Two years ago I stood in an auditorium listening to various child welfare workers talk about my favorite client, Reggie. I stood because the room was so packed with people who had known Reggie since he was tiny, that there was nowhere to sit.
We were all there to celebrate 16-year-old Reggie’s departure from the residential treatment facility where he had lived for three years, and, more so, the fulfillment of his childhood dream: he was being adopted, informally, by an incredible young man who had been one of his Wraparound workers.
Reggie’s history was predictably horrific: both parents were drug addicted and in out of jail, so he bounced from foster home to foster home. He suffered physical and sexual abuse, and neglect. His cognitive impairments made it difficult for him to express himself in appropriate ways and he ended up at our facility five years ago when he blasted out of a foster home.
I first started treating him when he was thirteen and his innate sweetness blew me away. He was soft-spoken and gentle and had this endearing technique of sidling up to you like a human golden retriever.
Most of the kids I see are conduct-disordered kids, meaning they’re on their way to having full-fledged antisocial personality disorder. But Reggie was different. He had somehow managed to keep his inherent loveliness in tact despite the atrocities that happened to him in foster care, and despite his mother coming in and out of his life — especially once she learned that his attorney had won a lawsuit against the child welfare agency responsible for placing Reggie in an abusive home, and that Reggie was awarded a sizable trust fund.
I adored Reggie, but he also drove me crazy. He spoke so quietly, and jumbled his words so unintelligibly, that I had to ask him to speak up and repeat himself after every sentence. His social skills were crap. He would walk into my office without knocking. He would show up at my door five times a day with a big grin and a “Hiiiii, Pauliiiine….are you biiizzy?”
For months, I would tell him to go back into the hall and knock first and wait to be told he could come in. I explained that he could come in only if I said he could, and if the answer was no he was not allowed to stand in the hallway outside my door. Because he’d been sexually abused, he had no sense of physical boundaries, so he would drape himself around me every time he saw me, and I would pry him off and review the concept of “body space” and tell him he must ask for a hug and be prepared to accept no.
Reggie’s mother was the kind of parent that challenges a therapist’s professionalism. She was infuriatingly inconsistent in her contact with Reggie and talked loudly about Jesus being in her heart while being transparently after her son’s trust fund.
His mother was never able to complete the court’s mandates to regain custody of her son — thank the Lord — and the older sister who said she would step in as Reggie’s guardian renegged. With borderline intellectual functioning and an explosive track record in foster care, Reggie was now destined to remain in a group home until he turned eighteen.
* * *
One day, as I was chatting with my boss in her office, Reggie stopped in and sat next to me on the couch. He was quiet for a moment, then said simply:
“I wish I could be adopted. But I guess that’s not gonna happen.”
He spoke softly, without a trace of bitterness, just gentle resignation. My boss and I snuck agonized glances at each other.
“Maybe that will happen some day, Reggie,” she said.
“Hey, Sharon,” I handed my boss my iPhone. “Will you take my picture with Reggie?”
I leaned into him and tried not to cry.
* * *
And then, a miracle happened. Reggie’s Wraparound worker, Carlos, asked Reggie to be his foster son. Carlos’s wife had just left him and Reggie’s mother didn’t want him. But now these two had found each other.
Which is how I found myself standing in the auditorium that day, sobbing into a kleenex, along with Carlos and the legions of other therapists and social workers and child advocates who had been in Reggie’s life since he was three. Because Reggie was transitioning successfully into a home, his Wraparound team — child welfare workers who support a child’s transition back to his family — were closing his case and hosting a celebration for him.
Lots of people made speeches, but not one made it through without crying. People talked about Reggie’s indomitable spirit. The way he kept a positive outlook. His ability to love, and now, to be loved. The head of the Wraparound team invited Reggie up to the podium and handed him his diploma. He stood in front of the mic, smiling, and blinking, for quite awhile.
And then he said, in that soft voice of his:
“I’m happy now.”
* * *
Reggie flourished in Carlos’s care. He attended a private special needs high school. He volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club. He went to church every Sunday. He grew into a tall, handsome young man. He would drop by often to say hello, walking down the halls of his old group home like the mayor of a small town, greeting all the Staff.
Reggie was our agency’s shining star: proof that the human spirit could indeed triumph, that those who had been cast off, abandoned, and violated, could find a safe harbor, and love. On my most trying days at work, I would glance up at the picture of Reggie and me on my bulletin board and remind myself that sometimes, what’s wrong is made right.
Until it’s not.
* * *
Two months ago, Reggie returned to our agency. The months leading up to his eighteenth birthday had been full of speed bumps, as Reggie wandered off into the bad parts of town and hung out with kids who didn’t have good homes. He was drunk on being a legal adult, and took to calling his trust fund attorney and demanding an iPhone and an XBox.
One night, he smashed Carlos’s TV, then came after him with a knife. Carlos calmly walked into his bedroom, locked the door, and called the police.
After Reggie was released from his psychiatric hold, Carlos explained to him that, while he would always be in his life, he could not have him in his home.
So Reggie came back to the group home he thought he had left behind. He was different now. Brooding, pacing like a caged cat.
