Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kit Kat Bars and Hope

I was 9 years old, but my little legs and little belly made me look about 5. I was cute, no doubt. Stumbling into the social service office, I looked over at my case worker Drew's desk to make sure the picture I drew him was proudly displayed.

Drew was a very tall man, probably about 35 years old, though at my age he seemed ancient to me. Because of our stark height difference, he often patted me on the head like a puppy. I liked him a great deal; he was the first man in my life I ever trusted. He was kind-hearted, never raised his voice,  and lit up when I walked by. He lavished me with compliments.  I looked forward to our meetings, though at the time I did not understand his role.  I just knew that when I sat in his office, he had toys and Kit Kat bars. I liked Kit Kat bars!
The year after I was taken from my mother. I was tiny!
The year I was taken from my mother.

One day, he seemed a little unnerved, almost shaken. His smile was different. I knew, even in my young mind, that our conversation was not going to be a fun one. So, I clutched a wooden doll and looked for my Kit Kat bar. I braced myself for some type of bad news.  A lot of what Drew imparted to me is being imparted to thousands of children a day who enter the foster care system.

Drew  was one of the social workers who found me at about age 5 locked in a basement with burn marks, bruises, and left very sick from malnutrition. I was not toilet trained, could not walk and did not talk.  His accidental finding brought me to a hospital and led to the arrest of my mother and others in my home. I was then placed in a foster home.  The brother I was found with was sent somewhere else.

After casual chit-chat,  Drew told me his job was a hard one, that he did not always know if he was doing the right thing. He said he had few powers. His job was to protect kids like me and help them get big and healthy. My young mind really only wanted to know if his candy giving was going to stop! (Or if he had some news about my mother, who I wanted to see still.)  My mother's visits at the courthouse were less frequent and no one would tell me if I would ever see my brother again.

On this day in Drew's office, I was told my mother signed something to keep me in a foster home and let me be adopted someday. This was a good thing, he added that he "got me in the nick of time." One of the best days of his life, according to Drew, was  when he asked  to open a door at my dingy Brooklyn home.  Otherwise, I would have never come out of that basement. At the time, I just chewed my candy and sat on my hands ( which I do when I am nervous or anxious still to this day).

He told me a lot of bad people exist, his job was to keep me from the worst. Foster care would bring other people in my life that could be bad.  It could also bring good people too and new siblings. Drew said it would be hard, I may never see my one brother again..but this was the only way I would have a chance to grow up.  I was smart enough to know some type of storm was brewing. I was in the eye of it.

Drew explained tough times were around the corner; court visits, confusion, fear..but to stick it out. He told me to hold my head up high ( because I was the "coolest and bravest" person he knew), reach out for help, and know he would always keep my pictures.

He eventually told me my mother was going to disappear for good and that he would be moved to another case.  I stayed "loyal" to Drew; I never liked any other case worker.  In fact, after him, I hardly spoke at all in other "meetings." And no one else had picked up the Kit Kat hint, so I decided to not talk to a soul from then on. This was my first real heartbreak.

The debate over foster care improvements stirs great emotion in me now as a woman and mother myself, because the children in the system have no clear understanding of it. Many are sitting on their hands and relying on strangers to direct them. The numbers and statistics in our foster care system are downright tragic. The more I understand the trends and failures now as an adult, the more I try to unearth positives; but that is hard.
Me and my angel.
Of the nearly 400,000 children in the system,  thousands are being abused; left in the cold by a system so full of bureaucracy and corruption, that they are almost worse off than with abusive family members. Children are moved from place to place by the next family wanting a small monthly stipend. There is truth to this context, I lived it.
But, despite the horror stories, to many -  foster care is a saving grace. It is intended to save the lives of children who are abused, neglected, and being exposed to physical/emotional dangers.  Sometimes foster care does save souls and lives.
Of course, removing children from siblings, paying poorly for their care, and not providing proper mental health services or interventions, often places foster children in the highest risk category for re-abuse. However, sometimes, and less frequently, the giving heart of  a stable family saves these children. It does happen. Children are taken from families who have sexually, physically, and emotionally battered their own children, and they find safe haven with a new family.

As legislation changes across the nation, states are finally demanding oversight of foster homes. Often, a foster parent may have a clean criminal background, but other biological children, or spouses or friends in the home do not. Funding for these checks is mandatory. States are also demanding more money to place children in safer shelters when a home cannot be found. Other advocacy focuses on providing care past 18.
Some of the newest research and work on transitioning children out of foster care and through college, is the most impressive to me. Groups are fighting for the best academic, social, emotional and physical health of foster children.
These advocates are shedding light for kids left in the dark, like I was, with nothing but bare cement walls and little but a survival instinct. It gives me hope; hope that someone not saved in the nick of time, will be able to save themselves later on.