Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Power of Memories Fifty Years Later

I stepped into a print shop yesterday and back in time. The smell of fresh ink was intoxicating, at least for me. I love paper and words and letters and everything that brings them to life. The counter was lined with stacks of orders, handwritten notes and invoices attached haphazardly to boxes of all shapes and sizes.

I waited patiently for the man behind the counter to approach. Usually I wait impatiently. It's a terrible habit, one I am trying to overcome.

The man behind the counter was large in stature with black and gray hair and a long, gray beard. His black-framed glasses sat on the bridge of his nose, his brown eyes peering out from behind them. Our small talk started as he fished for my order in the sea of boxes. Triumphantly he pulled out a green and white box and lifted the lid to reveal 600 copies of a conference brochure.

"Protecting Babies, Projecting Hope," he read as he eyed the title of the conference. "What's this about?"

"It's a conference about taking good care of babies and young children so they can thrive as they grow," I answered as I dug for a credit card.

"You a therapist or something?" he asked.

"No, I worked in foster care for a long time, representing the best interests of abused and neglected children in court," I said simply as I slid my card across the counter.

"You mean kids like I was? I was a foster kid and I was abused and all that stuff," he looked down shyly, as if he had something to hide. A split second later he looked back up and our eyes met.

"You were in foster care?" I asked this man who looked old enough to be a grandfather. 

"I was. Me and my two brothers and sister. I was five when they took us away from our mom. My sister was six and my brother was three. My baby brother wasn't quite two yet. It was 1964."

I was intrigued, as if the printer itself had started telling its own story, one locked away for decades. He seemed willing to talk and I was dying to know.

"What was it like being in foster care?" I asked him. 

"I lived in four different foster homes in about five years. Some was OK, one was horrible. That lady beat the crap out of me. Once I went to school when I was 8 and I was bruised so bad I couldn't sit down. The teacher took me to the nurse and they pulled my pants down and saw all these bruises. They just put some stuff on it, called the caseworker and the caseworker just took me right back to that home and I got beat some more. I think I got it the worst because I refused to cry."

I could have sworn his eyes were misty. Still, he smiled.

"I wasn't gonna let her break me. I was determined, I guess. Sometimes being determined is my downfall."

"There's a downside to every strength," I told him. "The trick is to balance it." He took that in for a moment and then nodded.

"But eventually that lady gave me away because I got these new toy cars and was playing with them on her new carpet and she said I was ruining it so she put me out. I got lucky." His eyes twinkled.

"What happened to your siblings?"

"My baby brother committed suicide a few years back." This time the misty eyes could not be mistaken. I told him how sorry I was and he just looked at me sadly. "The other two are in and out of jail."

"So how is it that you made it?" So few kids who grow up in similar situations do.

"I don't know. Luck maybe. And determination. I left the system when I turned 18 and went to military school. I'm married with two daughters. One is a mechanical engineer. One just graduated from medical massage school. My wife and I, we help look after the woman who I call my adopted mom. She worked at a group home where I lived when I was 15. She's getting up in years now."

Our transaction long complete, we said our good-byes and I thanked him for sharing his story. I had just one more question.

"Do you mind if I ask how old you are?"

"Not at all. I'm 54."

Nearly five decades had passed and he had recounted with clarity his removal from his mother. Nearly four decades had passed and tears had formed when he talked about the beatings he received in his foster home. The colors of the toy cars he had played with on new carpet were likely as fresh in his mind as the ink in that print shop. Decades later, the brother who had committed suicide was still considered his 'baby brother'.

I walked away from him humbled by the resiliency of the human spirit, the power of memories that linger, and the incredible gifts inherent in connection and the willingness to listen to other people's stories. Good or bad, what we do matters.

There is nothing more important than creating hope, anchors of safety, and an all-embracing love for hurting children. Those gifts live on forever.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

IRS or CPS: Which is More Outrageous?

