By age four months, Aiden's* big brown eyes slowly started to take in his surroundings. They weren't pretty.
Paint peeled from the dingy walls of the government subsidized rented apartment he shared with Rachel, his mom. Piles of clothes and trash along with half-eaten meals littered every room in the small one bedroom apartment. An ancient radiator hissed in the living room corner and spewed stifling dry heat that could not be adjusted while an occasional cockroach leisurely strolled across the broken kitchen countertops as if it was entitled to be there. The stenches of poverty and oppression infiltrated every crack in the walls and the old vinyl floor. Worse, the toxic stress of the yelling, violence, and occasional sound of gunshots from the street slid in under the double-bolted door.
Aiden's view came from the vantage point of three different places: his crib, a wind up baby swing that was as old as his twenty-year-old mother, or her arms. When Rachel was sober, her arms were his favorite place to be. She held him close and kissed his tiny cheeks even when tears of exhaustion and powerlessness ran down her own. She whispered desperate promises to give him a childhood different than the brutal one she had. Sometimes she sang to him and the familiar voice he'd heard before he was born soothed his rattled little self.
Chaos had escalated for days, culminating in a neighbor's phone call to police about a screaming baby. From his crib, Aiden saw strange shadows come and go from Rachel's bed. From his broken baby swing, he chewed on his hand after his hungry cries went unanswered. He took a backseat to the commotion of drug deals and exchanges of money until the day Rachel overdosed and unfamiliar, uniformed arms plucked him from his baby swing.
In the months leading up to Aiden's birth, potential foster parents were receiving training to be licensed to care for kids just like Aiden. Derrick and Joyce Redmond had two teenagers at home and a desire to help when help was needed. Joyce's work as a pediatric nurse opened her eyes to the extraordinarily delicate lives of drug-exposed infants and the shortage of foster homes to care for them. Steve and Casey Washington started training to be licensed after a friend recommended it was a good way to make money, especially if you were licensed for multiple children. They had three young girls, an intermittently explosive relationship, and a roof they were desperate to keep over their heads. After completing licensing requirements such as classes, background checks, home inspections, references, and income verification, both couples were approved as foster care providers.
The police officer who responded to Rachel's apartment made two phone calls after finding Aiden screaming and Rachel unresponsive. The first was for paramedics. The second was to children's services, and a caseworker was immediately sent to the scene. Because there was no one to take Aiden, the caseworker requested and received by telephone an emergency order of custody from a Children's Court Judge.
The caseworker gathered Aiden in her arms, looked around the apartment, and decided against taking any of Aiden's blankets or clothes with her. She worried they were dirty and her office stocked a small handful of baby items for situations just like these anyway. As she closed the door behind her, Aiden took in the last scent of anything familiar.
Hours later, Aiden was clean, fed, and dressed in warm clothes while he slept in the caseworker's arms. By then, dozens of foster homes had been called and none had a ‘bed' for a four-month-old baby. There were two names of newly licensed foster parents at the bottom of the list: Washington and Redmond. The caseworker dialed the number for Steve and Casey Washington and got voice mail. The increasingly exhausted and frustrated caseworker left a message asking whether they could take Aiden. She then dialed the number for the Redmond's and a friendly male voice answered. Within minutes, Derrick and Joyce agreed to take Aiden and arrangements were made. By the time Casey Washington returned the call, Aiden was on his way to the Redmond's home.
Around 9:30, the caseworker arrived at the Redmond's two-story brown brick house. As Joyce and Derrick walked out to meet her, a car turned into the driveway and two teenagers emerged. Seventeen-year-old Nick and his thirteen-year-old sister Carrie had just returned from the grocery with formula and diapers at the request of their mom. The weary caseworker, anxious to get home to her own children, handed wide-eyed Aiden to Joyce who was immediately at ease with handling an infant.
The placement paperwork designed to give vital information about Aiden had mostly blank lines. Not much was known. Within fifteen minutes, the transfer of Aiden and the spotty details of his short life were complete.
It was a busy day for a little guy whose life was starting much differently than other babies his age. At age four months, babies are building foundations for their futures. If they are hungry and someone feeds them, they learn their needs will be met and they are safe. If they are consistently attended to by largely imperfect parents or caregivers, they learn they matter. If they experience playful interactions, they learn the world is worth exploring. If they are loved, they thrive. Their foundation is secure and they are poised to build bright futures.
Aiden's foundation at just four months looked very different. Prenatal exposure to drugs and subsequent neglect had crept into the emerging foundation like rot. It can only be secured with reinforcements of consistent, routine, loving care from one or two devoted, attentive caregivers. This is the healing balm that will calm Aiden's frightened, confused little body and save his future. Simply meeting his basic needs won't be enough to shore up his precarious foundation.
Aiden lucked out. Not all babies do. Some screaming babies are ignored by neighbors who don't want to ‘get involved'. Some babies land in homes of foster parents who are motivated only by money and desperation.
Unfortunately for Aiden, his entire future is a crapshoot. Many more professionals will be assigned to his case. Some might be experienced, compassionate, and invested. Some might be power hungry control freaks. Some might have good intentions and a strong work ethic. Some might have checked out mentally a long time ago but show up in body only. Some might be biding time until a better gig comes along. Some have saved the lives of children. Some have killed them.
It's the brutal truth and it won't change until we all decide it should.
Next Time: Who's Who in the Child Welfare Zoo and the Rules They Play By
*all names throughout this story have been changed to protect identity