Editor's note: Already the mother of twin girls, a teenager who has no job and no home of her own discovers she's pregnant again. "What are you going to do?" asks her own mother, who's helped raise her twins. There are no easy answers — but there is a compromise that this young woman believes will help keep her family together, eventually. The first of three installments.
WAUKEGAN, Ill. — Jessica-Anne Becker clasped her husband's hand tightly as they walked, a bit tentatively, down the hospital hallway.
"I just want to make sure Hazel is OK,'' the mother of three young daughters said. She and husband David had reason to feel nervous, even a little awkward. They were about to temporarily take on a fourth child, a newborn baby, the daughter of 19-year-old mother Hazel Evans.
The Beckers arrived in her hospital room just as nurses brought in the baby and Hazel held her for the first time.
"Aw-w-w, don't cry like that, baby,'' Hazel cooed to the tiny girl she'd named Autumn, whose alert, dark eyes and soft whimpers were already tugging at her young mother's heart.
Hazel had thought about giving Autumn up for adoption. Unemployed and living in an overcrowded two-bedroom apartment with several family members — and already the mother of 2-year-old twin girls — she knew that adding a newborn to the mix would be more than she could immediately handle. "But I didn't think I could live with it, knowing I'd given my baby away,'' Hazel said.
What she desperately needed, she said, was some time to get her life on track, to find a job and an apartment. She wanted to do better, but she would need some help.
And that's where the Beckers came in.
This was not a traditional foster family arrangement. There were no state agencies involved, no court orders, no payment to the Beckers.
Hazel had only met Jessica the week before Autumn's birth, introduced by a case worker at a Chicago nonprofit organization that matches parents like Hazel with volunteer families who are willing to take in children for three to six months.
Giving up Autumn was Hazel's choice. Still, as a mother, Jessica could hardly fathom what it would be like for a parent to hand over a child to people who were, for all intents and purposes, strangers.
Hazel had tried to imagine it herself. She knew her twins, just shy of their third birthday, would ask why the baby they'd felt growing in her belly wasn't coming home to stay.
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What would she tell them? She still wasn't quite sure how to explain it. Her own family members were uncomfortable, perhaps a little embarrassed, with the idea that the Beckers would take Autumn. The baby's father didn't like it, either, nor did Hazel's new boyfriend.
In her heart, though, Hazel was certain this was the right thing to do, for her children and for herself — for their future.
"It'll be hard for now, but in the long run, we'll be better off,'' she said. "Sometimes, you have to sacrifice a little to gain a lot.''
This had to be done, she kept telling herself. Had to be done.
‘I was disappointed in myself’
Even in these times of economic distress, when more American families are falling into deep poverty, it would be easy to write off Hazel Evans as just another pregnant teen whose irresponsibility got her where she was.
Slideshow: Part 3: Reunited again Not one to shy from the truth, she would agree that many of the decisions that led to this pregnancy were immature, even stupid. "And yes, I do know how birth control works,'' she said, anticipating a question she knows people ask themselves when they see someone so young with one child, let alone three.
Before she met Hazel, even Jessica believed that people like Hazel were using the system, or just plain lazy. Then Jessica, jarred from her comfortable suburban existence, got a firsthand view of just how difficult it could be to make sweeping declarations about the Hazels of the world.
This was a young woman, as smart and capable as she was maddening, who was more than willing to work.
This was a young woman who declined Jessica's suggestion to go to a food bank at her church because Hazel said there were other people who needed the food more than she did.
But this also was a young woman who was frustrated when the electric company told her she could only have a hefty deposit back when she'd paid her bill on time for a full year. "Who can do that?'' Hazel asked in all seriousness.
Hers was a life in constant survival mode. Hazel never had a lot growing up, but usually she had what she needed, even as her parents lost one home and were evicted from other places they rented.
"It was a lot of bouncing around,'' Hazel said. But her dad, who worked at a hardware store and then as a file clerk for the state, "always made sure we had a roof over our heads,'' she added.
Hazel, a self-proclaimed "mommy's girl,'' dreaded having to come home as a 16-year-old to tell her parents she was pregnant the first time.
"My mom always did her best to teach us right from wrong and try to keep us in line, which, of course, with teenage girls never works that way,'' Hazel said of herself and her older sister, Jenny.
When Hazel dropped out of high school after she got pregnant, her parents were disappointed, but they banded together. Hazel and the babies stayed with them in their home in Round Lake Park, Ill., a rural suburb northwest of Chicago. Though in failing health, her parents bought diapers and formula and helped her take care of the girls.
Then, in the summer of 2007, shortly after Hazel turned 18 and her twins turned 1, her father died of pancreatic cancer. "That's when things kind of fell apart because my dad was the only one working,'' she said.
She and her mom moved with the twins to a small apartment. Hazel worked at a fast food restaurant while her mom, who struggled with emphysema, baby-sat. Hazel knew she was supposed to step up and take care of things. But even with two small children to care for, she still rebelled.
"I was using drugs. I was partying. I was drinking — hanging out with the wrong people, coming in and out at all hours of the night,'' Hazel said. "It was a bad time.''
Eventually, Hazel's bosses fired her. She and her mom were evicted from the apartment. Then she found out she was pregnant, again, this time by a boyfriend who didn't believe the baby was his and who had little involvement with Autumn.
Hazel was a mess, and she knew it. "I was disappointed in myself,'' she said. If she couldn't take care of her twins, she wondered, "How was I going to take care of this one?''
