Sabio’s Story, Part 1
Stories from the Field
In February 2014 Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was finally caught in Mazatlán by Los Federales from both Mexico and the United States. “El Chapo” is the infamous Mexican drug lord who had eluded continuous pursuit for 13 years and had escaped half a dozen times using tunnels. If you think opioid sales took a hit after his arrest, think again. Network after network just dumped supply into the market ahead of chains of search warrants being delivered. Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, didn’t matter. The Midwest was awash in heroin and fentanyl and these strange little home-pressed pills containing whatever was left over. By that summer, we were feeling the effects of his disrupted supply chain in Child Protective Services in Indiana.
Each of the 40 Assessors in Marion County, Indiana received about 40 child abuse / neglect reports per month that summer. Over 1,500 reports flooded into what was supposed to be the light season. Most of these reports were drug reports, mostly heroin and other hard drugs, legal and illegal, known to be in the El Chapo industry. Heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, fentanyl, and other opioids came flooding into the state. The state already had a prescription pill problem, and it was being amplified by the influx of products and the blooming organizational skills of gangs in the area. This was the beginning of what they eventually called “the opioid crisis.”
In Indianapolis I spent my days walking around crying openly in the office. I was in chronic pain from an injury sustained while removing three infants alone a few months before. I was also traumatized by what I was seeing in the field, and just trying to survive my first year. People walked around me with those shifty eyes, half condolence, half slinking away in fear. My supervisor quit and my new supervisor was trying to do things by-the-book. I had just spent 7 months realizing the book needed to be burned, salted, and buried in a lock box at the deep end of the ocean.
This is when I got the report about Sabio. Sabio still haunts me to this day, and he also haunts that supervisor, as well he should. We failed that kid grossly. We weren’t the first from our system to do so. In Sabio’s story I understood for the first time how urgent attachment and connection are, and what happens when these human behaviors and needs are disrupted and severed by a system trying to fit people into tracks and timelines, without mindfully considering their needs. I learned that love would find a way, even if it must twist itself grotesquely between the cracks and crevices in the foundations of mandated Child Welfare systems. I learned that kind of love could be deadly.
The call came in from a husky-voiced old drag queen with a grudge. He was loud, he was clearly intoxicated, and he was very angry. He railed into the phone so loud that I had to hold the phone about 6 inches away from my ear. There were no lulls where I could ask questions, just buck-shot about how evil and clever a 14-year-old and his mother were, and how it would take a very careful and wily case manager to bring them in. The 14-year-old was a criminal genius, of course. In between these pleas were semi-facts about them stealing his costumes, or pissing off his landlord, or taking off with his “unnamed” valuables. Because I was so absorbed in the other 50+ reports on my dashboard, I let him drone on, half-listening, figuring this was another fight-case or a custody-case. We got these all the time, where people tried to work out conflict with each other through case managers, using children as leverage.
Protocol suggested that we should read up on previous reports in our system before initiating an Assessment (called Investigation in some states). This was just to get a feel for what was going on at the scene, how these folks interacted with CPS professionals, and to double check for any safety threats to ourselves. I did this early on in my tenure, but I gave up this practice after about 3 months because the reports were toxic and contagious. Written with lots of blame and carrying the load of secondary trauma of these previous case managers, reading these reports could cause one to decide if the report was valid before appearing on the scene. I could not allow this influence—I wanted to know from the people themselves what was going on and what had happened, and showing up without previously conceived judgments was, I found, a necessary precondition for fairness and impartiality.
The family lived in a little informal boarding house near one of the 8 corners the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has decreed among the most dangerous in the county. In these areas of the city life is different from the normal, regulated lives of most Americans. Police only visited when they had to. No one who knew what these neighborhoods were ever ventured voluntarily inside them. They stank of piss, tobacco, liquor, manufacturing violations, and houses upon houses of unsafe living conditions. People lived with bedbugs up to the crowns of their heads, along with roaches, rats, and other forms of pestilence. Walking around outside was an invitation to exploitation and harm. In these areas, the poverty of Dickensian novels has not changed anything but its wardrobe in over 100 years. The scene has added villains who are far more violent and far less redeeming than anything in a Dickens novel, though.
