Microcosms of Community Dysfunction

While the world watched in horror last week as the streets of Ferguson were militarized, I was living a microcosm of a broken system that purports to be about social service. Somewhere, as a society, we have gone horribly wrong. Yet as I lived my tiny slice of life amidst the wider community drama, I find myself ever more perplexed.

Our story is that we became foster parents in April for two young girls, ages (now) 10 and 11. Prior to their placement with us, the girls had lived in a series of homes with relatives, never with biological parent, and always in extreme poverty. Growing up in the economic underbelly of our social structure, the girls were well acquainted with hunger, abuse, and neglect. Expectations around family rituals (meals, bedtime, bath time) were anathema; an indication of privilege not extended to every child in America. Highly skilled in manipulation and hopelessly delayed in academics, the girls had attended a new school every year and sometimes more than one; last year they attended three, this year they will begin their second as the second week of school begins.

To say that we had to navigate difficult behaviors would be an understatement, but my wife is a veteran 6th grade teacher (now working with troubled teens) and well equipped for the task. She was home for a couple of months (thanks to veteran teacher status) and was full-time mommy adding structure and rewards as needed. We had many difficult days, endless trips to doctors, and detailed reports to write. But as the girls packed their stuff yesterday, they carried their prized scooters, earned with good behavior, proudly to their case manager’s car.

Our time with the girls ended last night, one week shy of a four-month tour. By all accounts too soon except maybe not soon enough. For the remainder of our days we will likely process the lessons learned and unlearned. The girls’ challenges were, always, the small part of our challenge. And lest you read nothing else you should hear that everyone with whom we worked was a well-intentioned so-called liberal white woman. Like me. So what could go so terribly wrong?

From the beginning there was a struggle. And in the beginning we understood the trouble to be, appropriately, about transition. The girls had been taken from school on a Monday morning, told that they would never return home (an aunt’s home was their most recent home), and dropped into our lives with (literally) only the shirts on their backs. The move itself was nothing short of traumatic. Previously having lived in exclusively African-American homes and with extreme poverty, they were now expected to thrive in the glare of privileged white women: mothers, social workers, teachers, principal, counselor. All of us good peeps, not one of us poor, not one of us black, not one of us a terrified child. What they had was each other and in their relationship they brought what they knew, dysfunction.

Tragically the adults didn’t remember the cardinal rule of parenting: don’t eat your own teammates. Fostering is a team with parents, social workers, counselor and even a DJO. While my dear one and I grew closer (much) in the midst of parenting these young girls, the team as whole didn’t fare so well. First there was talk of our being (or not being) a good match as parents for the girls. Then  there was talk of the counselor being (or not being) a good fit. Then it was back to pointing fingers at us, the foster parents; apparently the supervisor also took a swipe at the case manager. For our part, we were indignant. Volunteering our home, our hearts, our lives and (yes) our expertise, we were not well suited to the innuendos and outright rudeness of those that (literally) attempted to distinguish themselves from us using the word “professional”. (Even as I type, my anger rises.) Ironically my wife and I, as individuals let alone in combination, had more experience and education than those claiming to be “professional”.  And so hubris lobbed and houses tumbled, ultimately a power play was made and the girls were moved from our home to a “more culturally appropriate” home (quote from the case manager to the child).

Also true is that the girls need more care than we will be able to provide during the school year. As teachers, both of us now, we cannot provide good supervision for children who are suspended and already in their first mont with us one was suspended. After their placement we learned that the other had also already been suspended once. Given the history of suspensions and the behaviors during the summer, we could only expect suspensions to become more frequent. While the decision to move the girls was not ours, and a product of “tension in the team” (quote from the case manager’s supervisor), we did not contest the decision. In part worn down from the adult struggle, we also knew the needed level of care was not sustainable in our home.

What I witnessed in the team decision meeting, however, was deeply troubling. White women, all of us (with one white man observer and one African-American dad via phone conference), talking nonsense about what African-American girls need. The case manager suggested that the girls needed to be in a black home because the elder child deeply missed her family (as if all black folks are from the same family!), that ours was a white home (completely dismissing our African-American daughter who has been a key presence in the girls’ lives with us), and suggesting that our home was “too restrictive” because we didn’t “let the girls have space to fight it out” (dismissing the real issue that their fights invariably escalated until one or the other was injured). Perhaps most shocking were direct lies made from “professional” staff, but most troubling were comments that belied an utter failure to understand the issues with which the children are really struggling.

Our experience with the system is one very small sampling, but it played out as I watched the news this week in silent horror. Michael Brown gunned down with his hands held high. Tear gas and rubber bullets sprayed as people prayed with their feet. Character assassinations used to trump sharing of relevant information. My heart sick with what passes for “public safety”, I found the same elusive in my home. Following the decision on Monday to move the girls, drama was in high gear at home and violence the only tool they had to express their rage. On Tuesday evening I had planned to attend a forum in Ferguson but the school bus was three hours late (yes, we are in a chronically underfunded school district), the social workers were sitting in our living room waiting for the girls and making racially insensitive comments, and when we were finally all home and the social workers gone, the elder child went into a rage and physically attacked first her sister and then my wife. I watched helplessly as my wife covered her face and attempted to get away from the raging child.  Thankfully now on the other side, I am left to hold the shards in sad wonderment.

Perhaps one small take away truth is the essential value of humility. We do not know what we do not know. This acknowledgement of what is unknown and openness to learning was missing from our Monday meeting, it was missing too from the police officer’s encounter with Michael Brown, it was missing again when the Ferguson Police Chief Jackson reignited rage by obfuscating the release of the officer’s name with footage of a cigar box theft. If at any point the adults had paused to listen, the outcomes would have been different.

With so much that we cannot change, this one small piece we can. We can own the story that is our own and in so doing acknowledge all the rest that is not and by definition unknowable. What we know is always a small microcosm of the whole, and (tragically) often a misleading piece. At the end of the day, I do not know what is best for the girls that came into our lives and I have every reason to believe that they will be well cared for and loved in their new home. My serenity rests in my humility, letting go of my need to control, to know, to dictate. As I find windows of peace this morning at my desk, I pray for this same humility to find root in our wider community.

Today I tune my ears to those who’ve been denied justice and who are now refusing to make peace. I cannot help but believe that the truth we need for this important crossroad lies not in my experience but rather in my openness to the voices of others whose experiences may be different from mine.