Before the sun could reach the edges of the horizon, setting the late September sky ablaze, Lucy Walters snuck into the visitor parking lot to have a smoke before finishing her twelve-hour shift at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah, Georgia. Her baby blue scrubs were frayed and disheveled, decorated with patches of blood and urine on both the sleeves and torso – the typical souvenirs from nursing her patients in the pediatric ward. Dark bags, a by-product of consecutive overnight shifts and smeared eyeliner, sat high atop her cheekbones. But being a five-year veteran at St. Joseph’s and single mother of two toddlers, she’s no stranger to sleepless nights. Just a few drags and another cup of black coffee would ensure that she’d make it through the night. After the cherry of her cigarette swelled to red flame, she noticed a slim shadow skulking towards her. The figure was not, as Lucy worried, a supervisor coming to lecture about the dangers of her nicotine habit. Beneath the hazy glow of a streetlight, Lucy discovered a woman carrying something bundled in her arms.
The woman’s pace was slow, the rhythm of her steps impeded by a limp. Despite the relatively mild weather, the woman shivered relentlessly. Goosebumps covered the skin of her knees and thighs which showed through the holes in her black tights. Her two sizes too large t-shirt was covered in dirt, food stains, and various other fluids best left to the imagination. The woman reeked of sweat and methamphetamine – a fact punctuated by the open, bloody scabs that haphazardly covered both of her bare arms. Her sallow skin stretched thinly across her bones, clumping like yeast around the wrists and elbows while her hair looked so unwashed that the blonde color could barely be discerned. Yet, it was not the woman’s repulsive appearance that alarmed Lucy, causing her to drop her half-finished menthol light. It was what she carried – a plump, squalling baby girl.
The woman, we’ll call her Jane since revealing names is a violation of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), was an unemployed mother of nineteen that had recently lost her home. Jane had no family, no high school diploma, and no way of supporting her three-month-old daughter. She had come to give her up, to place her child in the care of an institution better equipped to provide for her child. The ‘institution’ in this case was the none other than the tar-stained fingers of Lucy Walters. Given Jane’s limited education, she probably didn’t know about Georgia’s Safe Haven Law (aka the Baby Moses Law in some states) which decriminalizes the abandonment of unharmed children at designated safe spaces such as hospitals, police stations, and churches. Like many women before her, Jane had simply run out of options.
“Not my first,” Lucy said when she described the scene, pausing to search frantically for her smokes and lighter. Nurse Walters, a self-proclaimed carpetbagger from New York, was a small, pear-shaped woman with scrunchy ginger hair. She had piercing chocolate eyes and a non-nonsense stare, warning everyone that her patience left long before her husband did. But in recounting the night she met this latest incarnation of Jane, even Lucy’s composure faltered. “It was the worst I’ve seen. I’ve never smelled someone so rank, and I spend my days fiddling with piss and shit.” She paused to run her hand over her already furrowed brow. The force of the gesture blotted Lucy’s pale skin with red marks, stretching the wrinkles that had appeared the moment that she finished her NCLEX exam. “Poor girl,” she whispered in a voice scarred from years of courting the Marlboro Man.
This night, in fact, marked the third occurrence where Lucy had witnessed a woman taking advantage of the Safe Haven Law, and from her fellow nurses, she knew of several others. But from her stories, police stations seemed to be the drop-off point of choice for most women. Jane was probably too scared to go there. “You hear the stories all the time, and it makes you sick to think about it – a mother giving up her kid. Then you see them. You see the shame in their bowed heads and hunched shoulders, see the tears in their eyes. Suddenly, it’s not sickening anymore. It’s just sad.”
Sad, indeed. Especially considering that Jane, and all her other namesakes, are not the type of mothers that leave their children starving, covered in their own filth for days on end. These women know their limitations, giving up their children often means giving them their best chance.
Unfortunately, Jane’s situation isn’t an isolated incident. More than half a million children are in foster care today. And nearly one-third of that number are the result of Safe Haven Laws. Apparently, Jane has several sisters. It’s difficult to imagine why Jane, or any of the women that came before her, would willingly abandon their own child. According to Census Bureau, nearly one out of four children are born into abject poverty in the United States. These numbers demonstrate that children are affected by poverty more than any other demographic.
