One cold December night in 2012, 15-year-old Erica Wagoner heard a knock on her front door. She opened it to a police officer shining a flashlight in her face. "Why is it dark in here?" he asked, casting the light past her shoulders and into the hall behind her. "Where's your mom?"
Erica squinted and decided how to answer. For years, she had wondered how this moment would play out. She knew it was only a matter of time before authorities discovered how bad things were at the Antioch, California, two-story rental she shared with her mother, stepfather, 17-year-old brother, Eric, and their 10-year-old identical twin sisters, Danielle and Shannon.
The house was dark because Erica's mother, Eileen Wagoner, and stepfather, David Helland (the twins' biological father), had stopped paying the electricity bills. The family relied on their gas stove for heat and stored milk in a Styrofoam cooler, which usually went bad because no one refilled the ice. After the city shut off their water, they stole pool water from the vacant house across the street. Erica showered at friends' houses and helped manage to get the twins to school.
Erica's mother had a lifelong history of drug and alcohol addiction — a combo of red wine, methamphetamine, and painkillers that had her alternating between mania and paranoid rages. She could be violent, and after Eric came out four years prior, she'd started calling him a "fucking faggot." Erica and Eric served as stand-in parents to Danielle and Shannon, brushing and straightening their hair before school, helping with their math homework, cooking their meals, and making their school lunches. Erica tried to explain their mother's behavior to the twins: "She's having a bad day," she'd say, or, "She drank too much, but she loves you." Sometimes their stepfather found work as a boat mechanic; sometimes their maternal grandmother offered rent money — but mostly Eric was in charge of the family finances, relying on their monthly $700 in cash aid and food stamps.
Eileen never let her kids forget what would happen if they told on her. Not only would they be taken away, she threatened, they'd be split up and go to different homes. But Eileen had gone too far that December day when the cops showed up. After arriving an hour late to pick up the kids from school, she'd started driving erratically, swerving the car from side to side and terrifying them all. Then she got into a screaming match with Eric and left him by the side of the road, without a jacket, in a rural area 20 minutes from home. Eric called 911 from a burner phone he'd recently bought, just in case things got out of hand at home, and got a ride from the police. Now that officer was at their door, flashlight in hand.
Erica briefly considered telling him their mother wasn't there, but something inside her snapped. Foster care had to be better than life with Eileen, Erica figured, because things couldn't get worse. "I'll go get her," she said.
But it turned out things could get worse — or, at least, morph into a different kind of terrible. Because although Erica expected to be taken away from her mother that night, she never thought her mother's threats would come true — that this would be the last time all four kids would live together.
When children are taken from their parents and enter the foster care system, it's standard practice that they're placed together, either with relatives or into a private or group home, if possible. Research shows that when siblings stay together, there are positive long-term effects: An October 2014 University of California at Riverside study found that if brothers and sisters move though the system as a unit, they could better come to terms with the trauma and were more likely to pursue higher education, have a job and housing, be active in their communities, and have good personal relationships. Considering former foster kids have higher rates of unemployment and homelessness and are less likely to have a high school diploma, staying with a sibling can have a huge impact.
More than 70 percent of the children in California's foster care system who have siblings are placed with at least one of them, estimates Daniel Webster, PhD, researcher at the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research. (Numbers on the sibling placement rate for the entire U.S. foster system aren't available, but he estimates it's a similar percentage.) If a foster family doesn't have the room, resources, or desire to take in a whole sibling group, judges usually require that multiple foster parents or social workers make sure siblings see each other regularly, even if it means driving for hours to visit. Some counties even provide transportation to guarantee those visits happen.
But if any of the separated siblings are adopted, there's no one to advocate for the brothers and sisters left behind — to encourage their siblings' adoptive parents to plan visits, or even let them call or text one another. The vast majority of states offer no protections to keep biological siblings in touch after adoption. This can result in siblings who aren't adopted losing ties with brothers and sisters who are — leaving some children feeling abandoned as they watch their brothers and sisters welcomed into new families.
The officer told Erica and Eric they could stay with friends — they were old enough — so they moved into the homes of their respective best friends, whose parents later agreed to officially foster them. Shannon and Danielle were placed with a family down the street that was willing to temporarily take them in. Erica and Eric knew they'd be briefly separated from Shannon and Danielle, but they figured it wouldn't be long until they would be reunited.
