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From Surviving to Living
From Surviving to Living
(13) WHERE’S MY SON? An Astonishing Look At Foster Care
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“Come work with me!” Jae urged. “We need another tutor.” I shuddered at the thought. “Not a chance,” I threw back. Jae was a tutor in Adult Basic Education (A.B.E). It could be argued prison has neighborhoods – UI (the unemployed) its roughest and Education – UI’s angry twin.

In Minnesota state prison, an inmate’s daily freedom is dependent upon employment. If employed your schedule is much your own outside of work. Employment is largely mandatory. If one lacks a high school diploma, however, education is required.

I currently worked as a clerk in the mental health unit, living with the inmates I served. Edith*, in her twenties, was my neighbor. Thin, anxiety made her awkward. An ABE student, Edith often asked for help with homework.

“I don’t understand this,” Edith jabbed at her paper. Seated next to me in the day room, she crossed her arms. I leaned forward to study the work. Edith was learning basic math.

I picked up a pencil and wrote another number, pointing to it. “This is how you start,” I answered. Tensing, her shoulders rose, elbows dug into her side. I set the pencil down calmly, smiled. I relaxed my shoulders, waiting.

Edith pushed the paper with a finger, huffing, “How did you know? How did… How did… How did…!” She squeezed her eyes tight, pursed her lips. “I didn’t see it!” She cried, upset. Lucy, sketching nearby, disappeared with her things, eyes rolling.

Sucking in air Edith picked up speed, voice rising an octave. “This is hard! I can’t do it!” Her eyes darted around the room. “This is stupid!” She squealed.

The day room had gone silent, an army of heads turning at the noise. Distaste colored faces, irritated at the disruption. “Shut up Edith! You’re stupid!” Someone hollered. Edith’s tension was contagious. A tiny woman, Edith took a room hostage, an emotional terrorist. She had few friends.

Edith had low standards. I was not nice. I just wasn’t mean. An absence of cruelty isn’t the same as the presence of kindness.

Edith didn’t notice. Winding up again, she silently argued with herself. She shook her head, teeth clenched. I rarely helped Edith; her outbursts were jarring. I said nothing, disengaged. With a sudden mental slap Edith’s eyes popped open. Spinning she studied me. Relief warred with shame. Her shoulders sagging, she rushed out, “Thank you for being nice to me!” Her words felt like truce between gratitude and prevention.

Edith had low standards. I was not nice. I just wasn’t mean. An absence of cruelty isn’t the same as the presence of kindness. Edith was a reason I didn’t want to tutor. I didn’t like people, I tolerated them. My poor mental health was another reason. I believed I could not do a full-time, banker’s hours job. Failure was certain.

Do you struggle with anxiety and asking for help? Is it difficult for you to help someone even when you love them?

In May 2015 Jae again encouraged me to apply. This time I caved, still afraid. I needed more money. I applied and met Ms. Shaibley, an experienced DOC teacher. She became a role model for me, an example of strength and grace in a hostile environment. She immediately hired me.

A new job meant another move. Once again I was relocated to Tubman and given a single room as a reward for my discipline free status. Here, in this new room, transformation became memorable.

I’m certain God orchestrates every detail of life and all falls into His plans. I am neither Composer nor Conductor. I dare say I do not even play an instrument, nor listen to the music very well. I can pick up a note here and there, however, and appreciate how it fits into the whole. An important note, a chord, occurred just then.

A good friend loaned me a book about the Holy Spirit. I read it, was intrigued. I puzzled, “Is this true?” I had been saved, born again, at a young age. Taken to church frequently, sent to a Christian school, Who Jesus was and His significance had been explained to me. I understood His death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. I had asked Him to save me.

Emotions have their place, in the trunk. Along for the ride they don’t drive the car and we don’t ask them for directions.

My friend, a Christian also, thought I’d enjoy this book. I had no idea what it was talking about. I knew of the Holy Spirit, the third Member of the Trinity. I was unclear about the Holy Spirit’s role. This book spoke of power. Skeptical, I felt uncertain.

I did not want wrong beliefs. In past I’d relied on my church and parents to guide me. It seemed important to have correct knowledge, a point of pride. The book was not a typical read for me. I tend to be data driven, analytical. I enjoy evidence, observable facts. Emotions have their place, in the trunk. Along for the ride they don’t drive the car and we don’t ask them for directions.

The author cited the Bible, referenced original Greek language. It encouraged readers to seek God, the Holy Spirit, His power. I was conflicted, delayed returning the book. I whispered in my heart, “If that’s real, I want it.” Where would I get it? Who was it for? Another week, I returned the book, dismissed it. A seed was planted.

I began my new job. As tutor my negative bias against students was confirmed immediately. Leah* sat in the back of class and slept, head on her desk, every morning. Each morning I watched disgusted, eyes squinted in irritation. ‘I want to sleep in. Yet here I am,’ I thought dismissively.

Tutors grade papers, create work assignments and teach. Apprehensive, I studied the class. I felt inadequate. Hand raised, a student asked for help. Jae waved her over to our desk. Jae’s brisk manner communicated efficiency and ability. I leaned closer to overhear. I needed the refresher.

