The graying couple raised their right hands in the children’s courthouse, as the judge swore them in.
Teodulo Diarte held tight to his granddaughter Harmony as his wife, Olga Perez, kept her one good eye on their 2-year-old, Faith, who rocked back and forth. The couple, in their 60s, were preparing to adopt their two youngest granddaughters.
The pre-Thanksgiving ceremony wasn’t the first time they had appeared in this courthouse on a similar crucial mission. They had already adopted their three older granddaughters here.
Diarte and Perez’s daughter, Maria, had struggled for years with drug addiction. Four of her five daughters tested positive for drugs when they were born. Faith didn’t eat for five days as she went through withdrawals at birth.
And so, like more than 2 million grandparents across the country who are raising their grandchildren, Diarte and Perez have forgone retirement to become parents once more. With the girls’ various health issues, it is a 24-hour job.
The money the couple receive from the government each month to care for the girls goes toward groceries. Toward rent. Toward new shoes and clothes. They bought a minivan to take the girls to and from school and on trips.
They are the rare grandparents — and the rare adoptive parents — to take in not one, not two, but five siblings, doing something of utmost importance the foster care system can’t always achieve: keeping a sprawling family together.
In the Monterey Park courtroom, they sat at a table covered in teddy bears for the 136 children being adopted that fall day — 89% of them by relatives such as Diarte and Perez.
“Yay, you did it!” Faith cheered, her mouth widening to reveal the gap between her front teeth.
“Qué bonita family,” Diarte said with a smile, as he looked around at his girls. “What a beautiful family.”
As of April, 7,445 children and youth, unable to safely remain at home, were in foster care and living with relatives or close family friends, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington-based advocacy group, said relative caregivers are more likely to keep siblings together, as in the case of the Diarte family.
“It would be hard to find a foster parent that would take on five children,” she said. “They would split the children up, and that is another trauma, another sense of loss for the children.”
Perez, 62, and Diarte, 66, had already raised three children in L.A. County when their 19-year-old daughter, Maria, became pregnant with their first grandchild. As Maria raised Melody in the Cudahy house she shared with her parents, Perez grew worried about her daughter’s mistreatment of the little girl.
In 2010, when Melody was about 5 years old, Perez said she reported her daughter for child abuse. Nothing happened, Perez said, and Maria moved out.
Not long after, Perez said, she learned Maria was leaving the little girl alone overnight. Perez begged Maria to move back in.
“What we wanted to do was save Melody,” Perez said. “She was our priority.”
More problems came in February 2014, several months after Maria gave birth to a second daughter, Esther. Melody, who was 8 years old, recalled her mom and Esther’s dad getting into a physical fight. Melody tried to protect her younger sister.