When strangers ask what I do for a living and I say I work in foster care, they often respond, “I could never work with ‘those’ people.” They draw a line of morality. Such terrible people, such a terrible job. And sure, it’s tough. I’ve been yelled at, called every bad name imaginable, pushed, spat at, and received both veiled and explicit death threats. A coworker quit to work in a factory, and I envied the simplicity of her post-shift self-care: ice packs and BenGay. She said someone lost a finger, but the danger in her new job came from not paying attention, or doing something stupid. But then, don’t we all?
You’re nineteen and pregnant — young, stupid, and alone. The first in your family to go to college and a baby will derail that plan. Do you:
a) Get an abortion
b) Give the baby up for adoption
c) Have the baby and become a single mother
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be a mom, but I wanted to try. I got a job waitressing at a bar where the shorter my skirt, the more I made in tips. Men grabbed my ass like it came with their meal, a free side like their fries. I smiled through my fear because the tips were good, and I had a son to feed.
I finished college when my son was two, then immediately started a Master’s program because I could keep taking out student loans, and what could I do with a BA in English, anyway? My son was four when I finished, but even with a graduate degree no one wanted to hire me. I was both ‘too educated’ and ‘underqualified.’ I had no ‘real-world’ experience.
Desperate for a job, you see an ad for one in foster care. Knowing nothing about foster care or social work, do you:
a) Forget it and keep waitressing because turns out ‘low-pay’ is less than the restaurant’s good waitresses make, which could be you with enough practice
b) See if they have a receptionist position
c) Apply because what the hell. You’re not qualified and probably won’t get the job
Except they were so desperate, they’d hire anyone. They promised I’d learn everything I needed to know in training — two whole weeks to study juvenile law, poverty, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, trauma, assessments, and de-escalation skills.
The goal in foster care is reunification. The bottom line: yes, these children were taken away for a reason, but the parents get an opportunity to get them back. I lacked the clinical skills the job requires, but I did hold an unshakable belief my clients deserved second chances. Some of my coworkers didn’t: this mom should be sterilized, they said. That dad doesn’t deserve these kids.
But I could empathize with my clients, each one. The mother who struggled with addiction issues, the father who suffered from mental illness. Parents who grew up in foster care themselves, so much generational trauma. I could easily put myself in their shoes. I knew what it was like having a baby before being ready and making a mistake. Because I could be just as reckless, and now knew it only took one time for something bad to happen, for the state to step in. That could’ve been me. What about that time I waited until my toddler was asleep to sneak into my closet and drink those tiny bottles of vodka; one, two, three? Or when I got so drunk and high I blacked out, losing consciousness. My son was with my parents, safe. I had family support, most of my clients didn’t: was this all that separated me from them? The line between me and my clients sometimes felt so thin.
One client knew it. She said we were kin and called me her sister. I supervised her visits with her kids, and at the end, she always wanted the two of us to take a picture together. I knew I was crossing a professional line, becoming more than her case worker. But she was right, despite our differences, we were bound by something fundamental. (Sacred?)
You’re pregnant again, still unmarried, and have been diagnosed with pre-cervical cancer, which your doctor says can be exasperated by stress. You think of the bomb threat, the sixty-plus hour weeks, how you can’t remember the last time you had a two-day weekend, how you missed your son’s school concert. Do you:
a) Get an abortion
b) Have the baby and give it up for adoption
c) Marry the baby’s father and quit your job
When I told my client, she said I was abandoning her. I promised she didn’t need me, she was doing it on her own. She had five of her eight kids back home.
She called the day I gave birth to my second child. She completed substance abuse treatment and invited me to the graduation ceremony that night. I told her I wished I could go, but was in the hospital. We both congratulated each other: her sobriety, my new baby.
Years later I saw her at court. We gave each other a tight hug, before she told me why she was there: for the hearing to terminate her parental rights. She’d stayed clean for a while, she said, but after I left, her life fell apart. She got back into drugs. Her kids got taken away again and would be adopted out. She said every other case worker didn’t understand, they weren’t mothers. If I would’ve stayed, she’d still be clean, she insisted. I’d be lying if I said I don’t still feel responsible.
