The Grandfather's Story

Lunch time arrived and those who chose, attended a lovely brunch buffet in the elegant dining room of the historic old hotel located in west central New Hampshire. I was fortunate to be able to share lunch hour with one of our teachers, a professor, who had traveled to New Hampshire to share his time and his expertise at this inspiring weekend conference. I was impressed with this man and the love and understanding that poured out in his presentation to the class. He seemed to respect both our knowledge and our lack of knowledge.

We began talking about our lives, getting to know one another. I felt a connection to this man and admired his ability to listen without passing judgment. He had shared, with the class, the beginning of a story about his daughter's involvement with child protective services in another state. I asked if he would tell me more, explaining my own role with New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) and his story from the heart unfolded.

Early in his marriage, the Grandfather and his wife had adopted a child of Native American descent. They named her, "Nikki." Throughout her childhood, he had attempted to interest her in her Native American culture, but Nikki refused, preferring to "fit in" with her peers by not appearing to be different from them. Still, she felt that she was different, and no amount of "fitting in" activity could hide it. In her search for an identity, she chose to associate with counter culture friends, among whom she would appear to be "less different." She joined in some of their activities, including drug use.

Eventually, she matured and married Marc. Some ties with the counter culture lingered in the form of old friends, some of whom remained deeply involved in it. Nikki and Marc had discontinued all drug use, however, they continued to remain in sympathy with many of the ideals of the counter culture. Their first son, Sammy, was born.

One day, Susan, an old former friend of Nikki's, visited with her four year old son, Jimmy. Sue was a single parent who tended to partner with a series of revolving boyfriends. Nikki later learned that, in financial desperation, Sue had resorted to prostitution. She showed up at Nikki's apartment in bad shape emotionally and physically. Jimmy was in worse shape. He was withdrawn and frightened. Nikki had been watching Jimmy and Sue and her various male friends and had suspected that Jimmy was a victim of child abuse. When Sue approached her one day begging her to take Jimmy before he was hurt again, Nikki knew that her suspicions were correct and agreed. Unfortunately, she also agreed not to "tell anyone" about the abuse and thereby made a mistake that would return to haunt her.

Jimmy's lack of response worsened as he withdrew further inside himself. Nikki and Marc were struggling financially, and they had Sammy to worry about. "Someone noticed Jimmy and reported his situation to protective services," the Grandfather said, pausing a moment to collect his thoughts and his memories. His daughter was accused of perpetrating the abuse and, for one reason or another, could not convince the agency of her position in the sequence. She was found guilty and spent a month in prison. It was a hard lesson for Nikki and a trial for the rest of the family.

Her father emphasized how difficult it had been, being in no position to help and having to remain on the sidelines, detaching himself from the situation as best he could.

Nikki returned home to Marc and Sammy and their life became more normal. Their second son, Reggie, was born and things were improving for Nikki and Marc and their family. The agency monitored their home periodically, but had no complaints. Then, it happened. Marc, a smoker and in a hurry, picked Sammy up quickly, without thinking and without first putting his cigarette down. Sammy sustained a cigarette burn on his arm. School or day care authorities noticed the burn and asked Sammy who had burned him. Sammy correctly identified Marc and protective services became involved with the family again. Previous involvement with the agency indicated that Nikki had served time in jail for abuse, and for this reason, both boys were immediately removed from their home and placed in foster care. The birth parents were presumed guilty of abuse. Nikki and Marc were very upset and had no one to advocate for them. Due to the suddenness of the placement, the agency made no attempt to place the boys with relatives. The grandparents lived a distance away and, although they wanted to help, they were unable to do so.

The boys were placed in the Native American foster home of Billy and Ellen Gilbert. They did well there and the Gilberts were impressed with the openness of the boys and their easy ability to share incidents from their past, all of which sounded natural and appropriate to the Gilberts.

Billy and Ellen also met Nikki and Marc and they liked them. In all their eight years of fostering, they had not seen such a good and natural relationship between foster children and their parents as they did when Nikki and Marc visited in the Gilbert home with Sammy and Reggie. Love was openly shared between all parties. Ellen noticed that the children showed no fear of either parent. In fact they responded so well to Nikki and Marc that Ellen wondered if the abuse had really been an accident as Nikki and Marc had claimed. Time passed.

Eventually, a team meeting was called including all parties who had involvement with the boys. Representatives from protective services, the school, attorneys, therapists, the foster parents and, the Grandfather said with a twinkle in his eye, "my wife and I were asked to be there, too". He went on to describe the meeting that followed. The foster parents said many good things about the boys and about Nikki and Marc, as well. Negatives were countered with positives. Ellen Gilbert decided to have her say and she talked on and on about the love she had seen between the boys and their parents and about the boys' easy adjustment and open discussions about their home life and their love for their Mom and Dad. The team members found that they could picture this family as Ellen described them and began to see them in a new light. They saw the burn as accidental, rather than as imposed and they saw that the family needed to be reunited. True, Marc should have been more careful as he readily agreed, but there was no abuse here. The children were returned to Marc and Nikki, mainly due to the efforts of Billy and Ellen Gilbert.

The Grandfather beams as he tells me that he had come east to attend his son's wedding in Boston as well as to present our workshop. Nikki and Marc and the boys as well as a new infant daughter, Patrice, were able to attend the wedding, too. They are doing just fine and he is pleased. They will never forget the foster parents who went to bat for them in spite of the odds and who were able to, through empathy and understanding, make a difference. The Grandfather smiled as he got up to return to the afternoon session of the workshop and our visit ended.

I have used this story, even though it occurred outside New Hampshire, as it gives a good example of how good, alert foster parents made such a difference in the lives of this biological family.

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