Friday 15 December 2000
'Why did somebody decide she couldn't be my mother?'
Daughter sees her mother, adoptive parents and herself as victimsDave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen
Part 4 of a Series
Brigitte Bouvier, The Ottawa Citizen / Maria Bieber turned to the CAS for help after her husband left her penniless.
Dora Bieber disappeared into the child protection system and was adopted 12 years ago. She's now 19, and has been living with her birth mother for two years. She wants answers.
"There's nothing wrong with my mother," she said of the woman sitting beside her. "Why did this happen to her? Why did somebody decide she couldn't be my mother?"
She's looking to me for answers because my name appears as the writer of many stories that for many of those years tracked her mother's one-woman war against the powerful child protectors.
First Dora wants assurances that nothing will be done to harm or embarrass her adoptive parents, for whom she has respect and admiration. To protect them, she doesn't want her photo taken, nor does she want her adoptive, and now legal, name used. She says they, like herself and her birth mother, are victims.
It's 8 p.m. Nov. 29. We order supper at a west-end steakhouse, and settle in for a long talk.
First, some truths for Dora. Her mother was indeed arrested 10 times because she refused to accept family court decisions that took away her child, made that child a Crown ward, and made her disappear into adoption. Yes, mother really did at one point spend 10 months in jail, refusing an offer of early release by refusing to agree to conditions.
Yes, I saw her brought into courtrooms wearing jailhouse jumpsuits, chained hand and foot, raising her handcuffs over her head and shouting defiance: "I love my daughter!"
I have long wondered how she managed to locate her daughter so many times, and how she came within a whisker of pulling off an abduction.
After a slow meal and a long talk, we had some answers. But there's still a gap between mother and daughter. There's something unusual about their interaction. In the parking lot, Dora was waiting in the passenger seat of her mother's car, looking straight ahead at nothing. Like her mother, she's a small woman, and seemed to be trying to make herself disappear between her own hunched shoulders. The body language was clear. She needed a hug.
"I know," said her mother, still standing outside. "I just can't. It would be fake and she'd know that. It would make things worse. I don't fake. It's part of the damage. I can't forget the look on her face that day (of the near abduction). She recognized me, and she ran. She was afraid of me. That hurt so much. How could she have believed I would ever hurt her? How could she have believed them?"
Maria slid in behind the wheel, backed the car out, and paused for a moment to adjust the wipers to clear the cold drizzle. Mother and daughter were pushed against their own sides of the car. Both needed a hug, but mother was still too angry, and daughter too frightened.
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Citizen, Dec. 3, 1987, Brown's Beat: "Woman says justice system failed her after husband walked out."
It was the first time Maria Bieber appeared in one of my columns, and it was intended to show a needed repair to marital law. Three years earlier on an October night, Ms. Bieber, after a lengthy visit to her home in Hungary, arrived back in Ottawa with her three-year-old daughter and ailing mother. Her husband, a bankrupt casket salesman, didn't meet them at the airport as promised. He was gone, along with all their belongings. She was a self-employed hairdresser and he had disposed of her equipment. Everything was gone, including her home and her means of supporting herself and her family. He hadn't kept up the mortgage payments.
For three years, Ms. Bieber knocked on justice's doors demanding he be tracked down, charged with theft, and brought back from Alberta, hogtied if necessary. She was in a fury, and once managed to get into the office of Perth Crown attorney John Waugh. When he said he couldn't help, she left her child, saying she couldn't afford to raise her, so Mr. Waugh would have to. She returned later to get her daughter, but it was an incident that didn't look good years later in front of a family court judge hearing a Children's Aid Society application for custody.
In that first story, her lawyer, Ted Masters, was quoted as saying the kind of theft she experienced was a gap in law that should be closed. It still isn't. Although marital property is supposed to be joint property, if one partner steals it, police will tell the other party to take it to a lawyer. It's a civil case.
To Maria Bieber, theft was theft and she couldn't put it behind her. Her anger was further fuelled by the realization he was planning his moves before she left for Europe. That he was still sharing her bed while planning his betrayal was the greatest theft of all. "He stole my love."
