by Naomi Feigelson Chase
After completing the first draft of a manuscript on foster care on which I had spent seven years, I went to California to visit a special school for children in foster care. The children I met there, like Susana Warren, whom I describe below, were, typically, 13 years old and had been in 13 placements. They came from diverse backgrounds: Poor white, middle-class Ethiopian, Samoan, Latin, Asian and rural Black. But they had one thing in common. They were disturbed, acting-out, angry, hostile teenagers. And who could blame them? They loved no one. They trusted no one. Like Susana, they had been abandoned by or removed from indifferent or abusive parents and then abandoned by the system. I had been given special privileges to be a visitor at that school for two weeks. After five days, I left and said I was never going back. It was too depressing. It was too hopeless. Perhaps one of the 200 children in that school would be helped by one dedicated teacher, social worker, foster parent. Perhaps one of the hundreds of thousands of children I had been reading and writing about would be cared for enough to relax their hypervigilant watchfulness and lead what we think of as a normal life. I have seen very few children like that. For that reason I have stopped writing about child abuse and foster care.
Before I met Susana I knew her “case,” a three-inch stack of papers held together by a large clip. As far as the foster care system was concerned, that stack of papers was Susana Warren.
Susana’s life is a record of what it’s like to grow up poor and parentless in America. Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Several hundred thousand Susanas have spent the greater part of their lives in foster care, moved from one “placement” to another like so many pawns by indifferent, irresponsible, publicly-funded agencies whose mission is to find children like her a permanent home.
I met Susana in June 1985. Coincidentally, that was during the TWA Beirut hostage crisis. Reading their stories in the New York Times, I was struck by the way in which her plight resembled their’s.
Susana’s present “home,” her 13th placement, was the Fairview School in semi-rural New Jersey. From reading her case history, I knew how she had pleaded to be returned from her last three unhappy “homes” to the City, where she might see her old friends, and perhaps her brother.
Like a hostage, Susana was an unwilling victim of fate, moved for reasons unknown to her from one house to another, placed at the will or whim of faceless caretakers. Like a hostage, she was sometimes treated badly and sometimes well.
But unlike political hostages, no one was concerned with her fate. There were no loved ones clamoring for her return, no one wearing yellow ribbons, no microphones in her face, no signs that “America remembers.”
America has forgotten the many Susanas, surrendered, abandoned, removed from their homes, waiting to be adopted, waiting to be saved – waiting in foster care for their childhoods to pass.
Susana was born under an unlucky star on Feb. 26, 1968 to Oma and Henry Warren. But it was not the stars that decided Susana’s fate. It was numbers and timing. It was more that she was child number five, that Oma was sick of children and childcare, and that Henry, learning of Oma’s pregnancy, had disappeared.
Oma was born in New York City of a Jamaican mother and an American father. Her father deserted her mother when she was born and her mother took Oma back to Jamaica and left her there with an aunt. Oma grew up among six cousins whom she considered her siblings. When she was 18, she returned to New York to look for her mother, working as a part-time maid, part-time baby sitter.
Even in her maid’s uniform, people noticed Oma. The porter watched the way she walked. The elevator operator helped her with the children’s tricycles. The superintendent was eager to make her acquaintance, and often came around to fix broken locks or check the plumbing when Oma’s charges were taking their afternoon naps. Oma wanted to be a dental technician, with a profession, not just a job. She started night school. But she also loved a good time, and there were lots of men who wanted to show her one. Oma was already pregnant with her first child, though not showing, when the building’s porter, Arthur, proposed to her. She accepted in order to have a father for her child.
When Arthur discovered that the baby wasn’t his, he left, and Oma’s life changed drastically. She had planned to continue night school, but now there was no money. At 19, she discovered that it was easier to take care of other people’s children than her own. You got paid when it was other people’s. When it was yours, the only way to get money was to go on welfare. And when it was yours, you never had a day off.
