I believe it matters that I believe.
My work as a social worker brings me into contact with some exceptional young people. Victims of abuse and neglect, they endure despite the myriad reasons to surrender. One of my children – yes, my children – has always stood out from the rest. It is not because of the great successes that he has achieved to this point. In fact, most would consider his life up to this point a failure.
At seventeen, he is still small for his age, a result of the malnutrition and neglect that occurred during his early childhood. The government support checks would go directly to his mother’s addiction. With no money left, six children had to be fed. The children pumped gas. When they could not make enough, they begged. When that did not close the gap, they stole. Who among us would do any different?
Thirteen years have passed since Child Protective Services removed this child and his five siblings from their mother. One sibling has been emancipated from the system and four have been adopted by relatives or strangers. No one ever came for him.
He has been thrown out of many homes. He has found his clothing in trash bags on the porch upon his return home from school. He has repeatedly brought out the worst in good people. District of Columbia Public Schools long ago decided that his issues were far beyond the services that they are able to provide. He endures.
Despite the many schools, the predictions of failure, and the considerable mental health needs, he is still on track to graduate from high school on time. He still lacks basic social skills, but he will now shake my hand when I see him. One time, after I bought him a snack from a local convenience store, he turned and said, albeit quietly, thank you. Small victories, yes, but victories.
The road before him is long and difficult. Anxiety still dictates much of his life. Despite his desire to begin interviewing for jobs, he has yet to learn how to look someone in the eye. And the criminal justice system will never understand that his need to steal is fueled by the neglect he endured before even enrolling in Kindergarten.
I can see the way he reacts when I say the things I say. Others have not said, “when you finish high school,” “when you’re working,” or “when you have a family.” He smiles because I do not say “if.”
He has shown me what strength is. In his shoes, I would have given up a long time ago. The word resilience is not strong enough to describe the quality exhibited by children that have endured things we like to forget exist. He amazes me.
While the path ahead of him is long, the path he has traversed is far longer. He has made strides despite the failures of those expected to raise him and the expectation of failure implicitly voiced by all of society. Imagine what could happen if we all believed in his future. He might learn to believe in it too.
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