Discovering the Greek tragedies in high school, I enjoyed the intense emotionally charged storylines. The story of Oedipus particularly intrigued me.
Although warned that his path would lead to tragedy, Oedipus, blinded by his own hubris, ignored the warnings and proceeded on his ill- fated journey. When he later realized that his figurative blindness led to disaster (as he was warned), he literally put out his own eyes. He blinded himself.
Oedipus embodied the tragic greek figure of yore. But, in some ways, his story is relatable today.
I, for one, have been guilty of blinding myself to guidance and warnings only to pay for it in the end.
As a new social worker, I thought I would save all of the abused children in the world. I worked tirelessly in my zeal to accomplish all that I thought was right. I enjoyed the praise of my supervisors, the director and even the judge when my plans were successful. Children were reunited, or adopted, as I put my energy into one or the other. I knew how to assess prognosis and how to accomplish the right outcome for these kids.
Wow! Notice all the “my”s? Talk about Hubris, Right?
But that was my path.
Until I met Jan.
Jan lost her children 5 years prior to my assignment of her case. As an alcoholic, she had not thought about her two small children one cold December night. She, shaking with need, left them alone in an apartment and went in search of a drink. The 2 and 3 year old children were found wandering barefoot along a busy street. Police picked them up and put them into state custody. Jan tried feebly to get them back at first, but eventually the pull of her demons was stronger than the pull of her kids.
The children, Janis and Reba, were placed with the Forts, a wealthy, stable foster family. They blossomed in the home, having more advantages than many children their ages.
When the case was assigned to me, my plan was to prepare a case to terminate the parental rights of Jan so that the Forts could adopt. I questioned why it had taken 5 years to get to this point (this was before ASFA) and was told the previous worker knew the kids were safe and just never got around to it.
I began the case review necessary to create the termination petition. I knew that a relative search had taken place years ago, but wanted to reconnect with the family to be able to avow that they were unable to care for the girls. All relatives confirmed that they were financially unable to care for the children. I prepared to move forward on the termination.
Then, as a complete surprise, I was visited by Jan. The record documented that she could not be located. She had, according to the previous worker, disappeared. Yet now I found myself looking at a small, attractive woman with bright blue eyes flashing fire in my direction as she announced that she wanted her children back!
She talked of hitting rock bottom after losing her girls, drinking and using drugs to numb the pain. After passing out on a bus, she was taken to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Detoxing was hell, but she made it through. After the hospital, she entered an out patient program, where she was finally able to address her childhood abuse (the underlying cause of her substance use). She showed me her 1 year chip and gave me the name of her sponsor for verification. She had not come forward earlier because she wanted to make sure she was stable before getting back into her children’s life.
I was moved by Jan’s story, but judged her rehab as being too late. Her children, now 7 and 8, had come to view their foster parents as their parents. The foster parents, being wealthy, could provide so much more for these kids than a mother who worked at Burger King. And what kind of mother waits 4 years before trying to get her kids back?
I gave my supervisor all the reasons we should continue with the termination. She listened and reminded me that families of origin are often worth so much more, in the eyes of the children, then all of the gold in the world. She warned me not to get caught up in the appearances, but really see what would be best for the kids.
I met with the foster parents who were understandably angry and dismayed that the children were going to start visitation with their mother. I assured them that I was on their side and that the visits were just a formality to be able to demonstrate to the court that despite trying to reconnect the girls to their mother, they would not want to return to her.
Then came the visits.
I supervised each one so that I could document the antipathy of the girls towards their mother.
On the first visit, I felt validated. The girls were apprehensive and unyielding. Jan tried to engage them, but they barely acknowledged her.
The second visit, much the same, made me wonder if Jan would even show up for the third.
But she came back.
On the third visit Jan brought some old, folded drawings that she told the girls she had carried with her since they left. Curiously, the girls looked at the drawings and laughed at Janis’ crude renderings of stick figures, grotesquely large head and eyes on tiny line bodies. Jan started talking with them about the things they had done together. I watched as Janis’ face started to soften and I saw recognition in her eyes. She moved closer to her mother, touching her hair. Reba watched.
And as the subsequent visits occurred over the next few months, I watched as these children reunited their hearts with the mother who had abandoned them.
The investigation into her current life demonstrated that not only had she been clean and sober for over a year, but also that she was employed, had an apartment and actually gave back to the community as a peer counselor for the out patient clinic. No judge would grant a TPR on her. I had to admit I was wrong to think I knew what was best without really engaging with this mother. I judged her based on her past actions without considering the underlying issue or her capacity to change.
Having to face the foster parents with the truth proved extremely difficult, especially after I had ignored my supervisor’s warning and sided with them. They hired an attorney to fight reunification. The court case lasted for a week. The children’s therapist and I both testified to the children’s wishes to reunite with their mother. The judge even questioned them in his chambers. He ruled that Janis and Reba would go home with their mother.
By that experience, learned a valuable lesson that followed me throughout my career. I learned that I was Never the expert on other people’s lives. My judgement and plan-making around families would fail unless I really understood the value of the birth family, let go of the notion that more resources could replace family identity and that the family needed to be involved in intervention planning. The crow I consumed tasted foul, but thankfully the taste has lingered in my mouth these past three decades. Because those tenets were the first steps in my journey to becoming a better social worker and a better person.