Danielle and Shannon seemed happy with their neighbors. The four siblings spent part of every weekend together, and throughout the week, Eric would put them on three-way calls so they could talk about the daily details of their lives. But their conversations always returned to the same subject: Had Eileen shown up at the neighbor's house again? Did she make a scene when she was told to leave?
Four months after the twins were placed with their neighbors, Eric received a surprise call from the family's social worker, Lori Castillo, who put Danielle on the phone: "They're making us leave!" Danielle screamed. Castillo explained she was moving the girls to a new long-term foster home 15 minutes away. The twins sobbed hysterically as Castillo knocked on the door of the new house and introduced them to their foster parents: Margaret Rickli, a 49-year-old third-grade teacher and mother of six, and her husband, Carl. They had taken in foster children before.
Later that afternoon, Erica called the Ricklis after getting their phone number from Castillo: "I'm Erica, their sister," she said. "I'm calling to see if they're OK. Can I talk to them?"
"They're fine," Margaret Rickli replied. "But I don't think that's best right now."
The next day, Erica called again. Rickli put the girls on the phone. Erica bombarded them with questions: "How are you hanging in there? Are there other kids? Are the people nice?"
"It's OK," Danielle said. "We're sleeping in the same room."
"They've calmed down and are settling in," Rickli chimed in. Erica didn't realize she'd been on speakerphone; it felt like a violation of privacy.
After a few more calls, Eric and Erica asked if they could visit the twins. So on a Sunday afternoon a week later, Eric's foster mom drove them to the Ricklis' immaculate five-bedroom house in the middle-class suburb of Brentwood. For an hour, Eric and Erica made awkward small talk with the Ricklis, the twins, and three of the Ricklis' children. Then it was time to leave.
On one visit about a week later, Eric suggested taking the girls to a nearby park, but Rickli instructed two of her daughters to accompany them. As soon as they left the house, Eric and Danielle started running so they could have a few minutes of privacy. "Do you know we're calling you?" Eric shouted in between breaths. "We don't know when you call. It's the mom's cell phone," Eric recalls Danielle saying. After that, Rickli refused to let the girls out of her sight. "I didn't know Eric and Erica well enough and wouldn't let them take them," Rickli says. "It was nothing against them. We're dealing with traumatized kids."
Rickli says she tried to keep them all close: "I needed Erica and Eric," she says. "They were the one thing [the twins] could trust." Danielle and Shannon didn't want anything to do with Eileen and David, so Rickli asked Erica to go with the twins to their weekly family counseling sessions. "Erica was their protector," Rickli says. "She can handle taking the brunt for the girls." Eric and Erica were invited to the house for family dinners, and Rickli honored the twins' requests that their older brother and sister join them at church youth group meetings.
But Erica says their time with their sisters felt superficial, and they were always placed on speakerphone when they called — a common practice suggested to foster parents by child welfare officials, especially when children are distraught. "I could talk to them about school and their activities, but that only goes so far," she says, adding that Rickli even vetoed a walk to a nearby McDonald's because she didn't allow her children to eat junk food. When Erica learned Rickli signed up the girls for soccer — something her family never could have afforded — she says she repeatedly asked Rickli to forward her the schedule so she could attend their games, but never received it. (Rickli says that she didn't want other family members to show up and upset the girls.)
Rickli wishes she could have facilitated more visits, she says, but admits that fitting them in was a challenge. "I'm a teacher and have eight kids," she says. "I'm always running to band or voice lessons or church activities."
A couple of months later, when Superior Court Judge Rebecca Hardie of Contra Costa County reviewed Eric and Erica's cases, she ordered a minimum of two visits a month between Erica and Eric and the twins. But that's not what happened. "Over the next year, we maybe saw them 10 times at the most," says Erica. "And when we did, we always felt like we were being watched. We were never alone with them."
Without any real time together, the siblings never got a chance to talk about the drama unfolding around them: Eileen and David were trying to get them back. They'd found housing with running water and electricity, and they were attempting to meet the court's long list of requirements for family reunification, including passing multiple drug tests and attending parenting classes, domestic violence programs, and substance abuse support groups.
