Photo Credit: Joshua Adam Nuzzo; Licence: Editorial Use Authorized
In a former life, I was a Child Protection Worker, which is the type of job that earns praise from some, and boos and hisses from others. It’s an exhausting and nearly always thankless job, though that isn’t the reason I left it. Challenging though the position was, it was the intra-agency and inter-agency politics that ultimately drove me away. The problem with employment that carries with it a great deal of liability is that everyone is eager to “pass the buck.” If you’re the type of person who is in the job because you want to do something good, it can become very frustrating to work in an environment where people want to be competitive instead of cooperative.
That sort of environment also tends to breed a more intrusive way of working with families. My informal statistic from personal experience is that 99% of the parents with whom I had involvement were not bad parents. Sometimes they were victims of bad circumstances, sometimes they just hadn’t had good parenting role models themselves, but all of those 99% wanted to keep their children safe, and maybe just didn’t know how. The other 1% were bad people and — perhaps unfortunately — you can’t licence baby-making. Having not come from the circumstances that the 99% group had experienced, I didn’t really feel I was in a position to judge. Other workers had a different opinion.
Mind you, this wasn’t my experience in all of the child protection agencies for which I worked, but it was my finding in 2 out of 3, and that’s enough to make me feel there is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed before we as a society can effectively ensure positive outcomes for children.
I don’t want to downplay the incredible work that Child Protection Workers do. There are a lot of children today whose lives have been improved, and a good number whose lives have been saved, because of a Child Protection Worker. I just want to illustrate: the job ain’t any picnic.
Several years ago, I was involved with a single dad and his kids, and it eventually became necessary to remove the children from the father’s care. The man was riddled with addictions and his children were subjected to the most appalling neglect. The children — a young boy and older girl — didn’t have much hope of being reunited with their father. Although it was always my intention to work with parents such that their children could be returned to their parents’ care, it was clear early on that this father didn’t want to put in the effort.
The children’s mother was absent. Rumours were that she, too, was addicted to crack cocaine and the children had not seen her in two years. I anticipated that these children would become part of “the system.”
It is required by law to expend a great deal of effort in seeking out parents of any children brought into care, and so I began searching for the mother, not holding out much hope of finding her, or finding her to be a parent who could provide appropriate care to her children.
Then, one day, I managed to locate her. She’d gotten off the drugs, was receiving treatment for her addictions and mental illness, and was working hard to turn her life around.
I am not going to say that this mother didn’t have a lot of obstacles to overcome before she could adequately parent the kids but, after my initial conversations with her, I arranged a visit between her and the children, and it was clear that she was extremely motivated to care for her children.
There was one question I had to ask, though: why had she abandoned her children? I understand that addictions take over a person’s life, and pretty soon nothing much matters but where to get the next high. It’s a condition that deserves pity, not ridicule. But I had to know the answer if I had any chance of convincing a judge that this woman had been sufficiently rehabilitated to be a good caregiver.
She told me a harrowing tale of having left because she was so terrified of the children’s father, who had abused her.
“Didn’t you worry about him caring for the kids?”
“Of course!” she replied. She then told me that she had even gone back with an intention of taking them from him, but she realized, as she was bringing them outside into the snow, that she couldn’t provide them the care they needed. So she left, and fell into a two-year depression, laden with drugs and all sorts of self-abuse. It was a decision she regretted, but she was ready to make amends.
Readers, it took a long time, but those kids were eventually placed in their mother’s care, and it was a happy ending for them.
The mother lived about 400km away and I had to transport the children to her home. I was buried in work, though, and the only day I could do it was December 23rd. It’ll be a nice Christmas present, I thought.
That day, a fierce blizzard raged. Coworkers tried to encourage me not to drive the children that day. I looked outside and figured I’d driven in a lot worse before. I wasn’t anxious to do that long drive in such conditions, but then the thought of calling up their mother and saying that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas didn’t appeal to me either. So, in a decision that hindsight later rebuked, I felt that, if I drove slowly and carefully, I would be able to make it without incident.
I drove into the storm, so it got a lot worse as the trip wore on. I also had to drive through a stretch of Ontario that had no gas stations for a couple hundred kilometers, no lights, and no cell phone signal. There were steep hills and, a couple times, as I inched my way down one, I prayed that the person behind me would be just as cautious. I began to realize what I wished I had realized earlier: I can be careful all I want; it’s the other drivers who might kill us! One wrong move, and the mother’s Christmas present might be her precious children at the bottom of a frozen lake.
I’ll alleviate your anxiety now by saying that we made it safely to their new home — albeit about 4 hours later than I had planned. An incandescent Christmas scene awaited them, with sparkling tree, shiny wrapped gifts, and warm beds.
Today, I am thankful for the capacity of people to change. No matter the profound depths to which each of us might descend, no matter what bad decisions we might make, no matter what abuse we subject ourselves to, there is always a chance that we might turn it around and make a life worthy of awe. That is what these children’s mother did, and the beautiful difference she made in her children’s lives cannot be measured.
My professional relationship with the family now long severed, I can’t tell you how everything turned out for those kids in the end. Work with the family was transferred to another agency shortly after the children were placed in their mother’s care. I checked in about a year later, though, and am pleased to report that they were still doing well. Of course, like any family, they had their bumps in the road, and I’ll even acknowledge that their bumps were maybe a little bigger than the bumps most other families experience. But despite the obstacles they faced, there was a lot of love in that family, and I can confirm something I have learned from experience: with enough love, pretty much everything works out alright in the end.