Monday, July 30, 2018

Separating Children From Their Families, Part 1

In the early 1970’s I was working as a caseworker for the county department of social services (also known as the welfare department) in my Appalachian hometown.  My assignment was an Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, caseload.  The AFDC program, in effect from 1935 until 1996, provided federal assistance to children whose family had low or no income.

I don’t recall how many families I served, but it was enough that making home visits to each family was hard to accomplish.  I would read the file on the family and if it appeared that the adult caregiver(s) and the children were doing well (even though they were living in poverty), a phone contact might suffice—if they had a telephone.  

However, several days a week I drove the back streets of my hometown or the mountainous county roads to make home visits to the families on my caseload. Typically, I would check on the well-being of the children, see what services the family might need, and try to match their needs with community resources. 

In my early days as a "welfare worker"
While I worked for social services, a few families took an inordinate amount of my time. The challenges might be a large number of children in the family; adults in the home who had mental health or other health issues; or I suspected that the children were neglected. I returned repeatedly to these homes trying to monitor the situation and to promote a healthier environment for raising children.

During the two-plus years I worked my AFDC caseload, I went to court one time to ask that the courts remove children from a mother’s custody.  This single mother had at least eight children. I worked with the mother for months but she never made much of an effort to comply with the department’s suggestions. The house was filthy. I remember the interior walls had food stuck to them. It appeared there had been a big food fight at some point but no one bothered to clean up afterwards.  A loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly sat out on the table all the time and the children would wander by, fix something to eat—if they were tall enough to reach the table--and keep moving. One of the younger boys in the family frequently had cuts and bruises on his arms and legs, and occasionally his face. When I asked what happened to him, he said one of the older children had hit him or pushed him down, etc. 

At the very least, the children lacked consistent adult supervision and guidance. The worse case scenario was physical abuse also was present in the home. The older children missed school frequently, kept home to babysit the preschool children.

I finally made the decision, with the assistance of my supervisor and other more experienced workers in the department, to take the mother to court to gain temporary custody of the 
children. She had a lawyer, or perhaps the court had appointed the lawyer to represent the children’s interests, I don’t remember.  I do remember testifying.  The lawyer asked me about my previous experience with large families. In another county where I got my start in the field of social services, I had large mountain families on my caseload. I also had served as a substitute teacher in the local Head Start program so I had some job-related experience and sympathy with the problems of poverty.

Mother with infant
I felt these children should be removed from the home with the idea that the foster care worker would then work with the mother to help her improve her parenting skills so the children could be returned to her custody.

After the family services judge heard all the testimony and examined the documentation each side provided, he ruled in favor of the department of social services.  When the deputy went to get the children who were supposed to be waiting in a back room, the mother and her boyfriend had fled the county with the children. I remember being surprised because that was the first time I saw that the mom cared enough about her children to fight for them.  The sheriff didn’t try to apprehend the couple. A warrant for the mom was probably issued.  If she were smart, she never returned to this county.  I know I never saw her or the children again.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Writing Snail Mail

I’m working on a blog post that keeps growing and growing, longer and longer, and I’m fretting over how to deal with it.  Are all the words necessary? Should I divide into parts? As I get frustrated, I think about the writing process.

Homemade envelope from a friend
I remember when I taught middle school and later at various colleges and universities, my students would often become stuck at the beginning of a writing assignment. I advised the students to jump-start their writing by pretending they were composing a letter to a close friend. At this point in the writing process, don’t worry about being perfect, I say.  You’re just sharing information informally with someone. 

This strategy often worked as long as the student fulfilled Part 2 of the process-- revising their writing in accordance with the assignment and editing their grammar, punctuation and spelling, as needed.
I left teaching and moved into administration at the right time, because any effectiveness of that strategy went out the window some years ago.  I can imagine the blank stares of today’s youth.

 “A letter?” someone asks. “I just have to write one letter? I'll take 'T.'”  

“No, I’m not talking about the alphabet. I’m talking about a letter like snail mail.” I say.

“I’ve heard of snail mail, is it anything like email?  My grandmother still uses email,” one student says.

“My grandmother likes Messenger,” says another.

 “I use Snapchat,” a girl volunteers.

“Whatsapp is where it’s at,” the boy sitting across from the girl tells her, flirting a little bit in the process.

“I think Viber is the best,” another girl jumps into the conversation, which is spiraling away from the issue at hand.

“I’m not talking about electronic mail,” I take another stab at it. “I’m talking about letters like the mail carrier brings and puts in your mailbox, the kind you take to the post office.”

Handmade envelope for a friend
“Dr. Edgerton-Scott, we need help writing a critique of this article. Why are you talking about something that no one understands?” another student asks.

“Never mind,” I say. “Who wants to share their strategies for getting started on the critique of the article you’ve read?”

“What’s a critique? they ask. “Are we going to have to think?”