As the newest political firestorm surrounding the IRS unfolded, something much more horrific was unfolding also. As Tea Party-affiliated groups demanded investigation into IRS practices, desperate grandparents and a devoted teacher begged for an investigation into multiple, ongoing bruises covering an eight-year-old little boy. As President Obama took the national stage and declared the actions of the IRS ‘outrageous’, the painful sobs of a helpless child echoed in vain.
In addressing the behavior of the IRS unfairly targeting Tea Party-affiliated groups, Obama insisted, “I have no patience for it. I will not tolerate it.” Meanwhile, another child died of torture and abuse, all under the nose of children’s protective services (CPS), the government agency charged with protecting children.

Why do we have patience for that? Why do we tolerate that?
Eight-year-old Gabriel died last week after suffering from multiple injuries including broken ribs, a skull fracture, and burns. His mother and her boyfriend have been arrested in conjunction with his death. His grandparents who had previously raised him before he was returned to the custody of his mother tried in vain to get authorities to heed their concerns regarding his safety.  His teacher made calls to Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services after he came to school with bruises on his face and told her his mother shot him with a BB gun.
The responsibility for his death rests squarely on the shoulders of those who inflicted harm. However, the responsibility to protect him when his mother failed him belongs to the government.

Which government agency needs more scrutiny and more transparency with the ultimate goal of providing better services: the IRS or CPS systems nationwide? Where should we direct our outrage and intolerance of failure? You could ask children like Marcus Fiesel, Gabriel Myers, Vyctoria Sandoval, Isaac Lethbridge, Summer Phelps, Damarcus Jackson, Alize Vick, and Neveah Gallegos. Oh wait. You can’t ask them. They’re all dead. Utter failure on the part of the child protective and/or family court systems cost these children their lives. Their numbers measure in the hundreds across the nation.
The Tea Party-affiliated groups may have been subject to invasive questioning. Were they subject to torture, starvation, broken bones, and burns as these children had been?  These groups may have had their right to freedom of association violated.  These children had a right to safety and freedom from abuse but suffered brutal deaths on the government’s watch.  Which is more outrageous?

Unfortunately these children don’t have a political voice, an ability to organize, or financial resources to impact change. They are chattel, property of their parents even if their parents allow them to be tortured and killed. Why else would Gabriel’s dead body sit in the coroner’s office because his mom is in jail but refuses to allow it to be released to next of kin? Even in death, Gabriel is not free from the heinous, long arm of his mother.

The time has come to channel our outrage and intolerance effectively to improve the child welfare system and laws designed to protect children. Too often, our government makes a lousy parent and a lousy protector. That will not change until we all get involved and use our voice to speak for abused and neglected kids. Our collective voice is the most powerful one these children have. We must strengthen and use it.
We need to see our president or political leaders on a national stage demanding transformation of a system charged with our most important task: protecting vulnerable children and families. Then the rest of us need to roll up our sleeves and do what we can to help.

Anything less than that is outrageous.
Visit to learn how you can help.



Saturday, May 11, 2013

Yes or No?

It’s a twisted fact of life that when we are little we hear the word ‘no’ constantly and when we get older we are supposed to say ‘yes’ to lots of things we’d rather not. It’s kind of like the fact that old people need less sleep than anyone.  Just when there is less to do you have more time to do it. Whose design was that?

Let’s face it. Saying yes can be hard no matter how old you get.

The little yeses are hard enough. Yes, I will let you in front of me in traffic even though you cut the line because maybe you are just having a really bad day and need one act of kindness. Yes, I will hold back the perfect biting response on the tip of my tongue because words are not weapons to be fired in anger.

The big yeses feel like they can rip our hearts out. When it comes to foster care and adoption, maybe Jen Hatmaker said it best:

“When you say YES to adoption, you are saying YES to enter the suffering of the orphan, and that suffering includes WAITING FOR YOU TO GET TO THEM. I promise you, their suffering is worse than yours. We say YES to the tears, YES to the longing, YES to the maddening process, YES to the money, YES to hope, YES to the screaming frustration of it all, YES to going the distance through every unforeseen discouragement and delay. Do not imagine that something outside of "your perfect plan" means you heard God wrong. There is NO perfect adoption. EVERY adoption has snags. We Americans invented the "show me a sign" or "this is a sign" or "this must mean God is closing a door" or "God must not be in this because it is hard," but all that is garbage. You know what's hard? Being an orphan. They need us to be champions and heroes for them, fighting like hell to get them home. So we will. We may cry and rage and scream and wail in the process, but get them home we will."

