Saturday, March 16, 2013

Nicole and Nina Part 3 of 5

Nicole and Nina were up for a new foster home and a new caseworker, just like thousands of kids across America every day. At ages 3 and 2, what happened to them at this critical time would build the foundation of how they would learn, grow, and experience life indefinitely.

Nicole and Nina were assigned to a new caseworker named Richard. He had been out of training for all of two weeks when he inherited the case from Robin. He and I talked on the phone several times and while he didn't seem particularly bad, he didn't seem particularly good either.

In the meantime, Nicole and Nina were placed with a single woman in her 50s. 'Ms. Katherine' worked full time during the day and attended school at night. She took the girls to childcare at 7 AM and picked them up at 6. She brought them home then left them with a babysitter who put them to bed.

Nicole had started attending a therapeutic preschool program for children who have a history of being abused or neglected and are involved in the child welfare system. Children's Services arranged and paid for transportation to and from preschool.

Contrary to popular belief, foster parents can qualify for childcare vouchers (free childcare) if they meet the federal guidelines for income which is generally below poverty. Essentially they can foster children, work outside the home, and get free childcare. In these cases, the government is paying foster parents a board rate to take care of kids as well as childcare to take care of same said kids.

I made my first home visit to Ms. Katherine's on a Saturday afternoon. It was snowing and the roads were icy. Ms. Katherine lived in a rented townhouse. I noticed right away the broken blinds that hung on the inside of the window. I knocked on the dirty white door after I realized the doorbell was broken. After a while, I stepped off to the side and peered into the window. Nicole and Nina sat next to each other on a couch which was covered with clear plastic. The room was dark, except for the glare of a big screen TV. I returned to the porch and knocked harder.

"I told you all to sit!" A woman yelled as her voice moved toward the door. It swung open.

"Come on in," Ms. Katherine said as she stepped aside and I entered. "I've never had a GAL visit on a Saturday," she said. She didn't seem exactly thrilled.

"Thank you for letting me come," I told her. "My week ahead is booked and I wanted to get out and meet you." I turned to the girls who had left the couch and were at my feet. "Hi Angels," I said as I bent down. "How are you today?"

"They ain't no angels," Ms. Katerine laughed. She was the only one. Nina held her arms out to me. My heart sank.

Side note: I love cuddling kids. One of my favorite things is when a baby or little person falls asleep on my lap. Normally I would be thrilled to have a toddler want me to hold her. But Nina barely knew me. She didn't know if I was a safe person. My arms were as good as any. That was as bad a sign as a visible bruise yet far more damaging over the long-term.

I leaned over and picked up Nina. She immediately rested her head on my shoulder. Her hair was greasy. Nicole's sticky little hand found its way to mine and grabbed it.

"I like your coat," Ms. Katherine said, oblivious to the girls' emotional needs. "Where did you get it? I want to get one of those."

"I don't remember," I replied. I didn't have to try and hide my annoyance. Worry dominated instead.

Another side note: I got over-protective when it came to the children for which I was responsible. I expected A LOT of myself and everyone else. I admit it. On occasion I was a bull in a china shop. I wasn't always right and sometimes it caused unnecessary trouble for which I had to apologize later, which I always did when I was wrong. However, sometimes red flags flapped in the wind and I usually saw them first.

I didn't care if the doorbell was broken or the front door was dirty. I didn't care that Ms. Katherine was single and older than parents of toddlers. I've advocated fiercely to keep kids with relatives or families like this when it is clear they are loved and safe. Bottom line, safety and a sense of being loved are most important. I doubted Nicole and Nina felt loved or safe in this home. How could they?

I'd been in the house less than five minutes and the flags were flapping like crazy. Nicole and Nina needed a safe and nurturing place to heal. If they didn't get it, we were setting them up for all kinds of emotional and behavioral problems later.

I hated that they had to go to childcare everyday. They'd already moved around too much by the time they arrived on Ms. Katherine's doorstep. They needed a foster parent who would make their healing a priority. Nicole and Nina had one chance at a childhood and it was in our hands. It was slipping through fingers. I couldn't stand it.

