I’ve known the author of the following article for a long time and only now heard her story. It is a very sad story that happens when service providers are overworked, undertrained, and as you will read, unable to rise to their complicated tasks.
In defense of the profession, in the twelve years I worked as a guardian ad-Litem, this story did not happen to me. The social workers I was engaged with were truly committed and in this line of work because they loved kids and wanted to make a difference in their community. Social work is a calling (being a nanny pays way better and is much easier).
It is my belief that people want to do their work well, especially when it involves the welfare of abandoned, helpless children. This story does not reflect that.
When a person fails to complete a simple task, and a tragedy occurs, we (the system/management) should find the problem and insure that it can’t happen again.
The problem lies it a system that is not well designed to see to the well being of the children it is meant to serve. This system is being undermined by our current economic chaos, and children are suffering.
There needs to be accountability and a greater responsiveness built into our child protection system. This will not happen without public support and more resources.
Not valuing children reflects badly on our society and it is beginning to show.
If children were as important as expensive business machines, the doctor would have had the authority to save this child’s life (or some other fail safe process would have been in place.
KARA supports more training, better resources, and greater attention to the needs of social workers, teachers, and service providers to at risk children, because it is difficult work.
This unfortunately cannot change what happened to Portia.
She would have turned 13 this summer, had she lived beyond seven weeks. She could have been my daughter, had I chosen to foster and later adopt her as I had with her older brother and sister.
Instead, all that I have to remember her by are the pictures from her big sisters 3rd birthday and the bulletin from her funeral. Her tiny casket was paid for by Ramsey County Child Protection; her grave was unmarked.
I knew of Portia before she had ever entered the world. The child protection worker assigned to her older siblings called to inform me that my foster children’s mother, Faith, was expecting again.
This next child would be her seventh. The six children she had already birthed were split up in four different homes – three foster homes and one child was with his father.
After the six children, ranging in age from nine months to 14 years, were removed from her care after being left alone in their apartment for five days, it was decided that the next baby would be removed at birth and placed directly into foster care. Because the one year old and two year old were placed with me, it made sense to make a placement agreement for her unborn child to be with her siblings.
I was reluctant to accept this placement, this child. Her one-year-old brother had come to me, for the first time, when he was two weeks and six days old.
Faith probably nursed him in the first few weeks of life. The act of breastfeeding a newborn would normally be considered a loving act by a mother, giving her baby the healthiest food available, but when the mother is using crack cocaine it is as bad as mainlining the drug right into the newborn’s veins.
When my son came to me, his tiny frame would tense up and shake as if he were having a seizure. Not knowing what to do, I did what came to me instinctually. I would hold him and rock him and soothe him until the shaking would pass. This two-week-old baby was going through withdrawal. By removing him from the mother and placing him with me, his supply had been cut off and he was experiencing life, for the first time since conception, without the influence of drugs.
In the seven-and-a-half months that my son was with me following his initial placement in my home, I watched him grow from a tiny newborn to a robust eight month old.
He still harbored the effects of being addicted to cocaine, mainly a high sensitivity to sound, but he was still hitting all of his developmental milestones and was on target for both his height and weight. He even said, “I love you” as clear as a bell when he was only six months old. Of course he only said it once and I was the only one present to hear him, but he said it and I quickly called everyone I knew to share this accomplishment.
When his mom got out of jail, he was returned to her. However, Faith heard the cry of crack louder than she heard the cries of her children and she very quickly went back to her drugs and prostituted herself to support her habit.
Her six children were only with her five weeks before the police went into the apartment on a Sunday afternoon and found that the children had been alone since Wednesday. Two weeks later, after a short stay in a shelter, my son came back to me. The social worker asked if I would also take his two-year-old sister.
Here we were several months later and my children’s birth mother was expecting again. Although initially I wanted to say, “yes” to this child, my mind became consumed with all of the “what-ifs?”
I knew this child was also being exposed to crack in utero, just like my son; what if the challenges of taking care of another crack baby were too much for me? My son and his sister were two of thirteen children I took care of on a regular basis, at least three of the children were born addicted to crack and three had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. (It is not certain if my daughter, the child who was two at the time, was exposed to crack in utero.
To this day she does not exhibit the symptoms that I have come to recognize as the effects of crack on a fetus.) Could I handle another new born experiencing withdrawal considering everything else I had on my plate?
