Suggested Soundtrack: Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri
The girl was thin. Like I couldn’t believe she’d had a baby just 10 days before. I guess some women have those genes. She wore a red kerchief over her natural hair and was clean and sober. She was paying close attention to everything I said. She was answering like a 10 year old child who is unaccustomed to lying. She had this soft voice and lively eyes.
This is a serious story of how one mandated Child Welfare agency not only failed this young woman, but it doubled down and abused her, took her babies forever, and ruined her life. Why? Because she was poor. Because she had been a foster kid herself and had been conditioned. Because at age 22 she didn’t have the knowledge or skills to prepare her for a cunning system that felt nothing for her, that judged her, that inflicted monumental trauma on her time and time again. She was just one earnest heart trying to figure it out. The system doesn’t care for hearts. It doesn’t think in those terms.
Jayla’s documented story starts like this: She’s 14, her mom is addicted to crack cocaine, and her existence is one of extreme deprivation—deprived of safety, food, medical care, education at times, knowledge, stability, cleanliness, connection, love… You name it; Jayla had been deprived of it. Then the State of Indiana came in. It resolved some of these problems by putting her in a foster home, one of the many that populated poor neighborhoods off Keystone Avenue, where Marion County Department of Child Services was headquartered.
Some of these foster homes are something else. Amongst blocks and blocks of run-down box-houses you’ll occasionally see a BMW or a Lexus parked outside. It’s 50/50 if the resident is a drug dealer or a foster parent, but those are generally the two ways one can find themselves living in that kind of poverty with that kind of car. I knew one foster parent who fit this description who locked up the food and literally intermittently starved a youth I had placed there. I took her out immediately upon learning of it, of course. The system did nothing with the hotline complaint I filed—foster beds are too precious to be investigating for stuff like this.
Jalya was in care from age 14 until just before she turned 18. By that time, she’d had a baby with one of the resident gangsters in her foster home’s neighborhood. When she was 16, she took this newborn little baby to see the baby’s father for the first time. She just wanted to share her beautiful baby with him. She made the mistake of trusting him and of visiting him in the crack house where he conducted his business. This is a mistake that any 16-year-old foster child who is a new mother might make. It’s understandable. But it can also have consequences, which it did in Jayla’s case.
When she arrived with the baby, the father took her and placed her and the baby in a room with two of his female gang members. They beat Jayla for two days and denied her baby food or diapers. Then they let her go. It was a warning, to be sure. Don’t be thinking you can say this gangster is the father of your baby, bitch. And don’t you dare file child support.
When she got out, she called the police, as any sane person would. This was another critical mistake on her part. She trusted another system. This system called CPS on her and CPS blamed her for the entire incident. They took her baby and placed her with a distant relative, ensuring that bonding could not take place with Jayla.
But Jayla was resilient. She was earnest. She was transparent. If you could encounter Jayla and not want to help her, then I say your heart is far too damaged to work in this field. If you are a case manager who recognizes having worked on one of her cases based on my telling of her story, or a story like it, quit today. You’re not doing anyone any good. You’re the problem.
By the time I encountered Jayla, she had two daughters and a brand-new son. Her daughters, Kaila and Leila, were 6 and 3. Her newborn, Prince, had been the source of this most recent call. She had, in the ensuing years, regained custody of Kaila and had another case with Kaila and Leila when Leila was born.
That case had been opened for homelessness, which is filed under this huge catch-all category called Environmental Health / Life Endangering (EH/LE). That case had been closed 18 months later, just three weeks before I caught this report, and guess what. Jayla was still homeless. They closed a case for homelessness—which should never have been a case to begin with unless the parent was living outside in winter—without resolving Jayla’s homelessness. I could not believe it. Jayla was eight months pregnant when they closed her case.
I had felt sick when I read the report. I was now able to see with ease where the system had contributed to the problems people found themselves in. I could see how hiding case managers who didn’t really want to do this work but were afraid to leave, or couldn’t find employment elsewhere, were just flinging actions on cases like monkeys slinging shit. No organized, transparent, honest fucking interventions. And not just with Child Welfare professionals, either. I could see it in professionals in many fields now. People with shifty eyes trying to suggest something without saying it, without trying.
That’s how this report was, which was called in by medical personnel in the hospital. Jayla has gone in to give birth and needed a cesarean section. She was in the hospital for 4 days. As I read the report, I could literally envision what happened. Jayla had bonded with someone in the hospital and the report was filled with little details that showed the intimacy between Jayla and this person. And then, at the very end of the report, the person described the baby’s daddy walking in, just breezing in thick with the smell of weed. I could see it. I could smell it. And that’s what led to the report. It was the only allegation—daddy smelled like weed. But the case was with Jayla.
Jesus Christ, this young woman could not catch a break!
Let me just say quite loudly for once and for all, to CPS, to our elected politicians, to the faithful, to anyone who might be leveraging this particular cog in this damaging system: STOP OPENING CASES OVER MARIJUANA USE! Just stop it. You are fucking up these families for nothing. Marijuana is in transition as a legal substance—it’s legal in over half the country (which creates its own Due Process issues, in case any lawyers are paying attention). It has no appreciable effect on a person’s ability to parent or give proper care, not even to infants. Do yourself a favor and do America’s poor families a favor. Create the policy today, call your legislature, do whatever you gotta do, but stand on this ground. You can cut out 20% of the deadweight right here. It’s a bias-point that is blinding you.
