a broken girl

Sitting across from her, our eyes met. A broken girl. One with potential, but a past so heavy that it weighed her down. Familiar pain, with a hint of resistance filtered the air. Soon, tears, rich with sorrow, rolled down her cheeks. Have you ever felt grief? I don’t mean going through the emotions of it, but actually feeling it as it permeates the air? It was our companion on that day; a bitter, suffocating ghost of what should have been.

Inhale. Exhale. Deep breath. I said, “Okay. We need to discuss what happens from here. The case is coming up very soon for permanency so the Judge will want to know what we are going to recommend.” As her case manager, I had worked with her for over nine months. We both desperately wanted success. She loved her baby, that was never in question.

“Where you are at right now and the way the case is going, I believe the team is going to ask the Judge to change the goal to adoption.” She nodded, then said, “I know. It’s what’s best for him and I want that. I can’t do this. I can’t parent. I love him so much but he deserves more.”

Tears tried to push their way down my cheeks, but I held them back. Not now. I had to remain professional. A broken girl she was but in that moment, her resilience shone bright. “Okay, let’s talk about the type of family you would want for him.”

Pausing for a moment, our eyes met again, “I trust you to pick them. I’d like for him to have a dad and a mom, ones that will always treat him like he deserves to be treated…to love him.”

Before I could get another word out, she lost it. Her body collapsed a bit. She tried to wipe away the tears but she couldn’t. They were her messengers of grief being released into the world. “Caroline, thank you. You have been so kind to me and treated me better than anyone ever has in my life, including my own family.”

This was almost too much for me to take in. Gut-punch. Twinge of ache in my heart. As her case manager, I played a huge role in determining her fitness to be a parent. The termination of parental rights summary would be penned by my hands. I would testify to it, search for an adoptive family and eventually place her little boy there.

“Oh, you’re welcome. I’ve really enjoyed working with you and wish things would’ve turned out different. I want you to get help. You deserve a better life.”

Wiping away tears, she reached out for a hug. I gave her a long one; perhaps, the most genuine one she ever had. We said our good-bye’s and she left. I never saw her again but held onto her words as I searched for and placed her precious son with a loving family who lived out her hopes for her son.

The system failed her. Her parents failed her. Perhaps, in many ways, I failed her. This world did, as well. Trauma. Addiction. Homelessness. Chaos. These things were her constant companions since childhood; the only way of life that she had ever lived. Even as an adult, her companions never left her side. Always there. Like an unwanted shadow.

It is easy for us to look at people like her and question why they just don’t work hard enough to get their kids back. Would we be capable of doing so? How would we feel if trauma was our only childhood friend? What if addiction slithered its way into our soul? Or, homelessness and chaos walked alongside us throughout our lives? Could we manage? Would we?

I think of her, often; that broken girl whose life symbolizes sadness. Did she ever receive help? Is she is out there alone fighting her demons? Will trauma, addiction, homelessness and chaos remain her constant companions?

Years ago, a broken girl sat in front of me. In many ways, she never left.

for my fellow child welfare professionals and foster families

I watched out the window as one foster family loaded three little ones into their car, spent time talking to the other foster family, and eventually drove off.  I thought to myself, “I bet those children have no idea that the family who has tucked them in bed the last few months of their lives will no longer be tucking them in.”

I do not blame the foster family – life happens, situations lean themselves to not being a good match, often trauma is so intense that it does not create a safe situation, and after all, we are all just human.  Sometimes, foster families have to let go of children they are attached to.

I watched the foster-mother wipe away tears from behind her sunglasses, and made a mental note to check on her after the weekend.  I listened to the case worker cry in the lonely confines of the bathroom, and then checked on her after she planted herself at her desk.

During all of this, my mind escaped back to when I was a new soldier in the awfully disgusting, seemingly inhumane, and never-ending war of child abuse.

My first “case” was a six-year-old girl with brown eyes, blonde hair, tomboyish temperament, and an infinity to act older than her age.