She felt hopeless. Yet, in a strange way, this latest pregnancy also would become a turning point.
"You're never going to be able to forgive yourself if you just keep two and give one away,'' she remembers her mom saying.
Hazel knew she was right.
She split up with her boyfriend in the fall of 2008 and stopped hanging out with her partying friends. She moved in with a family from a local church. They told her about Safe Families for Children, the Chicago-based program that eventually put her in touch with the Beckers.
Started in 2002 with just a few volunteer families, the organization has expanded to cities nationwide and now has a network of 500 host families who provide temporary shelter to the children of roughly 300 families who request the services each year.
Before she gave birth last June, Hazel and her girls moved back with her own family, to a two-bedroom apartment in Round Lake Park where her mom and aunt were now living with her older sister, her sister's husband and their young daughter.
That's where Jessica, who was 42 at the time, first came to meet her.
A family steps in to help
Though they lived only a 15-minute drive away, the Beckers' two-story suburban home and tree-lined subdivision in Johnsburg, Ill., is worlds away from the crowded, smoky apartment above a mechanic's shop where Hazel was living.
David Becker is an engineer for a telecommunications company. Jessica was able to leave a part-time job last spring to spend more time with their daughters, who were 7, 9 and 11 when Autumn came to live with them.
The Beckers had heard through an e-mail that Hazel was looking for a family, and that she'd specifically asked for one from their church.
They prayed about it and talked it over as a family. "Having a baby here will change our lives,'' the Beckers told their girls. "A lot!''
But that would be a good thing, they thought. Jessica and David — one raised by parents she calls "former hippies'' and the other by straight-laced churchgoers — realized how focused they'd become on building a good life for their own family. Now they wanted to give something back, to walk the talk of their Christian faith, and in doing so, help their girls better appreciate what they had.
Jessica also liked the idea of helping someone get their life back on track — something she once needed to do, too.
"People think that because I go to church and I do this good thing for this mom with a baby that I don't have any past to share. But I was not an angel by any means,'' Jessica said. Before she was married and found God, she spent 10 years with a drug-dealing boyfriend who was in trouble with the law, on and off.
"It's not something I'm proud of,'' Jessica said. "But it's part of what made me who I am.''
To qualify as caregivers for Autumn, the Beckers went through a background check and home visits with a case coach from Safe Families, who would continue to check in on them. They provided personal references and agreed to be Autumn's guardians, with the understanding that Hazel could ask to have the baby back whenever she wanted. The initial plan was for the Beckers to keep Autumn for three months.
To prepare themselves, they spoke with other volunteer families who filled them in on the grim realities of dealing with parents in poverty — and the relatively small impact their help sometimes had.
"It's not always that happy ending everyone is looking for,'' said April Lerch, their first case coach with Safe Families. In some instances, she says, there is serious drug and alcohol use, or another parent who doesn't want their child staying with a volunteer family.
Sometimes, caseworkers discover that parents are trying to use the program as a way to try to avoid the state's child protective services.
An unusual arrangement
Early on, Jessica knew she needed to set boundaries with Hazel, but also eventually hoped to maintain a long-term bond with Hazel and Autumn, even after Autumn returned home.
That was, in fact, the main request Hazel had for Jessica when they met.
"Do you plan to see Autumn when she comes back to be with me?'' Hazel had asked.
If Jessica had said "no,'' Hazel would've kept looking for another family.
Their arrangement would be no small thing, no few-month commitment. At the very least, Hazel felt like she owed that much to her youngest daughter — to find someone who truly cared about her.
Two days after Autumn's birth, Jessica returned to the hospital in Waukegan, Ill. It'd been a long day of waiting for doctors to release both mother and baby. The Beckers' youngest daughter, Helene — impatient for the baby's arrival — tried to distract herself by playing soccer in their back yard.
"Did Miss Hazel call?'' she asked her mother, again and again.
Finally, Jessica grabbed a bag with diapers, baby bottles, formula and blankets and headed to the hospital. She also packed a new outfit for Autumn — a pink snap-shirt and a matching hat.
At the first hospital visit, Jessica had asked if Hazel had anything special she wanted Autumn to wear "when she comes home.'' Then she corrected herself: "When she comes to OUR home.''
"I don't have anything,'' Hazel had said, appreciatively, her eyes looking downward.
It was the start of a subtle dance between two mothers, with Jessica doing her best to let Hazel be in charge, despite a more than 20-year age difference, while quietly taking on the role of mentor.
As they left the hospital and arrived at Hazel's, the apartment was a jumble of activity, as it often was, with Hazel's family members coming and going. Though Hazel's mother had been cordial but distant the first time Jessica visited, this time, she sat and spoke to her as Hazel and her mom took turns holding Autumn.
"She's such a good baby, mom,'' Hazel said, as one of her twins, Sabrina, crawled on her and tried to give the baby a french fry. Her sister, Desire, hid on a bed in one of the bedrooms, peeking out from under a blanket, eventually sneaking out to check out her new sister.
Reluctantly, Hazel placed Autumn in the portable car seat, her face turning red in an unsuccessful attempt to hold back tears as she kissed the baby's forehead.
Jessica gave Hazel a long hug. "We'll see everybody soon,'' Jessica said, as they walked to her van together and said their goodbyes.
"Short-term pain for long-term gain,'' Hazel said, her sobs increasing as she watched Jessica drive off.
Now the onus was on her to get her daughter back.
Tomorrow: A young mom’s plan unravels
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