When Erica and Eric told Lori Castillo, the social worker, that they weren't seeing their sisters enough, they always received the same answer: Everyone has a lot going on. We'll work on it. And at the one-year review of their parents' reunification plan in May 2014, where Erica learned that Eileen hadn't shown up for six scheduled drug tests (and failed the one she did take), Erica also says she complained to Judge Hardie: "We barely see them," she said.
"I will keep putting this in the report," Erica recalls the judge saying, referring to her order for the visits. "But I don't have power over the situation once they get adopted." Despite everyone's best intentions to keep brothers and sisters connected while they are in foster care, legal experts say courts often don't enforce visits, especially when there's a shortage of families willing to take in children.
In a system that's balancing the needs of both foster parents and potential adoptees, the rights of siblings often don't take top priority, explains Mary Bissell, partner at Child Focus, a national policy consulting firm in D.C. "You can have federal and state laws that protect sibling relationships, but following them can be tough for child welfare systems," she says. "They're underfunded, with many mandates to follow. Everyone is trying to do so much with so little."
It never actually occurred to Eric or Erica that the Ricklis might adopt the girls. They just assumed Shannon and Danielle were too old and would stay in foster care until they aged out at 18. But the Ricklis were falling in love with the twins. "They just fit so well into our family," Margaret Rickli says. "They liked the things we liked. They wanted to play soccer like my older daughter. There would be all these little things when I thought, You sound like a Rickli. You could be my child."
After living with his foster family for six months, Eric turned 18 and was suddenly on his own. He was working a part-time job at McDonald's and relied on help from his grandmother for several months before a monthly state government subsidy of $883 kicked in thanks to California's "extended benefits" program, which provides a buffer for foster youth who are in school, or working at least 80 hours a month, to help them become self-sufficient. The majority of caseworkers for teens in California's foster care system believe that those who age out of the system still need financial help, and for Eric, like for many of his peers, the subsidy was critical to helping him stay in school — Los Medanos Community College, where he studies sociology — and rent a single room in a shared house.
Even though he doubted the state would give him custody of his sisters, he dreamed of getting a house where he, Erica, and the twins could live together and looked into courses on earning quick money in real estate. "I had no idea how I could afford it," he says. "It was wishful thinking."
On July 24, 2014 — nearly a year and a half after the cop had shown up at their door — Judge Hardie read the words "your parental rights have been terminated" to Eileen Wagoner and David Helland at their final court hearing. Erica and Eric broke down in sobs of relief and hugged each other. The nightmare was over.
Shannon had written a letter to the court: "I've been in foster care for over a year. My bio mom did a lot of bad things … She would get mad at us for no reason … My mom and dad would get in physical fights where they were literally choking each other. I'm so glad I don't have to deal with that anymore. I'm with a family that loves and cares about me unconditionally."
After the hearing, as the siblings hugged each other in front of the sunny brick courthouse steps, Rickli said, "What do you want to tell them, girls?"
"I'm Avery," said Shannon, followed by Danielle: "And I'm Abigail. Can you call us that now?"
Eric and Erica looked at them, shocked. All the other children in the Rickli family had names that started with "A," and the twins had picked new names from baby-naming books at Barnes & Noble.
Rickli took Eric and Erica aside. "We're going to adopt Avery and Abigail," she announced, beaming.
"That's awesome," Erica said, her eyes filling with tears. She genuinely meant it. Adoption meant her sisters would never be split up. They were still young and had a fresh start with a new family. But the double-whammy of the news and the name change cemented the older siblings' worst fears: They were going to lose their sisters for real. Whether they'd see the girls at all would be up to the twins' new adoptive parents.
During the next year, Erica and Eric say they continued to call every few weeks, but they could never seem to get anything more than an occasional visit on the calendar. "They were always busy," Erica says. "Margaret would say she'd get back to me later with a good time, but it never happened." Their sisters weren't completely out of their lives: On Erica's 18th birthday, they dropped off a bucket filled with 18 different candies for her, and later, a mug at Christmas. The twins also stopped by Erica's house the day before her high school graduation to drop off a copy of Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go!. "It was a nice gesture," says Erica. "But they didn't come to my party."
The clincher came when the twins turned 13. Their older siblings left them a voicemail on Rickli's phone: "Happy birthday! We love you so much. We want to hang out and see you soon." They received a text back: "Got your message last night. The girls say thanks for remembering… Call us again in the next few weeks to get together." If Erica and Eric had wondered what role they would play in the twins' lives, this felt like confirmation they were being phased out. "'In a few weeks?'" Erica says. "At first, I couldn't breathe. I felt this heavy ache settle over me."
