Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Story of Two Girls

Snow White and Rose Red

I have been the GAL for two young women who aged out of the foster care system last year. They have now aged out of extended jurisdiction (which covered them until age 19), as well. For a time, these two girls' cases were managed at the same foster care management agency, and for a brief three month period, though they didn't know it, by the same case manager. Because of some of their behaviors, and our concerns about those behaviors, that case manager, who was as good as gold, and I decided never to introduce them or even mention them to each other. We were worried about negative synergism.

I have known these two girls since they were age 14. I was assigned their cases, which fell in different ranges of the alphabet for case names, by two different GAL supervisors. Although both had been in the foster care system since birth, and both were truant from school when I met them, and both had a slew of other things in common, they were like night and day. In fact, though they were totally unrelated to one another, I thought them like Snow White (quiet, shy, given to reading) and Rose Red (outgoing, in every sense).

As the years passed I saw one mature into a more responsible young woman. She had a child at 17, and the child had a number of daunting health problems, including for a time, colic so severe the baby had failure to thrive according to her pediatrician. Snow White was such a good mother, it amazed me. She struggled in school but never failed to take her child to a single scheduled doctors appointment. She dropped out, but signed up ahead of time for GED courses. She got a part time job to cover the added costs of specialized formula (the WIC only covers so much and the baby spit up a ton of formula), disposable bottles and all the extra diapers. She was such a good mother, I can honestly say that I've seen adults who would have struggled to be handling all she had on her plate. She turned 18 a year ago and against all odds continues to try to build the family she never had. The system, however, being what it is, has tried to slam her for her missed school time, her many starts and few finishes. They have tried to cut off her federal Road to Independence funding that could help her seek and education until age 22. We appealed and await news. She's concerned about how she'll make ends meet, complete her license courses, and take care of her daughter if she loses her funds. They do not care about her specifics, and that being a good mother to her child was all important to her and that she took to heart what her judge told her in court one afternoon when she told the judge she was pregnant and wanted very much to keep her baby. "Don't let what happened to you, happen to your child," we all said. She hasn't. And I'm starting to think that she really may make a go of it. That she will be one of the rare ones who can break the cycle, not just for herself, but for her child.  

When she had delays in taking her GED, Snow White had already signed up for a beauty licensing program. She's due to finish in early 2011. Rather than just get a stylist degree, she applied for Pell Grants to do an aesthetician's license. She said she decided it gave her more options because you can work in Assisted Living Homes for the aged, or dermatologist's offices and such. She ultimately wants to go to nursing school and says that she'd prefer to be in a more serious setting. Besides, she told me the other day, what if she cut someone's hair and they hated it? She very much wants to make people feel good and to do good. We've talked about her getting the extra certification to do electrolysis, too. She's very keen on the idea of getting additional skills on that license. 

Meanwhile, her daughter, in spite of some serious health issues to this day (asthma that leaves her shackled to a nebulizer whenever she gets a cold, and she's only 19 months old) is ahead on all her developmental milestones. She babbles and plays with her toys and pets. She loves shoes and is prone to taking a lot of time fussing over which of her few pairs she wears with any outfit. She is read to and has stimulating baby toys (some of which, admittedly, I supplied) and her room, in contrast to the dingy white and water stained walls of the rest of the apartment in which Snow White resides, was painted a spectacular shade of lilac within 24 hours of their renting the apartment. They painted it before they moved so the fumes from the paint wouldn't aggravate the little one's asthma. Snow White's modest, tiny apartment is neat as a pin. Her clothes, and that of her child, hang neatly in closets, and her toddler only has a few toys out of her room at a time. Her pets are all vaccinated and groomed. They were strays and two she raised off bottles. They got mange once this past summer, and this young woman, who when I first met her was so stubborn and proud that she wouldn't even discuss her poor math grades with me, called me right away and asked for help getting them care. I've paid her cellular phone bill every month, for the past three years. She has never, ever, failed to thank me, even if just sending me a text message to do so. Every month. For three years.

Recently, an event in her life gave me, and her independent living case manager, cause for concern. I talked to her about it, after finding out second hand, and she told me she knew she handled it badly. I thought back to how she was as a 14 year old and joked that I was worried about body snatchers. Was she really telling me she handled it badly? Yes, she laughed and nodded, she had changed quite a lot since then. She says she is happy with her life, even though she struggles and is poor. She loves her child, loves her little home, is happy with her boyfriend and her cobbled together family. She has distanced herself from some of her former friends from foster care. She told me that she felt bad about it sometimes, especially with one friend in particular, but that they just seemed to be living a life on diverging tracks (her words). She is crossing her fingers that she wins her appeal and can continue, more easily, to forge a life for herself. But she says no matter what, she is determined that she will succeed.

