Editor's note: A young mother of three makes the painful decision to send her newborn daughter to live with a family she's just met while she begins a quest to find work and a place to live. It's supposed to be a temporary arrangement. But what will happen when things begin to fall apart? The second of three installments.
JOHNSBURG, Ill. — The scenes were strikingly different.
On one end, a teenager stood on a sidewalk, weeping as the van that held her newborn daughter sped off into the night. Excruciating as it was, it had been Hazel Evans' decision to send the baby away for a few months while she tried to cobble together the beginnings of a better life.
A few miles away, Jessica-Anne Becker's own daughters squealed and jumped excitedly as their mother arrived with the tiny girl named Autumn, whom they would grow to love as a sister.
"I want to hold her so badly," said 9-year-old Emma.
"She's MY baby," insisted Helene, who was 7.
"Her fingers are SO long!" 11-year-old Sarah-Anne exclaimed.
Each girl took a turn cuddling Autumn and then surrounded their father, David Becker, as he cradled her in his arms and asked Jessica how the departure from Hazel had gone.
"It was hard — even harder than I thought it'd be," Jessica said, looking a bit shell-shocked by the roller coaster of emotions that were only the beginning of what was to come in their new role as temporary parents.
They had forged this arrangement quickly, but with the best of intentions.
Hazel, a single mother trying to make up for past mistakes, was on a mission to find a job and an apartment so she could bring her baby girl home with her and her soon-to-be 3-year-old twin girls.
Slideshow: Part 3: Reunited again The Beckers, meanwhile, had agreed to take care of Autumn for three to six months, and in doing so, would walk a fine line between loving and caring for her, while constantly reminding themselves that she was not their own.
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Hazel was still bewildered by the Beckers' willingness to do this, not for payment, but because they simply wanted to help. "I've never met anyone like that," she said, shaking her head gratefully.
Only time would tell, however, whether everyone involved would be able to keep their promises — a pact they made not as a traditional state-mandated foster arrangement, but instead by choice, with the help of a private social service agency called Safe Families for Children.
Would Autumn eventually return home to her mother?
One thing was certain: As well-intentioned as everyone was, nothing would be perfect. There would be steps backward. Hearts would ache, patience would wane and, at times, tempers would flare.
No one could possibly anticipate just how difficult this would be.
Signs of hope
Even in difficult times, we're told to hope for the best. Jessica was a big believer in this, and in trying to see the good in everyone. With so many people struggling to make it, and when her own family was relatively stable, helping Hazel and literally wrapping their arms around this one baby was something tangible the Beckers could do.
It was a way to feel hopeful in hopeless times.
Hazel knew this and used it as motivation. She didn't want to disappoint Jessica, or let her newborn baby down.
Shortly after giving birth in June, she got a part-time job as a cashier at a Kmart store. The pay wasn't much — $8 an hour — but it was something. Hazel also had gotten more serious with her new boyfriend, a soft-spoken mechanic named Ivan Flores Huerta whom she'd met in the final months of her pregnancy. He worked at the auto shop below the two-bedroom apartment in Round Lake Park, Ill., where Hazel and her twins had been living with several family members.
Hazel and Ivan decided to look for a place of their own, even though some family and friends — the Beckers included — thought they were rushing it.
Hazel was unfazed: "It's not just, 'Oh, I want to move in with you.' He's always talking about the kids. He says, 'We need to get this apartment so we can get Autumn back. We need to get this apartment so the girls can have their own room.'"
"Besides," she conceded, "I don't think I can do it by myself."
From a financial standpoint, this was likely true. The lengthy wait list for Section 8 housing all but ruled out low-rent apartment options. So she and Ivan looked for a place with a landlord who wouldn't require a big deposit and who'd overlook her bad credit. It meant having monthly rent in the $750 range — more than they wanted to pay, given their income.
Ivan's monthly contribution was about $1,200. But when things were slower at her job, Hazel's checks were often less than $100 a week, subsidized by $150 a week in food stamps (a figure that would later drop to $110). She also received a small amount of child support from the twins' father.
Factoring in expenses such as gas, utilities and childcare, money would be very tight. But by early July, just as Hazel was about to turn 20, she and Ivan moved into their own two-bedroom apartment in Round Lake, Ill., a short drive from the Beckers.
Jessica quietly feared that Hazel and Ivan's relationship was one of convenience, but she liked Ivan. In some ways, he was bonding more quickly with baby Autumn than Hazel was during their weekly visits. Because they both had dark eyes and hair, people often assumed that Autumn was his biological daughter.
It wasn't the only way this untraditional arrangement caused confusion. Strangers often mistook Jessica for Autumn's grandmother, especially when she and Hazel took the baby together for doctor visits or to the social service agency that provided Autumn's baby formula.
The assumption often drew giggles and knowing glances from Hazel and Jessica, whose own bond was slowly growing.
"She's not my mom," Hazel sometimes said. "She could be — but she's not."
