The two men sat on a wooden bench outside a tennis court at the Greenpoint Tennis Club, looking at Signal Hill, over which some rain clouds were gathering.
“I have two daughters with my Italian wife,” Gareth said, getting up from the bench and stretching his legs. He stood tall in his Nike tennis outfit. He had blue eyes, was unshaven and had curly, brown hair. He didn’t look a day over 50.
“Where did you meet your Italian wife?” asked the short, grey-haired doctor, dressed in an old Fred Perry tracksuit and taking a sip of his energy drink, having just completed his tennis match.
“I met her while travelling in Italy in my younger years. She was a model, and I bummed a lift from her at the airport in Rome.”
“That’s very interesting,” the doctor said, scratching in his tennis bag, looking for a jersey to put on.
“It was long ago, and I probably had the looks and the confidence. I had just come back from the States, playing rugby for a club, and was obviously fit and in good shape,” Gareth said, smiling. He got up and walked into the clubhouse, ordered some food at the kitchen counter, and then came back to sit next to the doctor.
“On the way into the city, I invited her for lunch and, later on, confessed that I did not have accommodation – and, believe it or not, she put me up in her guest room, and the rest is history …”
“That is a remarkable story, and I’m sure it must have been innocent times for a beautiful young woman to open her home to you so spontaneously,” the doctor said, taking another sip from his energy drink.
“Yes, I am grateful for what has transpired over the years, and now we are at a stage where we are getting very much involved in charity work, working with a particular NGO, assisting with children who come from deprived homes. These children are taken away from their homes because the parents are using drugs or are involved in prostitution and such activities,” Gareth said.
“That’s interesting. I consult for an NGO that does exactly that, and the heart-breaking stories that I’ve come across over the years are unimaginable,” the doctor said.
“The sad thing is that we as a family fell in love with this one particular six-year-old coloured girl, and started including her in our family. Eventually, we decided to adopt her, because the mother and the grandmother were drug addicts, and the father was nowhere to be found. This is Felicia.” He took out a photo from his wallet and showed it to the doctor. She had two pony tails sticking out at the sides of her face. Her large, brown eyes were staring directly at the photographer. She had a beautiful smile, and her puffy cheeks were clearly visible. She was short and petite. Her skin had a dark brown colour.
“That happens so often, and I have come across many stories like this that ended up in court with heart-breaking consequences for the adopting family,” the doctor said, staring long and hard at the photo. “But, you understand that we as expert advisers must always look out for the well-being of the child first, and do what is humanly possible to re-unite them with their biological family.”
“Well, that is exactly what happened in our case, because as soon as the adoption process started and we had to deal with an agency, a grandmother from the father’s side of the family suddenly appeared and effectively prevented us from completing the adoption process. We had to go to court, and were then told to stop seeing the child, and the process was halted.”
“That sounds so familiar,” the doctor said, nodding his head. This case seems very familiar.
“Yes, and so bloody unfair, because now we cannot have contact with her, because she has to adapt to her biological extended family, the mysterious grandmother who has suddenly come to the fore – and who has now demanded to be the guardian and be responsible for her. My family is hugely traumatised by this experience,” Gareth said in a brittle voice.
“You must look at the interests of the child first, and then at your own needs,” the doctor cautioned. He leaned over to his bag and took out his cell phone. He switched it on and started scrolling up and down.
It’s easy for you to say, old man. I must now explain to my family how the legal and medical fraternities have failed us.
“She has been a part of our family for more than a year. She has grown and changed remarkably from the child we initially met through the NGO. I can’t imagine her going back to the grandmother, to her initial background, to her neighbourhood, and adjusting properly, after being exposed to what we could and have offered her for a significant period of time. How is she going to cope? Especially with the condition in place that we cannot contact her and she cannot contact us. That is not fair, and surely not what the law had in mind?”
“Well, it’s been my experience that the agencies or the courts will follow the advice of the appointed experts, who could include psychologists, social workers and other skilled personnel. If they recommend that it is in the best interests of the child to be placed with the foster parents, then the relevant agency will follow the advice, and the family advocate, appointed by the court, will confirm the placement,” the doctor said.
“What exactly is your expertise, and why are you involved in these types of matters? I thought I heard from your doubles partner that you are an orthopaedic surgeon.”
“No, no, not at all. I am a psychiatrist practising in town, and I often get instructions from the agencies to assist in evaluating these types of cases – and now, in my later years, the difficult and sensitive ones.”
“We went through the whole process as prescribed by the Children’s Act. A notice was sent to the family, informing them of the proposed adoption, and giving them a certain time frame within which to respond, failing which they would relinquish the right to have further guardianship of the child. As far as we were concerned, the mother and the grandmother who was known to us had no objection, and it was only when the grandmother on the father’s side came to the fore that the process was halted. The question we are asking now is, how did she become a guardian so suddenly?” Gareth said, frowning. I am going to be stiff and sore tomorrow after today's epic battle on the court. He sat down again on the bench next to the doctor.
“The agencies don’t always give the applicants all the information they need to know about the history of the child. It also happens quite often that when the experts become involved, they become aware of other available guardians, and then, with the child’s interests at heart, recommend that these guardians become involved and take care of the child,” the doctor said. He was now looking intently at the screen of his phone, actively scrolling up and down as if searching for something very important.
Why is this old doctor so focused on his telephone while I’m having this heartfelt conversation with him? Doesn’t he have any empathy for my situation? He seems to be lecturing me, instead of providing some sort of advice.
The doctor suddenly looked up from his phone. His face had turned red. He started to walk towards the clubhouse, and then suddenly turned around and walked towards Gareth, facing him. They stood facing each other.
“What I just saw on my phone definitely confirms my initial thoughts.”
“What do you mean?”
“There is something I would like to tell you,” the doctor said, suddenly looking very nervous.
“I’m listening! Please carry on.”
“I was involved in locating the grandmother on the father’s side. I advised the agency to halt your process, as I felt at the time that the child should rather go to this grandmother, despite the fact that she did not have a relationship with the child and, for all practical purposes, didn’t really have that much contact with her until I got involved,” the doctor said in a nervous voice.
“I can’t believe it. What a coincidence that I now bump into you on a Saturday afternoon and you tell me this news. The agency was very reluctant to disclose to us why the process was so suddenly halted, and who was responsible for locating this grandmother. I don’t know what to say. I’m shocked. My family will be devastated to hear this,” Gareth said in a quivering voice.
“Please understand. I did what I had to, and at all times had the child’s best interests at heart. I just did my job. Please don’t hold it against me. Maybe I should have kept quiet – but, I couldn’t,” the doctor said, avoiding eye contact with Gareth, who stared blankly before him.