The social safety net was keeping the small family barely afloat when she arrived at my office in 1987. She had her small daughter with her and the child seemed placid when mother gave a temper-filled account of her circumstances. The girl found things to play with while mother downloaded. She seemed accustomed to mother's emotional high-tension wiring.
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Brown's Beat, Oct. 26, 1988: "Group aims to judge lawyers, fight bad law."
It was a story about people who had paid much money to lawyers and felt they had been burned. They believed they had been little more than raw material for an industry that didn't care. Over the next few years the group would grow to a membership of 170, and then fade away. Shortly after it was founded, Ms. Bieber showed up at a meeting. She became the cause celebre for the group, which called itself CABL -- Citizens Against Bad Law. She told how she had been watching television at a shelter for the homeless in 1988, and saw a commercial about the services of the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa Carleton. The main theme of the ad was: We're here to help. If you've got problems, call.
She called and talked to a caseworker and signed an agreement placing her daughter in foster care for three months. She extended that twice while she waited for rent-to-income housing. She frequently visited her daughter and thought she was lucky to be in a country that offered such fine services. Her daughter was in a nice home being cared for by good people.
After getting an apartment and decorating a room for her daughter, she contacted her caseworker and said it was time to bring her daughter back. The child had been in care for almost nine months.
She says now: "I knew I was in trouble the minute the new caseworker walked in. Up until then, I had been dealing with a woman who had become a friend. She was 62, and I thought of her like a second mother. The new worker was younger. She said she wasn't running a babysitting service and accused me of taking advantage of the system."
Maria Bieber has a hot temper and a low flashpoint. Treated to a view of the eye of one of mother's storms, the social worker decided to apprehend Dora for the child's protection.
The fight was on.
In family courts in child protection cases, the steps are painfully slow. As Maria's access to Dora was slowly reduced, she became more angry and distrustful. She fired lawyers and eventually the only people she would trust were CABL members. They turned out at hearings to show support, and some of them at some points represented her. One of them kept count of her court appearances, but stopped counting at 147.
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Brown's Beat, Nov. 22, 1994: "Woman seeks trial to get back 'lost' child."
Maria Bieber had been in jail for six months at this point. A judge offered her instant freedom if she promised to stop her attempts to abduct the child the system was now referring to as her "former daughter." She had been caught with passports and within a few feet of the girl.
She said no to the judge's offer, and went back to jail for another four months. She was demanding her case be heard by a criminal court, and she wanted a jury "with mothers on it." It didn't happen.
Watchers, including police, were impressed by mother's investigative skills. That she managed to track her daughter and find her, frequently, through a series of foster homes was impressive. At the steakhouse she explained: "I drove all the time, all over the Ottawa and St. Lawrence valleys. I would watch schools.
"Garbage was best. Once I knew where one (foster) home was, I would pick up the garbage and go through it, mainly for phone bills. I would call the numbers and sometimes connect with the next foster home. If I suspected a house might be a foster home, and found a lot of calls to the CAS, I would know I was on the right track."
During dinner at the steakhouse, she focused more than once on the day in 1994 when she almost abducted her former daughter. "I'll never forget the look on Dora's face. I was so close, but she ran. She was afraid of me. They lied to her, and she believed them. She believed I would hurt her. That's what I can't forget."
Dora asked for help making her mother understand. "When they told me I'd never see my mother again (she was seven), I think I cried for three months. But the surroundings were nice and people were nice and I was just a kid. There were lots of distractions and I started to change. I started to forget.
"When I was 10, I remember we (she and her foster parents) got all dressed up and went to the courthouse and I was adopted. The judge told me I was lucky and I thought so too. We went out and had a nice dinner, and it was a happy day."
Over the years, the caseworker who took Dora into custody maintained contact. "She told me my mother had gone crazy and was looking for me to kill me. She said my mother wanted to burn my house down. I was terrified. I couldn't sleep. I recognized her running towards me that day, and I ran for my life."
