Thursday, February 26, 2015

We Kept Sheep

Overall you, my readers, seemed to like the Hot Toddy post last week. Comments were as follows:

“I’ve been doing colds all wrong.”

“I think I feel a cold coming on.”

“I kind of wish I had a cold.”

“This is the best advice I’ve had all week.” (That reader then shared it with his Face Book friends.)

And from one of my AA friends (I do think of them when I write about drinking, not enough to stop writing about it, or drinking, but isn’t it the thought that counts?)

“Why not just drink the whole bottle of whiskey. You’ll forget you even had a cold.”

“Thanks for the great recipe and another good read.”

Another thinks the refrain I suggested to solve recipe problems “Add more Whiskey” could be a book title (I agree).

Yet another shared a quote from another famous whiskey drinker Mark Twain. “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

Such as smart man, that Mark Twain. Because the blog continues to inspire comments I know it is read and appreciated. Thank you for your feedback.

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These cold days in January and February make me think of lambing season on the farm. I reprinted an old farm story about orphan lambs, one of my first blog posts, and damned if that story doesn’t have whiskey in it too, though not the good kind to which Mark Twain referred. And now to this week’s post.

We Kept Sheep

We kept twenty or thirty sheep across the road on a three cornered patch of low pasture, maybe five acres. A creek ran through it and it was too wet to farm. The triangle was created before I was born when they changed the path of Illinois Route 9 between Bloomington and Pekin. The new road, we called it the hard road because it was concrete, cut through our small farm at an angle different from the old road. Our corn crib ended up across the hard road on that three cornered patch. The sheep kept the little pasture clean and were easily tended. We’d throw ears of corn to them from the crib and take hay over to them when snow covered the ground. Dad used to put a bale of alfalfa on his back and walk down the lane with it towards the crib in the winter. I’d walk beside him. When I got old enough I took it over in a wheelbarrow or on a sled. Taking care of the sheep became my job.

The ewes lambed in the winter, usually January and February, often on the coldest nights. They would give birth to their lambs in the crib driveway, not that it offered much protection from the cold. That is where I would find the new lambs. Lambs need to nurse soon after birth. They are up on their feet almost immediately after being born but they need their Mom’s milk quickly to survive. Sheep often deliver twins. Sometime a ewe will take to one lamb in a set of twins and ignore the other. Or she’ll deliver a single lamb and walk away from it. Won’t let it nurse. Worst is abandoned twins. On a cold winter nights lambs without milk or their Mom’s attention die quickly. Sometimes I would find little orphan newborn lambs cold and dead by the crib. Other times I would find them abandoned and alive. Weak but alive.

Like this time. I stepped inside the crib and saw the lamb, a little huddle of tight black wool. He looked dead. I picked him up. He moved his head ever so slightly. I looked at the sheep and saw the ewe that had just had him. I knew by the mess on her hindquarters. She took no notice of me or the lamb. I ran across the road with the lamb in my arms and yelled for my Dad. As he came up from the barn I handed Dad the lamb. We went into the house and went down to the furnace room. “Go get a cardboard box and an old towel,” he told me “and put some milk on the stove.”

When I got back to the furnace room Dad was sitting on the steps by the door with the lamb between his knees, legs up. Beside him was a wooden box he kept in the furnace room just for this. In it, among other things, was a pint bottle of Hiram Walker and an eye dropper. Dad tipped the bottle and loaded up an eye dropper of whiskey. After prying open the lamb’s mouth and getting his little finger in the corner he squeezed a dropper full of whiskey way back into the lamb’s throat. He didn’t respond. Dad looked at him closely and gave him another one. He wanted a reaction from the lamb and finally got one. The little lamb snorted softly, twisted its neck, and gave out the weakest most pitiful little “baaaa” you could imagine. Then Dad rubbed the lamb’s belly, its legs, its head, and turned him over to rub his back.

“We gotta get the blood flowing in this little guy” he said.

“Why do some ewes do this?” I asked.

“People can learn things but with animals it’s all instinct.” He kept rubbing the lamb, too hard I thought. “Good ewes don’t learn to lick their newborn lambs and get them to nurse, they just do it. And with instinct, animals either have it or they don’t. Now go get the milk and put it in a pop bottle.”

