While sheriff's deputies waited at the door, Paula and Larry Mick of Kellogg, Iowa gathered their five foster children in the kitchen for a last goodbye. The kids—Anna, 12, Amanda, 10, Sarah, 7, Samantha, 5, and Justin, 3—wept and clung to the couple they've come to call "Mom" and "Dad."

"Every night, look out the window toward the heavens and find the brightest star," Paula, 32, tearfully told the children. "Dad and I will look at the same star, and we'll send our love and tell you good night." Then, Paula added bitterly, "Other people can rip you out of our lives, but they can't take the stars out of the sky."

For 22 months the Micks (PEOPLE, Dec. 15) had provided a stable, happy home for the youngsters, whose allegedly abusive mother, Karen Cooper, 31, suffers from manic depression and now resides in a psychiatric halfway house in Cedar Rapids. "When the children came to us," says Larry Mick, 29, a washing-machine assemblyman with Maytag, "they were starved for love." Childless themselves, the Micks quickly grew attached to the Cooper kids, who were fathered by three different men, and hoped eventually to adopt them. But three weeks ago district court Judge Thomas Mott upheld a decision by the state's Department of Human Services (DHS) to place the children in two separate foster homes with the aim of eventually reuniting them with their mother. Ironically the Micks' major failing, in the eyes of the judge and state officials, was showing the children too much love. "The Micks overstepped their role," says DHS Deputy Commissioner Larry Jackson. "Foster parents cannot look on the children as their own. They sign a contract to that effect."

Cooper is currently taking the antidepressant drug lithium and tranquilizers to combat her severe mood swings, and her counselor has recommended she remain in the halfway house until next January. She also faces a difficult task regaining the trust of her children, especially Anna and Amanda, who threatened to commit suicide when they first learned last fall that their mother wanted them back. "I'm confused and worried about the kids and about myself," Cooper admits. "I don't know if I'm doing the right thing." Meanwhile there is an almost palpable emptiness in the Mick household. Kids' drawings adorn the refrigerator ("I love you 4-ever," says one). Justin's high chair and dump trucks are about, and a row of small shoes sits forlornly by the porch door. "It's so quiet," says Paula Mick, "you can almost hear your heart break."