At 13, things were changing in Dora's life. "I didn't feel close to my (adoptive) parents any more. They were, they are, wonderful people. But I started to feel alone. Even when I was with my parents or my friends, I had the feeling of not belonging. I started to smoke. They didn't like that. Did I tell you they even spent a lot of money on riding lessons? I'm a good rider.
"They didn't deserve what happened. I started to feel there was something wrong and I started to rebel. I wouldn't co-operate. I started skipping school. My marks fell. I used to tell them all the time that the minute I turned 16, I could legally make my own decisions. I would be legal. I would get away from them. I was going to do it. I'm so sorry. They really tried, and I hurt them."
She left in April 1996, the day after her 16th birthday.
Within a few days of her flight from her parents, an anonymous caller told me the girl I knew as Dora was on her own, and where she could be found. She was at a home in a valley town about an hour away. I drove there and left a brief letter for her in the mailbox. If I never heard from her, I wrote, that was her business. But if she needed help, use the number on the business card.
For the next year she drifted, often waking up not knowing how she would get through the day or where she would go to bed that night. She held onto the card and after a year, made the call. She was brief. She wanted her former mother's telephone number. I didn't hear from them again.
On Nov. 27, just a couple of weeks ago, I was at the Elgin Street courthouse and passed them in a corridor. I didn't recognize them. Ms. Bieber called out. We talked. Did Dora want to tell her story?
"Hell yes," she said. She is angry at the system that took her away from her mother.
Dora made the call to mother in late 1997. The Red Lobster Restaurant on St. Laurent Boulevard was chosen as the meeting place. They didn't recognize each other for several minutes.
Dora (laughing): "Suddenly I had this crazy woman jabbering away at me in a language I couldn't understand. She switched languages and I still couldn't understand. I thought, oh damn. They were right. She's crazy."
Maria: "When they took her away, she spoke English and Hungarian and Italian as well as I do. I was so afraid she would lose her languages. And she did. At least she didn't get fat."
How did they decide to live together? "I didn't have a choice," says Dora. "She told me to get in the car. We were going home. It just felt right." Mother is a fitness fanatic, and now daughter is too. They work out regularly together. No smoking.
Dora is attending an alternate school, maintaining a 90 average, and expects to earn her high school diploma by April.
In an attempt to show the child-protection system as, in her word "stupid," Ms. Bieber borrowed a niece from a sister in Hungary. The girl was the same age as Dora. From 1989 to 1994, she played mother to the child, sending her to school as her daughter, using Dora's name and paperwork. She also continued to collect support from social services as a mother of one.
She wanted to force the child protectors to make a move, and get the issue back into court. "If I was such a bad person they took away my own daughter, how could they possibly allow me to have another child in my care?"
CAS didn't bite, and her niece was left in her care.
After the niece returned to her mother in Hungary, speaking excellent English, Ms. Bieber was charged with fraud. She was accused of defrauding the taxpayers of Ontario to the tune of $55,000. She appeared in front of a criminal court in 1998, unrepresented and offering an explanation. Whether the child in her care was her daughter or somebody else's, she was a child in need of support. The court agreed and lowered the amount of the fraud to $7,000, found her guilty and the sentence was two years probation. She will complete the sentence in July.
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Dora's question: A mother loves her child and the child loves mother, and there's no abuse or neglect. Why would anybody tear them apart?
One answer is that it's because there is a Children's Aid Society, but no parents' aid society. Her mother was suffering from depression and was being treated for it. When she signed over temporary custody of her daughter, she was admitting she was flawed. Most of us are, but we don't put it in writing. The request for help put child protectors in the position of having a child to protect, and they had some difficult choices to make.
Mother was depressed and her anger at the system made her appear irrational. With the interests of only the child in mind, the protectors decided mother's healing time was up, and started separating child from mother. Once that process starts, it doesn't back up.
Maria Bieber has a different answer to the why question. She calls it false advertising. "If I had never called that number, they would never have been in our lives."
Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
Read previous columns by Dave Brown at www.ottawacitizen.com
Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.