I dreamed Monday night about arriving in Clark County and being unable to find the courthouse. I know those main streets and blocks all too well and they were vivid and rightly aligned in my dream. I drove around and around the block, panic rising, as the brick building eluded me and seemed to have been lifted right off of the foundation and out of sight. With one final turn off of Fountain Ave (the street sign screamed at me), I awoke. I sat up on the couch, shook my head, rubbed my eyes and saw the alarm clock’s neon green numbers blinking at me from the bedroom.
When I was in High School the hour from 4-5 in the morning was one of my favorites all day long. I would get up, quiet as a church mouse, make a cup of tea, turn on the gas fireplace and wrap up in the blanket to read. I would start out with my back to the warmth until it got too warm and then rotate myself like I was a rotisserie. I usually ended up on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, my feet warming on the edge of the fireplace with my book on the ground in front of me. I was never a night person, so I opted to get up early to study rather than to stay up late. But plenty of times I got up when I had no homework to do. The silence felt inviting in those early hours when my full home was wonderfully and oddly still.
To this day I get up early when I want to feel prepared for something important. Even if there’s nothing I need to do, a collectedness comes from that quiet space the earliest of mornings provides.
I had notes to look over; a few things to type but all in all Tuesday morning I just wanted some time to prepare myself. I hate court.
In all of my time of working with at-risk families, I have only been subpoenaed a handful of times. Most of the time, the cases go on and on with no clear end in sight. Its the unique experience to start with a case when it opens and to be there when it concludes. There’s always the initial awkwardness of going into someone else’s home when neither of you know each other and one of you is being paid to be the there while the other would give anything for you not to be. It is not the kind of job that promises that warm, fuzzy feeling. Even so, even when you’ve become accustomed to it, court dates are unnerving.
I park one block away from the courthouse. Its not the cheapest parking in town, but there are always open slots and I am usually running a minute or so behind. I cross Limestone first and then when the light permits, Columbia. I put my purse and coat on the little conveyer belt and step through the metal detector right into the waiting area. The caseworker and the lawyers are milling around, drinking coffee and chit chatting with one another. The biological parents are usually at the far end of the waiting room, near the restrooms, wearing nicer clothing than I have ever seen them in. And this is where it gets uncomfortable for me. Where do I sit? Technically, I am one of the “workers”, but I don’t really see the caseworker but once a month and I don’t know the lawyers or share their chit chatty disposition on mornings when family ties have the potential to be severed. And yet, the parents who I have seen 2-3 times a week for months on end, won’t even make eye contact with me. They stare at the floor or mess with their cell phones or just look straight ahead like my presence has gone completely unnoticed. No matter what rapport has been built during the time we’ve spent together, they know on court day I am one of “them”. I am no longer a person who asks how things are going and who cares, I am now someone whose notes and reports have been entered in as evidence against them.
I waste time in the bathroom, washing my hands meticulously, hoping when I come out we will be called right into the court room. We usually wait. I sit alone and try to look pleasant and warm in the stale and sterile room, just in case one of the parents decides to look my way. Eventually the caseworker makes his/her way over to me and sits down and whispers. They always whisper. I instantly feel like a trader. In a few seconds, I’ve gone from being a helper to an accuser.
Even when I know the parents haven’t done their job, I feel sad. Even when the child will be better off, I still feel a sadness…. an ache. Children are meant to be with their parents.
On Tuesday things went as they always do. One of the parents already disliked me (and the feeling was quite mutual, I must add) but the other parent has found a soft place in my heart. She has a mental illness. She’s not a bad parent, but she won’t stay on her medicine. I wanted to catch her glance and let her know I still care; I wanted her to see a warmth in my eyes, a glimmer of kindness, but she never looked. The caseworker whispered. I felt sad. We went to the courtroom, we went to mediation, and when no agreement could be reached, the judge made a trial date. Another 5 weeks of sitting in her home, watching her play with her beautiful unsuspecting little child and then we’ll be back here and the baby will be going home with one of two relatives. Its going to be a sad 5 weeks for me in Clark County.
I paid my $5 for parking and headed home, wondering what Thursday’s visit will bring. Usually one court date and then I never see the family again. The child has gone somewhere else to live and the parents have gone home with empty arms and I’ve gone home with an ache in the pit of my stomach and then they fade into my memory forever, preserved in striking detail by the raw emotion of that conclusion. While I wondering, my mind went back to the first time I was called to testify in that courthouse.
