadn’t before: scour Facebook for pictures of Marie.
There, on Chamberland’s page, was a heart-melting photo of Marie, bundled in a furry pink snow suit, sitting on a sled and staring pensively at the camera. And there were photos of Chamberland, whose smile and blue eyes looked so much like Noelle’s. Leary was mesmerized.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a determined Chamberland pursued her legal battle to regain custody. DCF had moved Marie from her aunt’s home in Springfield to Worcester, to live with Lisa Kelly, the mother of Nicole’s former boyfriend.
By then, Kelly said, Marie was becoming a “very angry, scared child” who shrieked constantly when she didn’t get her way. Kelly was also caring for her 2-year-old grandson because his mother was struggling with addiction.
“After a few weeks of her screeching with me, I gave her a stuffed animal and told her to put her mouth on it and screech, and that worked” to calm her, Kelly said.
Often, after an episode, Marie would look for love.
“Nanna, are you happy with me?” she would ask. “Are you happy?”
After three months, Marie seemed to be settling in. But weekly phone calls and visits at a DCF office with her mother took their toll.
Marie’s high-voltage temper tantrums in the aftermath of these meetings were draining: nonstop, prolonged screaming.
“I begged DCF for counseling” for Marie, Kelly said.
That didn’t happen, either. Kelly said DCF was unable to find an available therapist during Marie’s five months with her.
But Kelly thought the Learys would soon be allowed to adopt Marie because Chamberland seemed to be stumbling more than succeeding.
So it was with high hopes in July 2016 that Kelly brought Marie, then 3 years old, to meet the Learys at their summer home on a lake in Plymouth. Kelly, 46, was worn out from taking care of two toddlers, plus working full time as a hospice nurse. She told DCF she could hold on another month or so, but they needed to find Marie another home. She hoped it was with the Learys.
The meeting was magical.
“The look was like a newborn looking up at a mom,” said Kelly, who snapped a picture of Marie and Moe Leary. “It gave me goosebumps.”
Marie also instantly bonded with her new big sister, who gave her a light purple pocketbook. Marie carried it everywhere, even curling up with it at bedtime.
But DCF still wouldn’t consider letting the Learys, as they headed back to Florida, foster Marie. Marie needed to be in Massachusetts to retain a bond with Chamberland, who was making progress in her sobriety.
In late August, Kelly stumbled and bumped into Marie, who fell and cut her mouth on a stair. DCF investigated Kelly for possible abuse and concluded it was an accident.
But by then, Marie had been whisked away and sent to live with strangers in yet another foster home.
* * * * *
Two months later, in November 2016, DCF moved Marie from a foster home near Springfield to live with her paternal grandmother and her boyfriend in Clinton. She rarely saw her father, Kyle, who was separated from Chamberland. He was hospitalized several times for psychotic episodes, and often missed his DCF-monitored visits with Marie, according to department documents.
The days were long for Marie, who was often off to day care by 7 a.m. and not back until dinner time because of her grandmother’s work schedule. The state provided her with mental health therapy, but reports of bad behavior in day care started trickling in, and then pouring in. Marie punched one child in the stomach while they were lining up. She kicked other kids.
Then tragedy enveloped the family in November 2017. Kyle died by suicide.
As the grieving family struggled with how to explain this to Marie, the youngster, who had witnessed sobbing visitors to her grandmother’s home, erupted in day care.
She climbed up on a window sill, and when the teacher asked her to come down, she started throwing anything in her reach: papers, tissue boxes, chairs. When administrators whisked her to the office, waiting for her grandmother to bring her home, Marie’s rage intensified. Red-faced and shrieking, she started climbing up on a table. As one of the aides tried to stop her, she began biting the woman’s leg. She was like a cornered animal, striking out at anything that touched her.
* * * * *
As Marie’s anger escalated, Chamberland, living in New Hampshire, was making great progress toward winning her back; she was sober and regularly attending church and support groups, a DCF review found.
She had met a man with a history of drug abuse, but both were in treatment. By early 2018, they had one son together and Chamberland was pregnant with another.
That spring, a Worcester County Juvenile Court judge was to decide whether Chamberland was ready to regain custody, or if it was time to end the wrangling and free Marie up for adoption by the Learys.
DCF was still undecided about what Marie’s fate should be. Even as the department suggested moving ahead to arrange for the state of New Hampshire to monitor Marie if she moved back with Chamberland, social workers fretted about letting her mother take her back.
“The Department is worried with Ms. Chamberland being able to care for two children, along with a newborn, and her ability to handle the special needs” of Marie, DCF wrote in an April 7, 2018 review just before the scheduled court date.
It continued: “The Department is worried that [Marie’s] safety and well-being will be jeopardized if Ms. Chamberland or [her boyfriend] are unable to be consistent with treatment to address their substance abuse history.”
The court date was postponed, and in the months that followed, the relationship between Chamberland and her boyfriend deteriorated. With a newborn and a toddler to care for, Chamberland feared she would lose her court battle and never see Marie again.
In September, just before the scheduled trial, Mary Chamberland signed a paper that terminated her parental rights to Marie forever. In exchange, the document promised she would get two, one-hour visits a year.
Chamberland gambled that something precious would be gained; Marie would grow up knowing her older sister.
