Inspection

I came at three, the meeting mandatory
Walked the tiny path to the back door
A black garbage bag, full, crammed, untied
Dripping on to the yard, iced tea bottles with no lids

She answered my knocking, she’d been waiting
A stack of newspapers in her hand, thin slices
She peeled one at a time, fitting each to a stair
So our feet landed on news, sports, the comics

She spread her evidence on the round table
Chattered like we’d met at the jungle gym, her girl
Swinging by her heels, laughing and screaming for help
Princess blanket on the mattress, ready for homecoming

Her signatures looped off the pages layered in my file
Permission to intrude, question, investigate, judge
Buried by compliments, would-be comrades, mothers
Each step in a long stairway papered over in its own way

___________________

Photo by Anastasia Polischuk on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness for Its Own Sake

Today, I’m posting a link to a piece I wrote about thinking that there’s magic in single acts, that doing one thing will change everything. And how I realized that putting my expectations on someone else is wrong-headed.

Kindness should happen for its own sake and not as a means to an end. That was the lesson for me that I tried to write about in this piece called “Wearing My Kindness Like a Coat” published today on Mamalode.

Heart like a Stone

From my seat at the table, I could see Marla walking across the courtyard with a young woman, probably her foster care case manager. They were walking fast, in step, almost like they were a couple that might be holding hands except Marla was holding a notebook and some papers in her arms. The wind blew her unbuttoned shirt open, her black t-shirt, ripped with iridescent hand drawn hearts and arrows matched the black fingernail polish I knew she was wearing. It would be cracked and old, her nails rough and chewed. So many times I saw her teenage hands and they never once had new nail polish, always just the remnants as if they had been painted that way to match her shirt. If it wasn’t ripped or damaged, raw, unfinished, cold and concerning, it wasn’t Marla.

I thought about going outside to speak to her. The only door had an emergency bar across it so unless I wanted alarms to go off in the mental health facility where I was waiting for a meeting to begin, I would have to backtrack down a long hall to reach an open door. By then, I knew Marla would be in her case manager’s car being driven to wherever she was living now. I couldn’t very well run after them. And if I did, what would I say?

Would I say “I’m sorry?” “I miss you?” Would I tell her that she looked well, introduce myself to her case manager, explain that I used to be someone important to Marla, her advocate? Would I tell her case manager that I had meant to never quit on Marla but I did? That one day I would run out of ideas, use up every plan for a good placement for her, have nothing to offer? Would I admit that I had loved this willful, ripped, damaged girl until one day I didn’t, that one day my heart for her had just turned to stone?

When it happened, when my heart for her turned to stone, it was as if a small hand had reached inside me and flipped a switch. After two years, dozens of meetings, phone calls with school social workers and therapists, fighting with the authorities, speaking on her behalf at court, and trying to keep the child welfare system from swallowing her whole, I sat across from her in our county’s juvenile detention facility, a place with the same metal and durable plastic furniture that graced the adult facility where her mother was currently living and it was in that moment, probably when she needed a tireless advocate the most, that I felt the switch flip and the lights go out.

Several months later I got a text from a strange new number.

“Why did you leave me?”

I don’t know, I wanted to tell her. I didn’t have a reason. I just became empty for you, Marla. That’s what I wanted to say. But it would have been a cruel and indecipherable thing to say.

I couldn’t even say I was sorry. I just stared at the text for a long while and then closed it.

Role Model

She asked me if I’d take her to the funeral. She said in a text: “Will u take me? I can’t get a ride.”

So I said, yes, I would drive her. This would be another one of the things that I probably wouldn’t put in my report to the people who supervised me in my role as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for a teenage girl in foster care. Somehow, ‘took to funeral’ didn’t seem like the kind of wholesome, relationship-building, happy activity that we should do. But the key thing between a CASA and a foster child is that there needs to be trust. You get trust by responding to reasonable requests, helping a kid through a hard thing, right? I don’t know.

I picked her up where she was staying. A foster child is always staying somewhere, not living there. The difference is represented by the ever-present black garbage bag. Another day, another address, same garbage bag.

A Facebook friend of hers had died by suicide. A teenage boy that she had only met in person a couple of times at the mall. Somehow, his death had made her feel closer to him. I could tell by how she was talking in the car. Every minute he grew from a casual acquaintance to a lifelong friend, mostly because, I think, she had maybe felt the same deep hopelessness and had thought about suicide herself.

