Guestpost by cruelestmonth
I am a social worker specializing in adoption for older children in the foster care system. This is a true story, but I have changed names to protect the confidentiality of the heroes and the villains.
15 years ago, Isaiah is born prenatally exposed to drugs, what I called a “crack baby” (before I knew better). He lives in a group home for infants and toddlers and then a few more foster homes before a relative is approved to take him in as a toddler. He hardly speaks. Isaiah hasn’t been spoken to enough.
When Isaiah starts kindergarten he is assigned to work with a speech therapist. His ability to communicate improves, but he still stutters as the words trip out. The words to tell the story of the abuse at home are stuck. He is silent about the violence, silent about the scars crosshatching his back. He keeps it all in, fiercely loyal to the adults that abuse him, stoic in his pain.
One of the cousins he lives with reports that she is abused to a teacher at school.
Child Protective Services investigates. They find out that Isaiah’s guardian and her boyfriend are a mess. He beats her and the kids. She beats the kids too. Everything is dirty. Not enough food, too much screaming, and lots of physical abuse. The police report states that Isaiah has over thirty scars on his back, many just freshly scabbed over, still oozing at the edges. He’s been beaten routinely with an extension cord by his adult relative guardians during the years he has lives with them. He is 6 years old.
When Isaiah is removed from the home his shell of stoicism cracks and the tears slip out. He cries and tells the social workers that he wants to stay with his family, he wants to stay “home.” More than he wants the whipping to stop, Isaiah wants his family.
For the next year and a half Isaiah bounces through different foster homes.
There is that word, “bounces.” It only makes sense if you think of a child as a big red rubber ball bouncing from space to space, impervious to the elements, resistant to the hardness of the ground. Social workers like the word “bounces” because it shields us from reality. We are the baby snatchers. We tear a child from one home and send them to another. It hurts us less if we pretend a child “bounces.”
“Shatters” is more accurate. Take a fragile glass vase and throw it down on the sidewalk, hard. Pick up the shattered pieces and glue them together before throwing the jagged mess to the ground again. Repeat. It is getting harder to find all of the pieces to glue them together. A few are missing, but mend what you can find and throw it to the ground again and again. How many times? Smash that vase down 16 times. That is the number of placements Isaiah will have before he is done “bouncing” through foster care.
Isaiah is tossed and shattered through more foster homes before he is returned to his guardian. She completes the counseling and parenting training the dependency court requests and all the of the children are returned to her care, including Isaiah. He lives with his relatives for a few more years until his guardian tries to adopt him. Once the social workers start interviewing the family and making regular visits, it becomes clear the abuse and neglect has never stopped. Isaiah shatters into another foster home.
His guardian completes more court ordered counseling, but this time she only asks to have her birth children returned to her. Isaiah stays in foster care.
More foster care placements follow. More shattering. Imagine this life if you can. Never knowing when you’ll be kicked out of your home. Any day your social worker might arrive to transport you and your belongings (in trash bags) to another placement.
What do we do with this problem kid? The shattered cracks are labeled everything from ADHD to bipolar and manic depressive. Isaiah is another black boy on medication. When we drop him into another placement, he shatters again. We change his medications.
When Isaiah is 13, the birthfather he has never met is killed in a shooting.
I meet Isaiah when he is 14. I am assigned to help him find an adoptive family. Shortly after I am assigned, is birthmother resurfaces and wants to see if Isaiah might come to live with her. She goes to therapy with Isaiah and tries to choose him over drugs. The drugs take her away just as Isaiah is beginning to dream of life with a mother, a real mother. Isaiah’s heart breaks, again.
Now Isaiah is done with the past, and really wants to be adopted. He is in a television special. He attends monthly adoption recruitment events. He participates in special group therapy to prepare kids for adoption. And nothing happens. Isaiah opens his heart to hope, but still nothing happens. People tell him that no ones wants to adopt teenagers. I can’t even match him with a mentor. He starts to think he’ll be trapped in foster care until he ages out of care.