“I’m not going to make it here,” he said, sitting in a chair by my desk. “I know myself. I’m going to do something bad.”
“That doesn’t have to happen,” I said. “You can choose how you act.”
He shook his head.
“I can’t stop thinking about the people who hurt me,” he rubbed his arm, where he had been burned by a lit cigarette. “They were bad. What I did to Carlos was bad. And now it’s fate.”
“It’s not fate,” I said. “Unless you make it so.”
I looked at him and tried to radiate confidence when, in truth, I had the same foreboding feeling I get just before one of my kids slides back into the abyss.
* * *
“I feel bad for what I did to you,” Reggie told Carlos.
I was facilitating a family session with the two of them. True to his word, Carlos was showing up for Reggie, even though Reggie could no longer live with him.
“You’ve owned up, and I forgive you,” said Carlos. “And now you have to forgive yourself. You made a mistake, but you don’t have to make the same mistake again. You can move forward.”
Reggie’s shoulders relaxed, and he smiled at Carlos. Carlos is easy to smile at because he looks like a Latino Johnny Depp on top of being one of the most evolved human beings ever.
“This, here, everything you’re going through,” Carlos made a circling gesture with his hand. “This is about becoming a man.”
The room got quiet. There it was: that palpable surge of energy that happens in powerful therapy sessions. You can never predict when it will happen, but when it does, it’s magic.
* * *
Three weeks later, Reggie and Carlos were in my office again. But this time we were talking about the choice Reggie had made the week before, the choice that involved a knife and a threat to a peer, and a subsequent hospitalization.
Since his return from the hospital, Reggie was on lockdown. He was shadowed by Staff 24/7, was only allowed two hours of independent study at school twice a week, and was told that if he threatened another person, or if he walked off-grounds without permission, Staff would call the police and have him arrested.
“Staff is following me around, and irritating me! I don’t need them all up in my business, I’m eighteen.”
Carlos and I took turns walking Reggie through the decisions he’d made that led to bad consequences. We explained that Staff wasn’t trying to punish him, but to keep him safe, as well as others around him.
“People took me seriously when I threatened that girl. I wasn’t going to do nothing.”
“You can’t threaten someone’s life, Reggie,” I said. “Especially once you’re eighteen. You do that, and, yeah, you’re gonna have people all up in your business. You want people out of your business, you need to take accountability. It’s not Staff’s fault that you’re being shadowed.”
Reggie went into broken-record mode. On and on about how people should trust him and stop making a big deal over something that wasn’t a big deal.
“I feel like no one’s fighting for me,” he said.
“Maybe you’re not fighting for yourself,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I see all kinds of people in your corner,” I said. “Carlos hasn’t given up on you. Sharon didn’t have to take you back, but she did, because she believes in you. Your school principal didn’t have to let you back on campus for an independent study, but she cares about you, so she did. Your social worker cares about you. So do I, and all those Staff who are bugging you. They’re fighting for you, Reggie. So who’s the one who’s giving up?”
Carlos leaned towards him.
“You got another chance, Reggie. So you gotta think about what you do before you do it. All it takes is one wrong choice. One. And that one wrong choice can change the rest of your life.”
As Carlos’s words hung in the air, I thought about all the wrong choices I had made, and how they’d changed my life narrative. Choices fueled by anger, or naive idealism, or the unrealistic pursuit of something that should never have been pursued.
I wondered, if I had exited my first marriage more gracefully, if I’d given Prince less reason to feel wounded, would my children have escaped the effects of his wrath? I wished I had been able to tolerate being alone, that I had not convinced myself that Atticus and I belonged together when we didn’t. I wished I had held onto my money instead of putting it into a house when it was too risky to be a homeowner, a choice made because I cared way too much about appearances.
I thought of all the impulsive, scary choices Luca made, the ones that landed him in residential treatment. I thought about his year-and-a-half of intensive therapy that reinforced, over and over, that every action has a consequence, that blaming others kept him from controlling his fate.
And I thought about how lucky Luca was that he had two parents who participated in his treatment, who were determined to see him succeed. How lucky he was that he had two homes, and the prospect of a bright future, to return to.
Then I thought about how the deck was stacked against Reggie since the day he was born. I thought about the hope that had finally been handed to him, and the internal chaos that caused him to make a horrific choice that night at Carlos’s house.
I thought about that wrong choice and how it had shattered his life.
* * *
Yesterday, as I was walking up the hill from the on-campus school, a police car drove past me. I didn’t think much of it. Kids are routinely arrested on campus for one thing or another — fights, drugs, threats — so cop cars are almost part of the scenery.
When I got to the front of my unit, I saw Carlos standing on the landing.
“Did you hear about Reggie, Pauline?”
“Nooo…” I said. But I already knew.
“He got arrested. He got in a fight and someone called the cops. They let the other kid go, but they took Reggie. They just drove past you when you were walking up the hill.”
“I didn’t know…I didn’t see him…”
“Staff called me, but by the time I got here, he was in handcuffs.” Carlos spoke calmly, with total acceptance.
He and and I looked at each other for a moment. I stared down at the road, half-expecting to see Reggie walking up it.
“Well,” Carlos said, glancing up at the trees. “He made his choice.”
For Part II, read here.