She went on welfare, hoping it would be temporary. Her life became miserable. She no longer had a modest room of her own in a neighborhood she could come home to at night. Instead she had a closet-sized, roach-infested space in a welfare hotel. Worst of all, she had a crying, colicky infant and a post-partum figure.
In the daytime, Oma took her baby to the park where she could hang out with people her age. They introduced her to drugs and alcohol and she discovered she loved getting high. High and drunk was even better.
When the baby was a year old, Oma ran into Arthur. Soon they were going out again, and in less than a month, Oma was pregnant. This time she insisted they get married so she could get off welfare. The second child was soon followed by a third, and a fourth. Arthur’s take-home salary from his porter’s job was $500 a month. There were six mouths to feed, six bodies to clothe and house, and four small ones to take care of. Oma no longer looked like a “hot ticket,” but the worn out, worn down mother she was. In May 1967, she got pregnant again. She wanted to have an abortion but didn’t have the money to pay for it.
“I’m not keeping this child,” she told Arthur, and when he protested, she said, “It’s not yours anyway. You got nothin’ to say about it.” How could he know if she was telling the truth?
Meanwhile, Oma had resumed drinking. Arthur would often come home to find her drunk, the baby with a soiled diaper, unfed, the other three crawling around the small apartment.
“I’ve had enough of this,” he told her. “I don’t even know who’s my kid. And you got nothin’ left. You become a regular drunk. You ain’t even good lookin’, and you never were good natured.” This time, sealing Susana’s fate, he left for good.
On February 28, two days after Susana was born, Oma picked herself up and left the hospital – alone. “I got four already,” she told the nurse. “I can’t handle any more.”
So Susana became a “boarder baby” in the nursery of a NYC hospital. Oma had named the baby, but had neglected to give her up officially. The hospital called the Department of Social Services (DSS) to report an abandoned baby. DSS immediately took temporary custody. And Susana Warren, age two days, became a foster child.
The first piece of paper in what was to become Susana’s file was provided by Lena, a 22-year-old DSS social worker. Directed by her supervisor, Lena was careful to note everything she did. She wrote: “Feb. 28 received call from Bellevue Hospital re: Baby Warren abandoned by mother in hospital. Two days old. Mother’s whereabouts unknown. Father unknown. Baby to remain in hospital until temporary foster family can be found. March 30 assigned Baby Warren to Harlem Gowling (HG) Agency with the suggestion they make arrangements for foster care.” Lena did not visit Baby Warren, as she took to calling Susana. Her only directions were to find an agency to take the case, and make sure she completed the paperwork.
Foster children, like institutionalized children, have trouble forming relationships. The rare foster child who is lucky enough to be placed early in life with loving foster parents, and spends enough time with them to learn trust, will not have that trouble. But such experiences are rare. Unfortunately, Susana’s case is more typical.
Many foster children are abandoned at birth. For those, like Susana, who spend their first months – or years – without their own “mother” and then experience a childhood of repeated foster placements, the chance of surviving as intact, caring human beings is minimal. Children who are not loved have trouble loving back. For all the complicated psychological theories, it seems as simple as that.
During her first three months at the hospital, Susana was fed at the required intervals. Her diapers were changed and her sheets were as clean as any other baby in the nursery. But she was seldom held and cuddled. No one expressed joy at her birth or pleasure in her existence. She was simply there, cared for on schedule.
In New York City, an abandoned child may come into care through a court finding of abandonment or through a parent’s voluntary surrender. Several days after Lena was assigned Susana’s case, she visited Oma and asked her whether she wished to surrender the child for adoption. It was early in the day but Oma had already been drinking, and she replied indignantly that she would never put a child of hers up for adoption. When Lena explained that if she did not place the child voluntarily, the agency would ask the court for a neglect finding, Oma agreed to sign.
I would love to report that Lena, the DSS social worker and Patrice, the Harlem-Gowling social worker, sat down and discussed the fate of this new human being, that they made a “plan” as required by law for her, that they formulated a program either for assisting Oma in accommodating Susana’s eventual return or in terminating her parental rights and planning for the child’s adoption.