She’s right, you know.

But does this mean we are always supposed to say yes? Well, no. Again, whose design is that?

Friends of mine who are newly licensed foster parents were faced with the difficult decision of adopting a five-year-old little girl. This child was their first placement. Adoption was not in their plans but the little girl loves them and they dearly love her. Are they supposed to say yes when saying yes doesn’t feel quite right? Are they supposed to ignore the tiny, nagging voice deep inside of them that is like sand in their shoes, microscopic but impossible to dismiss?


The voice buried inside of us, the voice many of us have completely banished, is where God speaks. I used to think God was somewhere up high, looking down, and judging. It took a lot of years to undo that thinking and to understand God is within each of us. I believe God put a little bit of God into each soul before it was born. We can spend our whole lives finding our way to that tiny speck. As we look for it, find it, and listen to it, it grows bigger and bigger.

Mother’s Day is the perfect time to listen for that voice deep inside and allow it to speak. It is an opportunity to tune out all the bombarding messages about what we should receive, how we should feel, and our obligations. When we make decisions and answer from the voice within, the most impossible yeses are bearable. Living from that place is the best gift we can receive. Ironically, we give it to ourselves. No one can give it to us. Also ironically, it is the best gift we can give our children and those who love us.

We know Whose design that is.

By the way, the five-year-old little girl was matched with an amazing adoptive family who said their own yes. Maybe my friends’ no was exactly what this precious child and her new family needed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the women who listen attentively to the children they adore. Remember to listen within as well.



Monday, April 22, 2013

Nicole and Nina Part 5 of 5

By the time Nicole and Nina moved to the Warren’s foster home they had been in the custody of Children’s Services for six months. They hadn’t seen their biological mom since they were removed from her care. They’d had weekly visits with their biological dad, Jason, who was making steady progress toward achieving sobriety and stability. During these six months, Nicole and Nina lived in two different foster homes. Nicole had turned four without any fanfare and Nina turned three in much the same way.

According to the ‘court clock’, their biological parents had six more months to make steady progress toward reunification. Adoption Safe Families Act (ASFA) is a federal law passed in 1997 to prevent kids from languishing in foster care. Children's Services can file for permanent custody if children are in temporary custody for 15 out of 22 months. At the two year mark, Children’s Services must be ready to move kids out of temporary legal status to something permanent. Children’s Services can file for permanent custody to sever family ties and make the children available for adoption. It can file for custody to be returned to parents or custody given to approved relatives. In the case of teenagers where there is no family and little chance for adoption, Children’s Services can file for Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (PPLA) which really is long term foster care. This is the legal status for kids who ‘age out’ of the system at age 18.

Days after Nicole and Nina moved into the foster home of Darryl and Beth Warren, I drove an hour north, away from the urban core and into wide open country fields. The tiny town the girls had moved to had only a handful of traffic lights. I found their new foster home easily. It was a modest orange brick house with large front and back yards. It was a completely average home; nothing fancy and nothing worrisome.

I knocked on the door and moments later a tall, thin woman with long red hair opened it.

“Holly, come in. I’m so glad to finally meet you,” Beth exclaimed as she held out her hand. I shook it with the same enthusiasm she had. We had talked so often on the phone I felt like I knew her.

Nicole and Nina each had baby dolls in little strollers and were pushing them around the living room when I walked in and said hello. They both completely ignored me and went on with their play.

