Thursday, June 14, 2018

"The Pick Up" - Thoughts on Removing Kids from Parents

I drove up to the house that New Year’s Day morning, not knowing what to expect. I had been given the address by the caseworker, and was told they would be waiting for me. It had all been arranged. But still, this was the first time I had done anything like this, and I don’t mind saying, I was scared.

We had gotten the call the day before: two boys, ages five and two, dad was unable to care for them any more because of his developmental disability. Could we take them?

Yes. We have room, we’ll be more than happy to take them.

There were no workers available to get them. Could we do the pick up?

Wait. “Do the pick up?” You mean go over and remove them from their dad’s home? Us? Sure, we had plenty of experience receiving kids into our home who had been removed, but no one had ever asked us to be the actual ones to go and get them.

Yes please, if you could. It would be very helpful.

So we said we would. We’re foster parents; it’s what we do. We take care of kids who need taken care of for a little while. This was a part of the deal. So we said we would.

I drove up to the house, pulled into the driveway, and turned off the engine. I saw a face at the front window, small, pale, eyes wide. With a flick, it vanished, and the curtain swayed shut.

I got out of the van and zipped up my coat against the cold before I walked to the porch. The door opened as I approached. A woman, about 30 years old, eyes red from crying, trying bravely to smile. “Hello,” she said.

“Hello. I’m Andy.”

“Come on in,” she replied.

There was a pile of boxes, suitcases, and backpacks just inside the door. “Here’s their stuff,” she said.

From the back of the house, I heard a child’s voice. “No!”

A man walked into the room, carrying a boy. He didn’t look at me. The boy was struggling in his arms, pushing against his dad’s chest, trying to get down. The man had him in that firm yet gentle grip that one only learns from plenty of experience with wiggly boys.

Another, smaller boy trailed behind.

“Let’s get your stuff, boys,” he said.

The woman started picking up bags, I grabbed a couple of suitcases, and we went outside. The man held on to the squirming boy, and followed. The little one was a shadow.

We put our load of luggage in the back, and then the woman said to the man, “Why don’t you go ahead and put the boys in the car?” This was a really good idea, and I opened the side doors for him. He began to buckle the boys into the car seats while we went back into the house to get the rest of the stuff.

When we got back out to the van, he had calmed the bigger boy down enough to buckle him in, and he was working on the little one, who was quite a bit easier to manage. When he had him secured, he walked back around to the other side of the van.

I watched as he put his hand gently on the boy’s small head, bent over close, and rested his forehead against his son’s. I did not hear what he said; his voice was low and it wasn’t my place to invade that moment. When he stood up, his son again offered a weak, confused, “No!” and began a litany, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” that was spoken slowly, through the tears that were streaming down his face.

When he heard his big brother start up, the two year old joined him, but with less intensity, more like he was sad that his brother was sad than the bitter grief of being separated from his home. He knew, yet he didn’t know.

The man closed the van door and walked quickly back into the house, head down, never once meeting my eyes.

I looked at the woman, who had fresh tears overflowing her eyes. I tried to smile, and said, “I promise you we will take good care of them.” I closed the two year old’s door.

She just nodded at me, unable to say anything.

So I got into the van, started the engine, and drove home.

They cried the entire trip.

Granted, just because I have physically removed children from their parent does not make me an expert on immigration policy. But in light of our work as foster parents, the stories coming from our nation’s southern border are particularly disturbing.

Families seeking refuge in our country are, by many accounts, being forcibly separated from one another and the children are being placed in the care of the state. A high-ranking member of the current administration has referred to this policy as “a tough deterrent.” Another said that if parents don’t want their children taken away, they shouldn’t bring them along.

I find that the arguments in favor of the policy are not even slightly compelling, and in fact are abhorrent to me. To argue that a parent has violated a law and therefore anything that happens to them or to their family is justified is not only a profound oversimplification of the situation, it is flat-out evil. Official U.S. immigration policy now feels like the kind of thing the “bad guy” would do in a movie, and not a very good movie at that.

And yet …  how can I think this when I myself have been the “bad guy?” I am a part of a system that removes children from their homes when it is deemed necessary. In fact, I have been the one doing the actual separating! Can I with clean conscience say that what’s happening is wrong unless it’s happening within the system I’m a part of? What is the distinction?

Whatever is happening at the policy level, real people have been given the task of taking real kids from real parents. Whatever is said at a press conference in front of an audience, a person goes up to another person and takes their child away from them. Whatever may be true at the “macro” level in terms of law or economics or politics, someone has to “do the pick up.”

And it is awful. It hurts. Trust me, I know.

For me, the most important questions to ask have to do with the children. Are they safe? Do they have food, clothing, and shelter? Are they being cared for? Is someone there with them, telling them not to be afraid? Do they know that they matter to someone? Do they realize they are somebody who is worth something?

And is everything being done, with as much urgency as possible, to get them back home again?