Welcome to the (Foster)hood

1 03 2013

One of the toughest things about working in the child welfare system is dealing with all of the petty, bullshit, infighting. (You thought I was going to say it was the sadness of children, didn’t you? Fools, social workers thrive on kiddie tears, they’re like Gatorade!)

ACS, the government agency, runs things. They hand out contracts to places like Anonymous Agency to do the preventive and foster care work that they don’t do themselves. Because ACS has the money, and they’re the government, they have the power. Sometimes it seems like we work for them, instead of the way it’s supposed to be–we work with them, for a common goal. In response, we might get a bit persnickety. “Oh, I have to be at that meeting? Well this isn’t enough notice, I don’t know if I can.” “I referred the family to a different type of parenting class than the one you insisted on, because it was more appropriate according to my professional assessment.” Persnickitiness begets persnickitiness, and it becomes a cycle.

Why am I getting into this? Because all of that infighting, and those power struggles, affect people’s lives. Most tragically, it affects children.

My friend Rebecca, rock star Brooklynite of the Fosterhood blog was set to adopt a child born on February 24th. She’s a foster parent in great standing, and is currently fostering an infant. The mother of the little girl born on the 24th has older children in foster care, and knew she wouldn’t be able to keep this baby. The foster agency facilitated some meetings, and mom chose Rebecca. Rebecca got a crib, researched the special hell that is double strollers, and got the call the day the baby was born to come meet her daughter. She named the child Clementine, which is on her birth certificate, along with Rebecca’s last name.

It’s not clear quite what happened next. Miscommunication? Stepped on toes? Incompetence? Crankiness? Whatever the case, the agencies were not in agreement and there was a lot of talk about “how things are done.” Clementine was sent to a strange foster home, and her mother wasn’t aware of this until Rebecca let her know. Two mothers are devastated, and a child is in unnecessary limbo.

I’m not asking for people to block the steps of City Hall wearing “Free Clementine” shirts. (Passerby would just think you were giving out citrus fruits, and it wouldn’t help.) But perhaps you could send Rebecca a little support?

Or maybe just read her story, Clementine’s story, and remember what can happen when we forget our priorities. We’re all working towards the same goal, the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to us, and permanence for them. Anything else is unacceptable.

“It’s SJ!” “Who? “…the white lady.”

15 09 2011

There are certain things you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. The banned dinner party conversations are supposed to be “religion and politics.” That rule leaves the door wide open for discussions of sexually transmitted infections, the Yankees, and other distasteful topics, so we probably want to have a few more guidelines. I think, no matter what, we can all agree that one of the stickiest of topics continues to be race.

It’s tricky subject matter. Few things get people quite as fired up, while simultaneously terrifying them that they’ll come across as a bad person.

My participants don’t seem to have that issue. Especially the kids. Race is something they notice, and they see no need to hold back. If I’m thinking it, I should say it! (I can’t really fault them for this, as this is a flaw that I’m working on myself.)

I am white. None of my current participants are. In the two years I’ve worked at Anonymous Agency, I have not worked with a white family. It’s not a big suprise, considering that I’m usually the only white person I see when walking around the area. As much as I’d like for this to not be an issue, it is something people notice.

I mean, I guess it is. I’ve been surprised at how many people have been confused by my race.

Child:    “You’re Puerto Rican, right?”
SJ:          “Why do you think that?”
Child:     “Because you speak Spanish like one. And you don’t look Dominican.”
SJ:           “I’m actually not.”
Child:     “So…you are Domincan?”

For the record, I’m almost actually white. As in the shade. I have an Irish nose and freckles. People have never been confused by “what I am” before. When this first came up, when I was working at a camp for children in foster care, I mentioned it to the director. Not out of concern, I just found it amusing. She thought it was because I was one of very few white people they had interacted with, and that most of their interactions with white people were not too positive. In that way, it was kind of a good thing.

I’ve gotten lots of these types of comments over the years. In addition to constantly being told by children that I look like their teachers.

16 y/o: “Ugh, I cannot deal with that white lady anymore!”
SJ:          “Oh come on, I’m standing right here.”
16 y/o: “Nah, not you, you don’t count.”

12 y/o: “SJ doesn’t play. She’s mad white, but she lets go when she has to. I’ve seen you get black.”
SJ:          “Thank you?”

Mom: “My daughter told me the worker stopped by, and I thought she meant the ACS worker, I started asking what that bitch wanted. She was surprised, she was like, ‘the white lady’s a bitch?’ I was like, oh, Miss SJ, no, we’re cool.
SJ:       “I’m glad we’re cool. Am I really the white lady, after all our time together?”

