By Kieran Loughney
Tess’s great-grandmother’s boyfriend, Fred, despite Tess’s pleas, smoked in the kitchen. She’d complained to Nonny, the matriarch who was now her caregiver. Fred told her: “I’ll smoke where I want.” Reeking of cigarettes, Tess flopped into the passenger seat, shutting my car door hard, not quite slamming it. Before I spoke, she made it clear, “I don’t feel like talking, Kieran.” Earbuds in, she reclined the seat and shut her eyes. For now, as was often the case on these weekly trips to the child welfare offices, Tess needed Tess time.
Ironically, Tess is lucky. While her mother died from a drug overdose and her grandmother remained addicted, Nonny, her great grandmother, took her in. In social work parlance, Tess’s living situation is called kinship placement. High strung at times, Tess was nonetheless an honor student in high school. On this night we were headed for a meeting of young adults and child welfare professionals. Tess would be joined by kids with little or no biological family life, living in foster care, many for years.
Children in foster care, The American Academy of Pediatrics reports, experience PTSD at the same rate as U.S. war veterans, suffering high rates of debilitating depression and low self-esteem. Half won’t graduate from high school and 25% will be homeless at some point in their lives. One program, called Independent Living (IL), provides support and guidance for youth in care. Every Tuesday evening the child welfare agency I worked for hosted a dinner and activity/learning/counseling event with Independent Living. As an incentive to keep them coming, youths were paid twenty dollars for attending each session.
What Independent Living events offer become essential for the emotional wellbeing of these youths and a vital step in their transition to self-sufficient and well-adjusted adults. Instruction on any number of living skills is presented. Personal budgeting, STDs, nutrition and drugs are among the topics typically covered.
Mick was waiting outside as we pulled up to his foster home. Tess set the car seat upright as Mick hopped in. “That’s a fine look for you,” she chirped. Mick had been in foster care for two months. His father abandoned the family when Mick was four. His mother was recently committed to a psychiatric hospital. Mick, his new bad boy buzz-cut fully at odds with his soft-spoken shyness, replied, “Thanks, just wanted it short.” Through wire-rim glasses, he resumed reading a science fiction story on his cell phone.
Rachel bounded out as we pulled up to the Burger King. Wearing the BK uniform and smelling of fryer grease, she climbed in the back seat. “God, I love this job,” she said without a trace of sarcasm. Rachel had recently adopted an upbeat attitude about nearly everything. Sexually abused by her father, Rachel spent her high school years in problematic foster placements. After psychiatric hospitalizations and years of counseling she now lived with kind, supportive foster parents.
The three settled in for the drive to the agency. They were in their late teenage years, soon to be adults. Changes forced by the pandemic have now curtailed the ability of Independent Living to operate fully. But, on this pre-pandemic night so many months ago, the scent of fresh baked pizza from a stack of boxes filled the conference room as the kids took their places at the table. While consuming salad, pizza, soda and sundaes they kidded each other. A caseworker called for attention. “Time for Pits and Peaks.” she directed. ”Will you start us off, Tess?” Pits and Peaks is an opportunity for the kids to share the best and worst of what has happened in their lives during the week.
“My Nonny’s boyfriend is so freaking rude. He’s always smoking while I’m trying to eat. So Fred is my Pit. My Peak is that I made Honor Roll again.” As Pits and Peaks continued, Mick, Rachel and the other youths, in turn, told of setbacks and triumphs. For Tess, Independent Living was her safe place to vent and celebrate her achievements. For Mick, it provided a chance to socialize with kids who have similar challenges. Rachel, at her lowest moments, came to IL for psychological support. IL has given these young people hope, stability and a community that understands and cares. In my time at the county child welfare agency, I’d seen IL enhance their lives in subtle and profound ways. IL provided the kind of practical advice, whether on budgeting or nutrition, and the supportive community I wish I had had at that stage of my life.
Unfortunately, since March, Independent Living exists online only, due to coronavirus concerns. A video chat is set up, but for such a large group, conversation is less natural. At such a remove, intimacy and connectedness are sacrificed.
Since the coronavirus outbreak we’ve seen business setbacks and failures. Places of worship and schools are struggling to safely open. There have been disruptions in so many aspects of all our lives. For those on the margins of society, like these young people, the pandemic presents yet another ordeal added to challenges they face. What will the long-term consequences be for them, and for us as a society? As a child welfare worker, now retired, I worry about Tess, Mick, Rachel and the others. I hope somehow they’ll weather this crisis and emerge intact, emotionally and physically.