I’m working on a next of kin case for a man who died while incarcerated. He’s been dead since 2001 and nobody has located his next of kin. I wonder how long he’d been incarcerated without contact from someone who cared? I imagine he was discarded before he went to prison. I’d bet he grew up in poverty or in foster care. Early and/or chronic poverty or disrupted relationships adversely impacts brain development. It impedes positive and prosocial experiences. The individual’s intellectual and emotional development is forever impacted and depending on their resilience, genetic predispositon, and environment they may have far less free will than we like to imagine. If we can say they made a choice, we can discard them more easily. We don’t have to worry about what happens to those we consider the least worthy in our communities.
It’s one week before Thanksgiving in Juvenile Judge Stephanie Reed’s courtroom. A baby-faced boy appears before him. Six adults are present to help determine his fate. None of them are family.
His name is Jeremy. He’s thirteen. The edge of courtroom table where he sits amid lawyers, district attorneys and juvenile court workers comes up to his chest. His head doesn’t reach the back of the plush chair. If he slouches—which he does today—his feet barely reach the floor.
Once the case is called, Reed reminds those at the table that of the people present, only she and the child have been on this case since the beginning. Jeremy was four, then. The State intervened because his family was not safe. His birth mother’s parental rights were terminated shortly thereafter, but Department of Human Services has failed to find him a permanent home.
What’s Jeremy’s biggest problem?
Maybe it’s the adults’ pesky ideas.
Jeremy moved through multiple foster homes in the first six years. Finally, he was placed in a home where he settled down. His behavior became manageable. He got along well with the other children in the home. He was so agreeable after two years, the adults in Jeremy’s life decided he should move.
Well, yes. His ability to integrate well in the current foster family demonstrated to the State that he was adoptable, a term that means he is adequately socialized and emotionally resilient enough to live in a family. But this family wasn’t an adoptive family. So without asking Jeremy what he thought about losing the one family he trusted, the agency social worker recruited adoptive families. They found a potential home in Idaho. Then they told Jeremy the good news.
Only he didn’t see it as good news. He became anxious at having to leave yet another family, and at the possibility of living so far away from his birth mother and sister whom he hoped someday to see. His behavior escalated. For the first time in his life, he acted out sexually with a younger child.
Everyone agrees the way Jeremy showed his anxiousness was inappropriate. But there is contention among the adults about how serious the incident really was. It was, the caseworker said, “unfortunate” because it ruined the agency’s plan for adoption. It also meant he was immediately removed from the family he’d grown to trust.
He was placed in a program for boys who need supervision pending treatment. But that program was a limited-duration placement for emergency shelter care. They moved him to a residential program, but it was expensive and it mainly served older youths. Then, more pesky grown-up ideas.
Somebody decided that if Jeremy was adjudicated as a sex offender, there would be more therapy options available. Department of Human Services could relinquish control to the State Youth Authority. Then, they wouldn’t have to foot the bill to house and treat him. Someone at the district attorney’s office agreed. Without parents to stand up for his rights, Jeremy became designated as an adjudicated sex offender.
The residential program that Jeremy was housed in considered adjudicated offenders a liability risk, so Jeremy is in court today because he has to move. Again. Removed from his birth family as a preschool child, shuffled through myriad foster homes through his elementary school years, and taken from the only family he’d developed healthy attachment to, Jeremy is alone, apparently destined to grow up without a single adult that cares.
Unless the judge has her way.
As the professionals looked on, Judge Reed apologized to Jeremy for participating in a system that failed to find him a forever family. “If you could go anywhere in the world,” she asked, “or be with anyone in the whole world, where would you like to spend Thanksgiving?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
That sent the judge into tears.
“How is this okay?” Reed asked the other adults. “He’s been waiting his whole life for somebody to love him. While you and I are looking forward to turkey with our friends and family on Thanksgiving, he can’t think of a single person he’d like to see.”
Reed urged the adults to find Jeremy a permanent family, even if that meant reconsidering his birth mother, who is a decade older now, has a job, and lives in her own apartment. Perhaps she is in a better position to be a mom. When the social worker protests they can’t undo a termination of parental rights, Reed says, Who do you think he is going to go look for “when you toss him out at eighteen as cured?”
Such questions provoke others. Like, why known adult perpetrators aren’t prosecuted, but children can become adjudicated perpetrators after one incident of sexual impropriety.
Or why Jeremy was labeled a sex offender at age twelve in a state where grown men like Neil Goldschmidt aren’t held responsible for having sex with girls too young to consent.
Maybe Jeremy should have waited a few more years to act out the anger he felt at a system that taught him it isn’t safe to love anyone taller than himself.