13 y/o: “I don’t like black people.”
SJ:          “Wow, that’s a pretty big statement. You know all black people?”
13 y/o: “No, the ones around here.”
SJ:          “Oh, ok, so there are some people you don’t like. Can you dislike someone and not their entire race?”
13 y/o: “I guess.”
SJ:           “Well, we get along, does that mean you love all white people, no matter what?”
13 y/o:  “You’re white?! I thought you were Irish!”

That last one might be my favorite.

I’ve learned to joke about it. I see no reason to let it go on as the (white) elephant in the room. Recently, I walked into an ACS meeting with a mother and daughter, who are Dominican and dark-skinned. The guard asked if I was the worker, and had me sign in with my ID.

SJ:      “How did he know I was the worker?”
Mom: “SJ, you are crazy. You walk in here with two brown women, talking about ‘How they know I’m the worker?'”

They could barely speak for laughing. It lessened the tension when we walked into a pretty difficult meeting. (I’m very good.)

But look at our president, we’re living in a post-racial society!

I’ll give you a moment to laugh at that one.

We all know that race still matters. People aren’t color blind. OK, some people are color blind. Like my dad. Try to get the man to distinguish between blue and grey, it’s a nightmare. But no time to talk about that now.

Even when you love someone, it still matters. My cousins are Native American. They’re all adopted. They’re father is also Native, their mother, my aunt, is a white lady like myself. (“White lady” is cool, I’m taking it back.) But the fact that they look different from half of their family does come up.

They had come to visit in New York once, and my cousin, who was twelve at the time, asked why so many black women had white babies at the Museum of Natural History. I looked at him and asked, “What do you think people think of us?” He told me that they don’t think we’re related. And it’s true. My room in college was essentially wallpapered with photos of these kids, and people regularly asked who they were. When I told them they were my cousins, this simply wasn’t enough. “No, these kids. These ones. They look…Filipino? Mexican?”

How could I expect the random boy my roommate was, ahem, hosting to walk away without a concrete explanation as to how, exactly, these non-white children were my family? He was entitled to an explanation.

As much as I wish me being white didn’t say anything to my participants, it does. It’s the first thing they notice. The second thing is probably that I look twelve. This could lead to the idea that I don’t really have much of an understanding of them.

As usual, I don’t have answers. I didn’t solve the issue of race in America, though I know you were all expecting that to be the conclusion. Interracial adoption? I think it’s a good thing, and necessary, but we have to recognize that love isn’t all you need. (Sorry, John.) White lady social worker, working with non-white lady families? I don’t think there’s another option.

But I do have the option to be open about our differences, and not act like noticing them is somehow shameful. I have the option of challenging assumptions about race, and presenting the idea that not all people who look the same are the same.

It seems to be the best the white lady can do.

I Want My MTV (for social work purposes only)

11 08 2011

Say what you will about MTV, and the fact that they have apparently forgotten what music is. They do some quality documentary television. I could not make it through my time at the gym without True Life ,(you’re in a polyamorous gay relationship and still live with your parents? OK!) I Used to Be Fat, (greatest name for a TV show since Howdy Doody) and, of course, 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom.

You would think I get enough of this at work. But somehow, I don’t.

I like working with teen girls. That’s my passion. Which is cool, because I used to be afraid of teen girls. Especially when I was one. And teen pregnancy is a subject I’ve learned more about, since working with pregnant teens, as well as parenting teens and young moms.

I used to fall into the trap of only learning about teen parenthood through fiction. And not good fiction, like Juno. (Which, let’s face it, got slammed for not punishing a girl enough for having sex and getting pregnant.) Shitty scare stories on Ricki Lake, about 11 year olds desperate to get knocked up by anyone who will have them. I recently got into an argument with someone who quoted a pregnant 15 year old from a Lifetime movie at me. (Hint: don’t do that.)

When I actually started interacting with pregnant teenagers, I realized that there was a lot more to them. So when I’m not getting my fix at work, I get it through MTV.

A lot of people, mostly people who have hardly watched the shows, are shocked that I love them. It’s so exploitative! It glamorizes teen pregnancy! Those children should all be taken away!

To which I say: wrong, wrong, shut up.

I recognize that it’s not entirely realistic. I don’t know exactly how the pay scale works. I don’t know exactly what role the cameras and producers play in daily interactions. But I also know that this is a pretty good depiction of teen pregnancy and parenthood, that a lot of people never get.

What do we learn from all this?

  1. Go to court. You think you don’t need to. You think you’re special, that your love will last forever. If not that, you’ll at least be able to be civil. The non-custodial parent will at least always pay child support!