I received her file, which happened to be a very thick binder, on my desk the very first week I started my job.  “Here’s your first case.  She’s disrupting from her adoptive home”, my supervisor said.  “You need to find her another foster home that might be interested in adopting.”

In situations like this, case workers are left to scramble and search for a new family to be found.  I remember calling county offices asking…essentially pleading for a new foster family for the little girl to whom I had not even met.

Shortly after my frantic calls, I drove to her foster home..the one that promised forever…introduced myself to her…stacked her belongings in my truck…buckled her in…and drove her to the next foster family.

I literally remember every moment of this experience.  I can see the pictures on the walls of the family who gave her up, and I remember the awkwardly silent ride to her next home.

I also remember reading her file, and the many others that crossed my desk through the years.

I recall the initial trauma I felt when learning about the extent of abuse that had occurred in the lives of the children who had just started their own walk in the world.

I got angry.  I cried.  I wondered where the heck God was while all of this was going on.  I became motivated.  I worked a little harder than I thought I would.  I became passionate about the field that chose me.  I prayed.

The little girl whom I bared the responsibility of finding a family did get adopted by her new family. Even after she became comfortable with her new family, she would run and hide when she saw my white truck pull in the driveway.

I’ve been reading about the impact of child welfare work on social worker’s lives. Poor sleep, stressed relationships, depression, nutritional issues, weight gain, nightmares, and secondary trauma all seem to creep up in the lives of workers in the front lines of child welfare.  And, let’s be honest…social workers do not make a lot of money…at all.

Having been in child welfare as a professional for thirteen years, and a former foster-mother (now mother through adoption), I find myself with the ability to tuck away the painful reality of it all into a corner that I very rarely enter anymore.

I do not know if it is possible to process all of the information of tragic life stories that I have read through the years.  Sure, there are the moments of grief and anger that are witnessed as they unfold in the lobby of the office before my very eyes.  I still cry from time to time about the very nature of what is truly going on in the underbelly of our seemingly idealistic and happy communities.

Although I am weathered by the years, it really does not get easier.  It just becomes less traumatic, more expected, and a seemingly natural part of life.

That seems awful, doesn’t it?  Why in the world would child abuse and neglect become a part of life?

To be honest, if I dwell too much on it all – the sounds of children asking why they can’t go home with mommy, babies crying from feeling stressed during visits, and mixed up, lonely children being bounced from home to home – I end up getting angry.

I get angry that God would allow any of this.  I am reminded and aware of freewill, but it does not make me less outraged, less saddened, and less frustrated.

There are many opinions about children’s protective social service workers.  If there is media attention, it is usually centered around the one case of hundreds where something went wrong.  Attention is very rarely spotlighted on the day-to-day choices that case workers, juvenile court officials, child welfare attorneys, and foster parents have to make.

It does not capture the tender moments of social workers picking out gifts (often from their own money) for “their kids”.  It does not show the hours of work spent by workers in the field.  

Attention does not get up in the middle of the night to answer the “on-call” phone, travel to a meth lab in the middle of the night to pick up children who are confused and weary from the unknowns, or visit with adults trying their best to turn their lives around.  

It does not celebrate when permanency is achieved through adoption, or when children, whom desperately love their parents, are able to return to them. 

It does not hold a raging or sobbing child who seeks comfort from the stranger who just took her in.  It also does not lend an ear to listen to older youth as they wonder about their future.

Media attention definitely does not highlight the words of encouragement case workers, juvenile court officials, child welfare attorneys, and foster parents speak to the families and children who find themselves caught up in the system.

I have listened as people (whom did not know that I work in child welfare) slam foster families, children service workers, and the system as a whole.  I have been shocked by their opinions of how easily this war could be fixed.  I have also found myself wondering, “What are you, opinionated one, doing about it?   When have you called a child welfare agency to offer your time and talent?  Have you taken the time to care enough to bring a child into your home, support a family who is struggling, or advocate for change?”

For my fellow child welfare professionals and foster families in this unending plague of child abuse, remember this, everything you do matters…a lot.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” –Robert F. Kennedy