Life Lessons in All Caps

The most recent insanity with the ex seems to have settled.  That’s for another post I guess.  In the meantime, I am mired in other troubles I seem to have somehow brought upon myself.  Usually in attempt to make things better for others I make things worse for myself (from rescuing rabid cats, to befriending the ex’s ex). This isn’t an exception.

A couple years ago, flailing, bereft at times over my shitty custody situation, I became a court appointed special advocate for children.  This basically entails being an advocate for a child currently in the system – this might mean they are in foster care, a group home or in some other way being tracked by the court.  The advocate (me) is the central person tasked with tying all the pieces together – the social worker, the educational components, the psychologists, the attorney etc.  I act as a buddy of sorts to a child, while making sure the services they need are provided.

just after swearing in...

just after swearing in…

A week after training (and after being sworn in by a judge) I sat with a stack of  case files.  They each held information about a child and were were filled with police reports, social worker write-ups and sometimes photos of abuse. It was grim. Eventually the manager of the program pushed me in the direction of one of the files. This girl in particular, said the manager, really needed someone. With a waiting list of several hundred children, she had been waiting a long time for an advocate.

It seemed like a good fit in a way. Though I had initially wanted to work with someone closer to the age of my own children (in a somewhat misguided attempt to fill the sad void the off weeks of custody had provided) I knew I could do something for her. She liked art. She liked to run.  She wanted to go to college. These all seemed like good, happy things for a 13 year old to enjoy.  She had already been removed from her mother’s home due to abuse.  Her siblings had as well. They’d been placed in the home of a relative who was already over taxed taking care of other children in a tiny house with very little income. Further in the report I learned that when her mother went out, which seemed to be often, she was the one feeding her younger siblings.  She was only eight at the time this began happening.  “What did you feed them?” I asked her once.  “Cereal,” she said.  “That’s all there was.”  In this weird sad way, we were alike –  both mothers. I felt a kinship with her.

I had absurdly high hopes when I started the job. Embarrassingly so. Like I remember thinking she would be a phenomenal success story – a future Stanford grad perhaps, a phoenix rising from poverty, abuse, god knows what else.  I thought I myself had this kind of power to pull this off.  She was 13 when I first read her case file and though her life to that point had been characterized by abandonment, abuse and neglect, none of these things seemed insurmountable to me.

For that first year, even the second, everything felt very possible.  We did her homework together, I took her to movies, out to eat, to get her nails done.  At first she didn’t talk much but over time she did.  I heard from the program manager that she liked me very much and liked spending time with me.  She seemed to genuinely want to do well in school. She wanted to go to college.  She did not, and this was her big fear, want to work for McDonalds.

But in the last year things have started to go wrong. She got into a fight at school and was arrested.  I’m still unclear on what happened exactly, but I know that it was with another girl at school and the police were called.  She’s now on probation.  She got a boyfriend who was verbally cruel; he casually called her a whore, a slut, a loser.  I told her to get rid of him. “He’s an dick,” I said. “You are better than him and you have no time for that bullshit.”  She listened.  She agreed.  They split.  Then she started smoking pot, nearly constantly.  She became friends with a dealer who provided her with an endless supply.  Our educational plan meetings in the county office and at her school revealed she was barely attending classes; no one knew where she went during the day.  All these things happened gradually and at first I was able to tell myself they were normal teenaged things.  After all, I reasoned, I’d had crappy boyfriends and skipped algebra. And depending on how you measure these things, I turned out fine.  But for people like her these things are more dire.  The safety net many teens have – involved parents, resources, money, a steady home life, make for a soft landing.  For her though the crappy boyfriend can easily lead to pregnancy, the skipped classes to dropping out, the idle pot use to full blown drug dealing or worse.  This is what poverty and neglect do, cut holes in net.

I continued to take her out to eat, go to movies, attend court dates and educational plan meetings.  She never wanted much from me – to go to Olive Garden, to see a movie, maybe to go and have our nails done.  She still listened to me when I alternately pleaded and lectured.  She told me everything, all her fears and worries, all her risk-taking too. I wrung my hands.  I begged her to go back to school.  We still had a good time those evenings.  We still laughed all the time.  We still joked with one another.  She still seemed like she was listening to me.  I once got on her about writing in all caps all the time on her Facebook page.  We weren’t friends on Facebook, but her profile is open to the public. “Knock that shit off,” I said, “You look like an idiot.”  And she laughed.  She listened though.  She stopped with the all caps after that.

