We all have cases that get to us. They take up more of our time than they should when we’re with them, and we continue to think about them and wonder how they’re doing, even after they’re closed. Cases like this kind of define our experience as workers. We wish Steven Spielberg would direct a film about our triumphs and tribulations with them.
My defining case came to me my first week on the job, almost two years ago. A mother was pursuing a PINS petition for her supposedly “out of control” (oh, aren’t they all?) 14 year old daughter. The 14 year old, let’s call her Angelica.
Angelica was an intimidating kid. She was big, and looked much older than 14. She got in fights on the street and at school. She had a mouth like a sailor. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard, I don’t know many sailors.) There were allegations that she was engaging in, what I documented as, “inappropriate sexual activity.” Meaning her mom heard rumors that she was blowing older guys in the stairwell.
Mom…mom was a treat. When they first came in, she wanted nothing to do with me, or our services. She just wanted Angelica out of her house. She was fed up. She told me that her daughter was the only one to give her trouble. Her three older sons were always respectful. (I later learned that they all served jail time. Two for robbery, one for attempted murder.) At times, mom was just nasty to Angelica. They fought like teenage girls.
But for all mom said about being done with her daughter, she still “kidnapped” her the day of her eighth grade graduation and brought her to IHOP, a surprise they couldn’t afford. She worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, as a home health aide. She slept on a mattress in the living room. Angelica had a bedroom, which she retreated to often to write poetry. Her brother, his girlfriend, and their two children had the other bedroom.
This kid just got to me. I had her for individual counseling, mostly. After she threw a chair in a mom and daughter counseling session, we decided it would make sense to work individually for a while. Not to mention that mom had no time for counseling, and really didn’t think that she had anything to do with the problem.
This girl was difficult, but she was also hilarious. We laughed in session more than is at all appropriate. And I never had to chase her down. She always wanted to tell me what she had done well–when she avoided a fight, poems she had written, times she made her bed or prepared dinner for her mom. This kid ate praise up like no one I had ever met. It seemed like she had never heard anyone say that she was good before.
But it was always two steps forward, one step back with this family. Or three steps back. Sometimes it seemed like they were running backwards. Angelica would stay out all night. Mom would respond by calling her a slut. Angelica would roam the street, waiting for someone to look at her the wrong way.
One of Angelica’s older brothers came home from prison over the summer. Mom made Angelica give up her room, and sleep in the living room with mom.
Eventually Angelica had such a fit at home that mom called 911, and she was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital.
It was supposed to be brief. She had been brought into the ER before, but never admitted. But the days turned to weeks. Angelica was admitted at the beginning of the summer, and talk of getting her home by the fourth of July eventually turned into hope that she would be home in time to start the new school year. She celebrated her 15th birthday there. I brought her a journal, which she kept with her the rest of her stay.
Mom didn’t visit Angelica at first, saying it was too far and she couldn’t afford it. So she started traveling with me. We went for weekly meetings with the psychiatrist, which often resulted in Angelica having to be restrained. I visited even when mom decided she couldn’t make it. Angelica would call me with her food order every week, telling me if she was in the mood for Chinese or McDonald’s. We had lunch together in the tiny visiting room, while Angelica asked for updates on her nephews.
Every time it came close to Angelica being discharged, something happened. Once, she returned from a day pass, saying that she had smoked marijuana over the weekend. The test came back negative. She was sabatoging herself.
Angelica befriended a girl on her unit, who had been sexually abused. Angelica confided in this girl, who encouraged her to tell her psychiatrist, the secret that Angelica had been holding on to for ten years–her older brother, the one who recently returned home from prison, the one Angelica was pushed out of her bedroom for, the one who mom enlisted to help discipline Angelica, had raped Angelica when she was five.
Angelica told us this with a blank face. She started having nightmares and flashbacks. Mom was distraught and didn’t know how to react.
The psychiatrists villified mom. She hadn’t protected Angelica, she wasn’t reacting properly now. They compared the situation to the movie “Precious.” (Because that helps. A lot.) They pretended as though Angelica’s mother could be written out of her life, and Angelica could become a grand, triumphant success story without her.
It was easy to blame this woman. She was far from perfect. But she was incredibly damaged herself. She was the kind of mother that Angelica would probably become, if she hadn’t gotten all the help she was getting in the hospital. Though she warmed and opened up to me over the course of our time together, going so far as to call me for support when she felt that she needed to be hospitalized for her own depression, she refused to discuss her own childhood.
I have no idea what happened, but I have some pretty good guesses.
Shortly after all this, I had to close the case. There was no child in the home, and the family had been evicted, and moved out of the Bronx. My supervisor held off on this for as long as possible. For a long time, I was the only one Angelica had any contact with that she had known before her life in the hospital. But the time had come for us to close.
Angelica cried when I told her. She told me how everyone leaves her, and she didn’t want to get to know anyone else. Somehow I held it together. But I cried plenty afterwards.
We had our last meeting a few weeks later. We shared french fries and she made fun of me for drinking diet coke, as usual. She gave me an art project she had been working on. I told her I’d be thinking of her, always, and that I wanted to hear from her when she was on the supreme court. She laughed and hugged me good bye.
I’m at peace with the way things went. I wish they could have gone differently, but that’s the job. You can’t stay with people until the end, because there is no end. You can just hope that you’ve done everything you can, let them know that someone cares about them, and, at best, send them off with better tools and skills to cope with what life hands them.
I ran into one of Angelica’s psychiatrists on the train recently. We approached the case from different professions, and somewhat different values, but we both cared deeply for this girl. Neither of us had heard from her family, and we didn’t know where she was or how she was doing.
I just hope she knows that we’re both still thinking about her. I think she’d appreciate that.