For their own part, the Beckers were adjusting to life with a baby.
Jessica and David functioned as best they could without sleep. Their daughters also grudgingly learned to share their parents — their mom, in particular — with Autumn. Bedtime, which she had always dedicated to them, became a real sore point.
"It's been a little hard because Autumn gets more attention than anyone else," said Sarah-Anne, the eldest of the Becker girls.
Helene, the youngest, dealt with it by sneaking into her parents' room to sleep with her mom until her dad came upstairs and carried her to her own bed.
Still, the girls also clearly enjoyed having Autumn around, giving her silly nicknames like "bubble eyes," "big cheeks" or "Guantumn," because it rhymed with her name.
At first, it was largely the arrangement Hazel and the Beckers hoped it would be.
But while Hazel quickly fulfilled her two main goals — getting a job and an apartment — signs of financial stress were surfacing by early July, a month after Autumn's birth. Hazel wasn't getting as many shifts at work as she'd wanted, and already, she and Ivan were behind on bills.
Short on money for groceries, Hazel made the difficult decision to pawn, for $50, the promise ring that Ivan had given her.
Slideshow: Part 3: Reunited again Then in late August, her mom's health took a turn for the worse.
Connie Wall had had emphysema for years, but still managed to care for Hazel's twins and two other grandchildren.
But as her mother's health rapidly deteriorated, Hazel felt she had no choice but to quit her job to care for her mom and twins. No one else would watch her girls for the $50 she'd tried to pay Connie each week for daycare, Hazel said, or cut her the slack her mom did when she couldn't pay.
Hazel asked the Beckers if they would keep Autumn until early December, the full six months.
They agreed — but even that date was brought into question last September when Hazel found her mom collapsed in a bedroom in her apartment.
At the hospital, Hazel sat with her unconscious mom, holding her hands, which were bruised and turning blue. "It's her time to go — let her go," she told other family members, sobbing as the medical staff removed her mom from life support.
It was a stunning blow. "Her mom dying was like, 'Really? Really? How much more can Hazel take?'" Jessica asked.
Now Hazel and her sister were faced with paying for a funeral, the most basic of which would cost $7,000.
Then, in mid-October, Ivan came home with news that he'd been laid off from his mechanic's job.
Will Autumn ever come home?
Hazel cried herself to sleep at night and wondered if she had postpartum depression. She and Ivan started arguing.
Her twins struggled, too, with their grandmother's death.
"I want to go home," they shouted when they were in trouble.
"But where is home?" Hazel asked herself. "It used to be with grandma, but she's not here anymore."
Three years earlier, she had been a 16-year-old kid with two kids of her own, but still sheltered and supported by her own parents.
Now she was parentless, with three young children, facing a seemingly insurmountable mountain of adult worries, including the very real threat of being evicted.
Even with the Beckers caring for Autumn, the notion of escaping poverty, or truly getting her life together, had never been more elusive. She knew she needed to step up and be an adult, but had little will to do so.
"MOM I MISS YOU SO MUCH!" Hazel wrote on her MySpace page. "MY HEART ACHES SO MUCH FROM UR LOSS. YOU WERE EVERYTHING TO ME, MY STRENGTH, MY BACKBONE, MY BEST FRIEND, MY WORLD!!!!"
At home, life became chaotic. The twins often stayed up until 3 a.m. and slept until early afternoon. They wrote all over themselves with ink and were into everything — one time, tossing pancake mix on the floor and rolling in it.
For Hazel, caring for baby Autumn when she came to visit was more overwhelming than ever, especially because Autumn seemed to miss Jessica.
"She's crying and won't stop. She's not taking her bottle. Do you lay her down after you feed her?" a frustrated Hazel asked Jessica over the phone.
When Autumn wasn't there, Hazel missed her. "But the minute she starts crying, I can't stand it," she said.
Sometimes, she would later admit, she let the baby cry so she wouldn't "lose it" and start yelling.
It wouldn't be long before Hazel was dropping hints to the Beckers about adopting Autumn. Jessica told her they didn't feel called to do that. They were waiting for a sign about what they should do, stepping in where they could but feeling increasingly helpless.
It was frustrating because Jessica knew Hazel was capable, knew she wanted to improve her life and had even shared her secret dream of becoming a nurse one day.
"I don't want to be the task master," Jessica said. "I want to be the cheerleader who says, 'You can do this!' — not the one who says 'Have you done this?'"
But for Hazel, life had always been about surviving day to day. And, especially now with three children, big dreams about the future seemed like an extravagance.
That day-to-day survival was disrupted yet again in November when Desire, one of the twins, pulled a dresser down on herself and ended up in intensive care with a serious head wound.
Hazel was emotionally spent, with next to nothing left for Autumn, the little girl she started referring to as "that baby."
How could Autumn possibly come home for good now?
Tomorrow: Part III: Two families bond as a baby comes home
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