We pulled up to the funeral home and I pulled into a parking space, pushed back my seat and took out my Blackberry.

“Aren’t you coming in with me?”

“No, I’ll wait for you, though. I can’t go in.”

“Why? I need you to go in with me.”

“I can’t, I’m not dressed for a funeral. I have jeans on.”

She looked at me, then at her own jeans. “I have jeans on. So what?”

Yes, we both had jeans on. The fifty years age difference between us played out in our jeans. Mine were dark blue, boot cut and hers were light blue with slash marks and magic marker drawings.

We went in the funeral home together. Right away, I knew she’s never been in one before. I explained what comes next. That we sign the guest book and then give our condolences to the family. I pointed to where she should go and told her what to say.

“Aren’t you coming with me?”

We walked to the open casket. Her young friend was dressed in a suit and tie. Days before, he had been in high school, FaceBooking, been at the mall. I wondered when she had seen him last. Is this a good thing or a bad thing that I brought her here? How does she feel about all the other kids who are here, about the big poster boards full of pictures of her young friend? Am I teaching her a skill or showing her the future?

We moved on to his parents, his mom and dad standing side by side, greeting people, seeming intent on making everyone else feel better. I went first so she would know what to do, “I’m so sorry about your son.” And then it was her turn. She explained how she met their son and why she liked him so much. His parents smiled at her and held her hands.

She learned how to go to a funeral that day; at least that’s what I think she learned. Maybe she learned to show up, to be present, to speak, to console, and to think about what it all means. Maybe that’s what I learned.

That’s my hope.

____________________

This is a repost of a piece from April 16, 2013.

Handcuffs on the Floor

As soon as I sat down today in the visitor’s gallery of Children’s Court, I saw the handcuffs on the floor. Actually they’re ankle cuffs, one end anchored to the floor with bolts and the other to be put around the ankle of the person who is in custody.

The last time I’d been in court, I had watched the teenage girl I was the advocate for being led from a side door by a guard, shown where to sit and then latched to the handcuffs on the floor. She had been a new teen when I’d met her two years before, jumpy, impulsive, and endearing. She was still attached to skateboarding as a thing to do, adored her family even though they had pretty much let her down for years, and wanted to be a doctor.

Now she looked just like her mother – right down to the jumpsuit and the handcuffs on the floor. She was in detention, incarcerated; she was a juvenile inmate.

When a person is in custody and in court, she’s not permitted to talk with anyone besides her attorney. No greetings to family or friends or advocates who show up.

Nonetheless, she looked over at me. I tried to make my eyes turn into text messages. I wanted her to read what I was thinking because I wanted to communicate with her but I was stuck because I didn’t really know what I was thinking.

Yes, I did. I lie.

I wanted to convey a message to her of compassion and expectation. I know you can do better than this, I wanted my eyes to say. We can figure out a new plan.

Instead, I was overwhelmed with sadness and defeat, my eyes filled with tears. I shook it off, pretending that I had a cold, forcing a fake cough. All business, that was to be my demeanor, despite how stuffed up and sick I am with this darn cold.

I glanced at her again but she had looked away, stared straight at the judge who, I know, had come to like her and probably felt like crying himself.

Nothing that had happened in the past two years had changed the course of history. The boulder that was her family and the foster care system and her world as she knew it was rolling down the hill and nothing, nobody, no idea, no plan, no goodwill, no tears could stop it.

It was as if, with the handcuffs on the floor, she had gone to another place where I couldn’t travel.

I was done. Close to being done. One of them.

Role Model

She asked me if I’d take her to the funeral. She said in a text: “Will u take me? I can’t get a ride.”

So I said, yes, I would drive her. This would be another one of the things that I probably wouldn’t put in my report to the people who supervised me in my role as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for a teenage girl in foster care. Somehow, ‘took to funeral’ didn’t seem like the kind of wholesome, relationship-building, happy activity that we should do. But the key thing between a CASA and a foster child is that there needs to be trust. You get trust by responding to reasonable requests, helping a kid through a hard thing, right? I don’t know.

I picked her up where she was staying. A foster child is always staying somewhere, not living there. The difference is represented by the ever-present black garbage bag. Another day, another address, same garbage bag.