    Odds are, no. For one thing, teenagers are by nature impulsive. They get angry first and think later. (Trust me. I once saw a girl throw a futon out a window.) For another, the world of love is fraught with tension. (Translation: one of you will start doing someone else. The one not being done will get pissed. The more they say they’re not pissed, the more pissed they are.)You need someone else saying how much time the child spends with each parent, who pays what, where the kid gets dropped off and picked up. I know court is unpleasant. You have to wait in long lines, people are rude, and lord knows where the bathrooms are. But go now. Thank me later.

  2. Talk to your kids about sex. I know it’s awkward and uncomfortable. I have had to explain what oral sex is to rooms full of teenagers. And answer the inevitable “Why do people do that?!” from the one naïve girl in the back. I’ve also had kids who I used to babysit and change diapers for tell me they lost their virginity. But the talk needs to happen.

    Every kid on these shows, and who I meet through my work, say the same thing. “I wish someone had talked to me about birth control. I’m going to talk to my kids about it, starting now.” Not to say that teens who experience good sex education don’t become pregnant. But Schoolhouse Rock was correct–knowledge is power. They can’t make good decisions without this knowledge. And my girls who get dragged to the clinic for their Depo shot every three months? They might not be perfect. But they’re not pregnant.

  3. Date the good guy. Note that I didn’t say “nice guy”. Nice guys are the ones who talk about how nice they are, and how girls don’t like nice guys. Those guys are idiots, and they’re not all that nice. But then there’s the good guy.

    Tyler is a ridiculously sensitive and insightful teenager who divides his time between making sure his girlfriend feels special and loved, encouraging his family to get into counseling, and calling his mother regularly. Kyle dotes on a toddler that isn’t his, and is more involved in caring for the child than most biological fathers. Kayla’s boyfriend Mike stayed home with her, trying desperately to get her to eat despite her anorexia, and paid rent to that horrendous mother-creature of hers, just to be with his girlfriend and child.

    Ryan, the pretty boy with the motorcycle? Calls the mother of his child a liar and a bitch, often in front of said child, and lets his parents do the vast majority of child care. Looks fade, but shitty parenting lasts a lifetime. And don’t get me started on Chelsea’s boyfriend Adam. He’s alluring, because he’s a bad boy. I mean, really. Verbal abuse also lasts a lifetime. How Chelsea’s father has allowed Adam to live is beyond me.

  4. Consider adoption. So many young parents don’t even see it as an option. It’s not the only answer. Often, it’s not the best answer. Adoption is messy and complicated. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen it in my family, and I’ve seen it on the show, with Caitlynn and Tyler, and then again with Ashley.

    It’s also shown us the importance of support–one does not just walk away from adoption. Caitlynn had support from her ridiculously awesome (and adorable, come on) boyfriend, a great social worker, (what what) and an adoption support group. Ashley’s family thought they could handle it with just a lawyer, and Ashley suffered because of it.

  5. Consider abortion. Several girls have talked about this crossing their mind upon discovering that they were pregnant. Having an abortion does not make you a bad mother. Deciding you can’t be a parent right now, and possibly being a better parent later, is not a selfish decision.
  6. Your boyfriend is not going to grow up. What someone is giving you now, they will give you once the baby is born. Babies are not magic. Ryan was an idiot before Bentley was born. He seems like the type of guy who would think a burping contest it a sweet way to bond with your dad at a family function. When his child was born, what did he do? Got the baby a mini-motorcycle, tattooed his son’s name on his body, and refused to change a diaper or support the mother of his child.

    The same goes for immature women. Amber was selfish, in her own world, and at a loss for how to control her anger before the baby. Guess what she’s like now?That’s not to say there isn’t hope. I’m in the business of hope. But we’ve seen what counting on, “He’ll change once he sees the baby” leads to.

  7. Listen to your parents. This one comes with a qualifier–if your parents are on meth, and in and out of jail, and can barely take care of you, you might want to ignore this piece of advice. Caitlynn and Tyler did the right thing for themselves and their child by ignoring the guilt trip Caitlynn’s mother and Tyler’s father (who married one another…yeah) and putting their daughter up for adoption.

    But then there are the others. Jenelle’s mom might be a shrew, but she was right in telling Jenelle to stay home with her child, and think less about boys and partying. Jennifer’s parents knew Joshua was not good for their daughter. She saw how disrespectful Joshua was to her parents. But she didn’t really get it until Joshua kicked her out of his car on the side of the road, and took off with the passenger door open and their twins in the backseat.

    Sometimes, parents know what they’re talking about.

  8. Pregnant teenagers, and teen parents, are people. They’re kids. They have to grow up, but they’re young, and they will make mistakes. Like all parents. They need help and support. Shame and blame helps no one.
I’m not saying everyone will love it. I’m not saying that it’s flawless. But there is value to these shows, because, if people are willing to watch, they show us that there’s value to these kids.
So stop judging me for watching.