Friday, May 04, 2007

mistakes were made

About seven years ago we opened a state of the art program for homeless families. The facility combined apartments and a community center; services and housing in a gorgeous setting. It was the first time I'd had the lead on opening a facility. There was a team of us, all young, idealistic, and extremely dedicated. Those of us who are still left remember that time as the golden age. And it was. Extraordinarily good work happened during those years.

But that doesn't mean we didn't make mistakes. Some of the units were subsidized by the county, they would refer hard to place folks to us and they could stay for several years. D came to us via that program, her very severe mental illness had through medication, transformed her from an incoherent street person to a competent, albeit quirky woman. And she'd just had a baby, fathered on the street. Her pregnancy was the catalyst, months of care had helped her regain what she'd lost. The county had invested a lot of time with her, they were very proud of her stabilization and felt this was the next step, as living on her own with her child was not yet a comfortable option.

For a couple of years it worked. D, as with many other long timers became part of our fabric and we became an extended village for their children. We'd often be working at our desks with children in our laps, under our feet. Snacks offered, breaks taken to color pictures or play a game of chase. It was always, always chaotic in the best sort of way.

We started noticing changes in D. Her affect was becoming more volatile, her eyes lost their clarity. And by then her son was a toddler; 0ur concerns for him on the rise. We appealed to the county, who refused to intervene until she'd fully decompensated. We called for welfare checks, both from the county and the police, desperate for someone to declare her holdable. No one would. D had been around this block before and she'd perform magnificently in front of them and they'd leave blaming us for wasting their time. This is all too common, we'd made many welfare calls during those years for different reasons, and already knew that only 11% of calls actually turned into open cases. The system was already too full.

Things continued to decline, and worse, D had lost trust in us, bringing in the outsiders increased her paranoia. She withdrew, her visits to the office less and less common. We were increasingly scared for her son, and we had gotten the message loud and clear from the county: we were on our own in this until she fit the criteria for a hold (demonstrated in front of them as there are laws protecting the mentally ill. A hold that doesn't meet criteria could result in a lawsuit. Asses needed to be covered).

We knew she'd stopped taking her meds and for awhile we convinced her to let us monitor her, we'd each take shifts and go to her house and watch her swallow. We were not designed for this, nor did we have the expertise. We were the renegade social workers out of our realm and very much on our own. This went on for a couple weeks but things were not getting better. Typically a month or so is needed to achieve true stabilization, and time was not on our side.

I went to her door one day to check in on her, she reluctantly opened it, wild eyed and manic. She pulled me inside, ranting about the president, the FBI, she was being watched and it was my fault. Her son strapped to a high chair watching the show. The apartment was a disaster, pictures torn from magazines covered the walls, the eyes on every single face had been blackened out.

I asked her to come with me to the office, gathered the staff around. I sat next to her and told her how much we all loved her and her son, how worried we were. That we needed to make sure she was taking her pills, that even with us watching her we suspected she still wasn't taking them. She listened quietly and once I stopped she looked up, her face contorted and in a voice I'd never heard before I am the lord jesus christ and you are persecuting me. my son is the son of god, they want to take him and I will kill him before they can find him. he will die for all of your sins. We collectively gasped, the men moved slightly closer, the women slightly back. I'll bet good money that no one there that day has ever forgotten those moments. A window into someone's hell had opened and we all had first row seats.

We knew we had to call the police and we knew how bad that was going to be. We placed the call and told them she'd threatened her son's life, knowing it was one of the few things they'd respond to. They came and finally agreed to take her to the psychiatric ward, and when they told her she attacked them and tried to attack me. We were separating her from her child. She was being taken away. No matter what she'd done thus far, she loved her son. She loved her son a lot. She was just so tragically ill.

Her son had been in her arms, wrenched out of her grasp by the police and handed to me, they took her down and handcuffed her. She son was hysterical, I was crying, she was in the back of the police car by now kicking at the windows. Screaming. It happened in moments, her son saw too much. He had already seen way, way too much.

She had no family, no one willing to take her son. As such, there were no options but the shelter. He still hadn't let go of me, so the police asked me to come with them, they'd bring me back when it was done. I rode in the back of the police car with him, his three year old hand clasped in mine. The children's shelter processed him, took him from my arms, another child entering the system.

It took months for all of us to really recover. We'd visit her son at the shelter and try to get info on D. She'd been involuntarily committed and had lost custody of her son. It would be near impossible to get him back.

There were many, many mistakes made; ours included. We did our best, but we weren't equipped for this level of sickness, interventions needed to happen sooner, chains yanked. We did our best and we lost, we all lost. I am a mother now and wasn't then. We made mistakes then I wouldn't make now.