A Facebook friend of hers had died by suicide. A teenage boy that she had only met in person a couple of times at the mall. Somehow, his death had made her feel closer to him. I could tell by how she was talking in the car. Every minute he grew from a casual acquaintance to a lifelong friend, mostly because, I think, she had maybe felt the same deep hopelessness and had thought about suicide herself.

We pulled up to the funeral home and I pulled into a parking space, pushed back my seat and took out my Blackberry.

“Aren’t you coming in with me?”

“No, I’ll wait for you, though. I can’t go in.”

“Why? I need you to go in with me.”

“I can’t, I’m not dressed for a funeral. I have jeans on.”

She looked at me, then at her own jeans. “I have jeans on. So what?”

Yes, we both had jeans on. The fifty years age difference between us played out in our jeans. Mine were dark blue, boot cut and hers were light blue with slash marks and magic marker drawings.

We went in the funeral home together. Right away, I knew she’s never been in one before. I explained what comes next. That we sign the guest book and then give our condolences to the family. I pointed to where she should go and told her what to say.

“Aren’t you coming with me?”

We walked to the open casket. Her young friend was dressed in a suit and tie. Days before, he had been in high school, FaceBooking, been at the mall. I wondered when she had seen him last. Is this a good thing or a bad thing that I brought her here? How does she feel about all the other kids who are here, about the big poster boards full of pictures of her young friend? Am I teaching her a skill or showing her the future?

We moved on to his parents, his mom and dad standing side by side, greeting people, seeming intent on making everyone else feel better. I went first so she would know what to do, “I’m so sorry about your son.” And then it was her turn. She explained how she met their son and why she liked him so much. His parents smiled at her and held her hands.

She learned how to go to a funeral that day; at least that’s what I think she learned. Maybe she learned to show up, to be present, to speak, to console, and to think about what it all means. Maybe that’s what I learned.

That’s my hope.

How Many Chances Do You Get?

9 of 18

What’s fair, do you think? One chance? Two? Three strikes and you’re out? Say you’re a mom who left your five-year old and six-month old baby alone so you could score some heroin on the corner. Should you get another chance? You’re addicted, after all, so that has to cloud your judgment. Other than being a heroin addict and occasionally leaving your kids alone for a little while, you’re not a bad mother. Should the kids be removed by the child welfare officials? Should your babies go live with a foster family?

ceramic kids

What if you’re the mom of a 9-year old girl. And say the principal of her school just called to tell you that your little girl said your boyfriend has been touching her and she’s afraid to go home. You were ready to kick him out anyway. Should you get another chance? Two? Are you a bad mother? What should happen? Should she go to a foster family?

What if just one night, just one night when you were completely exhausted, when there was nothing to feed the kids, and the lights went out because the utility bill wasn’t paid, and the neighbor across the hall yelled at your kids to shut up and your three-year old peed on the kitchen floor and you picked up the broom and swatted him across the behind, should you get another chance? You’re incredibly stressed, you know. It’s so hard being a single parent, being poor, dealing with the kids. Don’t you deserve a second chance? A third chance?

Or should your kids be ‘removed’ in the parlance of child welfare officials? Should they be ‘detained’ as they say? Maybe. Probably. Child welfare laws were put in place to protect the defenseless. So until things can be sorted out, it often makes sense for the children who were left or neglected or smacked with a broom to be taken away from the offending parent and moved to a safe location. It’s hard to argue with that.

It’s what happens next that’s the problem. Where do kids belong? When do we give up on their parents and find them new parents? How many chances are too many? How big is the sin that separates you permanently from your children?

I don’t know the answer. I only know that there is a lot of heartache involved and it’s mostly the kids. Some parents struggle like people possessed to get their kids back. They will go anywhere, do anything, take any class to convince the child welfare system that they are competent and caring. Others recover from the loss, they blame the system, blame their addiction, and are relieved that someone else is raising their children.

The big huge unfixable heartache? It’s the kids. They never ever get it – why they had to leave their parents and why their parents didn’t come get them. It is as inexplicable to them as gravity or the solar system. It never makes any sense because, to them, whatever their parents did doesn’t justify the punishment they are getting. It isn’t fair, they think. My parents should have gotten more chances – 4, 5, 6, however many.

That’s not how we think. The grownups. But it’s how kids think.

There should be more chances.