I’m back, but only because I don’t know where I live.

12 01 2012

I remember first learning my phone number and address as a child. I was four years old, in kindergarten (I’m very advanced, but please stop asking about it) when the music teacher asked for everyone who knew their address and phone number to raise their hands. I was about to (I always raised my hand–advanced you know, but please let’s talk about something else) when I realized, actually, I had no idea where I lived. I didn’t know how to contact the people there, otherwise known as my parents, if I wanted to find out.

It’s a bit of an unsettling feeling, when you think about it.

I went home that night and related the story to my parents. It seemed to have slipped their minds, and since I was being chauffeured around constantly in the late ’80s, it hadn’t really come up. So they taught it to me then. I still remember that phone number and address. It was my family’s from just before the time I was born until I was a junior in college.

I also still remember my aunt’s phone number, as she set it to a cheerful tune to ensure that my little cousin would remember it if he were ever kidnapped  by pedophiles and held against his will. That was following a viewing of I Know My First Name is Steven on Lifetime.

My parents both remember their phone numbers from childhood. These are extra fun, as they start with words like “Cloverfield” and “Neptune” rather than numbers. I mean, can you get more olden-timey than that? I feel like they must have had to use both hands to hold the separate ear and mouth pieces, and then they would retire to the sitting room to discuss the fact that Warren Sheffield called long distance! (Meet Me in St. Louis jokes are the best, aren’t they? Everyone gets them.)

One of the things that struck me upon getting into social work–because I swear, this is about social work–is that none of the kids I work with have similar memories. Most cannot count the number of apartments they’ve lived in. Phone numbers are kind of hopeless.

SJ: “I have your mom’s number, right?”
Kid: “The house number? That got shut off.”
SJ: “Is that the 646 number?”
Kid: “No, that’s the 347 one. The 646 might still work.”
SJ: “This 646 number?”
Kid: “Oh no, that was my step-dad’s. Mom has a new one now.”
SJ: “I’ll just dial numbers at random and hope for the best.”

Everyone knows that children in foster care typically move many times. As do kids with a parent in the military. But it’s also true for low income families.

One four year old I worked with, over the course of a year, moved with her mother from a home for young mothers, to a shelter, to a rented bedroom, to her aunt’s home, to her grandfather’s home, and finally to her grandmother’s home. Last I saw them, the mother was considering moving in with her boyfriend, if she couldn’t get into public housing.

When I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, we collected information forms from each child when they came to program for the first time. These forms included their address, telephone number, and emergency contact, so that we could reach someone if we needed to.

We didn’t set fire to these information forms immediately upon collecting them, but we might as well have. They were entirely useless. A week after the child first came to program, they would inevitably injure themselves or attempt to sass the Great and Powerful SJ. We would try to call their homes, only to be confronted by the most irritating sound known to man. Immediately followed by, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.”

A bit of my soul is murdered, every time I hear those three screechy notes.

It’s constant, and slightly varied. Just this morning, I received a message from a participant whom I have been desperately trying to reach. She asked me to call her back. Unfortunately, she didn’t leave a number.

I tried her home line. A man whose voice I didn’t recognize answered, and told me I had the wrong number.

I think. I don’t speak Urdu, but that’s what I gathered.

I tried the most recent cell phone number, only to be informed that the number or code I had dialed was incorrect. I was supposed to check the number or code and try again. This is fancy phone speak for “disconnected.”

Next, I tried both teenagers’ cell phones. One was not receiving calls. That’s pretty much the point of a phone. “This cup has a giant hole in the bottom, and is not holding liquids.” So useful. The other girl’s phone went straight to voicemail. I like to think that this is because she was in class, but I have my doubts.

I always think about how this makes my job more difficult. How am I supposed to find people, how am I supposed to talk with them, however will I schedule their appointment?! And it’s true. It really is all about me.

But then I think of how stressful it is for those parents and kids. Ah, home sweet home! For now. Don’t get too comfortable. Just deal with sharing a bed for now, we won’t be here too long. You can’t use tacks to put up that Justin Bieber poster! We can’t leave holes in the wall or your uncle will kick us out! (Also, Bieber? Gross.)

To not even be able to do something so simple as call your mom when you need to. If I can’t track down a working number for her, neither can the school. Very often, neither can the child.

It’s got to be disconcerting.

I was fortunate to grow up with a sense of stability in my life. It helps to bear that in mind when I’m shouting obscenities and punching the phone after being urged to hang up and try again for the sixth time that day.

Not that I’ve ever done that.

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8 responses

12 01 2012
Lyndsey

I remember when my mom changed the phone number she had had my entire childhood. I was 25 at the time and hadn’t lived with my mom for a long time but going to call her one day and realizing I no longer knew her number was… weird.

A constant change in phone numbers and housing is unfortunately “normal” for many children. The lack of a sense of stability isn’t something I had ever connected to the change in phone numbers, but I can certainly see it and how such unpredictable circumstances effect a child (and adults!)

19 01 2012
socialjerk

It seems like a minor thing, but then when you take everything into account, you start to realize that it’s just one more thing piled on, that can lead to insecurity.

12 01 2012
S.J.F.

In a similar fashion, do you find it disconcerting to have clients know family/kin nicknames but not actual names? I had worked a hotline call and ended up with a 9 year old boy in my office because his mother had been arrested and jailed. I asked him who we could call to come pick him up. He gave me Aunt Ti Ti and Aunt Ne Ne. When I asked about first names, last names, other names anyone has ever called them we came up with nothing. I was lucky and found his aunt’s name listed on an old food stamp recipient record. But this kid almost ended up in foster care because he didn’t know the real names of his family. Lesson learned for everyone.

19 01 2012
socialjerk

I actually wrote on this topic here: https://socialjerk.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/who-the-hell-are-you/

Drives me kind of crazy! Fortunately it never presented a real safety issue for the families I’ve worked with, just a headache. I’m glad you were so on top of things to be able to figure out that kid’s aunt’s real name.

12 01 2012
Jeni

Working at my head start, I’ve realized that the family situations of many families is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I’m so happy to work where I do, but the stories are heartbreaking. When I hear a child say “the turtle is hiding because the police are going to kill it” it breaks my heart. My families are pretty stationary but the other things going on for them seem neverending.

By the way I love reading your blog. I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit 😀

19 01 2012
socialjerk

A three year old once told us, “police take daddies to jail.” Definitely heartbreaking. (Though daddy, in this scenario, had choked mommy, so the cops were not in the wrong.)

And thank you Jeni! One of my favorite parts of running this blog is finding out how many people know exactly what I’m talking about–a rare feeling 🙂

13 01 2012
emaufmuth

i totally know this feeling. our families living on the edge seem to bounce between public housing, dinghy apartments, cheap hotels, friend/family’s couches, and who knows where else.

while it can be frustrating for us to try and find parents, i can only imagine what it’s like for the children. not knowing where you’re going to sleep, safety concerns, the inability to settle in and make friends, changing schools… oh the list goes on and on.

luckily we have dr. carl bell here who reminds us “Risk factors are not predictive factors because of protective factors.” So we keep working at strengthening those protective factors.

19 01 2012
socialjerk

Love that quote. That’s really what we’re working for. Thank you for sharing!

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