Her son was placed in permanent foster care; by all accounts he was thriving in his new home. We lost touch with him after a while, he was sucked into the system's vortex. D's fate was even less clear, in fact years went by without us ever knowing what happened to her.

About a year ago J and I were driving to the movies. At a stoplight I noticed a woman on the corner, ranting and swaying, dirty. I looked, then looked again. It was D. Holy shit, it was D.
J asked if I wanted to stop the car, I shook my head and we kept driving.

We just kept driving.


deb said...

I think mental illness has to be the hardest thing to cope with, for patients and for caregivers. Who's to say that their reality is any less real than ours? I don't know. I know I don't like it when my reality slips a little, makes me doubt myself and everything I think or do.

I hope the son does well. I work with a woman whose mother was bipolar and she grew up in a truly fucked up home. But this woman survived, she thrived and she enjoys her life. So it does happen. I'll keep my fingers crossed for the boy.

jen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aliki2006 said...

God--how heart-wrenching. I can't say much more--the system is so screwed up, really--so many many people fall through the cracks. It must be frustrating for you to be there to do so much and yet not quite enough because the system has tied your hands. I'm sorry.

jen said...

oh deb. i know. i am SO conflicted about treatment, meds...all of it.

at the time we just wanted her to be able to keep her son, and we couldn't get the help we needed until it all went way, way too far.

and it was so terribly sad for everyone. she was a very good mom.

Binky said...

I don't think a world without mistakes could move forward. It would be a world without motivation.

Not very helpful, I know.

Andrea said...

What a horribly sad story.

I hope her little boy is ok.

meno said...

The more i read, the more i wonder, Is there an answer? Does every problem have a solution? What would it have been?

It's frustrating to not know how to help, when we want to so badly.

A chilling story.

Gwen said...

meno has a point; sometimes there is no solution; sometimes nothing good can come of it. And that's the shittiest part.

I hope the best for D's son.

thailandchani said...

There isn't a blanket solution. It will be as individual as the person experiencing it. Of course I understand that protecting her son was most important, I do wonder about D's life. I wonder if she would be okay in another environment or if her illness is so intense that she can't live outside a controlled environment.

Hard stories.. but all too typical.

And if you don't write a book, giving faces to these very human people, I will be shocked and disappointed. Few can do it the way you do.

I hope you'll keep it in mind for some day in the future.

slouching mom said...

That story is way too sad.

And it also makes me really, really angry.

Because near the beginning of it you wrote this:

We appealed to the county, who refused to intervene until she'd fully decompensated.

And that, that is where it all went south. Had the county intervened at that moment, you more than likely would be telling a different story.

Momish said...

I know this story all too well. You are so right, it is just like looking into hell. Scary moments that I will never forget. How cruel the mind can be. I sometimes still get the shivers just remembering moments of intense insanity I witnessed at my job. Then my stomache drops and I get sick when I realize it is every moment, every day for them.

So sad about D. I do hope her son was able to thrive and will be able to understand one day.

QT said...

OMG Jen! What memories to have! It is so easy for someone to pretend to be taking pills, that isn't something you should have had to monitor. It sucks that your repeated attempts to get help failed.

Hopefully her little boy grew up to be an ok and happy human being.

thordora said...

I fear this. Oh how I fear this.

Love just isn't enough, and we haven't quite figured out how to deal with us nutbars. I'm just glad my meds keep it under control, and I'm not this bad anyway...

so sad...

Tabba said...

This is an amazingly profound story, Jen. In so many ways. We all are teetering - some of us more than others. We all dance on the edge of a knife. Some of us are lucky enough to know that if we slip on that edge and slide, we will be caught and put back to rights. Others are not that lucky. And sometimes no matter what, we can't save them. Despite our best efforts to help. It was a problem that was just much too much. The best you can hope for is that boy is a success story.

flutter said...

Thank the universe you were there, Jen. You may not have been able to save her, but you all, collectively, saved her son.

kristen said...

Oh my Jen, this makes my stomach hurt and my heart break. I don't know how you do it, truly. I wouldn't be able to survive all that you see and do. I feel so bad for D, for her son and for all of you who tried your best, but sometimes it's out of your control.

Joker The Lurcher said...

only today i was telling one of my colleagues that she should not have been asked by the police to help them remove 2 small children from their mother. social workers have systems for debriefing and coping with this - our team just have each other.

you must have suffered with this family. and i bet you just had to get on with your job afterwards.

the system stinks. but in the end madness is harmful , not only to the person whose mind it is but to all the people in their lives. children need protecting from it. i was brought up by someone who wasn't my mum and although the pain of leaving my mum is still with me i doubt whether i would have survived being brought up by her.

take care of your self as well...

the new girl said...

