A Human Canvas-in the darkness of childhood abuse and neglect-Volume 14-"That's My Boy"
A Social Worker's Journal
Usually when you hear a parent say those words, “That’s my boy”, it’s in some boastful way, like watching their child help make the winning touchdown for the school team, or getting an “A” on a class project at the school Science fair. It usually means that a parent is bursting at the seams in hopes that the world around him sees what a wonderful, exemplary person he knows his child is. It usually means that the parent can’t contain themselves with the joy and pride they feel from being that child’s parent. At least that’s what I think when I hear a parent say those words. Then the day came, when I heard a father say those words about his young son, followed by the piercing words that followed…”and I can discipline him any way I see fit”.
As I drove into the campground, I could feel the heat beat down on me as I got out of my air-conditioned car and walked toward the shaded picnic area, where my agency’s foster parents sat with their new placement. He was eleven years old, and absolutely charming. He stood to meet me and extended his hand to shake mine. The smile in his eyes, matched the one on his lips. He had a bright and sunny disposition, and for a minute I had to remind myself what I knew about Alex that put him where he was now. He had been taken from his birth father’s home, until the allegations could be further investigated, as to the abuse that had been reported. Someone had called the local department of social services, to report that Alex’s father had been punishing his son in an inhumane way, and that the child’s safety and well being were at risk. That was it. I had little else to go on at that point.
The foster parents spent every summer in their camper at the lake, so Alex was brought there to settle in. He’d been there for just the last day and night, but appeared to be getting along well enough. He asked me how long he would be away from his father, and I told him I didn’t know, but that things would be figured out soon enough, and that I would let him know as soon as I knew something. I reassured him that he could call me anytime for anything, and I handed him my business card. He took it from my hand and then looked up at me and said, “I’m not in any hurry to go back home. I don’t like my dad very much, and he gets really mean when he drinks.” I responded that he would be safe with the foster parents, and that I just wanted him to enjoy being at the campsite for now, and to enjoy some fun with the other kids in the park. He nodded and ran off, almost before I finished my sentence. We three adults could watch him play while we discussed the specifics of why Alex came into care. When I had called them the night before with the emergency placement, I was able to tell them very little, other than I had been told that Alex had been forced into a sex act by his father as punishment for coming in late from playing outside. It was summer, and since the days were longer, Alex had lost track of time, like most children do from time to time, but his father was unaccepting of the excuses, and more about punishing his son for not obeying his rules.
It was only a couple of days after Alex’s placement that more information was shared by the local county department of social services about the ongoing abuse that Alex had allegedly sustained under his father’s rule in the family home.
Apparently, for the past couple of years, Alex’s father would force him to perform fellatio on him. If Alex came home with a bad grade, or report card, he would have to perform the act. If he got in trouble on the bus, or at school, he would have to perform the act. It had gotten to the point that Alex’s father punished him for even simple things, like not picking up his room, or doing the dishes. This young child was being treated less than an animal, and he told no one about it.
I had so many questions, the first one being, where was Alex’s birth mother? What I was told was that when Alex was two years old, his mother couldn’t take the physical abuse from her husband anymore, so she left. Just left. Didn’t take her son with her, just left. Left her little boy to remain in a situation that she herself couldn’t cope with or accept anymore as an adult, so she left. I totally understood why she left, but what I couldn’t understand was why she left this vulnerable, innocent, beautiful baby boy with the same monster she was escaping. I never understood that. Never will.
Weeks passed, and the opportunity came for Alex to meet with me in my office. We chatted about how things were going in the foster home, fifth grade in his new school, and new friendships he had made since he’d been in care. (Alex had to repeat the fifth grade because his grades had fallen, and he couldn’t recover his academic status to move forward).
Throughout most of our discussion, things remained at on even keel. And then I had to let him know that the court had ordered “supervised visits” between him and his father, in my office. Alex stiffened and a tear fell out of the corner of his eye, rolled off his chin, and onto his lap. He spoke one, simple word. ”Why?” I tried to explain as best as I could about the process, but I also told him that if at any time he felt threatened or unsafe, that I would end the visit and report back to the judge. He agreed. After that first attempt at a visit, Alex told me he never wanted to do another one, and his father agreed. Actually, his father never tried to see him again, or even call him. His father never contested the charges, and after months and months of family court appearances, his father was found guilty of several charges of child endangerment and abandonment, and was sentenced to many years in prison.
In time, Alex’s father’s parental rights had been terminated but, the county needed to find his birth mother, to terminate her parental rights as well, so that Alex could be freed and then adopted by his foster family. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, she had left him all those years ago, and never looked back. They could charge her with abandonment, as well.
After a very long search, Alex’s mother had been located. She had been living in the mid-West, and from what the authorities reported, she was very ill. Receiving no further details, plans had been made with the two active counties assigned to the case, and Alex would be meeting his birth mother within the week. His mother had agreed to speak with him, and his foster parents had agreed to travel with him to be at his side when he met with his mother after all those lost years.
As life can be unfair, I received a phone call from the local county I had been working with, and they had just been delivered some very sad and disappointing news. Alex’s mother had passed away just the day after she had agreed to meet with her long lost son. Just like she had done so many years ago…she had left. Just left. No note of regret. No well wishes. No asking for forgiveness. And, what was worse, no explanation for why she had left him all those years ago. Alex would never get his answers now.
I called the foster family, told them the new circumstances of the situation, and asked them to not say anything to Alex, but rather, to just bring him to the office.
As I sat looking at him, I still saw that light in his eyes. That smile. That bright, sunny disposition. I said a prayer to myself that the light inside him would pull him through the dark news I had yet to share.
As the words rolled off my tongue, I watched his shoulders droop, and his head drop down towards his chest. I felt his pain. I could hear it in his breathing. Alex never said a word to me that day after hearing the news of his mother’s passing. He never said a word, but I could hear his thoughts, loud and clear. She just left…she just left…she just left, again.
I heard it loud and clear.
Within the year, Alex was adopted by the foster family who had grown to love him as their own. He was happy, and that was all I had hoped for him. After the formal adoption in family court that day, friends and family were taking combination pictures. Alex with his mom. Alex with his dad. Alex with his siblings. Alex in a family group photo. All the photos that I knew would make it into the new family album, to look back on and treasure.
As I said my good-byes, I turned to leave, but felt a hand on my arm. It was Alex asking for a picture with just me. I felt honored at his request. But what came next, was more than I could have ever hoped for. Alex looked at me, hugged me, and said, “Thank you, Kim. You never left.”
Those words carved a spot in my heart for the boy who made me smile, with his.
Alex, for all the hurt you experienced, please forgive us, for failing you.