The Department of Children Welfare suggests that beyond pure famine, children born into poverty develop more cognitive issues than their wealthier counterparts. These children are more at risk for bone, liver, and dietary diseases that often follow them into adulthood. Recent research suggests that even Alzheimer’ disease can be linked to developmental malnourishment. The inability to hold down a job due to medical hardships are all but guaranteed. Continued poverty is largely inescapable, and shorter lifespans are a common result.
Armed with these facts, it’s easy to understand the motives of women like Jane; they temporarily hand over their child to the state, hoping that later they can be kind of mothers that their children deserve. Sometimes, this hope is rewarded. More often than not, this hope is in vain.
So what happens to Baby Jane? Lucy Walters admitted the child as a patient of St. Joseph’s Hospital while her supervisor, Mrs. Marika Jameson, interviewed Jane to verify the baby’s age, living conditions, and citizenship status. Pending evaluation, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is notified. Despite the often inflammatory rhetoric of politicians, abandoned children are not immediately carted off to the ‘system’ to be paid for on the state’s tab, and mother cannot simply walk out on their offspring without facing serious jail time for gross negligence, reckless abandonment, child-endangerment… you get the picture.
Under Georgia’s Safe Place for Newborns Act of 2002, protection from criminal charges of abandonment and neglect is ONLY granted to mothers who meet the following criteria: (1) the mother must be a U.S. citizen and must be able to provide proof of citizenship; (2) the child cannot be older than one year. The second condition results from a 2009 amendment which allowed for the law’s original deadline, the first week of the child’s life, to be extended throughout the child’s first year. The amendment stems from the 2008 housing crisis where many families lost their homes and, by extension, their ability to provide for their children. (3) the child must be unharmed. Given Jane’s obvious problems with substance abuse, this condition worried Nurse Walters the most.
“I figured it was straight to rehab for this kid which meant its chances of surviving the night were not very good,” said Nurse Walters. Addicted babies experience the same withdrawal symptoms as adults, putting them at risk for fever, nausea, diarrhea, rapid heart rate, tremors, and brain deformities. Because their bodies are so fragile, the effects of withdrawal on infants can be lethal. Even if the baby lived, the chances of seeing her mother again would be gone. If the baby was born addicted, the hospital could determine that the Safe Haven requirements were not met, meaning Jane would be arrested and her parental rights terminated with a stroke of a pen.
Happily, this was not the case here. “Thank god she was bottle fed. We could tell by the kid’s sucking reflex – it’s slightly different from latching on to a breast. No meth, the little tyke barely made a peep all night.” Though spared from the thralls of addiction, Baby Jane and her mother still have a long road ahead of them.
Instead of being chained, photographed, and reduced to a number – Jane undergoes a different type of prison. Her identity is peeled back like layers of excess skin. Her life becomes measured by doctor reports, judicial hearings, and (should she want her child back) inspection visits. Jane transitions from flesh to paper, becoming another file piled atop an already submerged desk of a Chatham County DFCS caseworker. Within the brick confines of a four-story municipal building on Wheaton Street, twenty-three state employees (most of them women) work diligently in cramped, dimly lit offices to determine the fate of over hundred families at any given month. For women like Jane, this building will be either the first stop on the road to recovery or the graveyard where motherhood is laid to rest.
Statistically, most women in Jane’s shoes choose reunification: the process by which the primary caregiver regains custody of the child. “We’re in the business of preserving families,” says Viki Williams, a 30-year-old senior DFCS caseworker in Chatham County who, like Nurse Walters, had a limited tolerance for bullshit and a penchant for insomnia. Once a plan of reunification is made, the child cannot be adopted by an outside party, and only a judicial order can render such a plan null and void. But reunification, despite being the state’s go-to option for transitioning children in and out of the system, is easier said than done.
Take Jane, for instance. To resume parental guardianship over her daughter, she must get off drugs. Her caseworker will advocate for her placement in a rehabilitation center. If Jane can surpass withdrawals and manage to keep her urine clean, she can transition into a half-way house. But after that, Jane is on her own. She must find gainful employment, health insurance that will cover both her and her daughter, and suitable living quarters – all the while avoiding trouble with the law and passing regular inspections by the DFCS caseworker. This process can take years to complete, and the odds of success are not in Jane’s favor.
