This is the first installment in a multi-part story I’m writing for Child Abuse Awareness Month.
Ms. Tambora had had enough – of me, of the system. But I didn’t know it yet.
I don’t think she knew it either.
Ms. Tambora isn’t polite – she and her partner, Mr. Greene, are obsequious. When she answers the door, 18-month-old baby in her arms, she looks like an abused child that doesn’t know if she’s in for a hug or a beating. Sweet, kind, mild Ms. Tambora.
Despite her demeanor I don’t feel like I’m taking advantage of her. I’m here to help.
I’m a preventive worker. I occupy a gray area between child protective services and traditional therapists. CPS contracts with my agency to provide services to families that have been reported for child abuse or neglect but who have been allowed to keep their kids. In theory, my services are accepted voluntarily. In practice, it’s often a choice between working with me or losing your children.
She lets me in, as always, with a nervous smile on her face. “Good morning, Ms. Tambora!” I say cheerily. “How are you?”
Ms. Tambora pauses for a moment, thinking. “I’m good,” she finally says.
In theory my services are voluntary. In practice it’s often a choice beween working with me or losing your child.
Today we’re talking about a domestic violence program Ms. Tambora is trying to sign up for. As we’re talking I notice she seems uncomfortable.
“You look worried.”
“I’m worried they’re going to take Helena,” she says, holding up her daughter, whom she’s clutched in her arms since I arrived.
“They’re not going to take Helena. You’re too good a mother.”
“But they took Joseph.”
I still don’t understand how Ms. Tambora lost custody of her older son, Joseph, who’s now 8. Ms. Tambora doesn’t understand it either. She only knows that a child protective services worker and two cops showed up at her door one day and “made me sign something.” The worker picked Joseph up and left. The cops blocked Ms. Tambora when she tried to follow.
Later she learned that Joseph’s father had accused her of drug use and prostitution.
The father now has custody of the child.
I know from previous visits to be careful around this topic because, five years later, discussing it still makes Ms. Tambora tearful. I like to think of myself as a traveling therapist, but honestly, I just don’t have the energy today.
“We really should figure out how to get you into this program,” I say, holding up a pile of intake documents for the the domestic violence program. “If they accept you we’ll continue this discussion, OK?”
Ms. Tambora dries her eyes with a tissue. “OK,” she says.
We finish the application and I feel satisfied when I leave. Ms. Tambora has a real shot at getting into this program, which provides domestic violence counseling, rent subsidies, legal assistance and more. They receive so many applications they basically draw winning names out of a hat.
I get to the office and I mail the application. I flirt a bit with a coworker I’d never see outside of work. I’m humming a bit when I sit down at my desk.
There’s a sticky note with a message in the receptionist’s handwriting.
“Oh Christ no.”
Ms. Tambora had been reported to child protective services for drug use and prostitution.