You stay home with baby two, then have a third. When it’s time to look for another job, you’ve got a five-year gap in your resume. Do you:
a) Apply for every job you’re qualified for and hear back from none
b) Sub because there’s such a need for substitute teachers they can’t be picky about the five-year gap in your resume
c) Sick of subbing, reach out to your old supervisor and see if she’ll take you back
I promised myself this time I wouldn’t put these families before my own. This time I wouldn’t break down in tears. I’d learn to cope with heavy doses of sarcasm and chocolate. (And, okay, alcohol.)
Because here’s the thing: I loved it. Loved going to prisons and into people’s homes. I loved the trainings on equity, mental health first aid, and human trafficking. I loved bringing teens to clinics for birth control. I loved helping connect mothers with counseling and housing programs. I loved giving kids to their dads who’d been trying to get custody for years. I loved watching change unfold — families healing and rebuilding.
But it was tough. I craved numbing on the days I was yelled at by attorneys for doing ‘too much’ for my clients and being called a bitch for asking someone to do a drug drop. Twelve-hour days with no lunch break and six hour nights dealing with a placement crisis. Oh, and paperwork, so much paperwork. And deadlines, such tight deadlines. Federal mandates, court ordered visits, death threats. The expectations often unreasonable, but all so heavily, crucially imperative. I held lives in my hands.
You’re pregnant a fourth time. Tapped out and unable to handle a baby, you:
a) Believe your Catholic upbringing that a baby is a blessing, even if that baby makes you unravel and will send you over the line, it’s a blessing, dammit
b) Screw your Catholic upbringing
c) Choose according to what’s best for your three children
Could the abortion be framed as selfless if it was my kids I was thinking about? If they were, in fact, the reason for my decision? Because I saw it as the responsible choice. My first obligation was to the children I had, children who needed more — time, attention, love — than I was currently giving them. It wasn’t fair to them if I was debilitated by post-partum depression again. Between my job and my selfish insistence to write a novel, I felt like a terrible mother. Another baby could push me over the line: neglecting my kids, maybe snapping and hitting one. I refused to put my children through that.
The nearest clinic was ninety minutes away. I could get this procedure, but other women in my community in more desperate circumstances could not. Here was another line that separated me from my clients: financial resources. I didn’t have much, but could still hop in my car and pay with my credit card. They could do nothing but birth a baby the state would take away.
That was the worst part of my job: taking newborns from their mothers. My own postpartum memories unshakable — how weak, how raw my body was post-labor — as I loaded the infant into a car seat. I’d try steadying my shaking hands as I carried another mother’s newborn to a foster home. Tried to block out her chapped lips howling the baby’s name, her pleas she was trying to breastfeed this one.
I struggled breastfeeding my first. A nurse said I was starving my baby. But I was determined to breastfeed and did; one, two, three. Even two and three at the same time. Each birth got progressively harder, but I made it through, reminding myself my wide hips were made for this. My silent chant: I’m a birthing machine.
Sitting in the clinic it was hard not to think of that mantra. I had friends who wanted babies with a hunger that echoed mine for alcohol, but they couldn’t conceive. And yet here I was pregnant and throwing it away.
You get sober. Like your clients, you do it for your kids. Part of the recovery process is looking at your unhealthy behavior patterns and mistakes, so you can move forward. Do you:
a) Accept your past mistakes
b) Vow to do better from here on out
c) Remember to give everyone around you some grace like your kids have given you
No one has given me as much grace as my oldest, who is now in his twenties. People say there’s no way I can have a son that old. I laugh and say I had him too early. But that’s not true. I was young and stupid, yes, but I raised a baby to adulthood. A kind-hearted gentle soul. It’s something I’ve somehow done right, despite my battles with anxiety and alcohol, which were worsened by a job I wouldn’t have accepted if I wasn’t a broke single mother.
I still work in foster care, but in a different role. It’s changed me in ways I’m still trying to understand. How despite my natural inclination to criticize, I’ve managed to work with clients without judgment because I know how hard and messy parenting can be. I know how love is often not enough, but also, how sometimes it’s all you need. When someone says, they could never work with ‘those’ people, I want to tell them the line between the worst of us and the best can be so thin. Explain that really, there’s not even a line at all.
Rachel León has spent over a decade working in foster care and the juvenile court system. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Writers Review, Nurture, The Rupture, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. She is currently seeking representation for her novel about the foster care system.