We always had empty returnable pop bottles on the back porch. I liked the way the milk looked in the green bottles so I grabbed an empty twelve ounce 7 Up bottle and filled it with the hot milk from the stove. I did all this really fast, as if the lamb’s life depended on it. It was exciting.

Dad kept black rubber nipples in that furnace room box. He made a nipple bottle by fitting the short black nipple on the 7 Up bottle where the cap would go. He tried to get the lamb to stand but it couldn’t so Dad sat and put the lamb back on his knees, spindly legs up and limp. He pried open his mouth and put the nipple between his teeth. The lamb wouldn’t suck. Dad worked his jaws with his fingers, compressing the nipple then letting go, so the milk would run down into the lamb’s throat.

“Work his throat, will you David? Let’s see if we can get him to swallow.” I stroked the lamb’s nubbly little throat with my finger saying to myself ‘please swallow little guy, please.’ If he swallowed I couldn’t tell. Lots of milk ran out of his mouth. We got as much milk in the lamb as we could and then Dad said “Well, we’ve done everything we can. The rest is up to him.” I wasn't sure we got enough milk down him.

I put him in the box, the towel both under him and covering him, and put the box by the big coal furnace. The lamb just lay there, sleeping. I was afraid he would never wake up. Dad went on with his work and I tried to do other things, but all I could think about was the lamb. I checked on him all the time. No change. If we can get them to the house alive, we almost always save them. That’s what I kept telling myself.

Later after chores, when we were almost done with supper, still at the table, we heard the loud bleat of a lamb. Noise traveled well from the furnace room, up the hot air ducts and around the house. Hearing the lamb was the best sound. My Dad and I looked at each other. He smiled.

“Looks like he made it, David.”

I ran down the steps, jumping the last four, and threw open the door to the furnace room. The lamb was standing up, its black head just above the top of the box. I ran back upstairs, got the bottle from the icebox, stood it in a pan of water to reheat it, and when it was warm flew back to the furnace room to give him the rest of the bottle. He sucked well and his tail wiggled as he ate. For days the lamb would just eat, sleep, eat, and sleep again. It was true. If we could get lambs in the house alive we could save them. Dad was good at that, like he was at everything it seemed. I thought it was miraculous.

When the lamb was big enough we put him in a pen in the dairy barn and raised him there with the calves. I fed him every day. The next time Dad and I were in the sheep lot together, feeding corn and hay, he said

“Can you pick out the ewe that left that lamb out in the cold?”

I knew the sheep pretty well and pointed right at her.

“Will you remember her in the summer when we ship lambs?” I nodded yes.

“Okay,” he said. I’m counting on that.” I didn‘t know what he meant.

The lamb grew big and became a pet. We named him Shadow because he followed us around all the time. He hung around the house like a dog, combing the lawn for white clovers, plucking them from among the blades of grass and chewing them slowly. When we tried to return him, putting him back across the road with the other sheep, he just stood at the gate and cried.

“That lamb doesn’t know he’s a lamb,” Dad said. “He thinks he’s a cow or a person for gosh sakes. Bring him back.”

Later that summer when the lambs were eighty to a hundred pounds, long after we’d cut their tails off, we looked them over, kept a few of the biggest and best looking ewe lambs, and called in the truck to ship the rest to market. They would become leg of lamb and lamb chops for city people in short order. We never ate lamb or knew anyone that did. We were keeping Shadow to be the buck for a little flock of sheep that a friend of ours kept on the other side of Danvers. We weren’t real sure how he’d do as a breeding buck but Dad promised to bring him back if he didn’t perform. Farmers would trade buck sheep back and forth to keep from inbreeding their flocks.

As we were loading the lambs into the truck Dad said “Where is that ewe that left Shadow to die in the cold?”

I looked at the group of sheep that were standing watching the goings on. “She’s right there.”

“Let’s see if we can get her up here.”

Dad went to the crib and threw out a few ears of corn. The sheep came running. He dropped some more ears nearly at our feet.
“When she gets close let’s grab her."

Sheep are pretty easy to catch. They don’t resist long. If you grab them and hold them for even a short time, they’ll give up completely and lay there like a sack of potatoes. Sometime they’ll lay there all defeated even after you’ve let them go. Anyway, this ewe didn’t put up much of a fight.

