Right now, I am trying really hard to remain on my platform. My tolerance is gone. I am tired, achy, cold and it is taking all my might not to scream. Why all of this frustration, you might ask? After all, I am a FCNI shelter social worker. It's my job--my passion, my calling--to work with children entering Emergency Shelter Care. So why am I so frustrated and exhausted standing here outside of a foster home at 1:30 in the morning?
Well, I suppose my day began like any other. It is Tuesday, December 15th. I arrived at the office at 8:00 am, got some coffee, sat down at my computer and started sifting through my emails, making a plan for the day. Looking at my calendar, it seemed like it was going to be a pretty mellow day. I had a meeting with coworkers in the morning, followed by a short one-hour training and then a few home visits in the afternoon. Awesome; I would have plenty of time to catch up on paperwork from the day before.
The morning goes as planned. No major crisis and the two youth currently in shelter care are at school doing fairly well. As lunchtime approaches, I remember it is one of our foster dad’s, Jim’s*, birthday. I give him a call to wish him a happy birthday and we talk about the family’s plan for the day. They will be spending the afternoon in town and then going out to dinner to celebrate. It sounds fun, and like a nice relaxing day for the two of them. As I hang up with Jim, my phone rings. It is Sally* from Child Welfare.
Bella*, a 16 year old female, just contacted Sally stating she is ready to come into care. Bella ran away from her previous foster home over six months ago and has been living on the streets. Sally explained that Bella had gotten entangled with the wrong people and has been sexually exploited by adults. She currently has a substance abuse issue, and from the sounds of the phone call, she is scared and needs help.
Sally and I work out the details for Bella to come into Emergency Shelter Care. Sally is going to pick her up and take her to the local emergency room to make sure her medical needs are taken care of. Then they will meet me at the shelter home for placement. Hmm, I guess this means I need to cancel my afternoon meetings. But no worries, Shelter is unpredictable and schedule changes are just part of it. But the next bummer is that I will need to talk to Jim and his wife, Mary*. They are the only Emergency Shelter Care parents available and this means they will have to cancel Jim’s birthday plans.
“No problem,” states Jim as I discuss Bella coming into their home today. “This is what we signed up for. We can go out to dinner another day. I’m glad Bella is ready to come in.” Fantastic. I am so grateful for Jim and Mary. They are kind and passionate about helping children. And luckily, they are well-trained with working with sexually exploited youth and are ready to support Bella with getting the support she so desperately needs. They did not even blink an eye when discussing current concerns including Bella’s substance use, physical aggression, and significant mental health needs. They know Bella is not being a ‘pain in the butt teenager.’ She does not have behavioral issues for no reason. She is a child and has endured a lot of trauma in her short 16 years of life.
Bella has been in and out of foster care since she was three years old through no fault of her own. At only three, Bella witnessed her mother being murdered by a boyfriend. The boyfriend attempted to then kill Bella too, but by the grace of god, a neighbor heard the altercation and Bella was rescued by police. From there Bella went into foster care. At first she moved in with relatives, but, unbeknownst to child welfare, she was not yet safe. Bella was physically and sexually abused by extended family members and it wasn't until she was nine years old that the abuse was discovered. At age nine, Bella went into foster care again. She was placed into twelve different foster homes over the years, again through no fault of her own. Some of the homes were amazing and Bella felt safe and secure, while some others were not equipped to manage Bella’s behaviors or meet her needs. Stemming from all the trauma Bella endured as a small child, she struggled with attaching to caregivers, acted out, and had difficulty with choosing healthy peer groups. And as Bella got older, she began seeking the attention of older males which led to her most recent run. Bella ran away with her 18 year old boyfriend whom she thought she could trust; whom she thought loved her. He in turn, pumped Bella full of substances (meth, alcohol, cocaine) in order to sexually exploit her.
I go ahead and cancel the rest of my afternoon meetings and begin working on placement paperwork. I grab a “Sunshine Sac” for Bella which has been generously donated by a local women’s group called Central Coast Funds for Children (CCFC). The sac includes a teddy bear, some art activities and basic toiletries. Hopefully Bella likes it. I look around the office for some clothing in Bella’s size, but unfortunately we don't have any. Hopefully, the foster home will have some extra clothing for her.
