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SANDY BANKS

Life's Still Not Perfect, but Her Kids Are Back, and That'll Do

November 26, 2000|SANDY BANKS

The big house is back to chaos, the bedrooms crowded with noisy children, the kitchen jammed with comings and goings, the path from the front door clogged with backpacks and roller blades. And Chris Coleman wouldn't have it any other way.

Coleman's six foster children are finally back home, seven months after they were taken from her by social workers who decreed her Woodland Hills home a disaster zone. And Coleman has learned the value of a load of clean laundry, a well-scrubbed kitchen and a job that keeps you close to home. If you can't imagine why somebody would give up traveling around the country as a marketing exec to spend her mornings doing housework and her evenings checking groceries at the local market, read on.

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Ten years ago, Coleman and her then-husband were hailed as model parents by Los Angeles County officials. Unable to have children of their own, the couple had adopted five children from foster care and opened their home to a stream of babies infected with HIV.

The couple separated two years later but continued raising their brood. Their two adopted sons split time between both parents; the three girls and six foster children--including two who are HIV-positive--stayed with Coleman, whom they came to call "Mom."

Then seven months ago, social workers who visited Coleman's rambling rental home found it so unkempt and poorly maintained that they ordered the removal of the foster children--then ranging in age from 9 to 13--whom she had cared for since they were born.

Clearly, the 5,800-square-foot house had seen better days. Social workers found broken windows, malfunctioning plumbing, loose carpets, dirty dishes, piles of laundry . . . an assortment of maintenance and housekeeping failures they considered serious enough to declare the home "a substantial danger to the physical health of children in her care."

The children's removal sparked outrage in their suburban neighborhood. While the kids were split up and parceled out to new foster homes, Coleman's friends and neighbors pitched in to repair and clean, and she began fighting to bring her kids back home.

There were endless rounds of court hearings and weekly treks to visit the kids in far-flung homes, from Norwalk to Tujunga, Compton to Lancaster. The doctors for the two HIV-infected 10-year-olds appealed to the court to return the children, warning that the trauma of separation was threatening their fragile health.

And case by case, the judge ruled in Coleman's favor and her children began trickling home. It took two months to get back Sophia, age 10, another month for Ray, 10. Bert, 10, came back in May, and finally, in September, Jessica, 13, Kimberly, 13, and Michael, 11, were returned.

"That first night we were back together, they were ecstatic," Coleman recalled. "Running all over the house, laughing and yelling, hugging each other. It was a school night, almost 10:30, before I could get them in bed.

"The next morning, when I went to wake everybody up, they had each teamed up with their closest brother or sister, so no one was in their own beds. They were just bodies under blankets. I realized the kids missed each other as much as I missed them."

In some ways, their return home has been as hard on the family as their departure. Kimberly and Ray had been bounced around among foster homes and came back feeling angry and unloved. Michael had grown close to the father in his new foster home and suffered from their separation. And Bert came back seriously ill because his body had developed resistance to the HIV medications that had been used to keep his disease at bay.

Coleman has had to counsel her oldest children toward patience; they had grown accustomed to the relative calm of their uncrowded home. And she's had to endure bouts of defiance from the younger ones who chafe under her rules about homework and chores.

"Sometimes they get angry," she admits. "Mikey will yell at me, 'I hate you, and I hate this house. I wish I was back in my foster house.' And I tell him, 'I don't care if you like me. You're still my child, and this is still your home.' "

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Coleman, 46, has had some adjusting of her own to do. No more airplane trips, no more entertaining clients and negotiating deals. She makes $7 an hour at her market checkout job. "I used to get expense reimbursement checks bigger than my last paycheck," she says with a rueful laugh.

Yet she is grateful, in one way, for this bump in the road. "It woke me up," she says, "made me realize how badly my kids need me. And how much I love them."

Now all 11 of her children are living at home--the six foster children and her five adopted kids, who range in age from 16 to 23--and her estranged husband has moved back in temporarily to ride herd on them when she's at work.

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