Saturday, October 8, 2011


We are preparing for an upcoming hearing in dependency court, followed by a hearing in juvenile court, and it's messy and it has me in a certain frame of mind. Lately I think a lot about morality. In my Catholic grammar school, the nuns were always trying to impress upon us that none of us is innocent and not one of us is better than any other. They were a little extreme, but the basic idea stuck with me: who are you to lord it over another person?

One of the things that sickens me about the mess (juvenile court, dependency court, warring social workers, etc) into which we have descended this year is that over and over, certain adults in authority make decisions that suggest they are only willing to help T and give him the benefit of the doubt if he is "good." As if people (children) are ever "good" or "bad". Not surprisingly, T picks up very quickly on people's assumptions and expectations of him. So as soon as they withhold approval and start waving the carrot and the stick, he starts to make unsound decisions. He doesn't like to dance like a puppet on strings. Like other abused kids, he knows on a cellular level that adults with power might misuse that power. The more they make overt demands of him, the more he recedes and throw up a smokescreen of misleading behavior. Given what he's seen in his life, that's just a clever defense strategy. Likewise, he was taught over and over again that misbehavior results in abandonment. So the more he senses that he's being monitored and judged, the more anxious and unruly he becomes. The more he is safe and allowed reasonable autonomy, the more his innate capacity for good judgement reveals itself.

Like all of us, T is neither good nor bad. He is human. So here's my bottom line right now: he does not need to be well-behaved in order to deserve treatment, or compassion, or a home, or a fair shake in court. Whatever new adult has just arrived on the scene - a new judge, a new attorney, a new teacher - is not going to suddenly "figure him out". We don't need more opinions, supervision or interference. He does not need to have a spotless record of good grades and good behavior in order for the judge to treat him with due process. He does not need to be unfailingly compliant in order to avoid being bounced around by his social worker. He does not need to get along with every adult who happens into his life and has an opinion.

We have what we need: a great therapist who has stuck by him and with whom he has built a relationship over time; an adoption worker whom we all trust, and a few family friends who have done big favors when we've really needed help. Notably, the reason all of those supports work well for this family has to do with meaningful personal connections that were allowed to develop slowly and naturally. Lately, we have a new cast of characters introduced by this extraordinary nexus of bureaucracies - juvenile court, dependency court, DCFS - who are frankly pointing in all different directions, arguing with each other, and driving us mad.

The combination of institutional racism and prejudices about kids who are in foster care combine to create harsh consequences that are out of proportion to the behavior in question. As parents, it is demeaning to be forced to work with so many adults who do not really know T but who have a great deal of power in his life, starting with his caseworker and extending to the court system. The fact that some of them are blatantly racist and seem utterly paranoid in the presence of a tall African American teenager is just sickening.

We talk to T a lot about making smart choices, about not putting yourself in the way of trouble, and about accountability for your mistakes. We also talk about what it means when there is a system ready and perhaps eager to lock you up, and the extra burden of that, and what steps one can take to navigate that peril. But as T's attorney said to me recently, sometimes you just want to say "Back off, we've got this covered." Things like speaking out of turn in class, arguing with other kids, failing to do his homework, having poor taste in friends, being irritable and obnoxious - those are his own business. He'll work that out in time. I don't need a dozen grown-ups lording it over him, threatening and cajoling and over-sharing their pseudo-clinical opinions. This is why it doesn't work for a bureaucracy to raise a child.

Let's give him the opportunity to grow up (and mess up, and figure it out) without a million adults interfering all the time.


SocialWrkr24/7 said...

Just the other day I was talking to one of my staff (I supervise 5 caseworkers) and she said "If *insert teen's name* keeps doing well in her group home, I'm going to take her out for a really nice dinner at Christmastime!" I gently reminded her that this teen has lost 2 mothers to cancer, and was abandoned by her adoptive family into foster care. I told her not to wait until she "deserved" a treat - but to give her a treat in order to show her she is worth it no matter her behavior. Its a hard lesson to learn when society only wants us to reward good behavior - but our kids are exceptions to most rules!

Lulu McCabe said...

Exactly!!! Also, I always want to say to you: I apologize that my frustration with the broken child welfare bureaucracy in our own city and our problems with T's caseworker mean that I am often reporting such a negative experience with DCFS. There are so many wonderful social workers who are a healing, loving presence in the lives of kids who may not have anyone else who knows them as well. Our first adoption worker was one of those. Your team is lucky to have you, and I wish you much luck and extend many thanks for what you do.

Claudia said...

So well said!

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