A Human Canvas-in the darkness of childhood abuse and neglect-Volume 16-"The Despicable Trade Off"
A Social Worker's Journal
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the caseworker at the other end of the phone line. She was describing a situation that had occurred that had brought a three year old boy into care, and the local county Child Protection Service unit needed a foster home immediately, for him. Of course I was able to supply the home and family he would need, but I was a little worried because in a case like this, I knew there was much more information that I was not being told about. When this type of case gets reported initially, action is immediately taken by the department of social services, and we usually only get a abridged version of what happened, and even less about the birth family’s history. I knew that this was going to be the case with this placement. I did my usual “match up” with the foster family I believed could give this child what he needed, but at the same time I needed to remind them to keep their own children and pets safe because we didn’t know all the risks this type of placement could bring. It’s hard to believe that a three year old child could harm anyone, but if that child has been abused, there’s no telling what could happen. Being aware is being smart.
So with this in mind, let me share with you one the worst betrayals by a birth mother, that you could imagine.
Mikey had been placed with us twice. The first time with a broken leg, caused by a “twisting” with some force behind it, as the hospital report had listed. This type of injury is usually indicative of physical abuse sustained by the victim. In this particular case, it appeared that Mikey had been abused by someone, but birth mom claimed to not know anything, and Mikey just said that his leg had gotten hurt when he was playing with his older brother. Hard to prove situation, so to be on the safe side, the department decided that Mikey would be placed in care, and the family court judge decided that Mikey’s birth family could see him under supervised visitation conditions, until things were investigated and sorted out.
Months passed and so did the rectification of case specifics. Excuses had been given, and in time, Mikey “forgot” how it happened. He was three, of course he forgot. He was in a safe and loving foster home, and he only saw his birth mother and brother once a week. He wasn’t subjected to anything that could have brought him harm in the birth home, his leg was healing, and so he moved forward. He was resilient and forgiving, and he moved on.
Time marched on, and Mikey’s mother’s mental health took a turn for the worse. I met with her before one of the supervised visits, and she shared some information that was alarming and worrisome. She revealed that she felt the injury to Mikey’s leg had been inflicted by her older son, and that until now, had been afraid to share because she was trying to protect him from getting in trouble. When I asked her what she meant, she said that she believed that her older son had been sexually abused by a male friend of hers when he was younger, and that he had acted out over the past few years from that abuse and was jealous of his younger brother. She admitted to feeling that “something had been going on that shouldn’t have been”, but that she thought she could control things before anyone had gotten hurt. Over time, she had realized that she needed to tell someone, and until now, hadn’t been able to trust anyone. Well, now that she had told someone, I had to let the county know what I had been told, and let things take their course. Another court date was held, and new conditions for treatment were mandated for the birth mother’s mental and emotional needs. Supervised visitations were put on hold, and Mikey continued his placement with my agency and our foster family.
Things moved along slowly, but they moved along. Birth mom was on medications, and receiving counseling. Mikey’s older brother had also been placed in care, and was receiving counseling for his prior abuse. With established supports in place, this family was on the mend.
Over time, birth mom had her ups and downs. At her lowest point, she had taken herself off of her medications, and as a result, had been admitted into the local hospital’s psychiatric unit. Family visits had been put on hold again, and the department of social services was on a mandated timeline to file a petition against mom for termination of her parental rights. Mikey continued on in placement. He was doing well, but it had been reported by the foster parents that he had been exhibiting behaviors that didn’t seem “normal” for a child his age. He had a preoccupation with his own genitalia, and had been inquisitive about his foster sisters’ genitalia, as well. Even though young children can exhibit a natural interest in anatomical differences, Mikey was coupling his interest with actual sexual behaviors that were not within normal developmental curiosity. A red flag that required attention.
With birth mom back on her medications and back in her home, she filed for another court appearance, and because of her diligence in reestablishing her treatment, was awarded supervised visitation again, while the termination of her parental rights continued processing. The foster family that had been taking care of Mikey, had decided that they wanted to adopt him, and it was found to be a good idea for the family to enter counseling to help them work through Mikey’s unacceptable behaviors in the home. Now, with outside help from a professional, the foster family was able to utilize therapeutic means to help Mikey with his obvious developmental needs.
