Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Memoir Snippit

I continued my work at the Crisis Pregnancy Center and was quickly promoted to the Director position. The organization was small, only two paid staff members—myself and my assistant. The center was primarily staffed by volunteers from local churches who were trained to administer the free pregnancy tests and talk to clients about the impending crisis in their lives.

Pregnancy termination is such a hot button issue in America with many people falling on both sides of the fence and claiming that their view is undeniably the “right” one. I grew up in a staunchly conservative household and distinctly remember participating in many pro-life rallies and events. I remember the pro-life human chain all the church members gathered to form one Sunday afternoon after church. All fifteen hundred of us lined up on both sides of Western Avenue in Oklahoma City holding hands, forming a human “life chain” on Sanctity of Life Sunday. I stood between my mother and my sister, arms outstretched for the world to see my show of support for the innocent babies murdered by their lecherous mothers. I didn’t know that in only a few short years I would learn that the black and white issue so clearly understood by my family and those around me, actually was not so clearly cut. And I would become the face of pregnancy termination in this country—women, daughters, wives, mothers without recourse, women scared and alone who could not talk about their experiences for fear of judgment. And the condemnation and judgment I so clearly participated in, I would become the recipient of.

When I first began volunteering at the CPC, I didn’t know where I stood on the abortion issue. I knew that I had been taught it was wrong and evil and murder, but I also knew I was guilty of it. I only knew that I wanted to help other girls in my situation. I knew what it felt like to be terrified and alone. I knew what it felt like to be judged, and I wanted to help. So when they told me that I had to show my clients pictures of aborted fetuses in the counseling room, I declined quietly and determined that I would only listen and try to help, and not push any dogma or judgment on the clients I would see. Because I simply offered an ear to the clients, they began coming back more regularly just to talk and the numbers at the center were going up. This is one of the reasons I was offered the director position.

But by that time, it was becoming clearer to me that there was a complete disconnect between the way the center was run on a day to day basis and where Board of Directors, my bosses, wanted it to go philosophically. The Board of Directors was made up of five middle aged, white, extremely conservative and religious men, and one thirty-something, virginal, and never-married woman. Looking back, I wonder how I could have expected them to think any differently than they did—unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock was not even on their radar screens in reality.

So my time as Director was one spent telling the board what they wanted to hear and then carrying on on a day-to-day basis listening and giving comfort to clients, not preaching dogma or heaping judgment upon them. But as you would imagine, the road diverged fairly quickly and I was forced to choose between my job and what I believed deep down in the core of me about the goodness of mankind and our ethical responsibility as helpers in the community.

Many CPC’s around the country began offering Sexually Transmitted Disease testing and the board wanted to begin the testing at our center. There was a lot involved in becoming a “medical facility” so we would officially be licensed to practice medical services and give these tests. And I quickly learned the board’s motivation to begin STD testing. We were to preach abstinence in the counseling room. No other help would be given. Clients would get a test, and positive or negative, we would counsel them to stop having sex. No condoms, no talk about risky behaviors beyond that of premarital sex being out of “God’s plan for marriage”. Immediately I envisioned in my mind a client coming in, testing positive for Herpes, an STD for which there is no cure, and us sending her back out into the world armed with nothing but the mandate to stop having sex. That was completely irresponsible and unethical in my view. And after spending a couple of years battling internally and externally with the board, I resigned my position there.

But I knew I was called to help. Called by God, I wasn’t sure-- but called as a human being to help ease the suffering of those living lives in secret and silent pain around me. And I took a job as a case worker at the Department of Human Services, Child Welfare in Oklahoma County.

I knew very little about what the job would entail when I started it. I knew I would be working with abused children, but I didn’t know in what capacity. I went to the training academy, five weeks spent in the classroom learning about the job, and learned that I would be doing permanency planning for children who had been removed from their homes due to neglect and abuse. I would also be working with their parents in order to rehabilitate them and make the home a safer environment for the children. Permanent placement for the children was the goal, and getting them back into a safe home with their parents was always our first and most ambitious choice.

As a permanency planning worker, I had sixty-four children on my caseload-- spread out all over the state in different placements: foster homes, shelters, group homes, trial periods back in the home with their parents—and I was expected to see each of them face to face and also make contact with both of their parents at least once a month. In between the times I was visiting with the kids and their parents, trying to get everybody safe and sound and on the same page, I was pleading the state’s case in court in front of a judge about why or why not this child should be returned home. It was a very delicate, intricate, convoluted, frustrating, rewarding, and exhausting job. It’s easy to see how children fall through the cracks. I literally had the lives of sixty-four children in my hands. I didn’t have the final say, but I had a major say in determining their families’ futures. It was a load to bear. I remember thinking when I first started, this is just my job. But it’s these kid’s lives. That’s a heavy thing for a twenty-three year old girl to comprehend. But I did my best. I ran all over the state visiting kids, making sure their placements were safe, trying the best I could to listen to their thoughts, their needs, and get them back to where they wanted to be, home-- as long as that would be a safe place for them.

