If you are new to Dave in the Shack let me tell you how it came to be. I was the director of Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley, a social service agency that serves troubled, abused, neglected and otherwise needy kids and their families. It was hard work. I realized at one point that I had to communicate what my organization did, what we valued, and why we mattered much better to everyone involved: my staff, my board of directors, our foster parents, donors, funders, and the community we served. When we were a little organization I used to brag that we were “too small for rumor.” You could put everyone in a room and tell them the same thing all at once. We grew. It got complicated.
When I realized how easy it was to share information by e mail I began sending out a weekly communiqué to a limited list in house. Then we found Constant Contact and compiled an even bigger list. At some point in 2007 I named it the Friday Update. Then we created a YSB Face Book page and readership grew even larger. When I retired in 2012 I hadn’t missed a Friday.
After retirement I managed to keep some of those readers when the Friday Update transitioned to Dave in the Shack. I have since added new ones. I now have the luxury of writing about absolutely anything, and I do. If you’re reading this thank you. I value your reads, likes, and comments. As a conventionally unpublished author you are my audience. You continue to make this effort worth doing for me.
During this time between Christmas and the New Year I dove into a project I’ve put off for some time, rereading those old YSB posts. It’s five years worth, over 250 posts. I think I wasn’t ready to do it till now. I knew I would find painful reminders of the kind of problems we encountered helping families, but I also was afraid I would discover how much I missed it. My fear came true. I remember the cases, the people, even the particular days so vividly. I was so close to real life doing that work, so close to danger and joy, risk and reward, success and failure. Since then things have evened out some here in the shack. I wouldn’t go back, but it has been fun to visit.
I believe there may be some value in compiling the best of those stories to share with young social workers who are contemplating or have just entered the work of child welfare and youth development. The field changes all the time, but aspects of the work will remain universal; forming relationships, gaining trust, starting at the beginning and doing the right thing. Maybe some of those stories could be helpful. I’m going to find out.
Today, for the last blog post in 2015, I want to share with you a Friday Update I read again last night for the first time since I wrote it in 2012. These winter holidays revolve around babies; the Christ child in a manger , the new year represented by a bouncing baby wearing a sash, pushing out the year just ending hobbling off as an old man. The New Year is a chance at new birth. That’s why we make resolutions. It’s a fresh start, like a baby born into the world. Along with sadness I tried to capture hopefulness in this brief and real encounter I once had. I hope you feel it.
I’ve been in more meetings than I’d like the past month; meetings with adults making arrangements, making decisions, planning, doing things that have to be done, all the while talking and concerning ourselves mostly with other adults. It’s a trap that can take you away from the real work. And then when you least expect it the real work sneaks up on you and captures your full attention.
It was one of those hot days. Jackie, whose office is close to mine walked past my office to go out the back door, turned on her heel and filled my doorway.
“You should come out here and see this baby.”
“We have a newborn in foster care. You have to see it.”
Jackie rarely tells me I have to do anything, which I appreciate. I was reviewing a policy about risk management. If the truth were known I don’t care all that much about managing risk. I prefer to take risk. This policy implied the opposite; safety, containment, and protection. I hate policies really. They imply you do the same thing in every situation every time. Who can say that? More than that, who wants to do so? I stood up and followed Jackie out the door.
The heat hit me hard in contrast to the air conditioning. There were no clouds. It was bright. Standing by her van was Jami and in her arms was what appeared to be a vinyl covered box, like a small dresser drawer.
“Look,” Jackie said.
In the infant carrier was a perfect baby. She was dressed in a lime green onesie. Her feet were bare. Traces, just wisps of toenails were visible on each of her ten miniature toes. Her calves were tiny and on them were short little shins. Her knees were the size of thimbles. Her arms were folded across her chest and she was sleeping. Her nostrils flared slightly as she breathed. Her skin was paper thin and white like a fine china plate. I thought I could see through her eyelids. Dark hair covered her head and in the midst of it a barrette held a tiny tuft of hair with a lime green bow. Each fold in her ear was perfectly formed. She breathed in, held her breath for just a moment, and then sighed. Her mouth moved to one side then returned, and her hand moved up to touch her cheek.
“She’s beautiful.” I said.
Jackie, Jami and I stood looking at her without speaking. When we began to talk we didn’t look at each other but rather at this perfect baby.
“What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have a name yet.”
“The mother hasn’t chosen one.”
“She seems so small. Was she premature?”
“Full term and healthy. Just little.”
I wanted to touch her skin but I was afraid I’d wake her. I didn’t really want to go on with the conversation, find out the rest of the story, but I knew I would. It’s the dark side of babies in foster care.
“Drugs in her system at the time of the birth.”
“Where is she?”
“With a boyfriend not the father. They’re about to be evicted.”
The baby turned her head and for a moment moved her arm down to her side before bringing it back by her face. I thought I saw a faint smile. I thought of my own beautiful daughter, born nearly twice the size, now 28 and making her own way in life. We look forward to her visits home.
“Heroin?” I asked.
“Yeah.” It seems like its heroin so often now.
“She’s told us she doesn’t think she can quit. She’s tried before she says.”
I look at the baby. Her toes move just a little.
"But her Mom will name her right?”
“We think so. She has another day. If she doesn’t the hospital picks a name.”
“She should have a name her Mom gives her. It may be the only thing she ever gets from her Mom, but she should get that don’t you think?
“I think her Mom will do that. She’s talking to us. We’re trying to get her to agree to treatment, if we can find an opening.”
There have been so many cuts to drug treatment programs that finding a bed in a treatment center when you need it, when the addict is ready to go, is something of a crapshoot. Successful treatment and months and months of clean drug tests is the only way this mother will regain custody of the perfect baby in the infant car seat, now in her third day of life, sleeping in the summer sun outside the YSB office among social workers.
“Not coming forward and the Mom is not helping. The baby has been to the doctor and is going back to one of our foster homes. It’s tough for them. She didn’t sleep too well the first night. She has a tiny tummy and seems agitated. But then again, she’s only three days old.”
God help her I thought. And then I thought it again, a silent prayer. Really God. Please help her, and her mother, and us. Help YSB make the right decisions, say the right things, chart the right course here at the beginning of her life. Help her mother, or her father whoever and wherever he may be, find the strength and the will to parent this girl. Help our foster parents love her and care for her but not so much that they can’t release her to her family when or if they prove themselves able.
But most of all help this tiny girl, this little human being. Her life is so uncertain. Let it be a full and wonderful life. Let her experience family, and friends, and all the good things that exist in the world.
That little girl, wherever she is, will turn four in 2016. I may be retired but I still think of those kids and families. All the time really. I hope this little girl is in preschool. I hope she’s well fed, loved, warm, and looking forward to kindergarten. I hope she talks a blue streak and does not know the particulars of her circumstance that day when we looked at her in bright sun and pondered her future. I hope her days unfold like a rich and exciting book. When she is my age it will be 2076, America’s Tricentennial. I hope she looks back then at her years on earth with satisfaction and joy. I hope you do too. Happy New Year.