Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Masks We Sometimes Wear

I took this photograph the second time we traveled to Disneyland.

I thought it was a funny parallel to how Disney attempts to make every child believe they could be Cinderella or Prince Charming. The restaurant where we ate lunch gave these masks out as children's menus. After lunch, we stepped out in the bright light, and I snapped this shot.

Years later, when I came across the photograph, I saw it as a symbol for foster care. How one-size-fits-all social work and surrogate homes fail to see the individual child's needs. Behind each mask a child has his or her own story. How the child welfare system makes Pinocchio's of us all:

You're only staying for a little while.
You get to move home when school gets out.
Your mommy is learning how to be a better mom.

For many of the children caught up in foster care, the move home doesn't come soon enough, or at all. Children move from one foster home to another, then the next. The "little while" grows into months and years and in the child's mind, all those who told him to be patient are now untrustworthy adults.

I remember sitting in a hearing where a social worker told the judge that the mother had not made the necessary changes but the agency was going to give her another few months. Her children had been waiting three years to go home.

"We ask," I said to the judge when he finally called on me, "children to do what adults cannot. Who among us could sustain a marriage for three years while we lived in some other lover's home? Yet we ask children to settle down. Be a kid. Care about your foster parents while you wait for your "real" parents to get help."

All across America, children wait. Six months go by. A year. Two years.

The Blue Fairy said, "Now, remember, Pinocchio: be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide."

As if being good would make the difference.

I read a quote by a now-adult foster child that said, "Evaluating my head can't tell you what I'm feeling in my heart."

Or, I'd add, what's hiding behind the mask we all wear.

The judges who, in fifteen minute hearings, are required to make life and death decisions about whether children remain in care or go home.

The social workers who set out to protect children, yet must strive to reunite the family.

The family members, most of them wrestling poverty, addiction, or mental health issues, who give their best (even when their best will never be enough) to get treatment, counseling, a job, housing, parent training, and make it to visits using public transportation.

The foster parents (who believe what they are told by the caseworkers, the children, the counselors but rarely the birth parents) whose own stories are fraught with loss and fear and failings.

The long nose of child welfare grows despite everyone's best efforts.

"A fine conscience I turned out to be!" said Jiminy Cricket.

For nineteen years I have volunteered as a CASA because I've wanted to be part of the solution. But it's hard to immerse oneself in an environment and not begin to see oneself as part of the problem at least some of the time.

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