I had worked with this 19 year old girl for about 6 months. She was blond and petite and could have been rather attractive if someone had taken care of her teeth when she was young or taught her any social graces. She was named after a European country and had a quirky sense of humor, but was not the kind of person you’d want to get in a fight with… she was scrappy. I liked her immediately. Over the course of those months, she shared with me that the little guy who was in foster care then was her third child. I saw her cry when she showed me photos of the other two, who had long since been removed from her home and adopted to families who had no interest in keeping her in the loop. She was as unfit as I’ve ever known a mother to be. At 19, all she had was her street smarts, a drug addiction, and the ability to attract any creep within a 10 mile radius. She didn’t take much from our parenting sessions so the morning I walked into court, I knew she was about to lose baby #3.
I sat alone and wrung my hands. I wanted to reach out and touch the caseworker, if you know what I mean. She was laughing loudly and acting like she was at a work party. The gravity of the situation had been lost on her, probably due to sheer familiarity. So while she guffawed with her friends, a 19 year old child was contemplated a mind numbing loss at the other end of the room. I sat in the middle of the room and when the foster parents came in they sat with me. They knew they were going home that day with the little boy they loved and had wanted to make part of their family. It was, in many respects, a happy day for them..and yet, they also felt the sadness. We exchanged knowing looks and said little more than hello.
I mostly had dealt with the foster dad. He would drop off the little tyke for visits with 19 year old mom and then pick him up a few hours later. He was tall and handsome and friendly, probably in his mid to late 30s. He had an easy way about him and kind eyes. He was a local cop and the baby’s mom knew him well. She’d always joke with him about all the times he’d picked her up for drugs or running away… her tone gave away how much she liked him. The fact that she liked him gave away his kindness. It would be hard to like a cop who put you in juvenile lock up, but add to that the fact that your chid was taken from you and now lives with him, and having any fondness seems like an insurmountable task. And yet, she liked him. That told me almost everything I need to know about that big man with the kind eyes.
The rest of what I needed to know, I learned from watching him on that fateful day in court when a wounded 19 year old girl with freckles and blond hair sustained the loss of her third baby.
We exchanged that knowing glance and then he got up and went and sat down to the mother, whose eyes were glued to the floor. He broke all of the rules. He put his arm around her narrow shoulders and gave her a fatherly squeeze and just sat there with her until the we were all called into the courtroom. Court went like we all knew it would. It didn’t take the judge a half an hour to decide to give the little boy to the foster parents or to terminate mom’s parental rights. I didn’t even have to testify. She’d already lost 2 children. She had a drug problem and no job and an abusive loser boyfriend. No more evidence was needed.
As long as I live, I will never forget the sound that came out of her when the judge made his pronouncement. I think hell will be filled with wails of that same kind. Her sobs stuck in my ribs like knives and pulled me apart. She ran out of the courtroom and into the waiting room and then collapsed on the tile floor in heaving sobs. No one was there with her.. no family, no friends. I followed her out but felt paralyzed. The lawyers went on talking and the caseworker went on visiting, unmoved by the scenario unfolding around her. Before I had another second to contemplate what to do, Foster Dad kissed his wife on the forehead and then went an scooped mom off of the floor. He picked her up like a baby and sat her next to him on the wood bench. She buried her face in his coat and I watched as she sobbed and tears formed and rolled down his face. I stood there for a moment watching as he mourned with her, a lump rose in my throat and warm tears at the corners of my eyes. I stepped into the bathroom and cried a little. Partly, I cried from sadness and partly I cried at the beautiful picture of Christlikeness I had just witnessed.
When I came out, Foster mom was flanking mom on the other side, rubbing her back. She smiled at me through her tears as I made my way back to the metal detector and Foster Dad gave me goodbye wink. I went out to my car, paid my $5 and drove home unable to shake myself loose of the overwhelming emotion of the day.
That image of the three of them sitting together on that wooden bench is etched in my mind forever. Their kindness and compassion humbles me as much today as it did that fall day over 7 years ago.
Its now 4:46a. Cohen woke up 15 minutes ago and is snugged up under my left arm, back asleep after demanding a ‘dink’ (drink). I set the alarm for 4:00a so I’d have to prepare myself for the visit this morning, but I woke up restless at 3:30. I pray this morning that the Lord gives me that ‘sit with you and cry’ kind of compassion for a day that’s going to be in severe need of Him.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.