“What are we going to do with her?” I asked.

“We’re going to ship her with the lambs. No need to put another lamb through what Shadow went through last winter. She’s not a good enough mother to keep.” And with that he picked her up and put her on the ramp going up into the truck.

“What will happen to her at the stock yard?”

“Well, she may be a sheep today but she’ll be mutton tomorrow.”

And that’s the way it was keeping sheep. We saved lambs’ lives and decided the fates of their mothers. It was all part of the work.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hot Toddy

Fittingly, as the temperature plunged on Tuesday I caught my first serious cold of the winter. I get cocky at times, and find myself thinking ‘Wow, I haven’t gotten sick all winter.’ I attributed my good health to yoga and swimming, the better food I’m trying to eat, the relatively clean and stress free living I’ve recently enjoyed. Smug, I went to yoga Tuesday with a bad feeling nagging the back of my throat and an achiness I thought would go away. It didn’t. Yoga on Tuesday was the last time I went out till after lunch on Thursday. Wednesday was a blurry mess. I didn’t get dressed, got out of the recliner rarely, went through a whole box of Kleenex, and drug myself around the house like a whipped dog. It’s amazing how much you can sleep when you feel that lousy. I had tea and toast, read the paper, slept, had soup for lunch, slept, read my kindle, slept, had some supper and went to bed early. Quite a day.

Retirement makes being sick easy. There was a time when if I was sick I would get up early, check my calendar, get on the phone, talk to different people to cover things for me, spend time looking at e mail anyway, field a few calls. It was almost easier to go in rather than take off, and lots of times I did, probably infecting my co workers with whatever kind of crud I had. Wednesday after writing one e mail and sending one text I had totally cancelled my day’s activity. And Wednesday was a relatively busy day for a guy who doesn’t work. I regretted most missing my time in the Y pool. I’d made a number of consecutive long swims without fail and hated to break the string. But I got over it fairly quickly.

My wife took good care of me. All she really asked was that I pick up all those used Kleenex. I stuffed them in the blue plastic bag the Tribune came in. It almost didn’t hold them all by the end of the day. She made several recommendations for things I should take. When this happens to her she takes Dayquil and Nyquil, the big orange and green over the counter capsules with all the stuff in them. Chemical decongestants, expectorants, fever reducers, and so on. No one knows what that stuff really is. I tend to avoid it myself.

As word got out that I was sick and had a bad cough a new home remedy came via the internet to my wife’s smart phone. Slather your feet in Vicks Vaporub, put on a pair of socks, and wrap your feet in a blanket. Takes your cough away in no time. Seems odd doesn’t it? After my wife realized I wasn’t going for the Dayquil/Nyquil routine she suggested Theraflu, which is a sort of tea with all the stuff in it. I declined that too.

“I’ll go to the store for you if you want. Get you some Vicks Vaporub.”

When I was a child my Mom used Vicks Vaporub in some radical applications you won’t find prescribed on the label. I won’t say it was awful but the Vicks deal appealed to me very little. I told her she could stay home.

“You mean you’re not going to take anything?”

“Well not that stuff. I’ll have a hot toddy.”

“Oh yeah,” she said derisively. “Hot toddies. Well make ‘em yourself.”

Hot toddies are a tried and true treatment of colds and maladies of all kinds. Before there was shrink wrap, and TV advertising, and a general reliance on pills and drugs to cure all our ills, hot toddies were relieving symptoms of cold and flu all across America. Ingredients for this amazing remedy were commonly found in all households, save for those of the tea totallers who enjoyed such influence in America in the first part of the twentieth century. Here’s all it takes to be on the road to recovery via hot toddy.

Water-not much, less than a half an inch, in the bottom of a small saucepan. Maybe the one you cook your oatmeal in.

Lemon-whatever you have, but preferably the squeezings of half a one. Don’ worry about the seeds, and when you’re done squeezing toss the remainder in the pan.

Honey-plenty. If your honey is stacked inside a plastic bear give yourself the equivalent of the amount of honey between his eyes and his mouth. If it’s in a jar start with two tablespoons.

Cinnamon-if you have the sticks, the little rolled up pieces of bark, throw in two. If not, put in less than a teaspoon of ground. Try to incorporate it into the honey so it doesn’t float on top.