Anyway…With Jayla, I tried. I will always be proud of my willingness to buck the system and slow-walk this case where everyone in my office but me was gunning for this young lady. I took 8 weeks to close this case, on purpose, even though it screwed my stats, because I wanted to give Jayla something she didn’t get with Kaila and Leila—newborn bonding time. I had hoped that it might mitigate the fact that my supervisor was bringing this case regardless of what I said or how hard I fought her. She saw the fact that Jayla didn’t have a lease with a newborn as neglect. She was mistaking poverty and neglect. And she was unwilling to hear how simple it could have been to fix all this.
Jayla couldn’t get a lease because she owed $800 on an eviction. That’s it. She could never scrape up the money to pay this eviction bill off, so she tried to fix it by couch-surfing with her kids. She’d find a place and the person would turn out to be untrustworthy or exploitative, so she’d be off to find another one. Not one time did her kids ever spend a night outside of a home, a home she secured.
The woman had resiliency. We often see this with youth who’ve been in foster care, but who start out without resources, so leveraging that resiliency is much more difficult than for teens with well-constructed connections and large extended families. This is what she could make of all her efforts without the proper assistance and support, navigating a host of programs that are designed to help the poor, but never want to hand out the one thing that’s needed most: money.
The system, mind you, was willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have these cases with her. They were willing to pay the salaries of educated professionals and for treatment services that didn’t even touch the underlying need. They were willing to pay for transportation and for people to oversee visitation. But they weren’t willing to pony up $800 fucking dollars to resolve the issue.
The case manager on the case that had just closed knew the problem was a mere $800 and maybe 3 months of case management for stabilization, but could do nothing. That case manager had a hard-liner supervisor who lacked empathy and saw the lot of parents CPS made findings on as responsible for their own situations. This kind of attitude can only come from someone who has never been truly poor, but has been warped by a system in dire need of a heart.
I visited Jayla through three different homes over 8 weeks. She seemed to thrive in each, and in each showed affection for her children and concern for their well-being. She knew what babies needed and provided that for her younger children. She also knew what school-age children needed and provided that to Kaila. The family seemed solid, despite their unstable living conditions.
The last home I visited in was a cousin’s apartment, which she told me she had sublet from him. She provided a letter from the cousin, which included a phone number and which I confirmed. The apartment had no power. It was in an apartment complex notorious for extreme poverty just three blocks from DCS headquarters and whether the power was off due to an unpaid bill or the negligence of property managers was a question.
Jayla made her way around this by getting one of those long, orange extension cords like you see in workshops or construction. The load it can carry is high because it’s designed for this kind of work. She had brought in power from a friend’s apartment a few doors down. She had plugged in a power strip and had the small refrigerator, room heater, and television hooked up to it, along with a tall lamp. It was certainly not ideal, but it was safe. She and her children were safe inside with all they needed. It was an arrangement that was supposed to last 60 days, long enough for me to close this CPS report out.
My supervisor had other plans. She heard the extension cord detail as dangerous. She thought it could be a fire hazard or could malfunction, leaving the children freezing in winter. It was on this point that she ordered me to remove the children and write up the report. She left with these words: “My sure that extension cord makes an appearance.”
When I arrived at the apartment with a police officer in tow, Jayla’s eyes told me she knew what was up. They sank to the bottom of her heart. She was feeding Prince on her lap. I sank to my knees beside her and told her honestly that I did not want to do this, that I thought she was a good mom, and that we would try to figure this out together. With tears in her eyes, she asked if she could finish feeding Prince. I did not know at that time that this would be the last time she would be able to feed her beautiful baby boy, whom she so clearly loved so much. I said, “Sure, Jayla.”
Afterwards we packed up her children and some clothes for them, along with important things that might help them connect with their mother while they were separated. It was a perfect execution of what I’d learned in training, but it was not nearly enough to save Jayla from what was coming.
I also wrote up a beautiful court report telling the whole story, as I have done here. I filled it with my empathy for this young mom. The judge, who was known as somewhat of a firebrand, took the same hardline approach everyone else at DCS had taken. Often in this field people just look at the raw statistics and draw conclusions. My leadership and the judge saw a third case and did not question the validity of earlier findings. This system preached about being “strengths-based,” but it couldn’t practice it because it didn’t have a heart.
At the Child and Family Team Meeting with the permanency case manager after the court hearing, I could see already how this would go. It was a brand-new case manager, just shaking with readiness to please her supervisor. Her supervisor was another one who chewed up hearts for breakfast. I tried to convince Jayla to leverage her GED to go to college. I told her about financial aid. I knew one financial aid check could get her clear and stabilized. She didn’t even have to finish a semester if she didn’t want to. The new case manager looked at me like I was crazy. She pushed my idea away and recommended parenting classes. Again.
I checked back in on Jayla right before I left the field three years later. Her permanency case manager had had Jayla’s parent rights terminated right at 18 months. Kaila and Leila went to relatives through adoption. Little Prince was adopted by his foster family and would never see his family of origin during his childhood again. Jayla was no where to be found, and the case had been closed.
Welcome to another story from Child Welfare in America.