Monday, August 24, 2015

Guilt

He wasn't with us for long: a foster child, a troubled teen, a child who can't read or write, a future statistic of poverty and social exclusion.
I'm required by law to keep his identity secret, but his story belongs to children whose names begin with every letter of the alphabet. Today I'll call him J.

The mother is a drug addict.
The step-father is a drug addict.
The father is a drug addict.
The grandmother is a drug addict.
(More than 10% of Vermont's population are drug addicts: the number has doubled in the past ten years. The most common route into drug abuse begins with pain meds prescribed by one's doctors and ends with heroin. It is cheaper to buy heroin in this state than marijuana).

The mother was and is and might always be abused by the step father.
(Among other things J's stepfather has: burnt down J's mother's house; destroyed everything the family owned; broken restraining orders which should have kept him away from the family as they moved from motel to motel; abused J.)
J's mother runs away. Goes back. Runs away. Goes back.
She always goes back.
We cannot be surprised that she, in turn, abuses her children (the oldest is old enough to leave home, the youngest is a baby).
Social workers removed J from his mother's home several years ago. They sent him to live with his father.
The father is a violent man.
(Among other things J's father has: smashed everything in J's room; smashed everything J thought was precious; smashed J's teeth so that they are still broken in his mouth.)
Social workers removed J from his father's house over a year ago. They sent him to live with his grandmother.
J does not speak of the abuse he suffered at his grandmother's hands but, after the court hearing, she became the only family member he is not allowed to see in the future.
J is now one of 1326 children who are in the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Vermont.
That is 0.2% of the state's population. Each day, DCF try to find 60 new foster placements.

The anger inside me is not for J's family. The mother is a victim of domestic violence and the actions of each of the family members suggest they also had dysfunctional childhoods which have damaged them almost beyond repair. (I include 'almost' in that sentence for my own sanity: because if there is no hope of repair, then what can we offer to families like these?) Blaming them is as futile as picking the scab off a wound. In all likelihood, J will one day treat his children in the same way and what will happen then for the love I have for him now?

And the anger I feel tonight is not directed at the social worker responsible for J's case, even though he has given us a long litany of broken promises and guilt trips, even though he told us J would only stay with us for an emergency 3 day stay but had still failed to arrange a new placement for the boy 3 weeks later. The social worker knew today was the very latest, the absolute latest, the ultimate latest we could host the boy, but this afternoon he stood in front of J and said it was a shame I no longer wanted him in our home.

The anger I feel tonight is not even directed at the woman with the dark flowing hair and the expensive bike who chatted to me in the park afterwards. She listened, head slightly cocked to one side because she was an 'artist', while I said I was sad because I'd needed to end my foster son's placement. She told me about two of the women at her school who fostered and who would never send a foster child to another home: even if their oldest daughter was about to start high school the next day and the weeks ahead were dominated with school meetings; even if the foster son's special school was an hour's drive from their home; even if their husband worked away from home and their desks were covered in drafts of a novel they hoped to complete. These women, she told me, were angels.
'Have you ever fostered?' I asked.
'I've thought about it a lot,' she said, 'and I think I would be very good about it but I had a cancer scare last year and I'm an artist.'
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'It turned out to be nothing,' she said, raising one exquisitely plucked eyebrow, 'but my son is sensitive.'
Then she shrugged and tossed her beautiful dark hair and got onto her beautiful bike and cycled away, no doubt condemning me for the damage I have done to J by ending his time with us.

No, I'm not angry with any of them tonight, but I am angry.
I am angry with the lack of support given to foster families, the shortfalls in funding which deny foster children the therapeutic help and support they so badly need, the deficiencies in planning and the excessive workloads placed upon social workers.  
I am angry because there is a direct correlation between children who are abused and neglected and the homeless and prison populations of this country; and I am angry with the inevitability of it all. If a child is abused and frightened, stripped of self-esteem and hope, denied security and safety, then we cannot be surprised when they fail to grow into well functioning members of society.
I am angry because the State budgets $50,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison, and only $30,000 a year to support a child in DCF state custody. An additional $20,000 might provide J with mentoring and counselling and - Goddammit - some chance at having a bit of childhood before he becomes another alphabet letter among the prison population.
And I am angry because J has done nothing wrong. He has done nothing to deserve the life he is living; nothing to warrant the neglect and abuse and violence he has both suffered and witnessed; nothing to earn him a position among the ranks of the unlucky. His story is no different from so many others and no child deserves that.

I don't write to assuage my guilt - I will do that alone - but I write to share the anger which tastes like sulphur on my tongue.

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