I was thrilled. They appeared comfortable in their environment and didn’t seem to be worried when they saw me. Sometimes the sight of a caseworker or GAL causes a foster child to believe something bad will happen. Once I was GAL for a five-year-old boy who always went to get his little suitcase from under his bed every time his caseworker visited because he thought she was going to take him away. With as often as they moved, I was starting to worry Nicole and Nina might do the same thing. Happily, it seemed like they wanted to pretend I wasn’t there and I did not blame them.
In an adjoining room, Beth and I sat down to talk about how they were adjusting. Nicole was still awake most nights and had trouble sleeping. They had seen the doctor earlier in the week. Nina was given antibiotics for pneumonia and Nicole was treated for a skin condition. Beth’s concern and empathy for the girls was evident in every word she spoke. Compassion radiated in her eyes. When a fight broke out between the girls over a play diaper bag for their baby dolls, Beth immediately got up and intervened in a gentle but firm way. She seemed to understand Nicole’s anger and forceful personality and worked with it. Beth was the kind of foster mom I wished every child had.

Darryl walked in from the garage out back and introduced himself. He exuded the same kindness as his wife. We talked for a while as they showed me around the house including where the girls slept. By the time I left I was confident that the girls were going to be just fine. No matter how long they lived with the Warrens, whatever they soaked up would stay with them long after they left.

For the next five months, the caseworker and I worked diligently to monitor the girls’ placement as well as Jason’s compliance with court orders. Nicole and Nina continued to do well but they both struggled with intense temper tantrums, especially Nicole who was easily ‘set off’ by minor issues. The caseworker referred Nicole for therapy while Beth and Darryl continued parenting the girls with a tremendous amount of love and a healthy set of boundaries.

Nicole and Nina were also introduced to a large church family who gave them their first sense of community. Although Nicole and Nina weren’t baptized and not permitted to be without parental consent, they played in church groups and enjoyed fun times with new friends. Through these frequent events, they came to know a couple by the name of Kevin and Debbie. Kevin and Debbie didn’t have any children and weren’t looking to adopt. Kevin and Debbie were good friends with the Warrens and spent quite a bit of time with them. On Sundays after church they often went out as a group for breakfast and developed a little ritual. Each week Debbie asked Nicole if she was sunshine or a raincloud.  In response Nicole would giggle or scowl depending on her mood. Over time, Nicole was more sunshine than raincloud.

In time, Nicole and Nina developed wonderful relationships with them. As a result, Kevin and Debbie offered to be backup babysitters for the girls and had their background checks completed so they could watch them on occasion. Soon thereafter they offered to watch Nicole and Nina every Friday night so Beth and Darryl could go out. It was hard to tell who was happier with the arrangement: the adults or the children.

Five months later, Nicole and Nina were returned to the custody of Jason after expanded visits including overnights and weekends. Jason had maintained his sobriety and kept his home orderly and maintained for the girls. He had sufficient income because he received disability due to his chronic health condition. Their visits with Jason went well and they had grown in their relationships with him. Jason had joined in Nicole’s therapy sessions and got a positive report from the therapist. Beth and Darryl had been open to communication with Jason and he had talked on the phone with the girls often as well as visited them in their foster home several times.

Shortly after Nicole and Nina returned to Jason, I transferred the case to another Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). My book, Invisible Kids, had been released and I was suddenly catapulted into a world of media and marketing and publicity. I was exhausted after spending every spare moment I had writing it and it was beginning to take a toll on my own three kids. I knew it wasn’t fair to them or the kids on my caseload. My oldest child was 12 when the book came out. One night I overheard her tell my husband she thought it would get better when I was done writing the book but it was only getting worse. She was referring to my stress and the late nights. That was all it took for me to realize something had to change. Besides, I was afraid I would drop a ball on a case and I couldn't imagine how I would feel if something happened to a child on my watch.

The hardest thing I ever did as a GAL was quit and see my caseload scattered onto the desks of other GALs. They were all competent, good people but handing over my cases was tough. I loved my work and I loved the CASAs I supervised but I also felt drawn to write my book. I didn’t exactly think through where it might take me and I wasn’t prepared to lose what I loved so much. Still, the loss came and hit hard, leaving me bewildered and not just a little afraid of what was ahead.

