One of my earliest memories was long ago, when I was around five years old. We were in the old family station wagon, on a rainy Thanksgiving night, leaving Disneyland to head back home to Bakersfield. It had been a good day, no, a great day, filled with rides and parades and lots of treats to eat. And I was content, looking out of the window, watching the rain patter down the glass, until I looked across into the window of a diner and saw a man, alone, drinking a cup of coffee. He was shabby, and even in my child's eye I thought he might be homeless. He looked so sad, so alone, and it haunted me, thinking how could a person possibly be spending Thanksgiving alone? That image stayed with me ever since.
Fast forward many years. I became a social worker, got my Master's even, and it was very fulfilling, in my various jobs, trying to help people, especially children. But still, the stories I saw haunted me. Took hold of me. Rattled me. I have seen things that most people only think happen in movies. Kids in cages. Kids burned. Ritualistic abuse. Death. All sorts of horrific physical abuse. And sexual abuse, lots and lots of sexual abuse. When I left CPS to go and start my family, I thought I would never return, because it was too much, being a mother, and loving my own children so much and thinking about all the poor children I worked with, not being able to make sense of the incongruities. But years later, I found I could not shake the stories, and as my own children grew, found myself wondering about the kids I worked with, hoping and praying that their horizons were better than when I last left them.
But the stories...
After all, that is what we have, don't we? Our life is our story.
There are four types of abuse that child protective workers identify when removing a child from a home: physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect. Guess which one has the most negative impact on a child's psyche? Neglect. The absence of any attention. And that is why, I suppose, that I decided to write about Jesse, a boy with a meth-head for a mom and a little four-year-old sister to take care of. He is a fictional character, to be sure, but he is based on little scraps of reality, children I have met and situations they have found themselves in.
He has been bugging me for years to tell his story, and finally, I said yes. Because I wanted him to know that I have listened. And I have been rooting for him this whole time.