Names were changed to protect the identity of the youth.
If you don’t work or volunteer in child welfare, you may not know these kinds of decisions are made about vulnerable children. If you’d like to advocate for youth in your community, you can locate the closest advocacy program by entering your zip code in the Find a CASA Program box on the left sidebar of the National CASA for Kids page.
The holiday season is upon us. A season of love and charity. A season of kindness.
So what’s up with so many hateful posts on social media about employees having to work on a holiday, meaning, of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Nobody really gets riled up about employees having to work on Valentine’s Day, the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day, do they? Not that worked up, anyway. Not enough to try to shame people into staying home.
When I was young, I worked as a veterinarian’s assistant, dishwasher, and waitress. In those jobs, I worked the holidays, and although I sometimes felt disappointed to miss a family gathering, I was grateful for the extra hours that holidays brought.
I worked Thanksgiving as an electrician’s apprentice (we worked a huge shutdown while the mill was closed for the holiday) and as a foster parent in my thirties and forties, I ferried children back and forth to their birth parent’s homes in Portland, Salem, and around Clackamas county so they could attend their family event even when it meant missing some or all of my own.
It’s naïve to believe that if only stores closed, everyone could be home with their family having a meaningful time. Who is everyone?
Everyone means all the employees, I guess, except the food service workers, foster parents, child welfare workers, movie theatre workers, gas station attendants, animal caretakers, veterinarians, electrical power crews, pilots and flight crews, police and fire responders, EMT and hospital personal. Everyone must not count the jailers, dog walkers, funeral workers, Armed Services personnel, toll booth ticket takers and so on, and so on.
The world does not stop because of a designated holiday. Life, and death, and many diverse activities, including, yes, shopping, go on. Those who work in the businesses that support holiday activities will work for those who partake in activities on those days. Some of those employees will resent working, some of them will be neutral about it, and some of them will be grateful for the hours.
To expect that workers are entitled to that particular day off in a business that depends on holiday activity to thrive is as ludicrous as someone expecting accounting firms to give accountants time off during tax season, or school districts providing teachers vacations during the school year. If an employer chooses to, good for them, but to demand they do is ridiculous.
If you don’t want to support businesses that operate on any given day, fine, don’t patronize them. But don’t expect me to join you in trying to shame them for operating as a business.
I enjoy the frenzy of holiday shopping, or going out for dessert on a holiday evening, or hitting a movie theater after the turkey has settled. And my venturing out into the world on a day you’ve designated sacred, doesn’t make me wrong. You don’t get to be the arbiter of what is sacred for anyone but yourself.
For me, every day we’re alive is sacred. Every day is a good day to shop the companies that treat people well and pay them a decent wage, and a good day to boycott the ones that don’t.
Ministers, priests, and comforters of all kinds work on holidays. Funeral directors still arrange to pick up bodies of those we love, social workers still investigate child abuse, coffee shop workers still prepare coffee. We are human beings and live rich, complex lives. Society seldom stands still.
We could argue it should. There are moments so important that we ought stop in our tracks and reflect. There are moments worthy of a caesura in speech and deed. Let that be when we hear of another person’s suffering. When someone dies. When a new infant is born. Let us all stop a moment and praise when some other human being’s heart pulses a little more open in love.
Let’s not beat each other up because somebody shopped or profited or worked on the “wrong” day. We are, all of us, more than such arbitrary measure.
Can you imagine the hopelessness a child feels to paint a picture like this?
You are a mother. Or a father. A sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt. You have people you love. Imagine those people being stripped from you and placed in another family that none of you know.
Imagine being the child who is plucked from home: the bed (his covers, his sheets, his pillow), the refrigerator, the yard where he plays. She is placed in a new home where it looks and smells different. He doesn’t have his pet dog to hug. She’s not allowed to bring her kitten. He’s going to miss Outdoor School. She doesn’t even have any of her own clothes. Tomorrow, she’s going to go to a new school, meet new peers, wearing somebody else’s underwear and socks. A borrowed backpack.
You don’t need to be an expert to understand that foster children grieve. Their parents are hurting. These families need more than a bureaucracy has to offer and more than a court can order. They need someone to hear their story, help them imagine a new way of being, someone who can encourage the parents while advocating for the child. The child comes first but that doesn’t mean the parents don’t matter.
Imagine your spouse removed from your home and placed where he’d get more attention. More opportunities. Could your marriage sustain the separation of your husband or wife living with another partner while you learned to better meet their needs?
Can you feel your heart break?
We do this to children all the time. It’s called foster care.
