Life on the Streets through a Social Worker’s Eyes

Today I told someone my address and gave them Oakland as my city instead of Columbus. An odd thing to come out of my mouth after eleven years have passed. From 1996-2010, I lived in Oakland, Fremont and Hayward, California. During this time, I worked for the Berkeley Head Start program and Alameda County Department of Social Services.

I “held” children from all different types of backgrounds: giving them hugs, holding their hands, providing transportation, sharing meals and listening to their stories. I read hundreds of court reports when the case was transferred over or wrote them myself. I gave them love by building trust with them through honesty and support and following through on their needs and wants. We worked a 37.5 hour week though there were times I was off the “clock” or didn’t take a lunch and a break – what was that? The best of us worked our hearts off doing due diligence for other people’s children and sometimes the quality effort, being self-assigned to a family, didn’t include looking at the clock. We were martyrs but it is easy to get lost in a life; that so desperately needs your help. Especially when those that were supposed to, had let them down so many times before – even us.

When you hear their stories, it is hard not to get lost, in the plot that is unfolding, while you are mentally taking notes of what it will take to turn this situation around. What you will need to do to try and give them some sort of stability, security, hope, faith that their life can be just a little bit better.

It wasn’t the kids that were really tough, although some pushed your buttons as best they possibly could. You empathized with the kids, even still because they were children. They didn’t know any better, they only knew trauma, we were witnessing their symptoms not their hatred. It was the adults that caused the trouble and not even the families, as they didn’t know any better either. The professionals, who didn’t know the whole picture of why you were doing what you were doing, on the case, because they had their minds made up. The people who wanted to be right and who never really met the persons you were helping along the way; for so many years. This was where I met the most agony in that time. But, this was eleven years ago and I am here now. I write this because the children’s stories are so deep and multilayered and not something most people can relate to in our every day life.

In California, unlike Ohio, corporal punishment is a reason for removal. The state defined federal terms for abuse and neglect, at the hands of a parent (s), who aren’t capable of opening their hands for a spanking but must put something in their clenched fist. Parents who don’t protect their children from predators and the child is sexually abused by family or neighbors or drug dealers and pimps. Children who continue to be abused by those who “foster” them legally or illegally by someone who hands them over (not as common in the former).

Girls who were prostituted by men (big boys) who waited for them outside of group homes. Trunks open, with scanty clothes inside and promises of dinners posed as dates, and words such as boyfriend or uncle or godfather or daddy, are used to give a faux sense of love and support to someone so eager to have it. Girls who were already sexually abused prior to meeting the new “friend.” After the gifts came the payment that some probably assumed and others felt guilty enough to assume the debt.

Girls who would tell me that at least they got to “choose” their perpetrators. Disregarding the fact that they were working for a pimp and the only choice was to walk the street at night. Girls who would tell me that they got money for the job (the majority of which was shared with the stockholder). Girls who were so sexualized before they turned 18 that they couldn’t sit still, lost their identities, in a couple of my cases split into other identities mentally, became pimps themselves, and were unable to behave in any other way that wasn’t promiscuous, as they were always trying to sell themselves, because they didn’t know any other way to behave. Somatic resonance and chronic dissociation.

Mental illness, suicidal impulses and actions, and in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Pre-pubescent teens, with the onset of symptoms, like a wolf at a full moon. Over-medicated children, that finally received some respite when the judges demanded an Ex-Parte and then Interim Reports for any new prescription and follow-ups in between. Foster parents giving up on the cute little babes, that began to develop, and turned from sweetness and admiration to threats of harm toward the hosts. Out of control little beings, who ran away and engaged in things outside the house that sought its way in, upon their return.

Girls group homes were filled with drama. Fights over brushes or clothes that were touched by another. Hair didn’t look right, she looked at me with attitude, she doesn’t care, or she doesn’t respect me. Boys groups homes held a ritual. You came in and if you needed to be shown the ropes, you’d get thrashed – by another, and then you’d know how things worked. The drama was simple and quick for the most part; rather than lingering. Boys were okay with just having someone who cared about them. As most parents will say, boys are easier to raise. They appreciate knowing that someone has their back and weren’t so quick to resist and acknowledged even; from time to time.

Gang member wannabe’s flocked the homes; some actually were involved. Some came from this culture already and it was part of their identity. Homicidal intent less often but occurred. Death by suicide; whether accidental or not. Friends or boy/girlfriends who were murdered. Rapes by one or several at a time. Most of this never made the papers. How could they? The demand was just too high. Partnering with the police and in some cases the FBI.

Families who were deeply confused. Some from several generations of trauma, poverty, lack of an education, incarceration, gang affiliation, almost all using something. How can they know how to raise a child when they didn’t learn from the parents before them? How could our own children who became mother’s, learn to raise children, after living in group homes, psychiatric hospitals and juvenile hall for many years. What role did we NOT play as a social worker?

Many of us worked hard to reunify at various stages along the way. Sometimes it had been too long and the process became too awkward. It was a fantasy realized in some cases that quickly became a flop. I had suggested once that this concept might be better realized (and successful) from the entry stage. But, it cost more money to keep them at the back end then the front and while I was heard; finances won. I empathized but we all knew from experience, that delayed reunification causes too much emotional damage to repair. Still, we tried; as this was our job.

The love for these children was vast and unconditional. We had a job to do but one that involved concern for a life, for a person’s dignity, someone who needed to feel valued and respected. I often wonder what happened to these people after the fact. Where are they now? How many succeeded and made a better life for themselves? How many were able to shift the family dynamic into a healthier one? Even though some will be incarcerated, will die, will re-offend like they were taught, still others will have some success.

I leave you with a poem I was given, from an adolescent girl I worked with once; who’s street name was KC Gurl. (SIC)

Left Alone

Tic Toc, the clock goes on as I’m standing on the block in my steiltos. With a guy to my right and a guy to my left trying to put up a fight. Left alone, without a home, with no where to go. Stranded. Im think its 12:00 time to go home but where too. My feet is on fire, hurting, burning, but still no food or shelter. Every night, I pray to God “Why me Im only 16.” Left alone without a home. I wanna Succeed, please. I wanna be a millonare, a champion, in a castle not in a casket. Beat up, almost died, cried, lonely, but still stranded on this corner. Left alone with nobody but me. Stranded in the darkness. Living hell. Guess what? Now Im in jail.

*In memory of Randy. In remembrance of all the boys and girls that I took care of during those eight years. You will forever hold a place in my heart. Peace.

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