The turnover rate for caseworkers at DHS in Child Welfare is huge. Due in part to pay and in part to the broken system and the unreasonable demands we make on the caseworkers to fix the lives of these broken families. I certainly knew of caseworkers who started their jobs with good intentions, but who burned out quickly and would forge notes on visits that never happened with both parents and children. The caseworkers were tired. And at the end of the day, many of them were tired of being on call literally twenty-four hours a day just in case a kid “blew a placement” because of behavior, and we had to go pick him or her up and find a new place to stay in the middle of the night. It was a very hard job, and that is an understatement. It is actually an insurmountable job and something needs to be done very quickly about the set up and operation of this country’s child welfare system. We lose children every day to neglect and abuse, not only because of the crimes committed by parents, but because of the exhaustion and unreasonable expectations placed on Child Welfare caseworkers. They truly are heroes to children on their caseloads. They are friends, they are confidants, they are stand-in parents, and sometimes, when they push through the exhaustion, they are saviors to abused and neglected children. They should be better compensated for it.

During my time at DHS, I had a group of four siblings on my caseload—two sisters and two brothers—the Smith kids. They had been in state custody for four years when I received them on my caseload. Mom was a crack user who pimped out her two daughters, fourteen and twelve at the time, for money to buy drugs. The boys, thirteen and nine, were left to their own devices to wander the streets, which is where OKCPD found them and took them into custody. In the account from the kids, they seemed to have once had a fairly normal life. Mom and dad were married and life was good until mom started using drugs. At that point, dad split and moved out of state, leaving mom with the kids. And mom’s habit was too big to control, and that’s when the state stepped in.

The Smith kids were doozies, don’t get me wrong. They blew through placements like no one had ever seen. Four kids in four separate homes (because no one could handle all of them together) and each of them was pretty much reeking havoc everywhere they went. And I understood. They were pissed off, and I would have been too, given the situation. Life is grand, then all the sudden the world flips upside down and now we have to fend for ourselves.

I spent a lot of time with those four kids. I had sixty other children on my caseload, but by far, the Smith’s took the bulk of my time. The oldest girl, almost eighteen at the time and mildly mentally retarded, became pregnant and had a child while in DHS custody. So I spent much of my time working with her trying to figure out what she wanted to do when she turned eighteen. She didn’t feel equipped to take care of herself in the world, so she decided on a group home where the transition would be eased from being in state custody to being on her own. She also relinquished the rights to her son and placed him for adoption with his aunt, someone who had a very good relationship with her as well—so she would still be an active part of her son’s life. I was proud of her for making that very mature and adult decision, even though in her mind, her son was the only person who had ever truly loved her.

I never found out what eventually happened to the other three children, as I left DHS after one year because I did not want to become one of those burned out caseworkers. I wanted to do the best I could for those kids, and then let someone else with renewed energy take over. I know when I left, we were in the process of once again contacting their father to see if there was any way he would let the kids come live with him out of state, even though our previous attempts at this request had been unsuccessful. We were making some progress at the time of my departure and I truly hope it worked out, for their sakes.

To this day, in my classroom I have a little green furry frog that the youngest boy gave me at Christmas. Every year all the kids in custody got to go to the big DHS Christmas store and pick out toys donated by businesses in the community. He had picked out this green frog and gave it to me at one of our last visits. He told me I was the best caseworker he ever had and that no one else ever listened to him. And then I told him I was leaving.

Total heartbreak. I don’t even want to know what kind of trauma I probably perpetuated in that little guy’s life. Just another reason our caseworkers need to be better compensated. When they leave, to the kids on their caseloads, they’re just one more person who left them.

But my leaving wasn’t all a bad thing. I was able to tell all my kiddos that Miss Ashly had met someone and was in looove. I was moving out of state and it was a happy thing, and even though we wouldn’t see much of each other, good things were happening in all our lives. And things were looking up.

And they were.


tomorrowsmemoriesphotography said...

oh my gosh. wow.
loved reading this.
thanks for sharing your life girl!
and thanks for being REAL!

Shelley said...

Great Blog, I have often wondered where you went after are an amazing young woman.