"We felt like the family leftovers," Eric says. A month later — two and a half years after the twins had been placed with the Ricklis — Erica and Eric learned the adoption was official.
On January 1, a new California law went into effect that could benefit siblings like Erica, Eric, and their sisters. It requires prospective adoptive parents to meet with a facilitator and their adoptive child's siblings to discuss a contact plan before an adoption. But the adoptive parents can still terminate a contract later on if they believe the biological siblings are a threat to their child's safety and well-being. "We're short on adoptive parents as it is, and so we don't want to require them to do something that might be challenging to their new family," says former California State Sen. Mark Leno, who sponsored the legislation.
What's promising about California's new law is that it forces all parties to hash out any issues. "If the facilitator can talk to the adoptive parents about the importance of the sibling relationship, they're more likely to preserve and nurture that relationship," says Leecia Welch, senior attorney at the National Center For Youth Law.
The law is also important because California is regarded as a trendsetter in foster care legislation. The state has the nation's largest foster care system, with more than 62,000 children under its responsibility. (Illinois has a similar law and efforts are underway to draft more in several other states.)
Eric and Erica haven't seen Abigail and Avery for more than a year and a half now. Erica worries they think she doesn't care about them and that she just stopped trying to contact them. Every few months, they send Rickli a text or leave a phone message. Sometimes they get a response, or Rickli sends them recent photos of the twins. On the girls' 14th birthday, Eric and Erica briefly talked to them on the phone, but when they tried to suggest taking them for frozen yogurt at the mall, Rickli wouldn't let them go.
They still can't come to terms with why the Ricklis didn't want them in the twins' lives. "We're not bad kids," says Erica, now 20, who's since changed her last name to her maternal grandmother's name, Hickey, to distance herself from her mother. "We weren't the reason we were put in foster care." She ticks off her accomplishments to make the point: studying social welfare at Diablo Valley College; working as a Bay Area policy intern at the foster care advocacy nonprofit Cal Youth Connections. Eric is 21 and is finishing up school, and he also works at Cal Youth Connections. "We're active in our community. We go to college. How are we not OK to hang out with our sisters?" he asks.
Erica can't help but wonder if their relationship faded because their sisters associated her with their old home life — if they see her as a trigger. Maybe, she says, "they don't need me now because we don't have to deal with our mom. She was our common ground."
Experts say some adoptive parents are reluctant to keep contact with their kids' former siblings because they're still connected to the dynamics of their original family. "It's common to want to start from scratch," explains Oriana Linares, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who studies the impact of foster care on sibling relationships.
Rickli insists this isn't the case with Eric and Erica. "Eric and Erica are wonderful kids, and I give them a lot of credit," she says. "You do worry that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but I can't believe these four kids are as bright and sane as they are and lived through all that." She says it's natural for siblings to drift apart as the twins become integrated into their family, and insists Erica and Eric are always welcome at their home. "Avery and Abigail know what they did for them," she says. "What [Erica and Eric] need to realize is that it will never be the way it was. That's the hard thing."
In an ideal situation, adopted foster kids are able to maintain contact with their former family while growing closer to their new family, says Lori Castillo, the social worker, but the transition isn't always smooth. "When kids are adopted, they might feel a conflict of loyalty. They think, I live in a new family. If I reach out to my old family, maybe they won't think I love them or that my new family isn't good enough," she says. "It's especially critical during adolescence, when they're forming an identity."
Erica and Eric understand that their sisters have bonded to their adoptive family, but the separation still stings. Erica's friends try to console her by telling her she'll reunite with her sisters when they're adults. "They say, 'Once they're 18, they'll come back. Don't worry!'" she says. "But when am I supposed to get to know them? I'm going to miss everything: graduation, birthdays, holidays."
What she wishes most is to spend time with them without being haunted by their mother's legacy. "It would be great to go shopping and fix their hair before a school dance, or just hang out and listen to our childhood favorites, like Hilary Duff or Britney Spears," she says. "You know, like sisters."
This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit dedicated to reporting on inequality, and its Puffin Story Innovation Fund.