After a while, she didn’t want to see her therapist anymore.  She was done with her tutor who’d been provided by the county. “You told me you never want to work at McDonalds.  I remember, that’s what you said.  But that’s all that will be left,” I pleaded.  I tried coaching her, I tried cajoling, I sat with her teachers and principals and made plans she agreed to stick to.  She became increasingly complacent about it all, defeated.  At one meeting I went to, attended by social workers, educational advocates, therapists and caregivers, we passed around an attendance sheet for everyone to write their name and who we were.  She wrote her name and next to it:  “The problem I guess.”  That’s how she saw herself.

A few weeks ago, the social worker called me. She had, in his words, gone AWOL. I didn’t really know what this meant.  He seemed to be saying she wasn’t missing exactly but that no one knew where she was.  No one, to my knowledge, had filed a police report and though I suspected she had simply run away (she’d done this many times before, though only for a night or two to a friend’s house) there was no talk at all of her being taken or kidnapped.  I didn’t know whether to be worried or not.  She had no cell phone that I knew about.  I checked her Facebook page, she still appeared to be posting. But her profile picture changed.  In the most recent one, her eyes are at half mast, a cloud of pot smoke blooming from her mouth.  Last week, she posted photos of  tattoos. “Loyalty,” said one in curling script.  And another one, MOB, which depending on your internet source either means money over bitches or member of bloods.  I really hope it’s the former.  I remembered a long time ago telling her when she said she wanted tattoos, that she had to make me a deal:  no boyfriend names and nothing on your neck.  She had at least stuck to that deal.  The worst part for me though is realizing that with the time stamps on the messages, there’s no way she’s going to school anymore.  I remember a few months ago being heartbroken she might have  to repeat her grade because of all her missed classes.  I’d  kill for that now.  She won’t be repeating anything because she’s just not going back.

This week, after messaging her many times on Facebook, she finally responded and I asked if I could please see her.  She was reluctant.  She may have thought I would bring the police because she ran away.  I convinced her to let me take her for a meal.  I thought if I could just get back into her life, I might be able to steer her back home and get her back into school.  If and when they find her, she will likely move her to a group home. I thought if she voluntarily went back to her relatives, she might still have a chance.

We were to meet at her old school near her old house.  On the way to meet her, I stopped at the convenience store and bought some gift cards for her.  I didn’t really know what else to do.  When I got there though, she wasn’t there.  I waited. I drove around the neighborhood and then parked in the school parking lot.  It felt so awful, sitting in that parking lot as it grew darker, knowing she wasn’t coming but hoping she’d appear anyway.  It dawned on me as I sat there that I may never see her again either because she doesn’t want to see me, or because something will happen to her.  I’ve written her several times today on Facebook and she hasn’t answered me.  It feels like such a loss.  Like, at the end of it, she still ended up doing drugs, maybe dealing them.  She won’t finish high school and college seems at this point, a silly pipe dream.  I still have this small hope things will turn out okay though.  It’s hard to accept that the only things I managed to accomplish were tattoo guidelines and when to use all caps. Can’t I do more than that? I don’t know.  I guess it feels more and more unlikely as time passes.

I am sad, but I’m not depressed.  The upside of dealing with the quagmire that has been my ex and his wife (soon to be ex I hope) is that I have learned the art of detachment.  The worrying over my children, the never-ending chant that goes through my head of what will happen next? has so changed me that I am able to mentally detach from people, even my children.  When I find myself worried and sad when they are not with me, it only lasts a little while and then my head just shuts it down.  It’s self preservation I guess. In the car that night, when I realized she wasn’t coming, I put my head on the steering wheel and cried. But then I drove home and I mostly pulled it together.  She will either come back to me or she won’t. She will either return to school or she won’t.  I can keep trying to reach her and I will. But for now, that’s all I can do.

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2 Responses to “Life Lessons in All Caps”

  1. Amy Awesome says:

    I feel so sad for that girl, what brings someone with dreams to the point of wanting to give up on themselves? She’s so lucky to have you in her life, so maybe with time she’ll wise up and reach out. I’d like to believe it’s never too late.

  2. Marian Allen says:

    I have several friends who are CASAs. It’s a noble, magnificent, heartbreaking vocation. I hope that your client takes comfort in knowing that, no matter what, there is somebody in the world who cares what happens to her. That has to be a bright spot in her life. Sending you hugs.