Lena, however, neither knew the law obligated her to make a plan for Susana, nor that she should discuss this with Patrice. Patrice, who had been at Harlem Gowling for six months, was already overwhelmed with the volume and urgency of her caseload. She had been hired to help counsel pregnant teenagers, but had been transferred to foster care. Like Lena, she had no experience with infants; her supervisor, who had herself just been switched to foster care, had none either.
Her immediate concern was with finding a foster home for Susana. It had been pointed out to her that the agency was reimbursed for placement services for a limited period of time and would not collect its full stipend per diem, half of which went to the foster parents, until a child was actually placed in care. “Therefore,” her supervisor explained to her, “the important part of your job is to get those kids in care.”
The agency had hired a homefinding specialist, but she had not yet formally started her job. Patrice asked if she might give her a call, since she hadn’t the faintest idea how to set about finding a foster home for an infant, but was terrified that if she admitted her ignorance she’d lose her job. Everyone else seemed to take it for granted that she would know what to do.
Two days after she was told to find a home for Baby Warren, Patrice received a phone call from a Mrs. Williams who said she had been calling for months, but no one had sent her any forms or called to interview her. She wanted a foster child.
Patrice who was religious, regarded this as a miracle. She asked Williams to come in for a visit. Later Patrice admitted that she had been extraordinarily lucky. “I went to the agency library and found a book which had a chapter on homefinding. I hadn’t the faintest idea what questions to ask. I also called a friend who worked for Catholic Charities and said, ‘For God’s sake, send me a Homefinding Form.’
Between the two and my recollection of something I once saw about adoption on television, I had some idea of what to do.”
As far as Lena could tell from the way Mrs. Williams talked, she qualified to be a foster parent, and so did her husband. They seemed, in fact, much more solid than most foster parents she had heard discussed by other social workers. And they were. It was one of the few times in her life that Susana would be truly lucky.
The Williams were crazy about Susana. Joe was a salesman for an office machine company. Verena was an office manager. They had tried for years to have children, and now, when they were both in their early 40s, they decided to take a foster child.
“We just loved her right from the start,” Mrs. Williams told the HG Agency. “And she loved us.” “The Williams seem overly fond of Susana,” Patrice wrote in her notes on June 28, 1968. “Susana has been in their home one month. I keep reminding them that this is just a temporary situation. It’s not a good idea for them to become too fond of the child. After all, her mother hasn’t agreed to give her up for adoption.” She noted also that “The Williams describe Susana as bright and responsive.”
Patrice did not mention that despite her obligation to do so, she herself never visited the Williams. In fact, she had never seen Susana. She had arranged for the Williams to pick up Susana at the hospital after signing the necessary papers at the agency. She called them every two or three months and faithfully recorded her phone calls.
The agency was now doing a flourishing business in foster care placements. Patrice had, in six months, become an experienced homefinder. However, she was swamped with work, which left her little time for home visits. During the summer following Susana’s placement, the Williams asked for permission to take Susana on a two week vacation to visit Mrs. Williams’ family in Georgia. The agency refused and Susana was put in a temporary home for two weeks.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” Mrs. Williams later reported. “What was the point of putting a four-month old infant in another home, just for two weeks? She’d only been with us a month as it was. And we knew she’d been alone three months in the hospital.”
On June 2, 1968, Patrice wrote: “I explained to Mrs. Williams that we have a policy against letting foster families take children out-of-state because there is no way for us to supervise them there. She appeared not to understand what I meant by ‘supervise.’ I also told her that families often abduct and sell foster children. She appeared to be very offended.”
“I was really disgusted,” Mrs. Williams said, “and I had it in mind to write the agency a real steamy letter. I thought that was nonsense about supervising when none of them have ever even been to see the baby. That kind of telephone supervising they could do just as well from here to Georgia. But my husband pointed out to me it would be downright stupid for me to do it. He said, ‘They might take Susana away.’ So we just kept quiet.”
Susana lived with the Williams for a year-and-a-half, except for two more two-week vacations. The agency always refused to let the Williams take her. Each time, they put her in a different home.