Whiskey, or one of its brown cousins-this is the heart and soul of the hot toddy and deserves special attention. After much experimentation I find I prefer a Kentucky bourbon or whiskey of fairly high proof. I’ve used both scotch and rye, and Bushmill’s Irish which comes in a close second, but for my palate it’s hard to beat the basic American good stuff. Old Grand Dad is the hot toddy standard but I was fresh out. I did however find a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon in the back of the liquor cabinet and put it next to the stove for the duration. You might consider keeping a bottle in reserve just for this purpose. You never know when a cold may strike. I plan to replace that bottle on my very next trip to Herman’s Liquor Store. I might pick up Old Grand Dad just for safety's sake.

The brown cousins are suitable replacements-brandy, cognac, dark rum. White rum, which you might think of as an appropriate substitute, ruins the presentation. It just doesn’t look right. Hot toddies are brown. That’s just the way it goes.

Add enough whiskey or other brown spirits to the mixture in your sauce pan to fill it half full. If it’s over half, that’s OK.

Light the burner, adjust the flame to somewhere between full on and half lit, and stir your toddy. Get that cinnamon stick twirling around on the bottom, swish the honey around with the lemon, let the whiskey mix with the water, and watch as bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan. Get your nose close to the toddy. This is part of the therapeutic process. Get that nice smell up into your nose. It will help clear you out. Under no circumstances allow your toddy mix to boil. Boiling reduces the alcohol content, and that won’t do. Now taste.

If the lemon taste dominates, add more whiskey.

If it seems a little watery, add more whiskey.

If the honey had created a situation where the sweetness is too much, add more whiskey.

Actually, a good rule of thumb is-add more whiskey. You must do this as you heat the mixture, as adding cold whiskey at the end takes down the temperature of your toddy which will result in, rather than a hot toddy, a tepid toddy. Get that whiskey in there and get it hot.

Before it boils, but after it steams, turn the heat under your toddy mixture off and with a ladle pour a generous portion of your newly created cold remedy into a porcelain coffee cup rather than a glass. The cup will keep your drink warmer. And not using a glass will prevent your wife or other family members from readily monitoring your toddy consumption as the day goes on. It may alarm them. The proper response to expressions of concern regarding what may be perceived excessive hot toddy use, medicinal use mind you, is this.

“Who has this cold, you or me?”

I suggest keeping the saucepan on the stove and adding various ingredients throughout the day as needed so that you have a continuous supply of hot toddy available at all times. Reheat when necessary. If there was a dosage recommendation for hot toddy like those that come with manufactured products it would be “take liberally, as needed, until desired results are achieved.”

I began the hot toddy treatment Tuesday afternoon, continued it throughout the day on Wednesday, and by Thursday felt 100% better. Taking a hot shower and getting dressed Thursday added to my recovery. Sometimes you just have to soldier on.

And there you go. Stay warm. Winter will soon be over. But if a cold strikes, know that there is a home remedy at your disposal that promises to relieve your symptoms in a most enjoyable way. Try the hot toddy. You’ll like it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Career Day

I didn’t prepare anything for career day at Ottawa High School. I was asked so long ago, and it snuck up on me. I just went to the high school after yoga and went with the flow.

I was greeted at the front door by a group of students in blue tee shirts that said “Mentor” on the front. As the young woman assigned to me walked me up to the teacher’s lounge on the 900 floor I asked her what mentors do.

“Well, we’re all upper classmen, a few sophomores but mostly Juniors and Seniors. We’re assigned to go to freshman homerooms regularly to see if any of the freshmen have questions or problems we can help them with. There’s stuff they will ask kids that they won’t ask teachers or counselors, or even their classmates. They gave us some OK training. We try to come off as safe and non judgmental. It works pretty well.”

“What do they ask you mostly?”

“Mostly how to find their next class. They really ask us a lot of stuff the first few weeks. After that it slows down. But sometimes a kid will ask us something really important.”

“I see.”

“Are you here to do the Social Work and Psychology presentation?”


“That’s our biggest seminar. It got the biggest response from the freshmen. We had to move it to the auditorium.”


“Yeah, didn’t Mr. Gross tell you? This is all for freshmen. It’s part of the freshmen academy.”

“How many?”