Depressed, angry, disappointed, he spends the summer being moved from one temporary foster home to another, while his foster parents vacation without him. He starts running with a gang, playing dice, drinking, smoking too much pot, and getting into trouble.
A young white couple meets Isaiah at an adoption event in May. They feel a connection, something special about him. They want to spend some time with Isaiah to see if they might adopt him. They have though long and hard about adoption and based on the demographics of children in foster care, they expect to adopt a black child. They have read extensively and have a good grasp of the challenges inherent to adopting a child that has experienced so many traumas in life. I like them. Will Isaiah?
Although they first meet Isaiah in May, it is August before they start visits. They have turned in all of their paperwork but the foster care system hasn’t cleared them yet. They can’t start weekend visits until they are officially approved. But I don’t think Isaiah can wait. He has already run away once this summer. If I wait too long he might be on the streets. He is beginning to shut down to the idea of adoption. I think his little spark of hope is almost out.
I am torn. I want to follow the rules, but I doubt Isaiah can wait for the paperwork to move across a desk. Professionally, I make the wrong call. I start visits two weeks before the family is finally approved.
Appropriately realistic, Weekend Family doesn’t expect to like Isaiah right away, but they do. They think it will take a long time to fall in love with a 15 year old teenage boy, but it doesn’t. After a month they are ready for Isaiah to move in. Isaiah is ready too. He calls my office for the first time ever. He solemnly informs me, “I want my Weekend Family to adopt me.”
I am getting the family approved for placement when the foster care system says, “No.” Weekend Family will have to go through state licensing and adoption training instead of the shorter relative/friends approval process (think buying a house vs. buying a car). Weekend Family is crushed that they will have to wait, but commit to taking on the lengthy licensing process. They finish in record time and we wait.
In the meantime they spend every weekend with Isaiah talking, laughing and connecting. He opens up to Mom on their long drives between his foster home and the Weekend Family home. They talk about real stuff: mistakes Isaiah has made, friends, girls, what he has been through, his hopes for the future. They have routines: boxing and the barbers with Dad Saturday mornings, grace with meals, and hopes for the upcoming week shared over Sunday dinner. They do lots of relaxing as a family: camping, hiking, going to the movies with friends, and all sorts of things that blessed “regular” kids take for granted. All of this is Isaiah’s life on the weekends.
Isaiah keeps asking his Weekend Family, “Would you give me back if I _________?” Over and over again they reassure him their love in unconditional. When he joins their family it will be permanent. It will be the end of “give-me-back.”
Weejend are wonderful, but during the weekdays things are getting worse. Living on the fringes of gang life is getting increasingly dangerous. Isaiah is scared that his hopes for this new family are too much. He is reaching too high and when this dream shatters, it might be the end for his heart. Surely it will all fall apart. Everything always does. They one constant in Isaiah’s life is this: Hurting will happen. Better that he wreck this dream before it breaks him. It is better to wake yourself from the dream.
Isaiah does his best to wreck his life. He is two people; Weekend Isaiah and Weekday Isaiah. He goofs off in class, smokes a lot more pot, and stops turning in his homework. Out late, talking back, suspended from school. Isaiah helps his foster brother take their foster mom’s car for a joyride. They read end another car and take off. Foster mom could press charge, but she doesn’t. “Would you give me back if I took the car without asking? What if I was just in the car, but not driving?” For this foster mom, the answer is, “Yes, I will give you back.” Glass shatters again.
What will Weekend Family say? Will they quit him too?
No, they want him to move in now. Phone calls, emails ,faxes, hope, and then disappointment. “No, he can’t move in with Weekend Family until they are officially approved by the state.” I gnash my teeth at the slow, clunky gears of the foster care system. Late Friday I volunteer to pick Isaiah up for the move to a group home.
My face freezes and my stomach clenches when Isaiah comes out of the house carrying the three trash bags containing all of his worldy belongings. Why doesn’t everyone freeze? The neighbor man should stop mowing the lawn. He should stop and bow his head to this shame. I want to do so many things and do none. I want to run to Target and buy the most dignified suitcase for my broken boy. I want to take him home, tuck the green flannel sheets into the couch just right and cook him too much food before he tries to fit his too tall frame on my medium size couch. I want a different story for Isaiah; a story set in a world where no child carries all of their earthly belongings in garbage bags.
