My name is Alexis. I am a social worker.
Being a social worker, sometimes you see things, hear things and learn things that cant be unseen, unheard or unlearned. Those things remain with you, fading over time but linger barely imperceptibly in your mind like a wisp of smoke or the fragment of a disturbing dream.
It’s part of the job, but not the part you see advertised on the recruitment posters. But it is true.
When these cases are resolved, there enters a peace…but when they are not…you are left with a faint but nagging doubt…
Did I do enough?
When I started in social work, I was trained as an investigator for child abuse and neglect. Very early in my career, I met Marty. Well, met is a very generous term to describe our first encounter. Let me back up.
Hard at work typing narratives on my cases, I didnt hear the intake worker enter my cubicle. I let out a startled Yelp when she cleared her throat. She apologized for scaring me and then we both laughed. She handed me a piece of paper, explaining that an emergency had come in and my name was next on rotation. I nodded and looked over the referral as she departed back to the call center.
The referral painted a very vague but disturbing picture. Police had raided a “crack house” and found a three year old girl (Marty) sleeping on the bench seat that had apparently been ripped out of some truck. This was her bed. The house, in deplorable condition, sheltered several adults, including Marty’s mom. The adults were arrested and Marty was brought to the office. The on-call worker took Marty into the play room , where the child immediately scurried under the table and curled into a ball. Terror and Trauma were masks where her innocent face should have been. Trying to engage the child, the on call worker bought Marty a Happy Meal. But the child would not budge from the table. As the Emergency worker, I was expected to interview the child to obtain information about her abuse, any relative resources or basically any information at all. Her mother refused to part with any information other than Marty’s first name and age. So, I was working with a blank slate.
I went to the observation room attached to the playroom, watching the on call worker trying to coax out the frightened child. I could feel the waves of fear and brokenness emanating from that little girl. I knew I would get no information. Marty would not open up until she felt safe. And that would not be today.
I entered the playroom, allowing the on- call worker to exit. Getting on my knees, I peered under the table. Marty turned her head and seemed to roll into a tighter ball. Very softly, I told her my name and let her know I was going to share the play room with her for a while. She did not even look at me.
Then, I turned my back to her, sat on the Sesame Street rug, and started playing with the ABC blocks, spelling out funny words and laughing at some of them.
After almost 15 minutes of this game, never once facing the child, I heard Marty change positions. I did not acknowledge her, aware of what her reaction would be. Instead. I reached over the blocks to pick up 2 stuffed bears; one big and one small. Using them as puppets, I began to create a scenario where one bear made up and recounted a story to the other. The story characters varied from puppies to princesses as the fantasy unfolded.
More time passed. The sound of her movement was closer, so I continued the story game with myself and two bears.
By the time I had been playing about 30 more minutes I saw a small, dirt streaked hand reach out to stroke the little bear. She did not meet my eyes, but remained focused solely on the bear.
I took my hand off the little bear and watched as she slowly drew him to her. Holding him close to her chest, she put her thumb into her mouth but did not look up. For about 10 more minutes. I continued the story telling ending with. “The End”.
I reached up for my lunch bag, containing a sandwhich, chips and a brownie as well as a bottle of water. Putting it on the floor between us, I opened the bag and pulled out the brownie. I first offered it to my bear, but she declined. I then offered it to Marty’s bear, laying the wrapped up treat on a napkin in front of her and picked up a doll. As I brushed the doll’s hair, I watched the child unwrap and eat the brownie.
I never questioned her once. I never met eye contact with her until I got up to leave. All in all I was with her about an hour. As I stood up, I spoke to her.
Marty, thank you for letting me play with you today. Can I come back and play again with you?
She never looked up, never spoke but I saw a brief nodding of her bowed head. I motioned for the foster care worker who had been observing behind the glass to come in. She would ensure that Marty was checked out medically cleaned up and taken to a foster home. Then leaving the rest of my lunch on the table, I left the room, my heart aching for the little girl in so much pain.
I made plans with the foster care worker to see the child again in the foster home that night just to have the presence of a familiar face.
It took several interviews with Marty, predicated by more unrelated play, to get her whole story. I will not pass on that specific trauma to you, but suffice it to say that this was one of the very worst cases of molestation and neglect I had ever worked with.
Her mother was convicted of felony child abuse as was her mother’s boyfriend. Mother could or would never name the father and Marty had never met him.
Marty was placed with a very mature and nurturing foster mother. The transition to structure and responsive parenting was extremely difficult for both Marty and for the foster parent. Marty had been raised with no boundaries, no social skills and in fact very little communication skills. She required intensive therapy, skill building, educational tutoring and speech therapy. Her behavioral outbursts were numerous and dramatic. But the foster parent dug in and did not abandon her.
That foster parent saved Marty. This I know for sure.
As I said, there are those cases that never leave you and this was one. But, while I remember the horrible beginning, I cling to the beautiful resolution.
Although the case had been transferred to foster care early, I kept up with it at least monthly. Mother’s parental rights were terminated. And after 2 years of placement, the foster parent adopted Marty. I went to the hearing for closure. Seeing this beautiful 5 year old girl, long blonde curls cascading down a pretty pink dress and watching her face as the judge declared her new mommy…tears formed in my eyes.
I hold that memory in my mind whenever I wonder why I embarked on the career of social work. Because when I think of Marty, I know…
It was all worth it.