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Couple face challenges, pursue justice for foster daughter
by Matt Simonette

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A North Side queer couple who, for two years, have been foster parents to a special-needs toddler are awaiting the court hearing that could decide the punishment for the man who is accused of shaking and injuring the child.

Mary Otts-Rubenstein and her wife, Rachel Rubenstein, took in their foster daughter Evelyn in 2017. Born drug-dependent to a mother in Louisiana in May of that year, Evelyn's birth mother had arranged a private adoption with an Olympia Fields couple, Jordan Schroeder and Kory Risner.

But Evelyn was admitted to a hospital in June after being allegedly shook violently by Schroeder.

"Initially, the doctors thought it was meningitis—she had a fever and neurological symptoms," Mary said. "But when they did a CT scan, it pointed more towards not-accidental trauma [which] is characterized by three different things: swelling on the brain, bleeding on the brain and hemorrhaging behind the eyes."

Hemorrhaging behind the eyes, Mary added, requires a repetitive motion. "[But] she was a little bit protected because she was little."

According to Cook County State's Attorney's Office spokesperson Tandra Simonton, Schroeder is charged with one felony charge of aggravated battery to a child. His next court date is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 15, before Judge Michele Pitman in Markham.

Evelyn was placed with Mary and Rachel in July 2017, after the child had been in the hospital for a month. Her brain was severely injured, so Evelyn will likely have impaired communication and mobility for her entire life.

Shaken baby syndrome, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, is often underreported since children many not have any immediate external signs of injury. But internal injuries can be severe, and may lead to cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, paralysis, seizures and/or vision loss.

"I don't think we understood shaken baby syndrome when she came here," Mary said. "We understood that she'd have neurological deficits. We did not understand the devastation that shaking causes."

Mary and Rachel are committed to Evelyn's longterm care and hope to formally adopt her, but Mary admitted that commitment comes with enormous financial and physical sacrifices. Mary mainly works from home as executive director for a national organization, but Rachel is a private therapist for whom taking time off for doctor's visits and hospitalizations is difficult.

"When she's not seeing clients, she's not getting paid," said Mary.

Evelyn's care requires not just overseeing her medical treatments, but involved and complex engagements with Medicaid and other financial assistance bureaucracies, as well as managing nurses and a nanny for the child. Mary and Rachel are active in various Chicago Jewish communities, and credit their friends there for providing much assistance and support. When the couple became foster parents, they'd assumed they'd get an older child placed in their home, so they were not immediately prepared for a child with Evelyn's needs. Mary recalled that, after they put the word out to their friends, they "had everything we needed within 24 hours."

She added she is not sure how she feels about Schroeder's prosecution and whether the single charge against him is sufficient punishment; if convicted, Schroeder likely faces several months in jail. Mary admitted to being uncomfortable with publicly calling for prosecution of a gay man, but questioned whether he comprehends the gravity of Evelyn's situation. When prosecutors asked whether Mary and Rachel would like to see the matter go to trial or would prefer Schroeder be offered a plea bargain, they nevertheless said they'd prefer the plea.

"He would have to say, 'I did this,' and how he did this, and we would have the opportunity to present [both] Evelyn's biological mom's impact statement and something written by us on Evelyn's behalf," Mary said. "Now that she's two, [Evelyn] can't reliably lift her head. She can't roll over. She can't talk. This is every person's issue ever [in these situations]—we just want the other person to understand the full impact of what has been caused."

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