“Ms. Shaibley, can you help me?” Leah whispered one day, raising her sleepy head an inch or two. Tugging hair back she rubbed her eyes. Ms. Shaibley crouched beside Leah’s desk.

Who else was hurting? Who else did I misunderstand? Stung at the thought, I returned to grading papers.

“What can I do for you, Leah?” she responded, searching Leah’s tired face. Ms. Shaibley smiled and waited. Leah pushed up, frustration creasing her forehead.

“My mental health meds make me sleepy,” Leah complained. “I have a directive to take them. If I refuse I’ll be sent to seg. I take them at breakfast, then I have class.” Leah paused, sighed. My attention was captured and I froze. The room emptied of noise and people. Ringing began in my ears. Leah continued, “Can you help me? Maybe switch when I take them?”

I didn’t wait for Ms. Shaibley’s answer. Roaring filled my ears. I felt embarrassed, guilty. My eyes lifted to the rest of the room. Who else was hurting? Who else did I misunderstand? Stung at the thought, I returned to grading papers.

Evenings I called my children. Tim was in another foster home. Melissa, Tim’s newest foster mom, had agreed immediately to be “supervisor” of our phone visits. “Hi Holly! I’m so glad you called. You’ll never guess who I saw today,” Melissa gushed as soon as she answered the phone. Surprised, I hesitated. Past phone supervisors had only listened. Filling the silence Melissa rambled on, “I’m so excited to meet you! I told all my friends about you, Tim’s mom. We are going to be greaaat friends, I know it!”

I imagined Tim somewhere in her house as our fifteen phone minutes ticked away along with my five dollars. “Um, thank you,” I managed. “Is Tim there?”

“Oh yes,” Melissa cooed. “Timmy-kins is sitting right here, aren’t you honey bunny?” She paused for a breath. I heard Timmy meekly mmm-hmmm in the background. Returning to the phone Melissa marched on, “Tell me all about you, your day, prison! I watch that show, ‘Orange is the New Black.’ I don’t judge you kind of people……” I wondered what she was talking about? Oranges?

Fifteen minutes later I had just enough time with Tim to say, “I love you, Tim. Next time we will get to talk to each other, I promise.” That was it. Drained I went to my room. Melissa was a self-described hero, a perfect foster mom who did everything with L.O.V.E.

Summer bled into fall. “Holly! So glad you called! I look forward to our visits!” Melissa oozed. Traffic sounds echoed in the background.

Quickly I rushed in, “Actually I’m calling for Tim, remember? Is he there, please?” Tim’s voice echoed dimly in the background. “Tim?” I pushed.

“Oh don’t worry sweetie. Timmy-poo is here somewhere. We’ll get to him in a minute,” Melissa’s voice developed an edge. “Don’t you want to hear how I think he’s doing? Don’t you care about me?” The edge of her voice became hard. “I’m beginning to think you don’t like me. You’re always asking for Tim. Don’t you think I take good care of him? Tim Tim Tim!” she ranted.

Spurned, Melissa refused to answer the phone again. Punishing Tim she evicted him from her home.

Alarmed I wondered how to respond. For weeks and then months Melissa had dominated the phone visits, soaking up attention. Requests to speak with Tim were ignored, Melissa joyfully sharing. Eventually my insistence created a fracture in her composure. Irritation now leaked through easily.

Eventually I asked Tim’s social worker, Brian, for help. I explained the situation, how previous phone supervisors listened quietly, but Melissa dominated the entire call. Brian agreed to take care of it.

Spurned, Melissa refused to answer the phone again. Punishing Tim she evicted him from her home. At this point Tim had been in so many foster homes that his age (almost 13), medical condition and a new label as “trouble maker” made him a difficult placement. He experienced several rapid temporary placements, eventually landing in a group home for difficult, troubled teens.

I was frantic to locate him, reassure him. All letters I wrote him were mailed first to Brian, who delivered them to Tim. Brian also facilitated court ordered visitation. I had no phone number for Tim now. Where was he??? I called Brian. Brian’s slow, lazy voice contrasted my urgent panic, “Well, he’s moving every night or two, often spending hours at my office.”

‘I have not spoken with Tim in three months! Where is my son??’

I pictured my son with his meager belongings, shuffled from home to home, spending days with his backpack in an office. Rage burned against Melissa, Brian, my husband, myself. My mind raced, desperate for a solution, anything. Brian continued, “I don’t have anyone to supervise a phone visit, either. Tim’s living situation complicates things.”

I sputtered. The supervision was baloney, not my problem. Brian wanted it, he got it. ‘Don’t complain you can’t navigate your own system, buddy,’ I thought.

I continued to write 3 letters a week to Tim, care of Brian, reassuring Tim I wanted to call. Brian stopped delivering them. I had no idea and continued to write.

Frantic to restore visitation, I called my Washington state court provided attorney and left voicemails. ‘I’m not receiving visits. Where is my son??’ September turned into October. ‘Where is my son?? I have not spoken to my son!’

