Monday, June 11, 2012

Picking Up the Pieces

Since the beginning of the year, I've been having a hard time with the idea of blogging. I kept posting about other things I care about, doing a delicate dance around things and people near and dear to my heart. But things kept piling up, and up, and up. Finally, I just quit, because really, I didn't know what to say, or how to say it, or whether I could even legally say it. This morning, I just don't give a damn.

What have I been doing for the last decade or so? What was I thinking? Sure I had that idea that I could make things better for one child, one youth, at a time. Yeah, right. Instead, I'll just be there holding their hand while the train derails. Or maybe sometimes I was one of the engineers?

Since this post is a nice, big cathartic feast after a five week famine, I really suggest you turn back. Here, have an otter, or baby zoo animals. You'll walk away happy.

The child welfare system is, as anybody who reads this blog, who has worked in it, lived in it, aged out of it, so very, very broken. And it is self-perpetuating. Abuse begets abuse, neglect begets neglect, loss begets still more loss. I'm really at a point where I wonder, wearily, if it is even possible to fix the system, to stop the cycle, and whether anything I do makes any difference to anyone, including the kids I serve. I am skeptical, if not downright cynical, about whether a lot of people working from within the system are more interested in just having their job than they are in what their job was supposed to be doing. Or whether they even care that they are part of the problem and whether they ever wonder if they cause more problems, more damage. Because I sure do.

And then, there are the kids themselves... The ones who bear the weight of all the mistakes, the inability of the child welfare system to forge a positive change in their lives. Where to begin?

The day before Valentine's Day, I got a call from Snow White, who long time readers of the blog know is something of a success story. A young mother, Snow White won, against astounding odds, an RTI reinstatement case before the Third District Court of Appeals. She was and is, on the face of it, a good mother who chose caring for her daughter, even though it derailed her schooling and almost cost her her Road to Independence funding, the program that helps aged out foster youth when they turn 18. She has now graduated with her high school degree, has a beautician's license, and is ready to start work and college and life. Which is why it almost killed me to have to report her family for child abuse because her significant other battered her, stole from her, used substance, all in front of their child. While trying to limn that fine line between someone being a bad father while genuinely loving their child, being a bad partner while evidently loving you, Snow White lived and lives in the desperate world of many a former foster youth: the I Want A Family world, in which broken family is better than no family, and in which one can only hope that the system would agree with her and try to fix the broken parts. (It doesn't really, by the way. The system decides some things, and some people, are too broken to merit treatment.) 

To say that the rabbit hole that Snow White and I fell into on February 13 was a long and winding and unbearable fall (for the both of us) would be an understatement. She is now 21 and we have known each other for seven years. I was the constant in her life she could count on. I was also the one who almost cost her her daughter. But I did my duty and, in doing so, lanced the festering wound in her family and hoped the system would treat them, heal them. Good thing I am not holding my breath. We have since reached a sort of truce. She now sadly knows she can't tell me anything really bad because I'm a mandated reporter, a point that was never crystallized in her mind before. (So much comfort there, for the both of us...) but she knows that if she has a problem that does involve the need for help, for connections within the system, that I'm there for her. I am just hoping that the system, which isn't really great at breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect, will somehow vanquish some of the problems facing her and her daughter. But the means of dealing with  domestic violence (DV) in this county and in this state are egregiously outdated. (Maybe that's everywhere, though.) Even just domestic violence, treated wrongly as a concept isolated from substance abuse and rooted in gender, is outdated, when you look at decade old work by Corvo and Dutton, and others. DV is often not rehabilitated in terms of the success of programs- they aren't successful, by and large. The links between family violence, intimate partner violence, substance abuse and psychosocial dynamics are not often successfully addressed in our little corner of the world. Holistic isn't the first word that comes to mind when I think of dependency. (Nor are the terms 'evidence-based' and 'happy outcomes!'.)

Anyway, after the searing February, there was March.

