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A Human Canvas-in the darkness of childhood abuse and neglect-Volume 15-"A Real Life Halloween Nightmare"
A Social Worker's Journal
A REAL LIFE HALLOWEEN NIGHTMARE
It was October 31st. I remember him walking through the front door of my agency’s office. He was four years old, wearing a Spider Man costume, and carrying a bright, orange, plastic jack-o-lantern. Upon entering the outer office, he yelled, “Trick or Treat” at the top of his lungs. Running into my personal office, he announced his strong desire for candy. He was absolutely adorable and I loved that he was enjoying the holiday, as I knew he never had. Of course, I had a goodie bag with his name on it, filled with candy, small toys, and Spider Man toothbrush and toothpaste set. We did for all of our kids in care, and we always took the time to make sure the bags were individualized, so that each one of our children knew they were special to us.
His foster mother had brought him into the office, not just on a Trick-or-Treat candy mission, but because I had called her a few hours earlier to let her know that she needed to bring our little guy, Roberto (Robbie for short) in to my office, because his birth mother and grandmother would be picking him up per court order for the family’s reunification.
I was not happy with this outcome. Let me tell you why.
When I had initially been called by the local department of social services to place this preschooler in foster care, I was told that his birth mother had left her home at the opposite side of the state because she alleged that her mother’s boyfriend had inappropriately touched her son, and she wanted to protect him from her molester, the same man that her mother had been living with for several years.
Robbie’s mother was in her early 20s and had three children, all between the ages of 10 months through 4 years. Robbie was the oldest of the three. I had been told that she was pregnant again with her fourth child, and that this child’s father had left her, so she had moved back in with her mother and the man her mother had been living with. The same man that Robbie’s mother claimed molested her when she was a teenager. No charges had ever been filed because of Robbie’s grandmother’s pleas to her daughter to just leave the home, and that she would make sure he didn’t do it again. Well, here we were again, but this time, Robbie’s mother did file charges, and moved back across the state to live with her cousin. Things didn’t quite go as they had been planned though.
When Robbie’s mother landed at her cousin’s apartment, she discovered that her cousin was “using” drugs again, so had made a call for her mother (Robbie’s grandmother) to drive back to get her and her three children. You mean to move back in with the alleged child molester? At least that’s what I asked the county worker. There had been an immediate family court appearance, due to the situation that involved two departments of social services, and it had been ruled that Robbie was to be returned to his mother so that the claim of abuse could be investigated back at the department it had been filed in. This was getting very confusing to say the least. So would Robbie have to move back in with the man his mother filed abuse charges against? No. Until things were investigated and ruled upon, Robbie, his mother, and his siblings would be housed in a shelter, back in their home town. Well, I didn’t like this decision either.
Not only was this Halloween, but it was late Friday afternoon, and I was waiting in the office for Robbie’s birth mother and grandmother to show up to pick him up. They were running very late. My foster mother had left in tears, and I wasn’t feeling much better, at the thought of handing this child over to people who I felt weren’t providing him with what he deserved.
While Robbie and I waited, I watched him spill the candy and items out of his goodie bag, only to place them one by one, in his plastic pumpkin. He sat there on the worn carpet, in his Spider Man costume, just being an innocent little boy. As I watched, I thought of the life he would ultimately be given, and fast forwarded in my mind, what may have happened to him, and what might happen again, once he left my care. I felt my eyes well up, and a nervousness grew in the pit of my stomach.
Just then a car pulled up outside, and two women emerged from the vehicle with two younger children. It was Robbie’s family. As they entered through the doorway, Robbie saw them and quickly ran for his mother. Just as quickly, he ran back to gather his pumpkin, and chatted about the fun he had getting his costume with the foster parent. Both women ignored his attempts for attention, and focused on me. I requested identification from both of them, and a valid driver’s ID from the person driving. My requests were honored, and as they took Robbie by the arm they both thanked me for taking care of him.
I asked how long their drive would be and they stated that it would take about six or seven hours to return home, with stops in between. As Robbie’s mother opened the car’s back door, she directed him in. I asked her where his car seat was, and that unless she had one I couldn’t release him to her. The trunk popped open and there it sat. Through moans and groans at my stipulation, the car seat was installed by his mother, and they were off. Robbie waved good-bye and blew me a kiss. I was heartsick in letting him go. I was worried for him.
And I had good reason to be. When you work in this field for as long as I have, you have a pretty good idea if things will get better for a child, or much worse. In Robbie’s case, it was the latter, as I had suspected.
A few weeks later I happened to be sitting in a formal meeting with staff from the department of social services that had worked the case from this end of the state. The case supervisor had been called out of the room to take a phone call. When he returned he looked right at me, and simply stated, “You are going to be very upset.” Somehow I knew, before he even shared the news. It was Robbie. He had been molested again. This time it was definite. The man that had molested Robbie’s mother, the same man Robbie’s grandmother had lived with, the same man that was accused the first time, had now done it again. This time he had raped Robbie and the hospital report had proved it. The rapist finally admitted it, and Robbie was put back in the system, while his mother was being charged with failure to protect, and child endangerment.
I was more than upset. This little boy trusted us, like all of our child victims do. And we let him down. Both departments were caught in the system’s cracks, and this child was played like a game piece. Look what it cost him.
Several months later I heard through the network, that Robbie and his now three siblings were all in the process of being freed for adoption. I further discovered that Robbie’s behaviors had worsened, and that his file contained the information that at his present age of five, he had “touched” other children, and that caseworkers had listed him at an “at risk” level when considering foster home placement for him.
At risk? This little boy in the Spider Man costume, carrying his Halloween treats in his plastic pumpkin? What the hell happened? How could we have let this happen?
And now what? He’s considered a perpetrator at the age of five?
I know what this means to his placement considerations. It means that any foster family who would otherwise love to take a 5 year old boy into their home and family, now have to consider taking him, if…they have other children, especially younger ones, if…they have pets, because now we’re not sure if Robbie would hurt a pet…if…if…if.
This little human being is being sized up because someone hurt him, and we failed to protect him. He pays for our mistakes. Our society pays. What if the right home is never found for Robbie, and he grows up “in care”. How will that affect his mental health? His emotional health?
So many unanswered questions, with obviously, no answers.
We just wait and see, while Robbie lives a life he didn’t choose for himself. We did.
We need to choose to fix what is broken in our system. We need to look ahead and see what we’re “creating” if we don’t make a choice to fix it, now.
There’s no time like the present. If we fix the “present”, we’ll be able to give our children the “gift” of a healthy future.
Robbie, please forgive us, for failing you. Twice.