Towards the beginning of her second trimester, my children’s birth mother was arrested and sentenced to serve enough time that she would likely carry out the remainder of her pregnancy in jail. I was relieved to know this. I thought this would cut off Faith’s supply of drugs and therefore the child would not be born addicted.
Sadly, her little heart and other organs were formed while her mother was using crack, but at least she would not be born addicted. I felt confident that I could handle this child and I was ready to move forward with the placement agreement, once little Portia was born.
It didn’t take long for folks more seasoned than myself to laugh at my expectation that this child would not be born addicted to crack because her mom was in jail. I remember one worker saying to me “Honey, if you think this mom isn’t getting her fix in jail, I have some great property in Alaska I would like to sell you.”
I guess I was naïve in thinking that jail kept the bad guys in and the bad things out. I was told that it was very likely that this baby would be exposed to crack through out her entire gestation period. I called the social worker and told her to come up with another placement plan.
When Portia was born, she was placed in the home of a trusted foster parent, a woman with several decades of experience in the system. In the mid-nineties, however, crack was still a relatively new phenomenon. All of us raising crack kids were still trying to figure out just how this exposure on the fetus would impact the child through out its life.
I don’t know what this woman’s experience was in caring for babies with this unique special need and none of us knew, at the time, what the long term impact of crack exposure would mean for these children. Another one of my children, born four years before Portia, participated in a long-term study investigating the effects of crack exposure in utero on the child’s development.
By the time Portia was born, this study had not yet been released, but I didn’t need a study to tell me that her needs would be very great; I had real life experience, and the bags under my eyes to prove it!
Portia was born July 30, 1997, two weeks after her big sister’s third birthday. We waited until the baby was born and had a party at our home celebrating both occasions. The birth mother had been allowed a daytime visitation so she came to our home with all of her children, including the baby.
I remember holding Portia and rocking her on the glider chair in my yard. She was the same age as my son when he came to me at two weeks old twenty months earlier, but Portia seemed very different. My son would shake violently, his whole body stiffening up and then relaxing. Portia didn’t do this.
Her body didn’t shake from violent tremors; her breath did not intensify and then slow back into a rhythm of deep, slow breathing. By contrast, her breath seemed very shallow, her skin appeared dusky. My neighbor even commented, “Something is wrong with that baby.” We didn’t know at that time that it was her heart.
On September 19, the social worker called to tell me that Portia’s was being admitted to the hospital and needed surgery on her heart. She asked me if I knew where Faith was because she would need to sign consent forms before her daughter could have the operation. I told her that I wasn’t certain, but I had heard that she might be in Chicago.
My children’s five-year-old brother, the sibling who lived with his father, came over regularly to play at our home. At one point either he or his dad, Leroy, mentioned something about the mom staying with family in Chicago.
The social worker grumbled at the notion that she could be three states away. She asked if I had a number where she could be reached. I didn’t, but I was able to place a call to Leroy and he gave me a possible contact for Faith. When I gave her the number, she mentioned “I could take this before a judge [and obtain consent to perform the surgery], but it is a Friday afternoon”.
“No one wants to do that.”
I wasn’t sure who she meant, “didn’t want to do that”: the judge who would need to sign the paper, the doctor who would need to do the surgery, or her, the child protection worker, who would need to go before the judge.
It struck me as an odd comment, but at the time I was entertaining a gaggle of kids and she needed to get off the phone with me and dial the number I had given her. I wasn’t going to ask her to explain what she meant.
The phone number was a success and Portia’s mother was found. After being told the situation, that her daughter needed this surgery to live and that she needed to sign the consent form for the surgery to be performed, she boarded the next available bus back to the Twin Cities, was taken to the hospital and the paperwork was signed.
She arrived at 2 o’clock in the morning on September 20th; about 15 hours after the doctor said the baby needed surgery.
Portia died shortly after being brought into the operating room. Leroy called me early in the morning and told me that the surgery had been delayed too long. There was no way the doctors could save her at that point.
It is now thirteen years later and even most elementary school kids can tell you that “crack kills.” But beyond the mother’s drug use, could this baby have been saved at any other point along the way? When a child attends daycare, when they are enrolled in school or if they even go overnight to a camp, a parent is required to give consent that medical care can be provided in their absence.
Why is this simple procedure simply overlooked when a child is placed in foster care?