“Over seventy.”

In the lounge I saw all kinds of people from town. A local chiropractor came in with a model of a spine. My optometrist was there. A local judge, an attorney, the young guy who owns a local gas station/towing company, you name it. As far as careers go, they had a lot of them covered. I don’t suppose many people turned down requests to come talk to high school kids about their occupation. Who doesn’t want to help kids?

I was teamed up with Kevin Gallagher, a school psychologist who serves a number of small rural school districts north of Ottawa. We were given the task of filling a regular school period, fifty minutes, talking and answering questions about what we do (did in my case) in our profession.

As we walked into the auditorium I asked Kevin “did you prepare anything?”

“Not really. Did you see those questions they suggested we consider?”

“If I did I forgot them.”

“I’ve got an extra set. Here.” I read them over. That helped.

Twenty five kids or so gathered slowly in the auditorium. I guess my guide had been wrong about the number signed up. The teacher assigned to help us first moved them into the first three rows center of the auditorium where we faced them from the stage. Behind us was a giant screen with a laptop and a projector on and running. I guess some people brought power point presentations. Kevin and I ignored it. The teacher took attendance. We were on.

Freshmen are thirteen or fourteen years old. As I looked at the row of young faces I was struck at how my life continues to make loops. Forty two years ago I was a 22 year old first year teacher at Ottawa High school given task of teaching English to 125 such freshman. Five classes of freshmen English: grammar, short stories, poetry, Romeo and Juliet/West Side story, Flowers for Algernon, The Outsiders (for my remedial class), a writing assignment every week. It was a struggle. I did it exactly one year and never returned to full time teaching. And here I was back, them looking up at me on the stage expectantly, waiting to hear what I could bring to add to their lives. I’d gone full circle. Me, pushing 64 with a gray beard, but them just the same; na├»ve, hopeful, expectant.

Maybe more sophisticated. I thought how young they were to be considering careers. Who knows what I was thinking when I was thirteen? I certainly don’t. But I don’t recall thinking seriously about work, or salary, or career until, oh, about 30. I realize that probably is not the norm.

We began by explaining why and how we chose the careers we did, in psychology and social work. Kevin’s story was fairly linear, some exposure in high school, major in psychology, on to graduate school, choosing a school psychologist track, a year’s internship, a job. Some of the kids took notes.

My path to social work was crooked. I studied English because I loved English and not knowing what English majors did other than become journalists or teachers, I worked toward a teaching certificate. I did my student teaching in Ottawa. I thought was difficult but the school people said I did well, and that summer hired me. At the end of that year I found myself standing in the hall by the lockers after the second bell rang not wanting to go into class. I never taught full time again.

I traveled, quit my job, lived cheaply, worked in a lumber yard, a dairy farm, substitute taught, worked in a hostel, was the rod man on a surveying crew, walked dogs, taught PE in a Detention home, taught homebound students, worked in a nursing home, worked for DCFS on an hourly basis, and found myself at YSB. I learned social work by doing it rather than being schooled in it. I explained carefully to the kids that is no longer how it works.

I also tried to explain what was needed to be a good social worker: the ability to suspend judgment, understand value systems not your own, think on your feet, hear what people are saying, control your emotions, separate your life from your job, write well. Write well?

They didn’t understand that. I explained the importance of court reports to decision makers who will, on the strength or weakness of a written report or evaluation, make major life decisions for children and families. I explained case notes. I explained how boiling down complex problems in writing contributed to the ability explain them verbally. That it’s not just the act of writing well, but thinking clearly that sets good social workers up for the task of explaining important points in meetings, in court testimony, in heartfelt conversations with emotional people. Kevin told a similar story regarding psychological reports and assessments.

They asked a lot of questions about salary and liked Kevin’s answers better than mine. It is nearly impossible to convert a bachelor’s in psychology into a lucrative occupation, but social workers with bachelor’s degrees are in high demand. Low salary, but high demand. And then I encouraged them to go on, after working with a four year degree, to get a Master’s degree and really contribute to social work as a field, developing new program approaches, supervising new workers, running organizations in a humane way. It seems ironic to explain that the social workers that make the most money no longer have a caseload, but that’s true, so I told them that, along with the disparate and seemingly unrelated duties administrators take on: conflict resolution among staff, money management, fund raising, policy formation, building maintenance. Their eyes began to glaze over.

