I heard a slap, followed by an infant’s cry, as I approached the front door. The voice on the other side of the door said, “There. That’ll give you something to cry about, Chloe Renne”.
The voice belonged to Stacey, a 20-year-old single mom. The child was 8-month-old Chloe. Chloe didn’t have a bed, so she slept in her car seat. By the time I arrived at 9 am, Chloe had been in that car seat for over 12 hours without even a diaper change.
Chloe wasn’t the only child in the family. She had a 2-year-old brother, Brandon, and a 3 ½- year- old sister, Kaylee. They didn’t have beds, either.
There was no furniture in the living room. Clothes, cigarettes, beer bottles, and other trash carpeted the floor.
Child Protection Hotline
As a Department of Human Services assessment caseworker, I was there because of a report made through the child protection hotline. One of the allegations was the kids weren’t being fed. So after wading through the debris in the living room, I headed to the kitchen. I have never seen a more barren kitchen. There was nothing to eat, not an empty bottle of ketchup in the fridge or a stale box of crackers in the cupboard. The two younger kids, noticing an empty soda bottle on the floor, ran and grabbed it to drink the last remaining drops.
The hotline caller also reported that the house was very dirty. Now, let’s be clear, caseworkers aren’t the Good Housekeeping Police. Nor is it a crime to not have furniture or even food. The condition of a home only becomes a concern when it poses health or safety hazards to young children. Things like feces on the floor or furniture, food left out that has gone bad, drug paraphernalia, bullets, guns, sharp objects, and other items that could cause injury to a toddler or crawling baby are the concerns. This home was full of those types of things.
The Kids’ Daycare
Before visiting the family, I contacted the staff at the kids’ daycare for background information. The daycare staff explained that the kids were often first to arrive each day and the last to leave. Mom often came after the daycare closed. The children attended six days a week, even on days when Stacey didn’t work. Although Stacey was two months behind with the bill, the workers continued to take the kids because they believed it was the only time the kids ate.
The daycare staff shared that two days earlier, Chloe arrived crying and hungry. As long as the staff offered her food, Chloe kept eating. While most infants will stop eating when full, Chloe kept eating. Finally, the staff stopped giving Chloe food and offered her a bottle which she guzzled until empty. Within a few minutes of finishing the bottle, Chloe threw up everything. She had gorged herself because even at eight months, she didn’t know when she’d have food again.
I asked Stacey about the lack of food and how she provided for the kids. She said the kids ate breakfast and lunch at daycare, and for dinner, she just did what she could.
When I provided a list of local food banks, Stacey explained she couldn’t use food banks because they required ID, and hers was lost. She couldn’t get a replacement ID because she didn’t have a birth certificate. I pointed out she could get a birth certificate at the health department, but she said that wouldn’t help because they charge a $10 fee, and she didn’t have any money. I agreed to ask the Health Dept to waive her fee and request reimbursement for the driver’s license fee. Stacey agreed to get her birth certificate and driver’s license replaced that week.
Another hotline allegation was the lack of parental supervision. Over the weekend, Stacey went to a friend’s house for a party. She was there for about five hours, leaving her kids in the car the entire time. In a rough neighborhood known for prostitution and drug dealing. Stacey explained she didn’t believe leaving them in the car was a problem because it was after 10:00, and her kids were asleep when she went inside.
It was unclear if the kids were asleep when she left them, but when Stacey finally left the party, the kids were fighting in the car, with Brandon biting Kaylee. I observed several bite marks on Kaylee’s arms. Kaylee told me when she and Brandon were fighting, Chloe woke up and started to cry, so Brandon bit her, too. It was still going on when Stacey left the party, which the neighbors estimated was about 2:45 am.
The Past and the Future
To wrap up my initial visit, I completed a safety plan asking Stacey to take the necessary steps to get her ID, get food for her kids from the food bank, and clean her house to eliminate the safety hazards. I carefully pointed out which items in the house that caused risk to her kids. Stacey agreed and signed the safety plan. But a week later, she hadn’t done any of those things.
When I returned to the office, I found a file left on my desk by my supervisor. It contained historical records for Stacey. Not only past allegations involving her kids but records from Stacey’s childhood.
Stacey had a long history with DHS, which included sexual abuse by her stepdad and two other men in her mother’s life. Stacey was in and out of foster care until she gave birth to Kaylee at 16 and moved out on her own.
These circumstances are the reality for many parents who are investigated for child abuse and neglect. While not everyone who is abused grows up to abuse their kids, most of the adults who abuse or neglect their children have suffered from abuse themselves.
Could Foster Care Help?
As I read through Stacey’s case file, I glanced up at the framed Bible verse on my cubicle wall-
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” – James 1:27 (ESV)
Sadly, no one had stepped forward to support Stacey. The children, Chloe, Brandon, and Kaylee, went into foster care. Eventually, Stacey’s parental rights were terminated, and the children were adopted. I hope they were placed with a loving, Christian family who loved them. What if they had been placed in a Christian foster family who cared for them and helped Stacey work towards reunification?
Unfortunately, too many stories end like Stacey’s. But it could be different, couldn’t it? There are more than enough churches in every community to meet the needs of at-risk children and families. If every church rallied to do something, the kids in our communities, and their parents, could have better outcomes. Moms like Stacey, kids like Chloe, Brandon, and Kaylee could discover what pure and undefiled religion looks like. You could make that happen.