“I just want my daughter to be safe, happy, and healthy,” Chamberland said recently. “That’s all I want.”
* * * * *
DCF social workers threw Marie a goodbye party, assuring the 5½-year-old she would soon fly to Florida to join her new “forever family.’’ They showered her with parting gifts: stuffed animals, coloring books, a blanket.
But it was not a done deal.
DCF had yet to complete the paperwork. And the Learys were concerned about signing the open adoption agreement. When they adopted Noelle 11 years earlier, the adoption arrangement kept the Learys’ identity secret from her birth mother.
Now Chamberland would be a part of their lives. They worried about how Noelle would handle meeting a mother she never knew. They feared Chamberland would demand Marie back.
The Learys asked DCF if the agreement could be changed to a closed adoption. But DCF stood firm.
As weeks dragged by with no action, Marie, who was still living with her grandmother in Clinton, slid further into a funk.
A psychological review by the Clinton school district shortly before she started kindergarten last fall concluded, “Her emotions are out of control.” Marie “resorts to hurting others, both peers and teachers,” it said.
With the adults in her life still sorting out the paperwork, Marie erupted again, this time in kindergarten. It’s not clear what set her off, but one day last fall, she started tipping over desks, hitting other kids, and screaming. She threatened one with a pair of scissors. Frightened teachers evacuated the classroom and Marie was suspended.
Chamberland, who heard that the Learys were having second thoughts, worried they would back out, that her daughters would not grow up knowing each other, and that her decision to sign away her rights to Marie would be for naught. She asked Marie’s grandmother to help her reach out to the Learys, and soon after, Moe Leary e-mailed Chamberland. The two had never, until that moment, communicated.
“For 11 years I had this image of a boogey man. I was blown away,” Leary said after they spoke. “She talked about her life, how she had been in so many homes, had been a drug addict. But she still knew [Noelle’s] birthday. She wasn’t this monster.”
The conversation, Leary said, “opened my heart and head.” She decided it might be good for Noelle to one day meet Chamberland. The Learys signed the open adoption agreement.
On Feb. 16, Leary brought Marie to Florida to what they all believed would finally be her stable, permanent home, complete with a spot in a school that specialized in children with behavior problems.
But it wasn’t enough. The meltdowns Marie had in Massachusetts moved with her and soon intensified.
Life became a roller coaster. One moment, Marie would be giggling, tagging along after her big sister, and splashing in the backyard pool beneath the palm trees.
But when she got upset, she tipped over furniture, punched whoever got in her way, and shrieked uncontrollably. The Learys had no idea how to help Marie, and repeatedly reached out to DCF for guidance. The department had failed to finalize Marie’s health insurance, according to DCF correspondence. The Learys say they would have paid out-of-pocket for therapy but were waiting for child welfare workers in Florida and Massachusetts to set up the referrals.
When DCF raced in and ferried Marie back to Massachusetts, Moe Leary was crestfallen, second-guessing her crisis-mode decision to let DCF take her back even temporarily.
Marie “needs to know how loved she is, that she is cherished! That we are here for her!!” Leary e-mailed DCF supervisors, pushing for therapy and Marie’s return to Florida. In a flurry of e-mails, the department promised intensive services, and to set up regular phone calls and visits with the Learys when they arrived at their summer home in Plymouth. But it insisted they adhere to careful conversations with Marie about her returning to Florida in case things didn’t work out.
Leary was determined they would, and packed Marie’s bike, with pink training wheels, and summer clothes when they drove north in June.
Weeks passed. Still no therapy for Marie. And no visits for the Learys.
“If I knew that Massachusetts was just going to swoop in and keep her, I wouldn’t have let her get on the plane,” Moe Leary lamented.
Therapy started at last in July, and the Learys were granted two half-day visits with Marie. She seemed elated to see them — squealing “Momma, Momma,” and sticking tight to her older sister. But at the end of the visits, Leary detected a broken look in her eyes.
Still, she was unprepared for what happened next.
* * * * *
At the end of July, several DCF supervisors and social workers met for a state-required review of Marie’s past six months. Leary insisted on attending, too.
As Leary recalls it, the workers discussed Marie’s life in her new foster home, that she was receiving appropriate dental and health care. Nobody mentioned Marie’s meltdowns before she moved to Florida, or her swift unraveling with no therapy, once there.
A DCF worker noted that Marie acted out when returning to foster care after her recent visits with the Learys and her grandmother. Then the social worker in charge announced her recommendation: DCF should find a family other than the Learys to adopt Marie.
Leary, who had for years vowed to change the ominous trajectory of the little girl’s life, sat there speechless.
“It’s as if my brain cells had frozen over,” she said.
There was no further discussion. She received no explanation. The meeting concluded with the review panel’s new goal: Find Marie a permanent placement by July 2020.
By then, she will have turned 7, and will have been in foster care for more than half her life.
Leary is reeling, and still holding out hope that Marie will be able to come back to them one day. Earlier this month, Leary tried to clean out Marie’s room and pack the cutest clothes to ship back to Marie’s grandmother in Massachusetts. She found herself staring, anguished, at the bright array laid out on the bed.
“If this is over, I hope the pittance of visits we were granted this summer will embed like a mustard seed in her heart and grow,” she said. “I just want her to know we wanted her. I want her to know that she was loved.”