This is such a striking portrait of the trauma that is real mental illness.

I have so many memories that are like this one. They stay with me, really, no matter how much time passes. And I always wonder.

cinnamon gurl said...

this story sends chills don my back for so many reasons.

Cathy said...

Sad. So very, very sad.

Even more chilling -- it's only one of many equally tragic stories.

You did all that you could, especially given the system's constaints.

Mental illness is still so very misunderstood.

mamatulip said...


So often, Jen, I read your posts and am kind of speechless afterward. I wish I had something more touching, more profound to say, but this time I'm speechless.

alejna said...

What a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking story. I felt it physically.

I've said this before, jen, but I'm so glad you are writing these stories.

KC said...

You all did the best you could at the time. That's all you can do.

It's a sad, sad story. To witness a mother consumed by mental illness. A good mother.

This boy. I hope he has joy and peace in his life.

Beck said...

Now my stomach hurts from the sadness of this. Poor K, poor you, poor little boy.

Lawyer Mama said...

Oh god, what a horrible story. Mental illness is just heartbreaking. I so wish there were a "right" answer for situations like this, but there really isn't. You did all that you could.

What really makes me angry is the fact that she had to go so far down hill before the county would get involved. I understand *why* but it's still so infuriating.

crazymumma said...

oh jen

Really its all I've got. I hope her little boy is ok.

shit. It really gets things in perspective you know.

pgoodness said...

You did what you could. Even though her little boy ended up in foster care, it may have just been the best thing for him. Sadly, her mental illness may have gotten the best of her mothering as well in the end. Sad and so frustrating for you. I'm not sure how you face it every day, but I'm thankful you do.

Laurie said...

My uncle was bipolar. You never knew what he was going to do next. After he was diagnosed, he lived with family members for most of the rest of his life.

One day, at age 70, he walked away. Despite all of our best efforts, we couldn't get him to move back in with family. He died later that year in an apartment in California. We did the best we could.

You were D's family and you did the best you could. Sometimes that's all you can do.

Marymurtz said...

Our daughter was adopted from foster care, after being removed from an unfit environment with her siblings. At that time, the eldest was 12 and our daughter was 13 months old.

It was YEARS of calls to the authorities before they finally intervened. And the poor woman is adrift now, her children scattered to the four winds, her mental capacity questionable...and in the meantime, she has had another baby.

I know that there are well-meaning people who try to protect the children, but what is being done to help the adults, the parents, the mentally ill, before they spiral so dreadfully out of control?

I know it's not just "programs" as the answer, but I feel so impotent thinking about how to help. It's infuriating.

Bon said...

tears in my eyes, Jen. tears for D, and her little boy, and you...

and selfishly for me, because of all the times i just keep driving.

Suburban Hostage said...

You saved his life.

Tabba said...

I also want to second Chani about writing a book....your words, no matter how sad the story, how heart-breaking the situation, are simply beautiful.
No one can write beautiful like you can.
I'm telling you - this kaleidoscope, keeps spinning in my mind. All of these brilliant, vibrant colors and shapes.

Hel said...

I am crying as I read this but my tears are for you and the pain you feel about driving away.

Sandra said...

Oh how I have missed you, your words and your stories that knock me on my ass and make me think.

Like this one.

Mistakes get made, mental illness is so mishandled in the system sometimes, ... but there are no perfect answers. Are there?

Big hugs

Penny. said...

This post has broken my heart.

When I was three and a half I was removed from the shelter my Mother and I were staying at, under Child Protective Services and placed in foster care while my mother was placed into a psychiatric hospital. I remember everything surrounding this event in my life, in vivid detail. Except that they took me while I was sleeping - a blessing and a horror.

Mental illness is pain. The worst kind of pain. My heart goes out to D and her son. And, to you, Jen. Because you had no other choice and you had the strength to make the right decision at the risk of being someone's demon.

God Love You, Jen.

Deezee said...

There is too much here for me to do justice with a simple comment.

You're a part of something so big containing so much pain.

Susanne said...

Only people who don't do things don't make mistakes.

At least her son was thriving.

kim said...

I agree with ThailandChani-write a book. Put faces to and stories to the problem.

Jen, I take some comfort knowing that saints like you are in our midst.

ewe are here said...

there are no words, just tears...

I hope the little boy went on to thrive.

Tis I. said...

I revisited this post, today. Because I needed to. I was looking for it. I found it. And, it felt the same. I hope her boy doesn't still feel it. But, it's probably better than what lay ahead for him.

..By our standards.

A mother is God to her children. When you remove a child from God, there is hell to pay. Not from you, Jen. But, I pray for him, so often.