Susana’s third two-week placement occurred a month before the Williams moved to Georgia. When they came back from their two weeks away to pick her up, Susana refused to talk to them.
“It was awful,” Mrs. Williams recalled. “I knew she was just so hurt that she thought we had left her. And how could we explain? When we got in the car, I held her on my lap and finally she just started to cry and put her head on my chest. When we got home, she walked into the living room and threw up.”
The Williams were as upset as Susana. It was the third time they had argued with the agency about the two-week transfers, to no avail. But more important, Mr. Williams was being transferred out of state, to Georgia. The Williams had notified the agency of the impending transfer. They said they wanted to adopt Susana and would like to do whatever was necessary to start the adoption process. They loved her and felt they could give her a warm, comfortable, stable home. But Susana had not been freed for adoption. HG had, in fact, made no effort to get Oma to terminate parental rights, although according to NY State Law, Oma Warren failed her parental responsibilities by visiting her daughter only once in almost two years.
NY State law states that a parent’s failure to maintain parental responsibilities may lead to court action and termination of parental rights. A parent’s failure to visit a child for six successive months, without good reason, may be considered abandonment, and the parent’s failure to maintain regular contact with or plan for the future of the child may be considered permanent neglect.
By November 1969, the agency had known for several months that the Williams were planning to move and wanted to adopt Susana. They had not only failed to contact Oma to see if she was amenable to adoption, or to institute proceedings, they had failed to make any plans for Susana at all. So in November, two days before the Williams left for Georgia, a new social worker whom Susana had never seen came and picked her up, along with several suitcases of toys, and took her to her next “temporary home.”
“It was just heartbreaking for all of us,” Verena Williams recalled 15 years later. “We had been packing and she’d been running around the house looking very confused. Jim and I didn’t know what to say to her. How could we explain to her that we wanted to keep her but weren’t allowed to? I know it was the wrong thing, but tell me, what was the right thing I could have done? What on earth could that poor child have understood?
“When the social worker came to pick her up, I just said, ‘Susana you’re going away for a little visit.’ She didn’t understand what was happening. And I felt like a dreadful liar.”
One might assume that the agency, having Susana’s best interest at heart, would now actively begin to look for a permanent home for her. But as Patrice’s supervisor had explained, the agency was reimbursed only when children were placed in foster care. Patrice was never told not to make a permanent plan for the child, nor was she told not to seek a permanent home for Susana. The agency simply had no adoption caseworkers. Therefore, when someone called the agency, as they often did, to ask if they had any adoptable children, they were told that HG did not do adoptions.
And, in fact, that was true. Because adoptions did not pay, it was policy not to do them. Likewise, because the agency received no money once a child was returned to its biological parents, the agency made no effort either to work with families or to do anything which would encourage a child’s returning home. Finances dictated policy, but they were seldom, if ever, discussed.
Susana’s next home was with Florence and Harvey Anderson, who, according to her record, became her “psychological parents.” She remained with them for almost nine years, and, according to the case notes, was “reasonably happy” there.
Since she was seldom told the truth about what was happening, Susana’s own recollections are a mixture of fact and fantasy. When I met her, the first thing she told me, dabbing at her tears and avoiding my eyes, was that her mother gave her up at three months, when in fact it was two days. “I feel bad,” she said. “Them social workers tell me I was in nine different homes. I shouldn’t be going through all this.”
When I told her she had been in 11 homes, she said, “Oh, well, social workers don’t know the truth anyhow, most of them. So how could they tell it?”
The Anderson home was the first one that Susana remembers. “I was picked up by a lady name of Anderson,” she says. “She’s the one who got me from the hospital. I was there for nine years. I liked it there. I used to think she was my mother. I think she was 55 when I left. Her husband ran away with her neighbor and she had a heart attack.”