Rose Red has, alas, struggled in contrast. The changes that I see from age 14 to age 19 are largely external. She's grown taller than I am, and has been at times when she's cared for herself or allowed others to, been a strikingly beautiful girl. Unfortunately, that's kind of been a problem, a distraction. Truant, runaway, sometimes for months at a time, she struggled mightily. Her 19th birthday arrived with bleak prospects for her future. After months of not taking things seriously, she has lost her RTI funding. She is in 10th grade, pregnant, confused, and will shortly be struggling even more, without her monthly funds. An appeal wasn't really an option. I have worried about her from long before she even aged out of the foster care system. Worried that she would end up as she may yet, homeless, with children she can't care for, repeating the same horrible cycle that she herself has lived, or more accurately, survived.

Last night at dinner, a good friend asked about whether I believed in mandatory sterilization of parents who enter dependency court. I took it as his A Modest Proposal moment, although I think it's borne of genuine frustration with a very broken system. You'd have to know him, and how liberal he is, to get it, so don't take it the wrong way. It was asked in the context of looking at young people who age out and repeat the same cycle, again and again. And in the real paradigm of a state and county which is struggling to meet its needs in the dependency case scenario. After all, you see some girls who age out and have two, even three, children by the time they turn 18. I once had a case in which a mother had been in care herself and she had, count them, seven children, who were all removed in succession. I was appointed on five of those kids at one point. The older two had aged out. She had substance abuse, and the concomitant legal, problems. We tried to reunite the children with their maternal grandmother, but it was a disaster. Grandma still had the same problems she had when her daughter was in the system. I'm actually appointed as GAL on another five children case right now, same deal, but thus far, better outcome. Snow White herself was the youngest of at least six (one of whom is a convicted murderer), while Rose Red is the second youngest of five, that I know of. There were rumours of as many as eight. 

Often, women lose their children in Dependency Court and just have more. It is not the first time that I have heard the concept of dependency, TPR (termination of parental rights) and sterilization raised. A lot of people who have been in the service sector for quite some time believe strongly that there should be abortions, mandatory contraception, if not sterilization. So when my friend asked, we discussed. We discussed the fact that if society is so unwilling to offer welfare to these women and financial assistance to these families in the specific form of child welfare, then why should we let these parents reproduce at all? And make no mistake, the lack of funding for child welfare results in simply ghastly decisions that leave children at dreadful risk, at least in my state and county. Is a form of eugenics really the most cost effective and expedient way to handle our child welfare woes? Is there a second tier of society that should not be permitted to reproduce?  Should we just starve them, let them stay ill? Maybe like Jonathan Swift suggested, we should just kill them in some fashion... (We don't have to eat them, though.) Well, I am, in spite of being what my mother recently termed to my father as "Left of Lenin", cautiously optimistic at heart. I told my friend that while I could see trying to impose mandatory birth control for parents who couldn't parent at present, (you know, an IUD or methods that didn't require daily pills or trimonthly injections, or rely on barrier contraception that might be forgotten, or badly done), that no, I couldn't see the idea of mandatory sterilization. (Again, I don't really think he meant it anyway, since he's such a liberal... So please don't flame him here, okay?) Anyway, I believe in the capacity for change, in individuals, in families, and in the system itself. I have to. Otherwise I wouldn't be a GAL and I would stay far, far away from children in dependency. To me, sterilization means that you don't believe that people can change or that a person could be raised without family and could successfully build one on his or her own. I just don't want to believe that. But I'm betting that secretly there are a lot of people out there that do believe just that. And I can honestly say that I know that Snow White is a very rare bird in these situations. A lifelong foster child successfully parenting? What are the odds?

So I've pondered my friend's question all day and I have decided I think it's putting the cart before the horse. After all, in order to even make rules about things like having more children when you can't parent the ones you have, you have to have these cases in court. And to have these families in court, our state has to parse the fine line between leaving families intact and leaving children at risk of physical neglect and abuse, rape, incest and worse. Hard economic times have always increased the stressors on families and increased the likelihood of abuse and neglect of children. If we don't start to come up with a plan to build meaningful change in this state, we will see more and more children born into, and remaining in, abusive families. That's not breaking a cycle. That's ignoring it. Perhaps society could effectively just go back to pretending they aren't even there if we stay on the track we're on. If we don't take note of these children and protect them, sterilization and birth control won't even be on the table for their parents or for these children when they become parents themselves. It's my firm belief, however, that more crime, more homelessness, more public healthcare concerns will be on the table, if we don't shore up the child welfare system in my state. People who say they want to meaningfully cut costs ought to look at doing it with evidence-based practices so the funds we spend will be put to better use, rather than just cutting the budget across the board and pretending children aren't being abused and neglected. 

Rose Red is one of many. I personally know at least three other young women just like her right now. Watching Rose Red is like watching another slow motion crash. What services will be there for her family, her child, when she inevitably crashes? I shudder to think of it and I ache for her situation. She is on the brink of repeating the same cycle she lived as a child. Or should I say, so is her child.

Snow Whites are, sadly, few and very far between.

And...  hope, along with me, that the State of Florida comes to its senses and supports Snow White.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

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