My wife, Mary, and I met various types of social workers while we did foster care. They tended to fit into four major categories: the relentless ones, the avenging angels, the birth goddesses and the poker players.
The relentless ones never stop moving. Harvey was an intake worker, the first one we dealt with when we received our first foster child. He didn’t remove the child from the family, but he would place them in a foster home. Olivia gave shocking new meaning to the word screaming when he brought her inside. She shrieked and cried and glanced around desperately in our half-lit front room. Harvey held Olivia in one arm and half a dozen plastic bags filled with unwashed baby clothes in the other.
Harvey and my wife, Mary, were doing all the work while I tried to coo and cuddle and bounce the baby. Harvey was a quick mover who seemed to do three things at once. I’m a jumpy striver, but this guy was a hyperactive step ahead of me, eliciting my grudging respect and astonishment as he and Mary made time slow down and get forty-five minutes of work done in seven and a half. Before the bath was run he had helped Mary load the washer and guided her in signing about fourteen forms. “She likes you,” he managed to tell me in the midst of the slowly deescalating chaos. “Just take care of that little girl,” and he was out the door and back to the midnight grind of a Child Protective Services worker—I got a whiff of his crazy schedule as he started his car and sped away to the next human interest story.
Avenging angels’ #1 priority is the child. They are not afraid to stick up for them. They may have some sympathy for the biological parents, but the bulk of their compassion is reserved for the children who deserve it and need it most. Michelle Gonzalez was that scary marriage of idealism and practicality. She had a great internal BS detector. When Tommy’s mother, Rosanna, started having trouble showing up for visits on time, Michelle stopped rescheduling visits for that week. Instead she made Rosanna call us at home a half-hour before the visit to confirm she would show up. Rosanna sometimes showed up stoned for the meetings, but the social worker says we could get up and leave if she does that again.
For birth goddesses, biology is everything. No matter how horrible the birth parent is, the child should go back to them. One day I got a call about a fourteen-month-old named Ronnie and was told, “His parents would leave him for six hours at a time to go get drugs.”
How do I say no to that?
The intake worker on the other end of the line said she would be waiting for my callback.
“I’ll phone you right back,” I promised her. I called Mary on her cell phone and she agreed wholeheartedly. “Let’s take him,” she said.
“We can take him for a little while,” I told the intake worker when I called back. “We were going to quit doing foster care, but we can take him for a little while and you can work on finding someone to do long term care.”
People hear what they want to hear. Looking back, I wonder if the social worker only heard the first four words: “We can take him.”
Mary rushed home and the intake worker arrived minutes later, holding a cute wide-eyed baby boy.
“Lots of people had keys to the place and could just walk in anytime,” the Intake Worker said. She described the stench in the house, but there was no need—Ronnie had the same sharp, wake-the-dead, garbage dump odor. We opened the windows, sponged the baby off and dumped all his clothes in the washer. I wanted to borrow some incense from the stoners across the street, but Mary wouldn’t let me.
Two weeks turned into months, and a birth goddess social worker was assigned to the case. We had a meeting about the baby’s future. The official who presided over the gathering asked if the parents were following their program. The caseworker said, “They are today.” Translation—the parents had decided that very day that they would start showing up for parenting classes, stop using drugs etc. Better late than never, right? The parents’ rights were not terminated. Several weeks later the father and mother were arrested and back in jail.
The poker players play their cards close to their chests. They are masters of CYA but can be effective. One afternoon Tamara LeBreun, a hard-nosed poker player social worker, came over with a country nurse to inspect our home to see if it was a suitable place for foster kids to live, but I knew the real reason she was there. She wanted to question us to see if we were a good concurrent planning family for Augusta, the foster baby we were trying to adopt.
“This is what concerns me,” she began slowly, deliberately in a mellow staccato. “I am worried that you are trying to adopt Augusta because you feel that she has no one else—that you believe that you are her only lifeline. There are many fine adoptive parents who would love to have her be a part of her family.”
“We know that,” Mary said. She was being more thoughtful and deliberate than usual. Tamara’s chiseled in stone earnestness was catching. “We feel that she is part of our family. She has been for quite a while.”
“What about your age?” she asked. “Mary, you are sixty. What if the demands of parenthood become too much for you?”
Mary was ready for that one. It was a question that had occupied her mind for a while. “I’ll hire a nanny,” she announced. “We have a good income. If I have to get some part time help to work with me then that’s just what we’ll do.”
A rival female in the house challenging Mary’s Alpha Female status? I couldn’t see it.
“Back to my previous question,” said Tamara. (She would have made a great District Attorney). “I am still concerned that you are doing this out of a sense of duty—that you believe you will be the saviors of this little girl. There are other, younger fost-adopt families, and you’ve never said anything about adoption until now. When did you first begin to have interest in adopting Augusta Doubletree? Was it after her mother lost her parental rights that you began to entertain notions about adoption?”
“Yes,” said Mary.
I must have been grinning because they all looked over at me.
“What are you thinking?” asked Tamara.
Baby Augusta was doing one of her tricks for me—the head tilt. I would tilt my head one-way, and she would try and mimic the action. Then, she would tilt her head, and I would copycat.
“It’s been a lot longer than that for me,” I said. For the first time Tamara LeBreun, the hard-nosed poker player, allowed herself the brief hint of a smile. It brightened up the room, like opening up the drapes or a storm outside suddenly and miraculously clearing up.
Suddenly, she didn’t seem to have any more questions. She had been satisfied. “I’ll give my recommendation,” she said.
They drove away. Mary mumbled something about how she wondered what kind of recommendation Tamara would give. For once, I was the optimist—I knew her proposal would be a good one.
Within twenty-four hours we got the word. Tamara gave us her approval, and the judge made his verdict. We were named the official concurrent planning family, and the road to adoption was now free of any obstacles.
That was a good day.