The first person in the family I met was the maternal grandmother. She was in the hospital, and I met her there in her room. She was in a hospital gown thrown on over her clothing, and her face was deeply etched with lines from her hard life. She had few teeth, and her lips rubbed together when she was thinking, further distorting her face. She thought a lot during this, our only conversation. She complained about everything from city services to police, to the hospital services she was now engaged in receiving. She was evasive in the way people who have no trust in systems generally are.
She had told me that the boy, Sabio, had been removed from her daughter when he was four years old, along with his two baby siblings at that time. He had been placed with a paternal grandfather who assumed guardianship of him alone, while his siblings went to other relatives. The grandfather was pretty old and kept to himself. Sabio had spent 8 years with this grandfather, and then that grandfather had died. He hadn’t seen his mother’s side of the family or his siblings since that case had closed.
By that time Sabio was 12, and he was a mixed-race male in the poorest communities in Indianapolis. Taking him in was a different calculus than taking in a 4-year-old and came with heightened risks. No one wanted him, so his mother, whose parental rights had been terminated long ago, swooped in to snatch him up. She was still in active addiction. He had been living with her on the streets for two years, occasionally holing up with this grandmother as they were currently doing. She gave me the address of their home and told me to stop by.
The house, being a boarding house, was open when I arrived. I knocked on the cracked door, and when no one answered, I peeked my head in and asked if anyone was home. A Black woman with a large towel on her head pointed to the door directly opposite from the kitchen when I asked for the mother. She cocked her lips and rolled her eyes as if she knew what a hot mess this already was and turned away. I gave my best Monday knock, the one that said this is important business and someone competent is at the door. (Very different from the faint Friday-knock that said, “Please don’t be home, please don’t be home, please don’t be home.”) The door cracked on the face of a petite woman in a ponytail with an enormous pregnant belly. I asked for the mom, and she opened the door wider to allow me in.
This mom was in her 30s, but she looked about 25. She had scrubbed skin and clean clothes. Her hair was still wet from a shower. She looked askance at me, a wary glean in her eyes. I started asking basic questions and she started lying right away. I asked her name, her address, the whereabouts of her son, if she had everything she needed. She even misspelled her own name. She lied about everything but her needs. This she answered truthfully. She needed a pack and play for the baby that would soon come, and some access to things like SNAP. Baby clothes, maternity clothes, diapers, etc. I told her I would do the best I could to connect her with the right services.
As we turned the conversation to Sabio, she was demonstrably lying. Her mother, Sabio’s grandmother, had told me that Sabio had been coach-surfing with his mom for the last two years. Mom told me she hadn’t seen Sabio since he was 10. I asked about Sabio’s school and caught her in this lie when she knew enough about it to grouse about the principal and the guidance counselor over a fight they’d had. She denied having had him for two years, and she denied having a substance use problem (a key allegation of the report).
Nevertheless, over the 45 minutes we talked, I watched her experience the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. She grew cold and put on a sweater. She grabbed a blanket to add to it. Shortly after, she was shivering and sweating and covered in goosebumps. Her answers grew short and curt, no longer full of the grandiose details that made other people so evil. By the end of the conversation, she was barely speaking and suddenly announced she had a doctor’s appointment she’d forgotten all about. I was shuffled out the door in quick order without a drug screen. “Next time,” she said as I asked her at the door. A slam and a click of the lock and it was all over. But where was Sabio?
It was time to consult that record. In that record I found that the basics of what maternal Grandma had told me where true. The children had been taken and doled out across a wide family group present in the city. Most of this family group lived in the same neighborhoods, all of them located around one of these 8 corners identified by IMPD. What had precipitated this original case, though, was the father of this boy going down in a hail of bullets on one of these street corners.
Sabio’s father was a pretty high-ranking gang member in his neighborhood and across the city. He had a record of dozens of arrests with petty amounts of drugs, but not enough to push it into big-time dealing and distribution charges. He was, according to witnesses, dealing and distributing all over Indianapolis in and around the late 1990s and early 2000s. This career had come to a violent end when, chased by dozens of IMPD officers following in hot pursuit, he’d pulled out his gat in a final moment of panic and fired in a circle from the middle of one of those street corners, killing several people and wounding many more. He’d survived being shot himself and his sentence had been well over 300 consecutive years. I guess the court thought they were sentencing Methuselah.