October turned to November. Shocked, I received false social service reports stating Tim always received his weekly court ordered visits with me. Brian’s name labeled him the reporter. Outraged, I called attorney, social worker, frantic. ‘I have not spoken with Tim in three months! Where is my son??’

Feeling dismissed and ignored I took action, requesting the Washington state bar rules of professional conduct. Using the prison library computer I wrote a court petition to request change of attorney. I included documentation of several serious bar violations I’d experienced at the hands of my current attorney over the past 2 years.

I mailed it to my attorney. This time she was interested in talking. She told me, “You cannot mail anything directly to the court. I will take care of everything.” This was news to me. However I waited.

Late November a hearing was scheduled; I appeared by phone. It quickly became apparent the judge had not seen my document. My attorney had not shared it. “Ms. Aho,” the judge intoned, “we are here today because you’d like a different attorney?”

“Yes sir,” I responded, unaware the judge was uninformed. I waited. My attorney filled the silence.

“Your Honor, I have been a hard working attorney for Ms. Aho, who is very demanding. But if she doesn’t like my work, I will step aside.” Her self-serving statement dripped of condescension. Confused, I wondered how she could say that in light of my paper.

I could almost here my crooked attorney laughing. I pursed my lips, resolve straightening my back as I hung up.

The judge didn’t wait for me to respond. “Ms. Aho, this court has provided you with a free attorney. I’ve received no information that your attorney is not adequate. Don’t bother us with your nonsense. We have real work to do. Motion denied.” The phone disconnected.

Shocked, I stared at the receiver. The dial tone began to buzz. I could almost here my crooked attorney laughing. I pursed my lips, resolve straightening my back as I hung up.

I mailed my petition to the judge the next day. Another court hearing was scheduled three weeks later. The mood was quite different.

“Ms. Aho, I understand you’ve outlined reasons you’d like a new attorney?” the judge asked almost gently. The same judge, I was surprised at his new tone.

Before I could answer my attorney interrupted angrily, “Your Honor! Ms. Aho has sent this document to the court without my permission! I’m outraged! It’s an affront!”

“Excuse me, but if half of Ms. Aho’s document is true, then your behavior is an outrage!” the judge surprised everyone by throwing back. Not waiting for a response he continued, “Your work is an affront to this court. Do you have a copy of this document?” My attorney nodded meekly. “Did she ask you to submit it to the court?” My attorney shrank and barely nodded.

“I’m shocked!” the judge roared. Pausing to regroup, he resumed, “Ms. Aho, you have this court’s apology. While we provide a free lawyer, we believe in providing a good lawyer. She does not represent us. I am granting your request and assigning you a new attorney immediately.”

This felt like a win but it was a small one. Brian continued to lie, submitting reports to the court that I’d received uninterrupted visits with Tim all year, perjury no issue for him. The court moved on, uncaring. Meanwhile piles of my letters to Tim, undelivered, stacked on Brian’s desk.

Tim remained ignorant of everything. His dad had stopped visiting him long ago. Now Tim believed I had abandoned him also. Our letters and phone calls ended, he cried alone in his room, lonely, wondering where everyone was.

Initially compliant with social services and attorney, I’d signed a voluntary waver of my parental rights 2 years previous. Now my freedom looked closer. Shocked by social services and Tim’s experiences, I reevaluated. Calling my new attorney I asked her to tear up that waver. I wanted my son.

Immediately social services moved to terminate parental rights and a trial date was set. The gloves were off.

22 But the fruit of the Holy Spirit [the work which His presence within accomplishes] is love, joy (gladness), peace, patience (an even temper, forbearance), kindness, goodness (benevolence), faithfulness,23 Gentleness (meekness, humility), self-control (self-restraint, continence). Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

*Not their real names

Discussion Questions:

  1. Holly describes a reluctance to become a tutor due to a negative bias against students. Have you ever been hesitant to take on a responsibility or role due to preconceived notions or biases? How did you handle or overcome these feelings?
  2. Edith’s outbursts and emotional struggles are highlighted in the passage. How do you think patience and empathy play a role in helping individuals who may be struggling with their emotions or tasks? Can you share instances where you demonstrated patience or received patience from others? What does the Bible say about patience?
  3. Holly reflects on the distinction between not being mean and being genuinely kind. How do you interpret this difference, and have you encountered situations where an absence of cruelty did not necessarily translate to kindness? What role does kindness play in your relationships? What does the Bible say about kindness in relationships?
  4. Holly’s confusion about the Holy Spirit is discussed. Have you ever encountered situations where you were unsure about certain beliefs or concepts? How do you approach and navigate discussions about spirituality or beliefs that may differ from your own?
  5. Holly faces obstacles in maintaining contact with her son, Tim, who is in foster care. How crucial do you think consistent communication is in preserving family relationships, especially in challenging circumstances? Can you share experiences where maintaining communication became difficult? Do you struggle with important relationships today?
  6. The passage ends with a significant development as the Holly decides to fight for her parental rights. How do you interpret her decision, and what do you think it signifies about her determination and resilience? Can you relate to situations where you had to fight for something important to you?

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