With supervised visitation back in place, Mikey’s sexual behaviors worsened in the foster home. Just before, and immediately after visits with his birth mom and brother, Mikey became aggressive and outwardly expressed sexual language and actions in the home, both on himself and on his foster sisters. Before things could go any further, the foster family gave a notice on Mikey, stating the safety of their own two young children, as the reason they couldn’t commit to adopting Mikey.
Within two weeks, Mikey was placed in another agency foster home, and appeared to be adjusting. Birth family visits continued, birth mom continued with her mental health treatment, and before long, months had passed without concern.
Birth mom filed again with the family court system, and in proving her parental diligence, once again, reunification was now the reinstated permanency goal for Mikey. He would be returning to the birth home before the end of his preschool year, and would be living with his birth mother as planned. He would not be returning to his preschool for the remainder of the month, and would begin kindergarten in the coming fall. Things went well through the summer, or we think they did, because we didn’t hear anything from the birth mom, or the department of social services.
Summer came and went, and the new school year began. It was around the Thanksgiving holiday when I got the call.
Mikey was being held at the school. A county caseworker would be picking him up from school and bringing him to my agency office, if I had a foster home for him. Someone must have made a mandated call from the school. Mikey had come to school that day with a black eye and other bruises on his face and upper body. I was fortunate to be able to place him with a foster family he knew from his initial placement with us, at least for now.
When I saw him I knew he had been abused again, and it broke my heart when I saw his battered face looking at me, as if he had done something to deserve it. I asked him how he was and he answered, “I wasn’t bad. I was just being loud, and Mommy hit me. She didn’t mean to but I was making noise and her boyfriend was trying to sleep”. After reassuring him it wasn’t his fault, I told him I would keep him safe. Words that haunt me, still today.
A month passed and the department of social services was filing for the termination of birth mom’s parental rights, yet again. Mikey was interviewed by the county caseworker, but he had not been forthcoming with the information they needed to press charges. When birth mom was questioned, she stated that Mikey had been running through the apartment and ran into a chair. She never admitted that she hit her son, or that anyone else did either. Too many questions, very few answers, and none, that made any sense.
Supervised visits had been reinstated, but birth mom missed several in a row, so after the court’s intervention, it was decided that the no-shows were not in the best interest of Mikey, so the order was nullified. Mikey’s new foster family was asked if they could be considered as an adoptive resource for Mikey, and they said yes. New family, new home, new beginnings. With all this happening, Mikey was still acting out sexually, and was back in counseling. In time, he began to trust, and he told. He told what really had happened the time he got the black eye.
He said that he had been playing with his toys in his bedroom when the door opened and mom’s then boyfriend, came in and asked if he could play too. Mikey made room for him on the floor and for a time, they built with the lego blocks. Before long, Mikey told his therapist, that mom’s boyfriend touched his privates. Then, Mikey was asked to touch his. Against his will, Mikey was forced into a sexual act. His birth mom must have heard him cry out, because she awoke from her nap, and stormed into the room. Grabbing Mikey she punched him and threw him on the bed. In the process, he had hit the wall hard, and started screaming. Mom’s boyfriend ran out of the apartment, and Mikey was left alone in his room with the door closed for a long time, as he remembered it. He had reported that he was hungry, so he opened the door and walked out of his room. His mother, he said, was sitting in her chair in the dark, and told Mikey she was mad at him.
Mad at him? For what? Mikey said that she had told him that he messed things up with her and her boyfriend, and it was Mikey’s fault that the boyfriend had left.
Wow. After being sexually assaulted by a grown man, beaten up by his birth mother, blamed for the act and the loss of his mother’s relationship, unfed, and alone, do we even have to wonder why Mikey has the behaviors he has? And he’s all of 5 years old.
With all this child has had to deal with in his short life, he now has a chance. His adoption will be finalized within a couple of months, and he is getting the help he needs from his therapist, and all the love he could hope for by his new parents.
Mikey should have never been returned to his birth mom after his first placement. There were too many unanswered questions that should have kept the case alive in the family court system much longer than it did. We can’t have all the answers all of the time, but when it comes to the safety of a child, we should share the burden of abuse if we become satisfied with anything less than the truth. We ought to be ashamed that we never found out who broke Mikey’s leg the first time he was placed in care. We should be ashamed even more, for allowing him to return to a home that was suspect of inflicting or allowing the abuse he sustained. We should be ashamed for our own failure to protect.
Mikey please forgive us for failing you the first time, and then again, when you needed us even more. Please forgive our negligence that cost you your innocence.