Sabio’s mother at that time was a 20-year-old who had begun having babies with this gang member when she was 16 and kept having one every year or so until they had three and this incident happened. She had been part of a stable of women he kept. The Child Welfare system that had removed these children was a completely different system than the one I was working in. That child welfare system had taken a hardline approach in collaboration with police. They saw the serious criminal acts of the father as somehow reflective of the mother. They saw her addiction at that time as a choice she made, never stopping for a minute to consider that a 16-year-old who is allowed to take up with an adult gang-member, who then gets her addicted to drugs as a means to control her and traffic her, isn’t making any choices. She can’t. She can’t even consent to half of what she’s experienced. The result was to open up another hole in her heart that ensured she would never get clean, would never function, and which would later come back to haunt us all.
Sabio was the eldest of these siblings. Siblings did not stop coming even after his mother lost her first three and his father was incarcerated. She kept having babies every couple of years and losing them to the system, which kept very close track of her whenever her name came up. She’d lost a few more children in the ensuing years and was pregnant with another as I caught her most recent case. Seven reports about Sabio had been filed in the two years this fragile teen had been with his mother, and all of them had been closed for this cause: “Unable to locate.”
My former colleagues must not have been trying, because I found Sabio on my next unannounced visit to the address. He was there alone with his cousin. He’d answered the door laughing at a joke his cousin had just told, but his face dropped the minute he saw my identification badge hanging from my neck. Every muscle in his body suddenly tensed, and I could see him calculating for escape routes from the start. I was so very grateful to have a 6 feet tall brunette trainee walking up behind me. She checked him, and quick, with just her size.
Sabio was a beautiful boy with long, dark hair that hung in loose curls. He had tawny skin that was smooth as polished terracotta. He looked like a model in his white tank top, jeans, and sneakers, so much so that I wondered if he even knew he could just go to New York City and likely find success. I knew what he’d find here, in Indy, and I felt some instinct rising in me to shout “RUN” to him, but pushed it away.
Sabio was clearly a boy caught between two worlds. The first world he remembered was the cloistered isolation of foster care and then the fiercely protective but unconnected home of his grandfather. In both he had to be so small to escape notice and further trauma. He talked like a child raised by grandparents, which shares certain characteristics with institutionalization, including the inability to lie very well.
The second world was this world, characterized by his functional maternal grandmother with alcohol addiction issues and non-functioning mother with substance use disorder. The promise of it lay in this unstable boarding house and no future. But this world met his needs and he was able to be what he thought he was there. He got a chance to be large. I could see all of this on him as I asked him questions and he struggled to respond. I could hear it in the details of what he told me. He was just a bundle of nerves and fear.
I was trying to bring in a third world he didn’t want. This world would provide protection from the immediate consequences of homelessness and lack of educational opportunity, as well as lack of health care, routine, the meeting of his immediate needs, and who knows what all else he had experienced on the run with his mother. He was cagey, shifting those large brown eyes back and forth in constant thought, examining every detail to see if it was exploitable, hearing every word as a warning instead of an invitation. This world could not guarantee protection or stability, as Sabio well knew already from his previous experience. And it could not touch this thread of longing that so clearly permeated his soul, this longing to be with his mother, no matter the circumstances, no matter what he had to endure to have it.
At one point I silently cued the trainee to step outside and call the police for a removal. There was no way I was going to let this kid out of my sight, and I knew that if we stepped out the door together, without the coercive power of police present, he would book the minute he was outside. Even as every hair on his arms had stood out as he recognized CPS at the door, every hair on my arm was now raised, giving rise to my adoption of a careful, lengthy interview as we waited for the police to arrive. Something was very wrong here, and it was something we weren’t talking about, though what we were talking about was bad enough. It was later, at the office, that I started seeing the real truth of what a parent longing for their child would be willing to do to that child to keep him close.
Part 2 coming with our next installment of Dead Babies Everywhere: Stories from the Field. Subscribe so you won’t miss it!