The First Time I Had to Tell a Child She'd Never Go Home Again

The First Time I Had to Tell a Child She'd Never Go Home Again
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Why you should care

Because life as a kid shouldn’t be so tough.

The moment had come. I decided to tell her. We sat in the sun dipping our feet in the dark-blue pool water. I had taken her to the community center that sunny afternoon, after the court order was issued, trying to find the words to deliver the news.

We had the place to ourselves. It was a hot, August day and she jumped, splashed and played, like any other carefree 9-year-old enjoying summer.

I sat near the lifeguard’s chair and prepared to tell her that she was never going home again. I wanted to protect her from that pain, but that was impossible.

Tracey’s mother was a lifelong substance abuser who’d been using cocaine and heroin since the then-2-year-old Tracey was removed from her care. Her mother had just relapsed again, but this time the consequences were permanent.

Tracey had been in the foster system for seven years and her case was one of the oldest ones that had come to our organization after her original agency was closed down, lingering well past the time that children are now legally permitted to stay in placement.

But Tracey was removed from her mother before these legislative changes, and in her case, there had been numerous court dates and continued adjournments that gave her mother another chance at sobriety. There had been many years of substance abuse treatment and working toward reunification and now, just when she was scheduled to begin an overnight visit with her mother for the first time in seven years, the lab showed a positive result for cocaine. A follow-up test confirmed it.

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The author at work, rest and play.

The unsupervised visit was immediately canceled. More court dates ensued and the decision was finally made; the state was filing to terminate Tracey’s biological mother’s rights. Tracey’s almost decadelong experience in foster care would finally end. Ms. Rodney, her foster mother, was going to adopt her.

Tracey soon tired from playing in the water and sat next to me on the edge of the pool. I knew it was time to tell her.

“Remember how we have been talking about how your mom has been sick [this is often the term children use to refer to a parent who is a substance abuser] for a long time, and we weren’t sure yet what the plan was for this year?” I began. “Yeah,” she nodded, dipping her big toe in the water, “I know my mom may still be sick.” Her voice trailed off and she looked at me expectantly, suddenly realizing that something was about to happen.

I carefully explained what happened at court and how the judge reviewed how many years her case has been open, how long her mom has been ill and that the decision was made that she was going to live with Ms. Rodney permanently and will not be able to live with her mom again. I knew in the near future I would discuss Ms. Rodney adopting her, but today this major change was enough for her to digest.

As a social worker specializing in treating at-risk children in foster care, Tracey was my first child not to go home. There were many more after her, but she was the first. Tracey’s mother’s addiction had paralyzed her ability to care for her child. Her mother exploded on me, yelling with indignation for the whole office to hear, when I reviewed the lab results with her showing the positive toxicology test, screaming that it was “all a lie.”

Until a follow-up test showed the same result.

Tracey stared at me in what looked like shock, confronted by the reality she hoped would never come. I could see her mind processing all of the information I had just shared. And then she asked, with disbelief in her voice, “As in never, I can never go home to my mom again?”

I continued on, trying to explain the complicated court system in child-friendly terms, but with gentle honesty so she understood what was happening. I told her how brave she was and that we were going to get through this one day at a time.

She asked me one more question: “Will I ever get to see my mother again?” Ms. Rodney had already shared with me that she would be willing to bring Tracey to visits with her mother, as long as her mother was not under the influence, but ultimately after the adoption is finalized, it will be at Ms. Rodney’s discretion, at least until Tracey is 18.

I explained that she would get to see her mom as long as her mom was well enough to come for the visit. She nodded, understanding in a way that no 9-year-old ever should, exactly what this meant. Then, the weight of the conversation hit her, and her little body began to tremble and huge tears rolled down her cheeks. She threw her head onto my shoulder and let out deep, heaving sobs.

I hugged her and tried to calm her, whispering words of support. She cried until her body wore down, but kept her face buried in my shoulder. Finally, she spoke. “You know,” she began, her voice barely audible, “as sad as I am, maybe it is somehow better this way. At least now I know where I am going to be.

Tracey had been through several foster parents before Ms. Rodney. In her previous home, before she was a case with our agency, she was abused by a couple (a school principal and a pastor), and at just 7 years old, she ran away from that home and somehow navigated the complicated New York City subway system and made it back to her mother’s house. She was removed from those foster parents, and they were investigated and prohibited from ever having foster children again.

Then she was placed with Ms. Rodney, arriving one night at 2 a.m. as an “emergency placement” with just a small bag filled with her belongings. Ms. Rodney was a quiet, subdued older woman with grown children who kept an immaculate home and had welcomed Tracey. Their relationship was peaceful, but I sensed an invisible wall between them. Tracey was holding back from really bonding with her in case she ended up going “home.”

As the sun began to set, we packed up our towels and got ready to go. Ms. Rodney was waiting with dinner for Tracey. On the subway ride home she was quiet, appearing both heartbroken and peaceful at the same time. The questions and uncertainty that had been pounding around in her head for so many years had finally been answered. As painful as it was, she now knew where her home would be.

Nine months later, I left that children’s nonprofit agency and met with Tracey for the last time. Instead of a formal office visit, I took her out for pizza and we talked about how her year had gone, how she was doing in school and the adoption process. Before we said goodbye, I gave her a blue-and-silver mood ring, the kind that claims to change colors depending on how you are feeling. Being 9 years old, she loved those types of things. She turned the ring over in her hand, inspecting it slowly, and then looked up and smiled a cheeky grin and put it on her ring finger.

A year after I had my last session with Tracey, her adoption was finalized. She had a permanent home. Her new social worker and I kept in touch, and she told me on her first visit to Ms. Rodney’s house that on the fireplace mantel, there was a framed picture of Tracey and me, smiling at the camera.

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Misha V. is a freelance writer and social worker who specializes in treating at-risk children and families.

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