Children need to be safe. No question about that. But children also need deeply rooted attachment to adults they love. They need stability of heart as much or more than they need stability of place.
Who needs your help?
- The child with chronic medical issues whose mother has no health insurance and no transportation to get him to so many appointments.
- The children whose mother is incarcerated.
- The child whose parent has died and the other parent has never worked outside the home.
- The children whose father who doesn’t qualify for public assistance because the money he earns picking up cans by the roadside is counted against him.
- The child with a single parent who cannot walk away when they are angry because there is nobody else to watch the child. No other parent to step in when the temper is about to flare to dangerous levels.
- The child who needs medical treatment the parents don’t believe in or understand.
- The child whose relative has a medical marijuana grow operation and is the only adult the child has ever lived with.
- The child who has mental illness that the parent cannot manage their behavior.
- The child born without organs whose parents cannot afford to care for him.
- The child whose parent is suicidal.
- The children who are living in a campground because they lost their home.
- The child with learning disabilities for whom the school district refuses to provide services.
- The child of an alcoholic.
- The child of an impoverished mother.
- The child we might, any one of us, have been.
Imagine that you are the mother or father who is failing to measure up. You would fix it, right? You would solve the problem to keep your child.
- Imagine you have no money.
- Imagine you are unemployable because of low cognitive abilities, lack of training, mental illness, criminal record.
- Imagine you are struggling with addiction. (Some of you are, we already know, because at least 10% of the adult population does.) Imagine you are not one of the lucky ones whose spouse, mother, father, sister, brother, helps babysit, caretake, or pick up the pieces when you fall apart.
- Imagine that you are one of the lucky ones with adequate resources and skills to parent well. Imagine helping someone who is not so lucky.
- Imagine that I asked you to help me out for a while because I was in a difficult patch. A dozen of you would reach out within minutes to do anything I asked, anything at all, because you know me.
Imagine helping someone you don’t know. Imagine me asking you for that. One child.
You can do it. Pick up the phone and call your local Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. Volunteer at your local faith-based organization to help families in need. Mentor a parent who struggles. Yes, you.
It will change your life. More importantly, it will change the life of a child.
Two years later, maybe the same child will paint this picture. One less child in despair. One less shooting in the evening news.
Go to MY LOCAL CASA PROGRAMto find the CASA program closest to you.
I took this photograph the second time we traveled to Disneyland. I thought it was a funny parallel to how Disney attempts to make every child believe they could be Cinderella or Prince Charming. The restaurant where we ate lunch gave these masks out as children’s menus. After lunch, we stepped out in the bright light, and I snapped this shot. Years later, when I came across the photograph, I saw it as a symbol for foster care. How one-size-fits-all social work and surrogate homes fail to see the individual child’s needs. Behind each mask a child has his or her own story. How the child welfare system makes Pinocchio’s of us all: You’re only staying for a little while.You get to move home when school gets out.Your mommy is learning how to be a better mom. For many of the children caught up in foster care, the move home doesn’t come soon enough, or at all. Children move from one foster home to another, then the next. The “little while” grows into months and years and in the child’s mind, all those who told him to be patient are now untrustworthy adults. I remember sitting in a hearing where a social worker told the judge that the mother had not made the necessary changes but the agency was going to give her another few months. Her children had been waiting three years to go home. “We ask,” I said to the judge when he finally called on me, “children to do what adults cannot. Who among us could sustain a marriage for three years while we lived in some other lover’s home? Yet we ask children to settle down. Be a kid. Care about your foster parents while you wait for your “real” parents to get help.” All across America, children wait. Six months go by. A year. Two years.The Blue Fairy said, “Now, remember, Pinocchio: be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.” As if being good would make the difference. I read a quote by a now-adult foster child that said, “Evaluating my head can’t tell you what I’m feeling in my heart.” Or, I’d add, what’s hiding behind the mask we all wear. The judges who, in fifteen minute hearings, are required to make life and death decisions about whether children remain in care or go home. The social workers who set out to protect children, yet must strive to reunite the family. The family members, most of them wrestling poverty, addiction, or mental health issues, who give their best (even when their best will never be enough) to get treatment, counseling, a job, housing, parent training, and make it to visits using public transportation. The foster parents (who believe what they are told by the caseworkers, the children, the counselors but rarely the birth parents) whose own stories are fraught with loss and fear and failings.The long nose of child welfare grows despite everyone’s best efforts. “A fine conscience I turned out to be!” said Jiminy Cricket. For nineteen years I have volunteered as a CASA because I’ve wanted to be part of the solution. But it’s hard to immerse oneself in an environment and not begin to see oneself as part of the problem at least some of the time.