Susana was never told that she had been with another family before the Andersons, nor that the other family had wanted to adopt her. She was not told that Mrs. Anderson did not take her from the hospital, that Mrs. Anderson was not her mother, nor, when she was removed, that Mrs. Anderson had had a heart attack. She learned that several years later. “Some social worker, a man, just put me in his car and took me to Queens. I was so confused, I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, ‘This is just for a while/They’re always saying, ‘You just go here for a while.’ They don’t understand they’re talking to a person.”
Susana was crying the first time I met her. “I just had a fight with some of the girls,” she said by way of introduction.
We were sitting in her social worker’s office at the Lakeview School and she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell me why she’d been fighting, except to say, “They don’t know how lucky they are they all got mothers. How can they say they hate them when at least they got them?” I learned it was typical of Susana to talk this way. There were seldom any preliminaries. She immediately broke into the subtext. Her whole life was a gloss on being abandoned, and she was always conscious of it.
Since I’d been told by the social worker who arranged our meeting that Susana had serious weight problems, I was surprised to see a slim 17-year-old. When I asked Susana about her weight, she seemed confused. Then it appeared the confusion was her social worker’s. “Oh, that’s Rhea told you about me,” she said. “She always gets me mixed up with Sondra. She hardly never sees me no how. No wonder she don’t know what I look like.”
Susana does not know her own history. Her version of her biography starts with her mother abandoning her, but she has no memory of the Williams.
At least three of her social workers told me that Susana badly needed to “do a lifebook,” to make a record book of her life in foster care, with the names and addresses of her various foster parents, with attention to special dates and events. But none of them assumed the task of helping her with it.
There is very little in Susana’s record about her nine years with the Andersons. The agency social worker who handled Susana’s case changed four times in the nine years she was there. Each social worker “made telephone contact” twice a year and noted that Susana was “adjusting nicely,” or “doing fine.”
And she did do fine, for a while. Then she began to have adjustment problems. As one of her social workers later pointed out, Susana normally did well until sibling rivalry developed. When another foster child was placed in the Anderson household, Susana began wetting her bed and was sent for day treatment in Queens.
The Andersons had three other foster children besides Susana. Whether Mrs. Anderson, with her own health and marital problems, was able to give four foster children the attention they needed is questionable. Certainly, it was unwise of the agency to place a fifth child there. Why would they do it? “Space is such a problem, it’s so difficult to find people willing to take foster children and so many workers don’t have time to do a real home-finding search, that any family that says it’s willing to take more foster children will most likely get them,” one social worker, S.G. says.
Although Susana’s record is extremely sketchy, two things stand out: Bed wetting and stealing. Small things. Candy from the corner grocery. Movie magazines from the all-night 7-11. Things like that.
Bed wetting and stealing are common symptoms in foster children. “It’s reflective of how they’re holding themselves together,” S.G. says. “They’re holding themselves in so tight during the day that at night they just let go. And whenever an infant was placed where she was, Susana was afraid they would like the baby better than her.”
Petty theft among foster children is also explained as a test of those in charge. When a child steals, they’re asking, “Will you keep me no matter what I do?” Unfortunately, very often the answer is “no.”
When Susana was taken to Queens “for just a little bit,” she was placed with the Blacks, who had two other foster children, both older than Susana. It was Susana’s fifth placement, or her seventh if you count her placements when the Williams went on vacation. Susana did well the first year at the Blacks. Then, her second year there, another foster child, a toddler, was added to the household.
Until now, Susana, who was 10, had managed to stay miraculously intact, despite her stealing and enuresis. Now she began to have serious problems.
The Blacks were abusive – to each other and to their foster children. Mr. Black was a heavy drinker. When he got drunk, he would beat up Mrs. Black and then go after the children.
Mrs. Black was mean tempered. Recognizing Susana’s jealousy of the new baby, she taunted her with it. “You know you’re jealous of the baby,” she’d say to Susana.
