This is the second installment in a multi-part story I’m writing for Child Abuse Awareness Month. Everything happened as described. Names have been changed. Nobody’s innocent.
Click here to read The Weed Truck, Part I
Panic comes flooding up my throat. It tasted like stomach acid.
“Chris Chris Chris Chris Chris,” I say.
Chris, my supervisor, strolls over. A bit older than me at 32 and fashionably dressed, he tries to keep his people calm and productive. He’s white, like I am.
“What’s the deal?” he says laconically.
I show him the note: “New CPS case re: Ms Tambora. Charges prostitution / drug use.”
“That’s not good,” he says. “Is it true?”
“It’s bullshit,” I say.
“Who’s the worker?”
I log into the computerized system that logs families’ Child Protective Services involvement – a catalogue of failure and suspicion. I navigate to Ms. Tambora’s new case.
“Patricia Black,” I say.
“I don’t know her,” Chris says.
The panic in my throat has receded somewhat, met in my throat by a generalized sadness, a despair mixed with acceptance that this is my life.
“Guess you’re about to,” I say.
* * * * * * * * *
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I take three deep breaths before dialing the phone. The deep breaths never work.
Ring. Ring. “What.”
“Um hello, Ms. Black. This is [—] with [—]. I’m Ms. Tambora’s preventive worker.”
I don’t know why I’m so nervous. The panic is back.
“Oh yes, the prostitute.”
“Well, about that. She’s actually a very good mother. I don’t think – -”
“Do you need something?”
“I thought it would help if I joined you when you make a home visit to the family.”
“Fine. 3 o’ clock today.”
“Great. I’ll let Ms. Tambora know to expect us.”
“Please don’t. I like to catch families when they don’t expect me. I don’t want her having time to hide anything.”
“3 o’clock. I’ll be wearing black.”
“Nothing. See you at 3.”
I hang up the phone. The panic is gone again. This time it’s anger that’s pushing it down. A righteous, durable anger.
My next call is to Ms. Tambora.
* * * * * * * * *
I show up 30 minutes early to prepare Ms. Tambora, but when I knock on the door Ms. Black is already there. “Bitch,” I think. She’s standing above Ms. Tambora, who’s sitting at her kitchen table. A framed picture of her daughter is on a curio shelf behind her; as always, she’s clutching her daughter on her lap.
Ms. Black is younger than I expected – about my age, late twenties – white and, as she said, dressed entirely in black. I wonder if she was aware of the symbolism when she got dressed this morning – a woman in black, here to take your children.
I try to remember the last time I thought of Child Protective Services as people who help.
Ms. Black doesn’t acknowledge me. She’s giving Ms. Tambora a release form. Like me, Child Protective Services workers need written permission from a caregiver before talking to a child’s provider. A strange facade of respect, I think – how odd what we choose to care about.
“Sign this so I can talk to Helena’s doctor,” she says.
“Ms. Tambora, is the doctor’s name filled in?” I ask.
She hesitates, looking at Ms. Black, then at me. “No.”
“Then signing that form would let her talk to anybody.”
Ms. Black bends down and scribbles on the form. “I was going to fill in the doctor’s name later, but whatever makes you happy,” she says.
Ms. Tambora signs the form.
* * * * * * * * *
Ms. Black is finally getting ready to leave.
“Can you tell me anything else about this family?” she says.
“Just that they seem to me like a great family. I’ve never seen a sign of drug use, prostitution or anything else.”
“Will Helena’s doctor tell me anything is wrong?”
“I haven’t spoken with her doctor yet.”
Ms. Black wags her finger. “It’s your job to communicate with the child’s providers, Mr. [—]. When Child Protective Services contracts a family out to your agency that’s one of our expectations.”
“Right, sorry. I’ve left the doctor messages.”
“Very well. The next step for Ms. Tambora will be to take a drug test. I’ll arrange that. See that she takes it.”
“She’ll take it.”
“Very well. Good bye.”
She says good bye to me, of course – not to Ms. Tambora. Then she leaves.
Ms. Tambora is still clutching Helena, tighter than ever. She looks terrified.
“I can’t take the drug test,” she whispers, even though we’re alone.
“I’ve been going to the weed truck.”
To be continued