She looked twenty years older than her true age.  Was it because she had a difficult life?  Because she was a mother of three young children?  That’s what I thought when I first met her.  I knocked on the screen door, with the rusty handle, and the woman who answered, “Marie”, pushed open the door and blew smoke in my face.  I stepped back, smiled and extended a hand, holding a notebook close to my chest with my other arm.  She didn’t shake my hand, or welcome me inside.  Its not a given that when you show up on someone’s doorstep with a government ID and a friendly smile that you will be cast away, but I was always prepared for this response.  DCF, Department for Children and Families, is code to some families as “baby snatchers”.  It doesn’t really matter that no social worker can legally remove a child from someone’s care.  That takes a judge, and police.  But social workers are the front line, the first to have contact with the family often, the first to knock on the door and ask how everyone is. That’s what I was doing on that summer day when I knocked on Marie’s door.  I was following up on a worry from the community that her three young children were not safe in her care.

My first thought was, this must be the grandmother.  Her face was pale, her hair, limp and dingy looking.  Her eyes were glassy.  The amount of smoke pouring out of the front door led me to believe that she was a chain smoker, the yellow nicotine under her nails confirmed it.  Within seconds of our eyes meeting three small children wrapped their thin arms around her knees.  Three girls with bouncy yellow curls, ages two, three and four, calling her mommy.

As we sat around a small formica table, Marie poured some cheerios onto the table in a pile in front of each child, and they sat quietly, snacking on this treat with glee.  I talked with Marie and the three children, asked them about their favorite games, what they ate for dinner last night, who helps them take a bath… and it was all about Mommy.  She nodded and smiled, encourage the children to tell me about their day. They answered every question I could come up with, showed me their room, their favorite dolls.  The apartment was small, cluttered with toys, but cleaner than most.  Relief washed over me.  The report was bogus, there was nothing to worry about.  The girls were thin, but healthy.  I would follow up with a few collateral calls to Marie’s parents.  “They’ll vouch for me” she said, and I took their names and number.    This wasn’t the first time Marie had a social worker in her home.  Some hateful neighbor were jealous of her, so they always made reports on her.  It wasn’t new.  She had nothing to hide.

Two weeks later, I was ready to wrap up the paperwork on this case when a call came from Marie’s mother.  She kept my number after our first conversation.

“I wanted to talk about this when you called last week, but I didn’t want to get my daughter in trouble. Marie is drinking a lot. Sometimes she passes out.  She can’t remember where she is when she wakes up.  We have been covering for her for years, but now the girls are telling us about finding mommy asleep and not being able to wake her up.”

My stomach lurched.  How could I have missed this?

“Where are the girls now?” I asked, worried that I left the girls in an unsafe situation.

“We have them.  Last night we picked them up when we stopped by the house and we couldn’t wake her up.  She was still alive, but just not fit to take care of these girls.”

They wanted to help the girls, but they couldn’t help their daughter and their grandchildren at the same time.  “Someone else has to help Marie.” They said.

During a very revealing interview with the girls at their grandparent’s home, they shared details about jumping up and down on mommy’s stomach to get her to wake up. “We thought she was dead” Katie, the oldest daughter said.  “She was still breathing though.”  My heart broke.  It was clear that they were safe in their grandparent’s home, but they couldn’t stay there unless Marie agreed to it.  I returned to the small apartment to talk with Marie.  She was completely drunk when she came to the door, holding a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other she waved me away. “Get out of my house!” she yelled.

After consulting with my supervisor we filed an affidavit with the court, seeking custody of the the three girls, and formally placing them with their grandparents.  Marie didn’t show up at court, or answer her door at my next visit.  I wanted her to get the help that she needed to start a recovery program, but her addiction was controlling her life.  My role in her life was over, a new social worker would take her case and try to engage her.  Even though I knew I had done all that I could I felt terrible.

Six months went by, and one cold February day I was walking down a snowy sidewalk when a familiar looking woman ran up to me.  She was moving fast and my gut told me I should step off the curb and let her pass, but as I did this she approached me and pushed me into a snowbank on the side of the walkway.  She began yelling at me, and crying, saying that I ruined her life by telling the judge about her drinking.

“Marie?” I asked.  She looked down at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, but I didn’t feel scared, just surprised and a little taken aback that she had come out of nowhere. I stood up, brushing off the snow from my pants.

“How are you?  Have you been able to start counseling?” I asked.

“I”m not going to counseling, because you are the problem, my mother is the problem.  All I did is get drunk one time, that can happen to anyone, and you took my children from me.”

I told her that she could continue to blame me for as long as she needed to, but this would not show the judge that she was able to stay sober and take care of her girls.  I told her that I knew she wanted to be the best mother to them that she could be, and that they needed her.  She was stricken with grief, and anger.  I didn’t blame her, she had simply reached the bottom.  She had to make the decision to get help, to fight this addiction and stop blaming others for her circumstance.  Was it my own inexperience that made me brave enough to deal with her anger?  I don’t know.  I think it was the look in her eyes.  It wasn’t hatred, it was sadness, it was defeat.  It was Marie’s worldview that the everyone was against her, and I was the easiest target.  I represented the loss of her children, and she wanted me to feel some of her anger and fear.  I told her I was sorry that she felt so lost, and that I hoped she would use the help being offered to her, and then I walked away, still believing that there was hope, but sad that Marie couldn’t see it for herself.

Two years later I saw Marie again at the state fair.  This time she was with her three girls, buying them cotton candy, and she looked ten years younger.  I knew she had stopped drinking, I could tell by the change in her skin, and her eyes.  She looked healthy.  I smiled at her, and she walked right up to me and gave me a hug.  She didn’t say anything.  She just hugged me, and then turned away and took her youngest daughter’s hand and left. I heard the oldest daughter ask her, “who was that mom?” but I didn’t hear the answer.  It didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that at some point she found the help she was willing to accept and she started her life again, and reunified with her children.

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