“I hated her for that,” Susana said later. “She seemed to get a real kick out of making me feel bad. It was always ‘the baby this’ and ‘the baby that.’ “
Susana began setting fires. She was disobedient. She refused to help Mrs. Black and the older children around the house and for the first time, she began having problems in school as well. In June, she was sent to Elmhurst City Hospital. Susana stayed at Elmhurst for five weeks. In her first psychiatric evaluation she was described as “disobedient, with behavior and academic problems. She has a short attention span for which she is receiving medication. She attends individual therapy twice weekly and receives remedial help. She has had no contact with her mother since 1973.”
This last statement was inaccurate, since the last time Susana had seen her mother was 1969. The agency had one conversation with Oma in 1973. This was not the same “contact” the record implied.
They might have simply wanted to cover their tracks. The fact that everyone had delayed so shamefully in getting Oma’s parental rights terminated probably made them want to make Susana’s last visit with her mother four years later than it actually was. This didn’t really absolve them, but it probably made them feel better.
When Susana was released from Elmhurst in July, she was transferred to the day program. She was also transferred to another home.
Susana spent 10 months at the Jones. At first she liked it there. “They had a big house, a basement, a first floor, a lot of rooms.” They were nice, she says, and they really seemed to understand children. They were young themselves.
The Jones household at the time consisted of 17-year-old Anthony, who was a dedicated drug user, and five foster children: Klyde and Paul, brothers, who were 13 and 15; Tabitha, 13; Barbara, 13; and Susana. When she was placed there, the other foster children, who had been there two or three years, said they didn’t need any more foster children in the house.
Twelve-year-old Susana was having a very difficult time. After being in a household in which she had feared for her life, the Jones were, at first, a relief. But she was desperate for warmth, love, attention, all hard to get with five other children around.
“Susana was always in a fog,” Mrs. Jones said, “gazing off into space. And when she wasn’t in a fog, she wanted us to stop everything and look at her. She was always breaking things.” Susana was indeed defiant. She resisted any attempt at discipline, losing her temper if she was asked to do so much as set the table.
The summer of 1981 was particularly difficult for her. “I just felt I didn’t belong nowhere. No one wanted me. What was I going to do with myself?” She made up a story that she was going across the country “like the pioneers,” and used to pretend at night that she and the rest of her wagon train were sitting around the campfire, “cooking and singing.”
One night she set a fire in some trash cans. “I wanted to see if I could really roast potatoes in them,” she said, “but when I told that to Mrs. Jones, she acted like I was crazy. It was just too complicated to explain about the pioneers to her.”
The Jones decided Susana would have to go. “We just couldn’t do anything with her,” Mrs. Jones said.
So Susana went back to Elmhurst Hospital. When she was released, she seemed changed. The Jones agreed that Susana’s attitude was different.
Susana wanted to stay with the Jones. She made an effort to cooperate, to improve. She stopped daydreaming, stopped gazing into space. According to Mrs. Jones, Susana “stopped getting depressed like she used to.”
In fact, Susana was periodically depressed, and her depressions lasted maybe two days, but that was more acceptable to the Jones – and to the doctors at Elmhurst – than the expression of her anger had been. She stopped lying. Mrs. Jones told her social worker that Susana stopped stealing, “though I think she still does a little shoplifting with the boys.”
The other children in the Jones house had problems, too. Some of them were severe. According to the agency, Mrs. Jones was a warm, supportive person who encouraged the children, though at times, they conceded, she became “frustrated.”
Mrs. Jones was more than frustrated. She was overwhelmed.
In many ways, the Jones were exemplary foster parents. They had a good relationship themselves. They never struck the children. They tried to discipline them by withholding privileges, but they had six foster children who desperately needed attention, as well as one of their own. It was just too much.
Still, Susana started to do better. Her reading improved. Her grades went up to a 70 average, which was, by all accounts, still way below her ability.
But by November, 1981 Susana was again back in the hospital. She told the social worker who did the work-up that she had trouble getting along with people. “I act stupid,” she said, “I feel stupid.” She said she couldn’t seem to be herself. At school, she told the counselor, “I can’t seem to fit into any group.”
At the hospital Susana was given the usual battery of tests. She tested as “bright average,” with a performance score higher than her verbal score. She was described as having “strong reasoning ability.”
