Twice a week for two hours at a time Nicole and Nina visited with Jason in a supervised setting. I observed a visit one day and my earliest hunches about Jason proved to be true. He was patient, kind, and affectionate with both of them and they responded well.
Days after this visit, I knocked on the door to Jason’s apartment.
“Come in,” I heard him call. I pushed open the door and stepped inside and back into the 1970s where dark paneled wood dominated the molding around the ceiling and the bathroom sported a yellow toilet.
A small kitchen to the right was cluttered with old gadgets, including a can opener that reminded me of the one that sat on my grandma’s counter when I was a kid. Dishes were stacked on the only bit of tiny counter space available. A table for four was pushed against the wall. Jason sat in an old wooden chair with a stack of papers on the table in front of him. He didn’t look good. His eyes were slightly sunken in and his long gray ponytail was stark against his white, ashen face. He had put on some weight since he got clean but he looked tired. His breath was ragged and his cough was terrible.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. I knew he had emphysema. I just didn’t know exactly how bad it was.
“Not so good but I’m used to it,” he replied as he moved a pile of clutter from the seat next to him and motioned for me to sit down. I set my planner down on the table. I learned long ago never to take a briefcase or bag into a home visit. You never know what you might accidentally take home with you, like a bed bug.
I glanced around the rest of the apartment. Two hand-me-down couches faced a television with sliding glass doors to a balcony behind it. It was a lived-in, well-worn space with a slight cigarette smell. The carpet was shag brown. I wondered what might be lurking there and for how long but other than that, things looked good. Comfortable.
I took a seat at the table.
“Smoking?” I asked, as I noticed a lighter on the top of the television stand. He cocked his head to the side and shot me a look that said you’ve got to be kidding me.
“Well?” I asked.
“I’ve given up everything else. Everything. And I only smoke outside,” he said with a sense of frustration tinged with sadness.
“I’m only asking you because you sound terrible. Your cough is terrible. You don’t look so good, that’s all. The girls need you to be well,” I said gently.
“My girls need to come home to me,” he insisted.
I almost agreed with him. He was doing everything the court asked him to do: drug treatment, counseling, and visits with the girls. He was settled in sober housing and could move downstairs to a regular floor in the apartment building after one year. He applied for disability due to his chronic medical condition and had been approved, giving him monthly income. Most of all, he wanted Nicole and Nina. He loved them. At that point, no one else did. Maybe it was good enough.
But you can’t ignore a drug history of more than three decades. You can’t ignore physical limitations which made me wonder if he had the stamina to single parent two toddlers. He had no support system, no safety net, no one to call in case of emergency.
"I know you want them home but we need to take baby steps. Unsupervised visits. Longer visits extending to weekends eventually. If we send them home now we will be setting you all up for failure.”
By the time I left a half hour later we had discussed his services, how the girls were doing, and I had walked through the rest of the apartment which posed no concerns for me. Halfway back to the office, I reached in my pocket for my cell phone. It was nowhere. I pulled over and searched and searched. Maybe I left it there. I turned the car around and headed back.
"Looking for this?” he asked as he smiled and waved my cell phone in the air after I pulled into the parking lot. His apartment was a locked building. I would have had trouble entering without being able to call first. It didn’t matter. He was outside assuming I would return.
“Yes, I am,” I said gratefully. “Thank you.”
“I’ll make you a trade. I give you your cell phone and you give me my girls,” his tired blue eyes danced mischievously.
“Funny,” I said. It actually really was. He handed it over, and we both laughed. “We’re working on it, Jason. Just keep doing what you are doing.”
In the meantime, Nicole and Nina were living with Ms. Katherine. Each time I raised a concern to Richard, their caseworker, he waved me off with casual dismissal or insisted they were fine.
But they weren’t fine and I knew it in every fiber of my being. Every foster home visit was the same. Ms. Katherine either yelled at or dismissed the girls. I never saw any trace of affection toward either one. Nicole’s behavior was escalating. She was reportedly angry and aggressive at both the therapeutic preschool and childcare center. She was always in trouble at the childcare center for having her hand down her pants and she had rapidly earned a reputation as ‘the bad kid’. Her fourth birthday had passed without any celebration. Nina, on the other hand, caught every germ possible and was continually sick. While Ms. Katherine insisted Nicole never slept at night, Nina slept not only through the night but halfway through the day as well. It was as if Nicole was ramping up and Nina was slowing down, all likely due to the history of trauma. They had no safe place to land and heal.
