Last week, I wrote about Child Protective Services agents seizing children who were likely in no danger. While I was working, old memories lingered in my thoughts.
I have personally witnessed a situation these reporters described in their investigation. Granted, it was a different place and time. Granted, the incident occurred in a different state and the subject was not a Native American but a white middle class girl from the suburbs, yet the details are sadly similar.
Years ago, my friend from high school got pregnant while she was working as a prostitute to fund her crack cocaine habit.
Let me back up a little bit. Mary (not her real name!) was an “A” student. She and I became fast friends when we met in World History class in sophomore year in high school. I was impressed with her extensive knowledge of British history, and classical music. We did the things geeky, unpopular girls used to do back in the 1970s: play recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and hokey musicals from the 1950s and 1960s and sing along. Mary had a great voice and loved musicals as much as I did.
As it turned out, I was the only friend Mary had. We often got into heated discussions about our respective futures. Mary didn’t think she had a future. She didn’t think she could ever find a husband or go to college, even though she came from a family that was very wealthy. She used to call me “ambitious,” as if that were the worst thing a girl could be.
When she was 16, Mary ran away from home. I found out about it because her mother had frantically called me after she had gone missing for two days. I don’t know why she did, even today. I remember thinking at the time that Mary was just having a lark, and that she would be back in school in a few days.
She ended up in New York City, as her older sister lived there. I received letters from her, along with invitations to visit. To support herself, she got a job working as a hotel maid, and she was working on her GED.
After two years, I lost track of her address. My letters to her were returned, and hers stopped coming. I didn’t think much of this development, because so many of my friends were away at college and most of us were drifting apart anyway. I was sure that Mary had straightened out and would soon follow in her sister’s footsteps. Her sister was a fixture in the music business, and later became a big-whig record company executive.
I envied Mary’s bravery. Me, I was such a wuss. I was afraid to go to New York City. It wasn’t the safest city for a young naive girl from the Midwest.
I didn’t hear from Mary for about three years after her last letter, when one day, out of the blue, I ran into her at a local shopping mall.
She had really changed. She had straightened her once kinky black hair and fashioned it into a dyed platinum blonde mohawk. She had lost a lot of weight. Mary looked all the part of a 1980s style hooker, heels, fishnets, short pink mini-skirt, Members Only bomber jacket, and lots of facial hardware—piercings everywhere. She looked like Madonna in Who’s That Girl?
It was about then that she told me she had gotten hooked on crack cocaine and taken up prostitution to fund her habit.
This time, she told me, she was going to stay sober. She was going to give up the “life.” It was dangerous, harrowing. One time, a john who didn’t want to pay her hit her on the side of the head with a wooden plank. It all sounded horrible, and I was happy that she was home and ready to get her life back on track.
Before I could pay her a visit, though, Mary had returned to NYC. Once again, she was back on the streets.
About a year and a half later, I started my first job as a legal secretary in Chicago. I was at work one day, and came out to find Mary in the reception area of my office. Gone were the piercings, and the platinum blonde mohawk. It looked like the Mary I knew was back, and I can’t tell you how relieved I felt. Mary told me then that she’d had a baby.
It was that little baby that inspired Mary to give up drugs and prostitution. Because of her history, however, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had taken her child and put him in foster care. To get her child back, Mary had moved back home with her mom, taken a job as a bicycle messenger, and had gingerly 12-stepped her way to recovery. I was happy to hear about her recovery and her new life, so we made plans to meet after work to talk about the details.
At the restaurant, Mary and I had our last conversation together. I ordered coffee and she ordered a double shot gin and tonic, which she drank like it was a glass of water. She ordered another before I took my second sip.
She told me that a social worker paid a follow-up visit to her home, spoke to her brother who alleged that his father had hit him as a child (he was 21 years old at the time—and his father dead for 10 years). Without conducting a thorough investigation into his statement, the DCFS had given Mary’s baby up for adoption, effectively ending Mary’s right to see her child.
I tried to be sympathetic, offered to help, to testify on her behalf even, but I had to speak the truth too. I asked Mary why she was drinking so much if she wanted to get her child back. Incensed, Mary took a few gulps of her drink, and threw the rest on me, as she said, “F-you, you yuppie scum. Go back to building your empire, you bitch.” Then she left.
I had witnessed the beginning of her final downward spiral. Years later, I learned from Mary’s cousin that the family later tried to sue the Illinois DCFS for damages but were unsuccessful. He told me that Mary returned to her drug and alcohol habit and lost her life to the complications of Hepatitis C and alcoholism at 37. “We found the body several days after she had died. I really don’t want to discuss it. She hadn’t spoken to any of us for years.”
Mary was clean. She had a job. She was making the right decisions for the first time in years—all because of that child. And one well-meaning child services agent who failed to do her job properly gave away that motivation for change, and Mary went back to the habits that eventually killed her. Perhaps there were some mitigating circumstances here, perhaps the state’s intervention was actually warranted, but human beings are complicated. We can be driven to great depths and lifted to great heights by the smallest things. Mary should have been given the chance to rise, and there’s no way a government bureaucracy would have been able to tell if she could or not. I often wonder if my friend would still be alive today if it weren’t for that visit from the state social worker.