I told them that I, the English major, found myself eventually managing a $6 Million dollar budget and calling my wife, a math major, while working late my first year asking her how to carry out math functions on a calculator so I could do my job. The English major who flaunted math found himself humbled by the need for it. The message Kevin and I tried to drive home was that although it may seem possible to specialize and ignore other fields of study the smart move is to get as broad and as deep an education as possible because you will most likely need it whether you know it or not. That it is not just the specific knowledge you gain in college, which can go out of date, but the personal skills you develop while in college, working with others, researching, communicating your views that are of equal importance.

A young woman raised her hand and asked me “Is social work emotional?”

I paused and told her “It is emotional as hell. I’m glad you brought that up. If social workers do not have well balanced lives, interests outside of work, good ways to deal with stress, the work will either burn them out or drive them out.”

I gave as an example the period we went through in the 80’s when familial sexual abuse and sexual abuse of all kinds became acceptable to talk about. The lid came off a societal taboo and we were there to pick up the pieces. The resulting trauma to social workers hearing the stories of children disclosing sexual abuse at the hands of family members was too much for many. We had to be retrained, sensitized, and armed with new tools to take on the task of helping those kids put their lives and their families back together. That kind of prolonged exposure to problems, coupled with confidentiality requirements that make our normal support systems unusable, create great stress on social workers. They should know that going in.

And both of us found ourselves saying the same thing-you are not always thanked for the work you do but if you can develop the ability to realize your own successes, and value them, you will find social work wildly rewarding.

After the session a young woman came up to the stage and looking around, spoke softly to me. Do you remember me? I’m Donna Blackwell (not her real name).”

“No I don’t. Have I met you before Donna?”

“Yes you have. You met me at my Mom’s funeral.”

“And who was your mother?” She gave me her mother’s name. My mind flashed to a little girl in a freshly ironed dress. Her mother had died of a heroin overdose while her children were in YSB foster care program. They were adopted by our agency.

“How are things going for you Donna?”

“Very well. Thank you. I;'m doing well in school and everything is good at home. I just wanted to thank you for what you and YSB did for my family.”

“You’re welcome. Do you want to be a social worker Donna?”

“Yes. More than anything.”

“Well good luck to you.”

As she walked away I walked over to Kevin, shook his hand, and thanked him for being my partner in the presentation. He looked at me funny.

“Where are you going?”


“I don’t think so. We’ve got two more of these to do.”

That explained the low number of students in the auditorium. I’ve got to start reading the attachments to Matt’s e mails. We talked to two more groups of 25 freshmen. It was a three hour gig. And there really was great interest in the helping professions.

At the end of the day I got a haircut. The young woman (isn’t almost everyone young when you’re over 60?) who cut my hair has three kids 9,7, and 5. I was telling her how surprised I was at the interest in social work and psychology.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think kids know more now, and they want to do something to make things better. All this bullying? Violence? And racial tension? I think young kids are going to be the ones to really impact those problems. They think it’s crazy. And it is. I think they’re going to change things.”

We can only hope so. Don’t discourage young people who want to help others because the pay is bad and the work tough. We need them in those fields now more than ever.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yesterday I went to Court

It was -6 when I walked to the shack this morning. It takes a while to warm up this little room on a day so cold. Yesterday I took one of the dog food bags stuffed with wood scraps I saved from building the shack and split the scrap into burnable pieces. I’m running out of them. As I split the wood I remembered where it came from. That bag contained the short ends of the tongue and groove boards used for inside and outside siding and flooring. Cedar (which splits like butter) on the outside, spruce on the inside, fir for the floor. Perfect kindling. My brother, brother in law, and two nephews helped with the cedar siding. We accomplished so much in one day with that crew. The shack is 11’6” square. Over and over I bought twelve foot lumber, which created these nice 6” scraps. Those bags of scrap are almost gone. Like cobs, I have yet no source to replenish them.

The shack is raised off the ground, which prevents the floor joists from ever being affected by trapped moisture, but makes the floor damned cold. Even with my feet on a rug they’re still cold. But the stove is hot and life is good in here.