On the way out of town Isaiah asks in a round-about way if I’ll take him to his dealer’s house to pick up a bag. I am the “cool” social worker, but not that “cool.” No. I am not helping you to score some anything.
I let him put in a CD of rap music, ignoring the cussing, objectification of women, and too-sexual lyrics. I hear Isaiah’s anger and dear in the loud violence of the music. It screams, “Why did you give me back”? I turn up the bass so I can’t make out the lyrics. But the bass thumps “why, why, why?” while Isaiah bobs his head looking like he wants to shake free of this world and this story. One more head shake and maybe he’ll be in that other story, the one where he is loved and cherished in a family. He is so desperately tense. Isaiah asks me questions about his new foster home in a soft voice that I can barely head through the music. I don’t have any answers. They just gave me an address. That is all I know.
We stop at a grocery store for lotion. Isaiah hates having ashy skin. He is the kind of person that irons and starches jeans and t-shirts. He looks like “mother’s pride,” but his tidiness is all his own making. I wrack my brain for more errands, but that’s it; no more procrastinating. I take him to the group home.
Rules, rules and more rules, there are so many rules in the group home. In this chapter of his story, Isaiah will live with six unhappy boys in a home where the snacks are locked up. It looks like a regular house from the outside. Inside it smells funky (I’ll bring him a bottle of Febreeze later this week). There is not enough furniture, just the basics in an odd mismatch of decades gone by. Staff rotate through the home in shifts. Some are OK. Others are intolerable.
Isaiah takes off that first night to smoke out with some kids. I hear all about it Monday because the group home calls to complain. I am not too surprised as Isaiah’s desperation for a little weed. He is so miserable. The only time he feels OK is when he is high. It never lasts long enough. I take him out to dinner Tuesday night and try not to lecture. I want him to stop hurting himself but what comfort can I offer him in trade for his drug use? I listen to him. I say, “Be careful, Isaiah. Be safe.”
Wednesday the foster care license comes through for Weekend Family, but the foster care systems still wants to wait. They ask, “Why would a young, fertile, white couple want to adopt a black teenage boy?” They want me to wait longer. Maybe Weekend Family will change their minds. Wait until winter break at school, maybe longer. Wait Isaiah.
Isaiah gets a cheap cell phone and begins to text his SOS. Weekend Family is inundated. I get my share of calls and texts as well. The group home wants him grounded after he runs away again. I give Isaiah permission to visit with his Weekend Family anyways. I can’t take away their relationship. But other voices in the system want to suspend weekend visits, “until this kid shapes up.” They say Isaiah should not be allowed to travel with his Weekend Family for Thanksgiving. They say Isaiah needs “consequences.”
I say Isaiah has had a whole lifetime of consequences, mostly for choices he didn’t make. I say Isaiah needs love. To be surrounded by it, swim in it, to be spoiled. I am defiant in seething silence and do not scream up the chain of command for new answers. Instead, I staple pages together aggressively.
I have been disciplined for my poor judgment in starting the visits with Weekend Family two weeks earlier than approved. There was talk of suspension or removing me from the case. Now I am penitent and cautious.
I remind everyone of the rules, especially myself. I am not sure how many more days Isaiah can last in the group home. I am afraid that if Isaiah’s Thanksgiving with Weekend Family is canceled, he’ll run away. Eventually the system directs me to let Isaiah’s primary social worker on the case make the decision. Lucky Isaiah, his primary social worker agrees with me and quickly says “YES” to continue the weekend visits and the Thanksgiving trip. I have a partner!
The Friday before Thanskgiving Isaiah calls. He is so angry. The group home staff wants his in bed at 8:30pm. They keep yelling at him. He feels trapped and desperate. Will I take away his Thanksgiving with Weekend Family is he runs tonight? I ask him to take it out on the punching bag in the back yard and call me back. Please stay Isaiah. Isaiah sends a text; he says, “I can’t.” He is going out to get high. He sounds so frantic and broken. I text him back to be safe and not stay out too late. I can’t control anything. Influence, not control; this is my mantra. I think, “Harm reduction,” and corny things like, “baby steps.”
