I look at the clock and see that it is 11:55 AM. I am preparing for a six month Family Team Conference at noon; it’s the second FTC that I’ll have with this particular family since I began at the agency. Our goals for the second conference are very much the same as those of the first: Julie* is expected to maintain contact with the agency, complete a drug treatment program, and consistently test negative for drugs. Before I started working here, Julie had already been in and out of several drug treatment programs; in fact, her son was placed into foster care after she relapsed and left him alone at a mother-child treatment facility. Since I have known Julie, she has been in at least six different drug treatment programs—and I have only been here for seven months. The FTC will begin in five minutes and I still have no idea if Julie will show up.
I have not seen Julie since our last conference, and I have only spoken with her on the phone a few times. She will usually call me after she has settled into a new treatment program, and I am always relieved to hear from her. Her phone calls mean that she is not lying in a gutter somewhere in the streets of New York City. When Julie calls, I tell her how great it is to hear from her, how proud I am that she is so proactive about getting herself into treatment. I remind her to call me if she ever needs help, or needs someone to talk to, and offer my assistance if she needs help being referred to services. I also remind her to keep me updated on the progress of her treatment so that I can make sure that her positive progress is documented.
Julie is the mother the whole world loves to hate. She is the mother who struggles with a drug addiction, who takes the blunt force of judgment and criticism from people who refuse to understand why she would continue to use drugs if it means never seeing her son again. Julie tries. She tries so hard, and she is an amazing person and mother. She is incredibly sweet and soft-spoken; she is honest, resilient, loving. She talks about her son and her face lights up; she would give him the world if she could. But Julie carries a monster on her back, and every day she faces the challenge of throwing that monster off of her shoulders knowing that it will be anything but easy. She knows that pushing that monster away means having its claws dig deeper into her skin, holding her clothes until she is numb, until even the thought of pulling away feels far more excruciating than anything that monster could put her through. And so Julie stays, wrapped tightly in the arms of a creature that won’t let her go.
The conference begins 20 minutes late, and eventually, Julie does show up. She looks terrible; her clothes are dirty, her hair is a mess, and she says she is sleeping on the streets and hasn’t showered in over two weeks. She also says that her Medicaid has been turned off and she has been turned away from hospitals, shelters, and rehabilitation centers while struggling with symptoms of withdrawal and not a single item of clothing except what she has on her back. Julie cries and says she gives up. I don’t blame her. But while I fight back tears and try to tell her that there is hope, I also know that I am about to remind her that we need to begin filing a Termination of Parental Rights because her son has been in foster care for too long and on paper, she hasn’t made any progress towards getting him back.
I ask Julie to come to my office, hoping that I can help her with any of the issues she brought with her to the conference. I speak with my supervisor and learn that there is very little that I can do; I can send Julie to the Medicaid office, send an email, make some phone calls, and ask around the office to see if anyone has clothes that might fit her. I direct Julie to a drop-in shelter so that she at least has a place to sleep, but I know that she will walk away feeling just as she did when she walked in—hopeless. And suddenly I see the one thing that I can fix for her right now, and I offer to take her to Target to buy some clothes.
One caramel frappuccino, some basic clothing items, and a grand total of $130 later, Julie is finally smiling. Before she leaves, she tells me that she can’t remember the last time someone did something nice for her without expecting something in return. She hugs me and walks away. I feel good, knowing that if nothing else, someone was kind to Julie today. As I walk back into the agency, I am confronted by a few coworkers who ask where I had gone with Julie. It is quickly brought to my attention that caseworkers are never supposed to go shopping with parents, and I am told in whispers that I “really should not have done that.”
The rest of the day, I struggle with this. I struggle with the fact that so many of these families are viewed merely as clients, not as humans. Julie’s birthday is just a few days after mine and she is only three years older than me. She could have been me. I could have been her. And any day now, she could lose the one person on this earth who keeps her going and gives her hope, her son. It will be my signature, my suggestion on a page that says she no longer has the right to see his face, hear his voice, hold his hand. Still, I know that I must do what is in the best interest of Julie’s son; even if that means that he will be a part of a different family for the rest of his life. This is not the first time I will have to make a decision like this, and it certainly won’t be my last. In this job, there will always be moments when I must do things I do not want to do. But sometimes, I need to do what is right—even if it means breaking a few rules.
*name has been changed