As I get ready to leave the office, I check in with Sally to make sure she picked up Bella and got her to the emergency room. But Sally did not have Bella. She went to the local pizza place where Bella agreed to meet her, but Bella wasn't there. Sally has been trying to reach Bella but she is not answering her phone. My heart sinks. I know what Bella is going through and all I want is for her to be safe. We agree to cancel the placement and hope Bella will reach out again. I call Jim and Mary who make it clear to me they will take her if she turns back up. The couple then resume their plans for the day and I reschedule my meetings.
At 4pm, I am sitting at another foster home having a Child and Family Team meeting for another youth in Emergency Shelter Care. My phone rings; it's Sally. I step outside to find out what is going on. Bella has called her and said that she is ready to meet at a different location in the community. We confirm the plan for her to pick Bella up, take her to the local emergency room and then meet at Jim and Mary’s home. I call the couple and they, once again, cancel their dinner plans and get ready for Bella. After a solid plan for Bella is established, I go back inside the foster home and finish the team meeting.
Now, I head back to the office to get Bella’s placement paperwork and sunshine sac. Sally remains in contact with me and says they are almost done at the emergency room. They should be arriving at Jim and Mary’s home within the next half-hour. Perfect. I head out to the Emergency Shelter Home feeling relieved that Bella is with Sally and we are getting closer to getting her placed and settled for the evening. As I drive to the home, I start thinking about everything Bella will need. She has been on the run for so long now. We need to go shopping and get some clothes, we need to schedule a medical appointment with Bella’s primary care physician. Bella will also need a mental health assessment, and, of course, a drug and alcohol evaluation. Oh yeah, school. She has not attended school in over six months and we will need to get her re-enrolled and caught up. I continue to think about all of these moving pieces and start to prioritize what needs to happen first to support Bella.
As I arrive at the Shelter home, I can smell fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. Jim and Mary greet me and we engage in small talk while waiting for Bella and Sally to arrive. Mary grins and states,” I hope she likes cookies. I want her to feel at home and, besides, Jim doesn't need anymore.” We laugh and continue with small talk. It's now 8:00pm, an hour past when Sally and Bella were supposed to arrive. I call Sally. She apologizes, explaining that the emergency room took longer than expected, but they are now on their way.
At 8:20 pm, Bella and Sally arrive so I go to meet them outside. Bella is in the car refusing to get out. She is crying hysterically and adamant that she is not coming inside. She does not know these people and does not feel safe. I try to approach the car and Bella starts screaming and crouches into a ball in the front seat. She starts repeating over and over, “Take me to the hospital. Take me now!” Sally and I try to talk with her; try to help her calm down. Mary comes out to introduce herself to Bella in hopes of getting her to come inside. But it doesn't help. Bella will not get out of the car. For an hour, we all try to support Bella with calming herself, to no avail. She tells us she wants to hurt herself and needs to go to the hospital. Understanding that Bella is not ready and this is going nowhere anytime soon, Sally gets back into the vehicle and agrees to take Bella back to the local emergency room.
As I am getting into the car to go home, Mary stops me and says, “We will still take her. We are here when she is ready.”
I remain in contact with Sally throughout the night. Bella has calmed down at the hospital. She was evaluated by the mental health crisis unit and it was determined she did not need to be hospitalized. Bella reported no longer feeling suicidal and states that she is ready to go to the foster home.
Now here we are… back at the Emergency Shelter Home. It's 1:30am and I am standing outside of Sally’s car. Sally and Bella got back to the home at 1:00am but, again, Bella refused to get out of the car. She has locked herself in with the keys. We are trying to convince her to come out, but she is crying and refusing to leave the vehicle. It's been a long day and right now it feels like it will never end. I want to be angry at Bella but I understand she is a child and has been through so much. I keep trying to remind myself of this as my frustration gets higher and higher. Panic starts to set in as Bella climbs into the driver seat. We’re now all afraid she will drive away, and she is in no shape to drive not to mention she doesn’t have a license and is in Sally’s car. We try one more time to convince Bella to get out of the car. But she refuses.
Sally calls the police for support. Bella starts laughing, saying, “Yes, call them.” When law enforcement arrives, Bella unlocks the car and gets out, running to the officer and asking for his help. She tells the officer that she is not safe because this house looks like the one her boyfriend took her to a few nights ago. She tells the officer she remembers the fence and knows this place is not safe. We are all shocked. While we know Bella is mistaken, we finally understand where her fear is coming from.