Yesterday I went to court. They needed my testimony in a case which I was involved in as director of YSB before I retired. I assumed it was resolved. It lives. The child, now approaching five, has been in the same foster home since he was three days old. The mother? Not an option. The father? Discovered by the miracles of modern science, through a lab, never knowing till the agency informed him by mail of the possibility that he could have a child, he has serious issues. Can he, should he be given the opportunity to parent this child? That is the question that has not been resolved. Recommendations to the court among the parties conflict, resulting in repeated hearings, multiple assessments and evaluations, delays and postponements. No matter what child welfare professionals do to try to move cases quickly, to decide early on where and with whom children will live permanently, some cases drag on without resolution. This is one of those cases.

And so even though I have not been writing about abused, neglected, and dependent children I was reminded Wednesday that the work goes on. It’s such a quiet and secluded world, the world of child welfare, wrapped in privacy and secret from the public. Never a jury, only a judge, with the task of deciding the future of a child who cannot choose, who knows not the possibilities, who lives unknowingly with his or her fate in the hands of child welfare professionals and attorneys, doing the best they can with what they have. It goes on day in and day out without you knowing about it.

I looked at the room when I was on the stand, the judge on my left and a court reporter on my right, a little microphone on a tripod in front of me. In the room were my former staff, the father who glared at me, the attorneys who have known me for so long, the bailiff who was a policeman when I was a crisis worker in 1978, the poor mother, the CASA volunteers; all of us there to decide the future of a young child, probably in pre-school playing as we met to act in his best interests.

I take the stand and am questioned first by an Assistant State’s attorney, then appointed attorney for the father, then the guardian ad litem appointed for the child. They start with my former position at the agency, my responsibilities, my experience, the level of my involvement. I supervised the supervisor of the foster care program. We staffed this case so often; it was of such a concern to her, to me, to her worker, to everyone involved.

Questioning centered on a specific incident, subsequent meetings, my recollection of events, my meetings with the father prior to the incident, my view on switching foster care workers whom parents and families do not like, agency policy on various topics. Lots of issues were of interest to the attorneys. I testified first. A worker, her supervisor, a CASA volunteer, a licensing worker were all on hand ready to provide input, then be cross examined by the parties. I hope a decision was reached, but I would not be surprised if it was continued.

Aside from traffic court, I have managed to keep my life and my family’s life out of the hands of others. I have married, raised children, bought, sold, and inherited property, and executed wills without the specter, the intrusion, of turning any of those events over to the judgment of a neutral party, argued by hired legal agents, to be decided by a jury or a judge. Everyone should be so lucky. I’ve written about court before, in the case of a young father who showed up, stood in front of a judge and surrendered his parental rights, to juveniles receiving harsh sentences at a young age, to children being adopted. In all of those situation there comes a moment when everyone awaits the decision of another, a judge, and knows fully that their life is not in their own control. The life of that four year old is not in his control. Far from it. He depends on the people in that court room to make the best decision for his future. I played only a minor role. I told the truth and provided insight to the best of my ability. The rest of it is up to the child welfare system, the states attorney, the public defenders, the appointed attorneys, and finally the judge. They toil in that room to do the right thing. No one knows how hard they work.

In the months and years to come that system, which is supported by state tax dollars, will be scrutinized and dissected, challenged to save money, criticized for its lack of effectiveness, and possibly crippled by budget cuts. That’s the way it goes in Illinois. No one state funded effort goes unscathed.

There is one way you can help this essential system. Support your local not for profit child welfare agency financially. Every area has one. They are there day in and day out for children who have no one else. If you are in North Central Illinois you have an opportunity to support a good child welfare agency, Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley. It has provided service for kids like the one I advocated for since 1976. My appearance in court yesterday may be the last time I am asked, or have the opportunity, to help directly. I am retired and my knowledge of children and their families who need such help grows older by the day. But as I sat on the witness stand and looked at the people in courtroom, all dedicated, I admired most the YSB staff. Their recommendations for that boy’s future may not be followed, but no one can negate what they have given him up to now. Come what might in the future of this young boy they have provided a safe, stable, and solid foundation for the rest of his life during the past four years. You want and need organizations like YSB in that room working in the best interest of children in your community. Their mission, the success of local children and families, is enhanced by the community’s financial support. Consider helping those they serve. They need you.