The last image I have of my mother is her sitting in a low chair, pregnant, with long straggly hair below her shoulders. I am maybe 9 years old, and she is crying to me. She is apologizing to me, she is promising me a new life, and then she is rambling nervously. Her eyes are mine, her hands even have the same texture. But she is so vastly different from my soft-hearted nature, she is starkly calculating and unnerved.
Even in my fear of her, I pitied her obvious weakness. We sat in a cell of some type that day, being watched by two social workers and a cop. I did not speak a word but felt hot tears nearly cut my skin as I tried to decipher my own feelings of hatred and fear. I saw her one time after that day and never again.
It is the stark image of her face, strained and nearly helpless, and the sound of someone kicking in a basement door that follows me sometimes. The smell of the musty air, the light being dim from a broken window, the cry of a boy beside me. And confusion. Mass confusion. Thankfully decades later, these memories are dull and they appear infrequently. They are sometimes jarred by someone’s touch, and other times, by my writing, my motherhood, and personal explorations.
This past week journalist Lisa Ling gave viewers of the OWN network a harrowing look at the foster care system in Los Angeles in her documentary, “Children of the System.” The stories in the documentary re-opened old wounds, when I was placed in foster care after being abused as a young girl. In my advocacy writing, just as in my parenting and all intimate aspects of my life, I do sometimes tread on thin ice.
The documentary, as it should, touched on nerves long numbed by time. I have learned to navigate these moments fairly well by now but when they appear they are fierce.
Ling gave a three-dimensional look at social workers handling thousands of calls weekly of abuse, abandonment, and neglect. She followed the story of several children in care, mothers fighting to regain custody, and a system swimming in controversy in the largest foster care system in America.
Los Angeles has more than 20,000 children in care. Like most other urban systems, the DFS often has no place for displaced children to go. Ling follows children sleeping in cots in offices, in temporary shelters as open prey to abusers, children sleeping in jail cells. This is one of Americas biggest tragedies. We have no magic wand.
From sibling separation, to children riding the wave of abuse and isolation, and to the never-ending court battles; the documentary painted a clear picture of the fear, pain and cyclical nature of early abuse.
Anyone who has not viewed the documentary, should; it unravels the stratification of a complex system, so deeply rooted in the heart of hundreds of thousands of American children. There is not a more important domestic issue at hand than protecting the innocence of these gifts and giving them a chance to be part of a better world.
I will revisit the documentary myself as I put my child to sleep tonight, and take comfort in the echoes of the past being very far in the past. I hope Ling’s hard work propels a young foster child to close his/her eyes knowing that peace and security is a possibility, even if it is far off.
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