In March, I found out via Facebook that the maternal grandmother of the talented young man who is now my oldest GAL case (first hugged him in January 2005) was terminally ill. He posted a status comment about it, in typical fashion, minimizing it. I was aghast to hear him say it was "no biggie", as was his adult sister, who came down to see Grandma and him. When his mom was on the streets, his grandmother loved and cared for him. His mother died of HIV in 2008. His father was deported to Suriname in 2004. His sister, also my GAL youth, ran away from Miami, in 2007. And this entire school year he was getting terrible grades and living in a dreamworld in which, when he turns 18 in September, he runs away to LA, with no contacts, no portfolio, no high school degree, and not even a contact email account that bears his proper name, and is discovered, becoming a famous actor and director. Talking with him in recent times, without crushing him, both because he is very bright, and because he is so adept at ignoring whatever is too painful to deal with straight on, has been probably the toughest run of my GAL 'career'. He is amazingly articulate and insightful, quick to call some of those who have worked on his case in court, 'condescending' among other things. To say this kid has lived with loss and has fought hard to bury everything painful he has endured would be the understatement of the century. And, after the continual revolving door of case managers (I count at least ten over the past 7 years and he told me a few weeks ago that "they change my case manager more frequently than I change my underwear...") he no longer really talked to his then case manager. I called her and told her what was going on about Grandma and that he'd even been to her house (a very bad scene according to the sister) and seen her. The case manager failed to document my concerns. (Including concerns about the 8% this kid had back then in Geometry, which, by the way, is rather surprising for a kid who was in the gifted program in math, from 3rd through 8th grade, before he got to his swanky and elite performing arts school and can you say CRY FOR HELP any louder, no you can't.) But she was in the weeds, evidently. Didn't document any of it. Didn't try to talk to him. Left the agency. The whole thing took a turn for the worse when his placement of 5 years began to disrupt. (A scenario described to Comtesse [redacted] as 'watching the slow motion derailment of a train'.) And then our wonderful child welfare system became all about covering asses and blame-shifting. To the point that after a discreet trip to the bathroom with a jurist, the agency 'had done so very much' to save that placement but they 'just couldn't save it'. And yeah, the youth, who has struggled mightily to express his feelings, in spite of being incredibly articulate and well-spoken for so many other things, was firmly stifled from the bench. So now he's in a good interim home and we get to look for where he can live on $892 a month, if he stays in school. (Age 18 and in the 11th grade, what a picnic it will be!) Since his school doesn't offer the school lunch program, I'm now going to be picking up 100% of the cost of lunch to try to eliminate that reason for dropping out because frankly, I do not see how he can manage otherwise. (For the past two years I was doing 50%, with the other 50% provided by the case management agency for their little star who should shut up and be quiet.) But hey, the happy story here is that the case management agency is good! And in another three months, they won't have to think about any of this anymore! Another successful outcome!!!! The world is filled with puppies!

So up to this point, I was still feeling okay about things. I mean, not happy, but as if there was still a purpose in being involved in the child welfare world. Then I got this FB message from a longtime friend and former GAL, who had been the beloved foster parent of the children in what is my second oldest case as a GAL. And therein, of course, lies still more sorrow. 

I'll just call her Lillie. She and her brother were placed for adoption in 2008. I had been their GAL since January of 2004. An unusual case, one that makes you really believe in Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. (And I've had two such cases, what are the odds?) A hard case to work, with demands for knowledge of IDEA, Section 504, and disability educational expertise like none I have ever had. Lillie and her brother both suffered from severe auditory processing disorders and what appeared to be dyslexia. I struggled finding them proper evaluations and services, and got them into a superlative private remediative school, The Cushman School, on full scholarships, to rehabilitate their reading and math struggles. They were doing so well by 2007. They were, for the most part, happy kids, although Lillie has always had a tendency to feel somewhat sad and lonely. In 2008 they were adopted by a seemingly successful couple who had overcome, or so it seemed, their own learning problems. They had moved from Michigan to Florida and wanted a child desperately. They wanted a boy but were willing to take a sibling set. VoilĂ ! A disaster is borne! And one I helped make, that I signed off on as their GAL. Long ago Lillie had promised her mother that she would take care of her little brother. So she agreed to the adoption, even though she didn't feel entirely comfortable with this family, well, specifically with the adoptive mother. The father appeared to be nice enough and that was enough for her. The parents didn't seem ideal from the standpoint of really learning about their prospective off-springs' specific deficits and needs. But they did get those evaluations entered into the school systems that they moved to successively. Good thing, because after that adoption was final, they moved, and moved, and moved. Because they kept losing their jobs and being evicted. Because they drank and were verbally abusive and angry people who got fired a lot. Because even though they passed a Children's Home Society homestudy, which cleared their background in the state of Florida, I later paid for a  full background check (too late, a mistake I will never, ever make again) myself and found out that they had a string of foreclosures and civil financial problems back home in Michigan. And I have to say that the idea of taking two instead of one when you're getting paid to take them makes great sense when you can't hold a job, right? Of course, right!