Nicole and Nina returned to Jason and initially did well. They were both in preschool about a half mile away which enabled him to attend AA/NA meetings in the morning while they were gone. Nicole remained in therapy through the transition home and Jason continued attending with her. My biggest concern upon their return was his lack of support system.  Who would he call to get one to school if the other was sick? Jason didn’t drive and walked them to school every day. How were they going to get to school in bad weather? Jason was parenting two busy preschoolers who were dealing with yet another adjustment. While the system had ‘shored’ him up as best it could, there would always be a gap.
Within three months, Jason was increasingly exhausted. His emphysema worsened and he had difficulty walking the girls to preschool without getting winded. The girls got lice and he couldn't seem to get rid of it although he apparently tried. He was increasingly frustrated with Nicole and Nina and yelled often. Around that time, the biological mom contacted him and wanted to see the girls. The court had told Jason not to permit contact. The biological mom was ordered to file for visitation prior to contact. She was still on drugs and living with a sex offender. Jason later admitted he allowed her to visit two different times. Although he wasn’t supposed to, this infraction wasn’t enough to remove the girls from his care. Jason’s health continued to spiral downward and the girls’ absences at school began to pile up.

The court terminated their case on the girls, finding that Jason had done all that was requested of him to the best of his ability and it was good enough. There was no imminent risk of harm that necessitated the girls’ removal from him. All of the legal parties including the Children’s Services caseworker and GAL agreed. Still, the case that was no longer my responsibility continued to nag me. I had to let it go. There was nothing I could do.
A full year had passed when I opened my email one morning and received a message from Beth Warren. The subject line was in all caps. It read: NICOLE AND NINA ARE HOME with a long trail on exclamation points.

One Sunday morning after the case had closed in court and Children’s Services and all the professionals were gone, the couple from Darryl and Beth’s church, Kevin and Debbie, woke up with an open day before them and a desire to see the girls. On a whim, they decided to drive down into the city to find them. They had met Jason one time when he was visiting and the Warrens had brought him to church. They knew his name and easily found his address as well. They knocked on his door and he opened it, looking haggard and worn and breathing heavily. The girls heard the voice of their friends from church, squealed with delight, and ran to greet them. Upon seeing the girls’ excitement, Jason invited Kevin and Debbie in to visit. They talked for several hours and exchanged phone numbers. They visited several more times over the next couple of months. On one such visit, Jason pulled Kevin aside while Debbie played with the girls. Jason confided the stress of caring for Nicole and Nina proved to be too much for him. His health was deteriorating and he barely had the energy to get out of bed. He also admitted he had started drinking again. With tears streaming down his face, Jason asked Kevin if he and Debbie would be willing to take custody of the girls. He could hardly take care of himself.  He had no family. There was no one else to help him. He didn't want his girls back in the system but just couldn't take care of them the way they needed and deserved.
Before long, Kevin and Debbie sat in a courtroom alongside of Jason and the girls. Beth and Darryl accompanied them as well. The magistrate formalized the adoption arrangement and with the pound of the gavel, Nicole and Nina were officially adopted by Kevin and Debbie.
Later that night, Debbie and Kevin tucked six-year-old Nicole and five-year-old Nina into their beds. Nicole put her two hands on Debbie’s cheeks and pulled her head close.

“Me and Nina are adopted, right?” she asked.
“Yes, you are adopted now and you are going to live here forever,” Debbie told her.

“I get to stay forever?” she questioned.
“Yes, you and Nina get to stay here forever but you can still visit Daddy Jason too. He loves you just like we love you,” Debbie assured her. Nicole’s brilliant blue eyes bore into Debbie’s as if to search for the truth. Seconds passed before Nicole smiled.

“That’s like sunshine,” she whispered in Debbie’s ear. Then she giggled. Debbie hugged her tight.

