Poet David Whyte writes, “Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.”
I’m thinking of Whyte’s words this morning as my client – a mother who for years has battled an addiction to drugs – prepares to enter an in-patient drug treatment program, days before Christmas. I’m thinking of how many obstacles she has overcome to take this first step.
Being dependent on a chemical that controls your brain. Enduring the pain of losing her children to foster care. Receiving threats from professionals about the permanent destruction of her family if she can’t treat her illness. Navigating complex bureaucracies during a pandemic without a phone, or a place to live. Spending the holidays in a facility with strangers, instead of her children. The list goes on and on. Stress. Grief. Trauma.
Whyte further instructs, “Don’t let them smother something so simple.” Yet, how often in child welfare do we do this to parents, preventing them from taking that first step? We “smother” them through our shaming and judgment. By piling needless requirements upon them. By expecting them to trust us even though we can’t make the time to develop authentic relationships with them. By not always fulfilling our commitments and legal obligations.
But perhaps Whyte is right, that this first step might be “something so simple.” Or at least not as hard as we make it. I think of my client, and what it took for her to take this first step. Her student-attorney called her on the phone regularly, making time for her and hearing her story. Her new caseworker figured out how to get her a phone, so that our client could communicate with others – and her children.
During a court hearing, a prosecuting attorney chose not to further dehumanize her by mentioning outstanding warrants from incidents that predated the case, and instead focused on the future. The children’s lawyer let my client know of the love the children had for their mother, and their need for their mother to get healthy again. “Something so simple.” Maybe transformation doesn’t have to be so hard.
President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” We can transform child welfare if each person working with families figures out what they can do to relentlessly support parents with whatever resources they have. It might involve bearing witness to their story. It might involve a small – or large – act of kindness. It might involve not dwelling on the negative facts, but instead focusing on the parent’s strengths. It might involve a hug, or a joint cry.
It might involve legislative or policy changes to bring more resources to address the concrete needs of families. But the one thing it must involve is true kinship with the families we are lucky enough to serve.
I don’t know what the future holds for my client. But by having the courage to take that first step, she is showing the rest of us the path we each can take to transform child welfare.