Lillie was miserable. Lillie tried to run away. Lillie reported abuse to me, which I reported to the state and which the state couldn't prove and didn't really look into all that much because it's just not the kinda thing they're into nowadays. Hey, no big bruises or marks, how bad can it be? I last saw her in early January, when she told me that she was just hoping she could stick it out until she turned 18, how miserable she was, how hard it has been. Lillie would come back to Miami and stay with her former foster mother every chance she got. In fact, Lillie is there now, in what is about to be, hopefully, her real 'forever home', except there are all these little details that are nagging at me. A forever home? Wasn't that the one you're adopted into? They kicked her out. She turns 18 in January. She will never get RTI now because she was adopted. She will get the free Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, if they deign to give her the documentation showing she's entitled to it. Speaking of which... There is no documentation so far as I know that make the arrangement legal and viable for the next 6 months. I have no idea if she has Medicaid, should she get sick or injured and with no documentation, the former foster mother cannot obtain Medicaid for her. I'm also not clear on whether they are giving the $500+ stipend the state pays them for Lillie to the I cannot tell you how incredible foster mother that has loved and nurtured her and made her a part of her family for all these years and is now taking her in for good. Guess why Lillie wasn't adopted into her foster mother's family? Her foster mother was too old to qualify. Guess what Lillie has endured? Psychological and physical abuse, separation from her mentally ill mother, now from her brother, and complete destruction of her childhood and adolescence. Yes indeedy, job done! I'm feeling like one helpful person these days. And part of a very helpful system.

Yes, yes, I have had cases that ended in successful adoption, including my first case, where the child ended up with her young aunt, about whom I can say only wonderful things. Or the multivisceral organ transplant toddler, adopted by the nurse with her private nursing company, who had lost a daughter to the same condition but found room in her heart for more love, more loss. Or the young man with the severe skeletal defects, adopted by a longtime friend, after her supporting him through grueling back surgery for terrible scoliosis and kyphosis and helping him deal with his other skeletal defects and his social isolation. None of those people kicked the children out.

But yeah, lately, everywhere I look, I see broken children, broken youths, broken system. 

The word discouraged is wholly inadequate.

And not to be mean or dismissive, but y'all can just skip the usual palliative, oh "poor Marzie was good" comments. That is so totally missing the point here. Feel angry at the system and sorry for these kids and what they endure in the child welfare demi-monde, not me. I live in a nice house, with my nice family and my lovely pets and my beautiful garden and the worst I have to deal with is waking up at night worrying about these youths, where they are, where they're headed and wonder about how it is that I can know three people for seven or eight years and have done so little to have helped them. That's the right question to be asking, to my mind. They are just three children, of the many cases, out there. And if this is how it goes, when a person is really trying to be in their corner, I don't want to imagine the rest.

Edited to add in the late afternoon:

When it rains, it pours. Keyoncé, 22 years old in late August, last mentioned on this blog because of his plight of being intellectually disabled, bipolar and working the oldest profession in the world under some very sketchy conditions on Biscayne Blvd., just called me. His APD is a mess and he needs an apartment because his electricity is off where he is right now. "I need you in my life, Marzie. I need you back as my GAL. I ain't got nobody, no family. Who's gonna help me? I can't live on $606 of SSI Disability. What am I gonna do? I'm tired. I want a Section VIII apartment but they don't take my application. Well, I don't know how to apply. You know I got problems reading."

Meeting: Wednesday, 11:30 am.

How do I tell him that I think Section VIII applications are closed but even if they weren't, he's not a woman with children? How do I tell him I don't know what to believe and not believe? How do I tell him that he needs to tell those fine folks at Our Kids and APD that yes, he really does turn tricks for added money?

Sigh. Camillus House, here we come.

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