"That's right," Debbie said. "It is like sunshine. There will be many sunshine days ahead but some raincloud days too. No matter what, I love you."
That night was the first night Nicole slept soundly for a solid ten hours. When she awoke, she ran into Kevin and Debbie’s bedroom.

"I am sunshine today," she announced.

Today, Nicole is ten and Nina is nine. Nicole loves animals and all things purple. Nina excels in sports, especially soccer and basketball. Neither like math but both love to read. Jason visited often after they were first adopted then gradually dropped off after he moved six hours away. He still calls on occasion. There are sunshine days and raincloud days.

Thank God for sunshine.

*As always, all names have been changed to protect identity.




Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nicole and Nina Part 4

It had been two months since the day I wanted to take Nicole and Nina home with me. By then, five months had passed since the day I met their dad at court. Jason, true to his word, successfully completed a thirty day inpatient drug treatment program and had transitioned to ‘sober housing’, an apartment where he lived with other addicts, and they submitted to daily AA/NA meetings and random drug screens. He had been clean for four months, the longest stretch of sobriety he had had in 32 years.

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.



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

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nicole and Nina Part 2

A week after the first court hearing I arrived for my scheduled foster home visit to meet Nicole*, Nina, and their foster family. Per Ohio law, as the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) representing the girls in court, it was my job to get to know all I could about their situation and make recommendations to the magistrate about what I believed was in their best interest. I consulted frequently with the children’s services caseworker handling the case as well as all other professionals involved. Because Nicole and Nina were in foster care, children’s services held custody of them. The caseworker was required to monitor their placement and services they might need as well as refer the biological parents for reunification services.

I pulled up to a two-story house with white vinyl siding, green shutters, and a rickety old fence surrounding the property. Nicole and Nina had been in this foster home for a little over a month, ever since their mother signed over custody to children’s services. I met their caseworker, Robin, at the curb. We planned to come together after she voiced her concerns about the foster home and wanted to know what I thought. I had known Robin for many years as we had previously worked cases together. Although we hadn’t always agreed in the past, we found a way to work through our differences. I liked her.

I knocked on the door and a petite woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt opened it. She held her hand out and introduced herself as Janet, the foster mom. In turn I introduced myself as the girls’ GAL. She led us inside and we took seats in a comfortable, cozy living room where two adorable little girls were sitting on the floor playing ‘kitchen’ with plastic food. They were carbon copies of each other. They both had jet black curly hair and brilliant blue eyes. Nicole, the three-year-old, was intent and serious with her play and barely looked up when her foster mom told her to say hello. Nina, age two, was all smiles, showing perfect white little teeth lining her gums like soldiers standing at attention.

I was always looking in kids’ mouths on the sly. Were there dark spots on their teeth? Chalky white spots? Parts of teeth missing? A pediatric dentist who was as passionate about kids’ teeth as I am about kids drummed it into me over the years: oral health is as important as medical health. Pay attention and make sure foster kids, an underserved population, are getting the dental care they desperately need. 

I digress.

“I just can’t do anything with her,” Janet dove right in before either Robin or I said a word. “She doesn’t listen. She’s a bad influence on her little sister.” Clearly she was talking about Nicole.

I glanced over at Nicole who was carefully stacking plastic pancakes on a pretend plate. She looked up and caught my eye then went right back to the task in front of her. Um, I think she listens, I wanted to say to Janet. Robin had warned me about this. Janet was constantly criticizing Nicole.
I hated when foster parents talked about kids like they weren’t even there, especially if they talked about behaviors or case plan services or biological parents. Little people come with awfully big ears and not enough common sense or skill to accurately make sense of what was being said. The imagination of a traumatized child can be huge and terrifying. Why feed it?

With that, Nina toddled over and handed me a toy cup. After pretending to take a drink, I asked her if it would be alright if I played ‘kitchen’ with them. She giggled and nodded her head. I slid down onto the floor and crawled over to the make-believe smorgasbord.

I’ve always thought someone should design a line of clothing that was professional and stylish enough to wear to court but comfortable and forgiving enough to wear while playing on the floor. It would need to be easy wash and wear and reasonably priced of course.