Ms. Katherine continued to press for psychiatric medication for Nicole and I continued to resist. Nevertheless, a psychiatric appointment with Dr. Hill was scheduled on short notice. I was due in court on another case and unable to attend. I hated to miss it. I knew Dr. Hill and something about him never set right with me.
The next morning I arrived at work and headed up to my office which I shared with my boss. I loved my boss. Over the years her thorough, gentle persistence while working cases rubbed off on me and smoothed out my rough edges. In other words, you don’t have to be a bull in a china shop to get your way.
She and I chatted for a few moments while I retrieved my voice mail messages and learned Nicole had been prescribed an anti-depressant and sleep aid.
The bull in the china shop roared to life.
“This is ridiculous,” I began to vent to my calm and classy boss. “Nicole doesn’t sleep because she doesn’t feel safe. She’s scared. She’s traumatized. That foster mother is a monster. Would you be able to sleep with a real live monster in your house? If she was in the right home she’d have a chance. But we are losing her more and more and she’ll pay for that forever. Sure, let’s medicate her now and for the rest of her childhood then condemn her when she ends up on the street as a drug addict in fifteen years.”
“And Nina is sick AGAIN. She is always sick. We are losing her too. How are you supposed to learn and grow when your world is a chaotic, scary mess? I’d sleep all the time too! I cannot stand this anymore. I’ve gone along with it because Richard doesn’t agree with my concerns and we don’t have hard and fast evidence to get them removed with a court order. Besides, it would be horrible if they just ended up in another bad foster home.”
My boss listened to my rant and took a deep breath. I instinctively followed her lead.
“I have a kid who just reunified with his parents and left a really great foster home,” she said. We always referred to these children as our kids when in the office. “His foster parents are wonderful. Their names are Beth and Darryl Warren. They are almost too good to be true. They have space for two foster kids. I was just out there this week. See if you can get Nicole and Nina in there,” she suggested.
This almost never, ever works. Caseworkers don’t like other professionals ‘hand-picking’ foster homes. My previous attempts to do this always ended in a lecture about how we cannot ‘circumvent the process’. Last I checked the process was made to serve hurting children, not the other way around.
“Richard will never go for that. He doesn’t even think there’s a problem.”
My phone rang.
"Hey Holly, this is Alicia. Listen, I just got a case of yours transferred to me from Richard’s unit. It’s the Moore case. Nicole and Nina. I wanted to let you know because it was an unplanned change but I’m on it now and want to know what is going on with the girls.” Alicia was a fifteen-year veteran worker and a consummate, compassionate, skilled worker.
I was stunned.
Exactly two days later, after dozens of phone calls and some serious wrangling on the part of Alicia and myself, my cell phone rang again.
“Holly, its Beth Warren. I can’t believe I forgot to ask you this yesterday. What are Nicole and Nina’s favorite colors? What do they like to eat? I want to make sure I have those things when Alicia brings them this afternoon. Oh, and what sizes are they? I need to get them Easter dresses.” It was Good Friday.
I could barely answer. I had never had a foster parent call and ask me those questions. I wanted to cry with relief and amazement. I had no idea how this happened, how we had pulled this off, how it was that Nicole and Nina were on their way to the first happy, healthy, loving home they had ever known.
Later that night I took my last work-related phone call of the day. It was from Alicia.
“Holly, I just had to call and tell you this. When I got the girls today Ms. Katherine said they barely had any stuff. She handed me two black trash bags with clothes. Nina was really sick and I just felt so bad for the poor little thing. Her eyes were glassy and her cheeks were rosy and she was so quiet. We were driving down the hill toward Beechmont Levy and all of the sudden I heard, ‘wheeeeee’. I looked in my rearview mirror and Nina had her little arms in the air like she was on a roller coaster. Unbelievable. So sick, so lost, yet still able to do that. By the way, Beth is going to monitor her tonight and take her to Urgent Care if necessary. Don’t worry. They are in good hands. Thanks for all your help.”
“Thanks for all your help,” I told her. “This would not have happened without you.” It was completely true.
“We did well,” she said. Yes, we did.
People always ask me how I could do this job. But the real question is this:
How could I not?
Coming soon: Part 5 of 5.
Note: Four months later Dr. Hill* hit the front page of the local paper after being arrested for drug possession, fleeing police, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
*As always, all names have been changed to protect identity...even when maybe they shouldn't be.