The officer comforts Bella and helps her realize this is not the same home. He takes her inside and we support her as she looks around. After a few minutes, Bella recognizes this is a new place. While the fence looks the same, this is not the horrible home she was at a few days ago.
Bella melts into the couch and starts crying uncontrollably. She apologizes to everyone and is hysterical. Mary reaches out to Bella and tells her, “It's ok. You are safe.” We all sit in silence for a moment helping Bella regulate her emotions.
Bella is now exhausted; we all are. She is dirty and reports that she hasn't changed her clothes or showered in over a week. She has no clothes with her and desperately needs a hot shower, food and some sleep. Unfortunately, we still have placement paperwork to complete. We come up with a plan for Bella to shower. And Mary has some night clothes that should fit her in the closet. While Bella showers, Mary makes her some food. When Bella comes out of the bathroom she looks exhausted. The day, the week, the months have been hell for her and all the grief, pain and trauma comes rushing back. She starts crying and sits on the couch. Mary gives Bella a plate of food and I explain to Bella we need to finish paperwork and then she can get some sleep.
The paperwork is not easy. My heart breaks listening to Bella recount the past year and all of the horrors she has endured. I fight back the tears and feel guilty that I was even a little bit frustrated at her not so long ago. Bella is an innocent child who has experienced more trauma than any one person should in a lifetime. She is in pain, scared and emotionally drained, yet she sits here sharing the most private details of her life. Bella is strong and brave. She deserves nothing less than my compassion, empathy and support.
The intake takes some time. And Bella takes some breaks throughout. It's not easy talking with strangers and sharing about her trauma, her mental health symptoms and her not so great behaviors. But Bella gets through it and everything is signed. When finished, Bella leaves the room to get ready for bed.
As I get ready to leave, I can hear Bella crying. She asks for Mary and I to come into the room and sit with her. She tells us she is afraid of the dark and doesnt want to be alone. Mary sits on the floor and holds Bella’s hand, lightly rubbing it and telling her she is safe. Bella looks up at me and says, “Please don't give up on me.” My heart melts. “Of course not. We will always be here when you need us.” I say. Mary stays on the floor with Bella until long after she falls asleep.
Tonight Bella is clean, she is warm, and she has food in her system. For tonight she has the most basic needs most of us take for granted everyday. For tonight, she is safe.
As I pull out of Jim and Mary’s driveway, I glance at the clock. It’s 4:10am. What a long night full of varying emotions for everyone involved. I feel comfort knowing Bella is with Jim and Mary, sleeping soundly. I am hoping this will be the opportunity she needs to just be a child.
Jump forward to Wednesday, December 16th at 10:30pm. My phone rings. Mary is calling me to tell me that Bella has run away. She left the home with nothing. Mary tried to look for her but she is nowhere to be found. I call local law enforcement to file a missing persons report then call Sally to let her know what has happened. After everyone is contacted, I stop and take a deep breath. I get a brief feeling of defeat and hopelessness. After all the work yesterday, Bella is gone; she is just gone. But then I remind myself that Bella was here. For one night, Bella was clean, Bella was full, Bella was warm, Bella was safe.
I think about what Bella said to me before I left her: “Please don't give up on me.” And I won't. We will be there for Bella when she is ready to try again. We will change our plans, stay up all night, stand in the cold. We will do everything in our capacity to help Bella feel safe, feel secure, feel loved. Even if it's just for a night, we will be there.
Emergency Shelter Care is a very unique foster care program. At times, it can feel overwhelming, daunting and sometimes pointless. You never know what to expect from day-to-day, so you always need to expect the unexpected. There will be days you will be frustrated, sad and even angry. Nothing will go your way and you will feel like you are running in circles for no reason. But if you are up to the challenge, Emergency Shelter Care is very rewarding. You can help a child get out of a traumatic situation. You can offer solace, safety, security and hope to a child who needs it the most. Even if it is only one night--it is worth it.
Because that one night could make all the difference. That one night can tell a child they are not alone; and it might give them the strength they need to reach out again. It might give them a chance to get away from the abuse and to be a child again. And it could start them on the path toward a better future; a path to survive.
I know Bella will remember her one night with Jim and Mary. I know she will be ready to come back and I know we will be there when she is.
Jump ahead once again to Friday, December 18th at 11:45 pm. My phone rings. It’s Sally. Bella is back and she is ready to come in.
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*All names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.