No one revokes Isaiah’s permission for visits. He spends a peaceful weekend with Weekend Family, comes back for a few days of school, and then they are off for Thanksgiving.
Everyone loves Isaiah. He is the son that Grandpa has always wanted. Baby Cousin adores him. They star in the Thanksgiving video as the newest additions to the family, giggling and playing peek-a-boo; happy Isaiah and giggling Baby. On the drive home, Weekend Family starts to plan Christmas with Isaiah and how they will spend it together. They are ready to be an Always Family.
Everyday Isaiah calls me to ask when he can move in with his Weekend Family. The group home is threatening to “give him back.” They tell him he won’t be adopted. Isaiah is frantic, again. Every day more text messages from Isaiah. When? I can’t stand it. How much longer? I can’t be good here. It is too hard? When? When?
I am doing my best to be the oil to the cogs of a too slow system. “Move,” I mutter to the cogs, while pleading, “Hang on Isaiah; I am working on it.” Stupid, clunky, bureaucracy resists my kicking and shaking! No one returns my calls. Thursday I start calling me partner social worker every hour. I get through. We schedule a meeting fro Friday morning with our respective supervisors to discuss the move.
Friday morning my supervisor is scrunching up his face. Does that mean he wants to say no? Does he think we are moving too fast? I wish for mind reading powers. Not the eye squint!!! I pray he won’t say “wait.”
We skirt around when the actual move day will be, until finally it is out there, we’ll move him tomorrow. I don’t break eye contact with the other social worker. My supervisor takes a breath and then he is silent.
I offer to stay and wait for the paperwork to be generated. I pretend to be helpful, but really I am greedy to get the papers in my hands. Delays, delays, and more delays; I want this so badly and I am nervous it won’t happen. Isaiah’s fears have become my own.
While I wait, I talk to Weekend Family and the group home. Weekend Family will move Isaiah in today. They were going to pick him up for the weekend, but now they’ll pick him up for the move in. Finally, six hours after the system green light, the paperwork is ready. Isaiah can move in with his Weekend Family this very night!
Two nights later, it’s Sunday dinner and Isaiah is cooking the spaghetti. I go over his placement paperwork with his mom and dad. That is what Isaiah calls them. They aren’t just Weekend Family anymore. While Isaiah and Dad finish cooking dinner, Mom tells me how, on the drive home Friday. Isaiah kept saying, “I can’t believe this is real.” We hold hands to say grace and Isaiah thanks God that he is finally home.
During Sunday dinner it is time for everyone to say what they hope for during the coming week. Isaiah hopes to get some phone numbers from girls at his new school. We all say “Amen,” but Mom and I remind him the girls can’t just be cute, they must be smart too!
Isaiah tells me how his family will have strawberry pancakes for dinner for Christmas Day while wearing the special Christmas pajamas they bought yesterday. Mom and Dad will take him to visit his birth Family relatives, including the ones who abused him. He still loves them.
I admire his new bicycle that he will be riding to school. It took 17 minutes to make it to school on the practice run Saturday. Hugs as I’m leaving. I have never seen Isaiah so radiantly joyful. He boasts about his skills and how everyone loves him.
On the way out, Mom pulls me aside and tells me how they were driving in the car yesterday, when fastidious-ultra-hygienic Isaiah asked for a sip of her bottled water, despite her cold and germs. Mom told him he could finish it, shocked that Isaiah was so suddenly comfortable sharing. He said, “Thanks,” but them stopped to clarify, “Not just thanks for the water, but thanks for this.”
There is a picture of Isaiah dancing in the kitchen as he cooks spaghetti sauce with Dad. No tension in his body; he is relaxed, singing, his eyes twinkling. Isaiah doesn’t look like he wants to shake himself free of this world anymore.
This is a new chapter in what used to be a sad story. In this story, Isaiah has a mom and a dad that love him. THey are prepared to be parents. He belongs. They won’t give him back.