Ms. Katherine led me, with girls in tow, to the dining room table. I sat down with Nina in my lap and Nicole standing beside me. As Ms. Katherine and I talked about the girls' schedules and daily routines, Nicole, almost 4, began knocking the salt and pepper shakers together. Ms. Katherine snatched them out of her hands. A moment later Nicole picked up a stack of napkins and began lining them up across the table.

"Girl, you are going to be the death of me! You know better than that. Put those back," Ms. Katherine said sternly.

"Is it okay if I give her a piece of paper and some crayons?" I asked. When Ms. Katherine nodded, I ripped a piece of paper off my yellow legal pad and pulled a few crayons out of my briefcase. I always tucked some in there in case of emergencies. Once when I didn't have a pen in court I was tempted to use a crayon instead but decided that probably wouldn't look very professional.

Nicole began scribbling. I was pleased to see she held the crayon well. By now Nina was sound asleep on my lap.

Ms. Katherine's only concern was about Nicole not sleeping. She didn't fall asleep for hours. Ms. Katherine wanted to talk to a psychiatrist about medication for her. I made a note of it with no intention of consulting a psychiatrist until we got Nicole settled and feeling safe. Finishing up our conversation, I asked to see where they slept. I gently put sleeping Nina on the couch in the living room and covered her with a blanket. Nicole sat next to her and returned to her television show. Ms. Katherine and I walked down the hall to a small room with a toddler bed and crib. The blankets were threadbare and the windows were drafty. It was freezing.

"Are they warm enough at night?" I asked Ms. Katherine.

"Oh yeah, they're fine," she replied with conviction.

"Are there extra blankets they can use if they are cold?" Maybe this had something to do with Nicole not sleeping. I never slept when I was cold. It was torture.

"Sure," she said. At least I planted a seed. I returned to the living room to say good-bye.

"Where are you going?" Nicole asked as she looked up from the television.

"I have to go to my home now," I told her, "but I'm going to come and visit you again."

"When is my mommy coming?" she asked without emotion.

"You must be thinking about your mommy. Do you think about her a lot?" I asked, diverting the question and taking this opportunity to learn something, anything, about Nicole's relationship with her mom. She just shrugged her shoulders. I said good-bye again and turned to leave. With one hand on the doorknob, I heard Nicole speak again. I turned around.

"Stay," she said, her blue eyes fixed on mine.

If there was ever a time in my career when I suddenly wanted to scoop up a couple of kids and take them home with me, this would have been it. My arms ached to pick them up and carry them out the door. For a split second I actually wondered how much trouble I would get in if I did just that. I knew their entire futures were at stake and I felt completely helpless. There was nothing blatantly wrong with their placement, at least not in regards to foster care rules.

"You know that lady can't stay here," Ms. Katherine said with exasperation. "She's got to go home now."

"I'm going to come and see you again soon," I told Nicole after I walked over to her and bent down one more time to be at her level. She turned away.

That night I woke up at 2 AM and immediately thought of the girls. Were they warm enough? Were they safe? I couldn't bare the thought of them shivering in the dark, alone and scared.
The next morning I emailed my good friend who is a priest and asked him to pray for two little girls named Nicole and Nina. A long time ago when I had told him how much I worried about the children I represented in court, he offered to light a candle to hold them in prayer and light throughout the day. In turn I offered to buy him votive candles in bulk. Over time he rubbed off on me and I started lighting my own candles, up to six at a time, with my favorite book The Tree That Survived the Winter in the background to remind me to trust and have hope. My sister and her kids added Nicole and Nina to their nightly prayers as well. Everyone can do something to help foster kids.

Whenever I felt this helpless, I reminded myself that these kids belong to God. I relied on a prayer written by Bishop Ken Utener. It is often called the Romero Prayer, wrongly attributed to former Archbishop Oscar Romero. I kept this prayer taped to the bottom of my phone at my office. It is below:

It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The reign of God is not only beyond our efforts. It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying the reign of God always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission.

We cannot do everything but there is a sense of liberation in realizing that because this enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

I went back to sleep that night after putting them in God's hands. It was all I could do at 2 AM and it had to be enough.

Coming Very Soon:
Part Three: Nicole and Nina Catch a Break

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