I digress AGAIN.

“My name is Holly,” I said as I slowly approached Nicole. “Nina thought it would be OK if I played with you. She made some delicious chocolate milk. Would you like a sip?” I asked her as I handed the toy cup to her. She sized me up for several seconds before she took the cup from my hands.

“I’m making pancakes,” she said as she continued stacking one round, plastic disc onto another. I was happy to hear her speak with such precision. I stole a glance into her mouth to see perfect white little teeth. Yay! 

“I like pancakes,” I told her. “Here, would you like an egg? That might make your breakfast even yummier.” I held up a rubbery white circle with a yellow spot in the middle.

We continued on while I monitored the conversation between the adults in the room. Robin did a good job of keeping the conversation focused on what might be helpful for the girls.

“Nicole has been referred for a therapeutic preschool program where she will go four half days per week and work with a therapist on-site. We talked about this last week. The therapist hasn’t been able to get in touch with you. Did you remember they were going to be calling?” Robin asked.

Robin had previously told me Janet had many reports about Nicole’s behavior and they were all bad. She was ‘manipulative’, a bad influence on Nina, and had terrible meltdowns at nighttime. She also reported Nicole was a ‘bad girl’ because she often had her hand in her pants and was touching herself.
"I told you preschool was not going to work with my schedule,” Janet responded with a touch of irritation. “Like I said before, it is not good for Nina to be with such a bad influence. I think the girls should be separated. I’m willing to keep Nina.”

“Why don’t we continue this discussion another time?” I asked as I stood up. “I had a few questions about the girls’ schedules and how they are sleeping and eating. Other matters we can discuss by phone when you have some privacy.” Deep, deep down I felt my temper starting to flare.

Thirty minutes later Robin and I said our good-byes and left. We walked slowly to our cars with our heads bent low, talking.

“I’m telling you Holly, that foster mom is not right. I don’t feel good about this,” Robin said seriously. Despite my own heavy heart, I had to smile. Usually I was the one raising issues first. Robin beat me to the punch.

“I know,” I sighed. “I’m going to call her when the girls are taking their naps later and I’ll talk to her about my concerns with her discussing things in front of them. I think Nicole is taking everything in and she certainly will sense how they feel about her. I’ll make another visit next week too. In the meantime, make sure the preschool doesn’t give away her spot. Tell them we are working on it.”

“No kidding,” Robin said, “I made that referral three months ago when the girls were still with their mom and Nicole’s name just came up on the waiting list. By the way, I got Jason an emergency assessment for substance abuse treatment and he is, as we speak, getting processed for an in-patient drug treatment program.” I was shocked. The court had ordered the girls’ dad to complete an assessment and follow recommendations but that normally took weeks, even months.

“You are GOOD! How in the heck did you get that done so fast?” I asked her.

“I got my ways,” she said mysteriously and laughed. “All kidding aside, I was able to slide him into an open spot.”

“You rock. You are awesome. I love working with you,” I told her.

“Yeah, well, I’m working toward that bonus you know,” she joked and we both laughed as we parted ways. There were no bonuses for caseworkers in this line of work. None that came in the form of money anyway.

Two weeks later, Nicole and Nina’s lives turned upside down. Their foster mom refused to have Nicole participate in therapeutic preschool and subsequently gave her notice of removal for only Nicole. Robin and I agreed the girls should not be separated. As much as I hate moving foster kids, I knew it was necessary in this instance and I was a little relieved. Children know when they are wanted or not. They know when they are loved or not. Nicole was neither wanted nor loved in that foster home and that would kill her spirit which has already suffered enough damage to last a lifetime.
Around the same time, Robin called to tell me she had received a promotion and would become a supervisor. As happy as I was for her and although it was well-deserved, it meant a new caseworker for the family.


Foster care is a game of chance and the dice were being rolled not once but twice: the girls were up for a new home and a new caseworker.

Next Week Part 3: Nicole and Nina’s Next Home

*All names have been changed to protect identity.