As her social worker at the hospital put it, there are three questions Susana asks herself constantly: Why is life so hard? Will I be able to get ahead? How can I keep up?
Commenting on her evaluation, one doctor wrote, “Susana blames herself. Society blames her. ‘ What did she do wrong?’ they say. If she were from a middle-class home, they’d say, What did I do wrong?’ Instead, because she was abandoned at birth and has never had the stability so necessary to work through the major early issues of trust and sibling relationships, society puts her at fault. Frankly, it’s amazing to me she functions at all.”
Susana’s version of the Jones family and her situation differs somewhat from the agency’s. “Well, it all started off like a nice big happy family. And Mrs. Jones was very nice. But there was a lot going on there and I think she was trying to keep up with it; but she just couldn’t. It was too much for her. It was too much for all of us.
“Some of the kids weren’t going to school. Some of the kids were stealing. One of the foster girls, Tabitha, got pregnant by Mrs. Jones’ son, Anthony. The last day I was sitting waiting for a car to come get me and Mrs. Jones was arguing with Anthony. Later I saw him ‘in the world,’ that’s what we call the world out there. Besides getting Tabitha pregnant, he got some of the other kids hooked on drugs. Pot. I guess considering what happened to everyone else, they got off easy.”
In January 1982, just before her 15th birthday, Susana was discharged from the hospital and experienced yet another rejection. She did not go back to the Jones. As so often before, she was told only that she was going somewhere else “for a week.” The week was more like a year. Susana was sent to live with the Loadholz family.
Susana’s adjustment at the Loadholz home was described as “erratic.” She was uncooperative. According to the case notes, if she was asked to help with the dishes, she would break one “in spite.”
At first, according to the social worker, she was “filthy in her personal hygiene but she improved…Finally she was asked to leave because she threw a scissors at Mrs. Loadholz’ daughter.”
Susana describes it this way. “We had a fight at Christmas. We were all sitting in the living room and Binny, Mrs. Loadholz’ daughter, was waiting for her boyfriend. But he didn’t come. So she started punching me and I started punching back.”
Susana was given another psychiatric evaluation.
Two days after Christmas, she was transferred to St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s school for “bad girls,” as Susana put it, was not a happy place for her. She hated it. “I certainly didn’t get along with anybody there,” she said. “There were 48 girls and me.”
It is unclear whether Susana became a real behavior problem at St. Mary’s, or whether she was simply described as one. Her social worker said she was violent, aggressive and dangerous. The school claimed she tried to strangle a teacher.
“I hated the school,” Susana says. “We didn’t even know what grade it was. I’m not even sure it was a grade like in a real school.
“Well, I was sitting there this particular day they’re talking about and the teacher started picking on me ’cause I hadn’t done my homework. The teacher came over to my desk and just stood there with her hands on her hips and said, ‘O.K. Where is it?’
“And I said, Where is what?’
“And she said, Tour homework.’
“And I said, You mean 3×3 and 4 x 4? You mean 9 and 16.1 did that when I was in the third grade.’
“And she said, ‘I don’t care what you did in the third grade. That’s your homework here.’
“So I said, What grade is this anyway?’
“And she said, ‘That’s enough of your lip. Just give me your homework.’ “And I said, ‘I’m 15 and I ain’t doin’ no third grade homework.’
“So she told me to stand up and she grabbed me by the back of the neck like to pull me up and I said, You ain’t got no right to touch me. Just take your hands off me.’
“And then she like pulled my hair to pull me up. I pushed her away. Teachers aren’t supposed to act like that. They’re not supposed to make you do third grade work when you’re 15, and they’re not supposed to pull you by the hair cause you don’t. So I pushed her and she started screaming and said I was trying to strangle her.”
I don’t know the ending to Susana’s story. Perhaps she is one of the few who “made it” – somehow got it together, went back to school, found a way to live – but I doubt it.
Naomi Feigelson Chase, author of A Child is Being Beaten, is also a published poet and fiction writer.