Psalm 72:12-14 For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
When Patrick was six years old, his drug addict mother dropped him off at a busy street corner in downtown San Diego and told him to stay there, she would be right back. She drove away with his brothers and sister still in the car. After living on the streets by himself, two weeks later, Patrick went to the police for help.
In San Diego County, there are over 2000 homeless children. 42% of homeless children are younger than six years old.
Through the Dependency Court system, Patrick was placed in foster care. His foster family provided him with a nice home with all the typical furnishings including a bed to sleep on, but Patrick slept on the floor next to the bed because he had never slept on a bed. He had only slept outside on the ground or in a car.
There are over 7000 foster care children in San Diego County.
His foster family lived just a block from the elementary school and they had Patrick walk the short distance home from school. But, Patrick went to school and he did not come back.
50% of foster care children never graduate from high school and most are very behind their peers academically, physically, and emotionally.
After a frantic search, his foster parents finally found him several blocks from their home in a fast food restaurant cleaning tables and windows in exchange for food- a deal he had negotiated with the store manager. They took him home and showed him their refrigerator and pantry and explained that he could eat whenever he was hungry, that they would provide for him.
Patrick’s mother abandoned Patrick but kept his brothers and sister because blonde-haired, blue-eyed Patrick had a deformed spine, caused by multiple fractures to his back. She was embarrassed by his hunched back appearance.
Child abuse kills more children in America than do accidental falls, drowning, choking on food, fires in the home or suffocation.
Patrick also walks with a limp because when he was just a few years old, he was hit by a car, the leg was never set, and his leg healed improperly.
One third of San Diego County residents have no health care insurance. Many have moderate to severe health conditions.
Attorneys in Dependency Court are charged with representing 350-400 foster care children each. State mandates require they visit the children at least twice a year- a minimal amount and a mandate the attorneys find reasonable, but unachievable if you do the math. With court appearances, visits with counselors, family members, social workers, two home visits to each child each year, travel time, there are not enough hours in the day to make it possible to meet the mandates, although they desperately try. They are paid little compared to attorneys practicing in other areas of law, work long and emotional hours, and are committed to the point that job openings in the department are rare.
I met Patrick on one of those required home visits as part of the University of San Diego Child Advocacy Clinic. I read his entire file, drove the short drive to his foster home, images of what I had read swimming in my head, clouding my vision. When I met Patrick I was surprised by his soft, sweet demeanor, the gentleness of his features, his easy smile, his pale blue eyes. I expected him to be jaded, shut down, rebellious, disrespectful, encased in a hard shell. Instead, he was open and genuine, with a warm and open manner, sweet and conscientious in his responses to my questions. We talked for awhile about school, his foster family, friends, his likes and dislikes. He had a wistful optimism and thoughtful countenance.
It hurt to think of this beautiful, loving child being hurt by anyone, especially by his own mother. In that moment, I did not want to know his story, or any other story of a child discarded after being stomped on, emotionally and physically. It seemed so unfixable, beyond repair, and yet, he was resilient, basking in hope, still so giving and open, holding to something more than what he had been dealt. I wanted to say something, something meaningful, not cliche, something deliverable, but I could think of nothing to leave him with. Just his positive exchange with someone else’s mom. Maybe he could learn from that- that moms can give.
I remember going home and telling my husband all about Patrick, his background, his experiences, how Patrick presented in person. My husband asked if we could keep him. I told him of the many, many “Patricks” filling foster care homes all over the county and reminded him that we could not keep them all. But, of course, inside my heart melted and my mind exploded with so many questions, mostly of how could I continue to face these children every day. And, more importantly, what could I do to protect them.
Patrick’s mother made lots of representations, of drug recovery, parenting classes, birthday and Christmas presents, lofty promise predications. Hollow illusory wishes, written in disappearing ink, tied with paper mache bows, washed down as bitter medicine to a young child with the imagination of Willie Wonka dreams. Never fully abandoned, ties severed, as grand plans were presented, fantasies described, though reality presented as no birthday phone call or visit, child waiting on a bench, inside a long stark, colorless room. No explanation to the courts for long disappearances, lack of visitation, classes never attended.
Big boy smiles to her big boy often enough to make him hold to hope and believe. Painful to every witness, particularly the judge, who grants another chance, another thread, relationship life vest. And she cannot swim and refuses to stand though the water is only waist high. It is doable, if you commit, there are resources to help. Your choice. Please, choose your child. We want your success, if not for you, for him. We are in the water together. Watching, helping, holding everything up.
I told Patrick I was going to represent him in court and that I would speak on his behalf, and asked if there was anything he wanted the judge to know. He shook his head no, and then after a minute of silence, he asked, “Anything? Tell the judge I am okay and not to worry about me. Tell him I want to stay here- with my foster family.”
Terminating a parent’s rights to their child to me is as profound as any death penalty case. Advocating for education, safety, shelter, health care for children who have nothing is an incredible opportunity and responsibility. Every foster care child, every homeless child, every child- deserves an advocate, and safety, shelter, care, acceptance, love.
What was he to argue to the court? For his mother, against his mother, for a dream that never blossoms while retaining the eternal optimism that we so want to foster in a young child? And, we know, and understand, that they should not even be asked to do so. Included, consulted, observed, assisted- yes. But not charged, responsible, not sober decision-making that everyone struggles with even with grace, knowing, heart, and intellect because the gravity should not weigh on the shoulders of the child, though we know the child shoulders it every day in some capacity.
Patrick, a soldier in a battle not of his choosing, fighting in a war where there were too many sides to know who sided with whom, would never know where the altercation began or when it had ended, just wanted to be typical, unrecognizable, with parents that showed up for birthdays when they said they would show up, the predictability of someone he could trust, the ability to rely on someone if he failed, struggled, wanted or needed help- a soft place to fall at the end of each day, a place, any place.
No one, especially a child, should endure abuse of any kind. It is a sickening reflection on who we are as a society that we are not doing more to protect children and prevent abuse. I also know, because I personally met so many angels, that there are many, many people who are dedicating their lives, as advocates, foster parents, teachers, doctors, to save these children.
We can do more. Because we are love.
Sometimes the people that are charged with loving us do not have the capacity to do so.
All of us are worthy of love.
You are loved. We are loved. God loves us. Speak on behalf of others, give someone a voice.
About the Author
Proverbs 31:8-9 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
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