And Baby Jane? Her mother’s future may be uncertain, but hers is not. She will be placed in a foster home. Intended to be temporary, the state’s foster system promotes, encourages, and aids in creating a stable family environment; the state is here to serve the best interests of the child – at least, that’s the party line. But a bad reputation is hard to shake, and the foster system has more than earned it throughout the years. Sexual abuse, neglect, parents using children as meal tickets … the horror stories about foster care are well documented and for good reason.
But hope springs eternal and tremendous improvement has been made in the last decade. “DFCS is not what it used to be,” Williams insists. “When I was growing up, the foster system was worse than leaving a child with an abusive parent.” Indeed, before 2009, foster homes weren’t vetted properly and house inspections were few and far between. The medical care barely covered more than one doctor visit a year (that includes vision and dental), and the state was simply ill-equipped to recognize that behavioral and mental instability in children was something that needed to be treated.
Thanks to several lawsuits filed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the state now takes an active role in both the child’s and the parent’s life. Mothers are no longer given sole priority; instead, any relative who meets the requirements can get custody of the child. Discrimination against placing children with families of different racial backgrounds and against placing children with same-sex couples is now illegal.
Every foster family is now placed through a six-stage vetting process, including the requirement of background checks, drugs tests, occupation records, character testimonials etc. Foster homes are also subject to inspections at least twice a month. Children must see a vision, dental, and medical doctor twice a year. They must receive mandatory counseling, and their academic progress at school must be monitored – especially if it falls below 2.0-grade point average.
Anyone, regularly involved with the foster family must also be evaluated, meaning romantic partners of foster parents, extended family members, even employers if an inspection determines that the foster child spends significant time at the foster parent’s job (even if it’s just during the after-school hours or holidays). These new protocols grant higher protection to the children in the system, but they also increase the responsibilities of state social workers.
To meet these demands, the state outsources to private organizations. These organizations appoint their own caseworkers to work alongside DFCS. The case-workers take the children to school and doctor’s appointments; they are called when the children get into trouble, be it academically or legally. And they can even appear in court on the child’s behalf. “DFCS was over-burdened. They simply couldn’t handle the case-loads,” says Bently Simmons, an assistant manager at ALR Services.
Founded by Melinda Graham in the mid-1990s, ARL Services allows for specialization, focusing on children with behavioral problems that stem from trauma. “Most of my kids have been abused either sexually or physically. They lash out, they make it difficult for foster families to care for them. They need special care and understanding which can go overlooked by a caseworker with too much on her plate,” explains Simmons. “Organizations like mine,” she says, “simply picked up the slack.” Simmons’ organization, and others like it, have decreased the overall caseloads of DFCS workers – bringing the workload down from about 150+ cases to an average of 25 per state employee.
Yet, despite the aid that private organizations provide, areas like Chatham County are still problematic. According to the Georgia Division of Family Resources Fiscal Data of 2017, Chatham County has one of the highest rates of foster-care recipients, with over 153 cases open on average every month. The hard truth is that less than 37 percent of families separated by Chatham County DFCS, are reunited – courtesy of the county’s housing crisis. Housing in Savannah and it’s neighboring counties is scarce. “If I had to pinpoint the number one reason for families to be kept apart, beyond drugs, it’s housing.” Williams’s conclusions are spot-on. Housing for children leaving the foster system (unless they age out) must meet certain requirements: (1) only two children can share a room; (2) children sharing a room must be the same sex; (3) children in shared room must have each have 45 square feet of free space; (4) a child in a single room must have a minimum of 70 square feet; (5) a family consisting of more than three individuals must have at least two bathrooms.
Single mothers, who make up the majority of families undergoing reunification, simply can’t afford homes with the required space to satisfy the state’s requirements for getting their kids back. The amount of section-8 housing dwindles each year. Efforts to gentrify impoverished neighborhoods only exasperate the problem, allowing rent rates to reach around $1,200 a month where it once was only $750. Even with the aid of welfare programs such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) or food stamp programs, these rates are too high for anyone working a minimum wage job. Even if Jane manages to complete all the other steps in her case-plan, the likelihood of her affording a place for her and Baby Jane to live is statistically insignificant. The deck is stacked against her.
While reunification may be the primary objective of the foster system, places like Chatham County make this objective difficult to sustain. And the current political trend of slashing state budgets only places more strain on an already overburdened system. Curtailing supplemental income programs, refusing to expand Medicaid coverage, and wage stagnation pose continuous threats to the state foster system. Also, with the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Viki Williams fears the worst may be yet to come. Now in the majority, conservatives have enough sway on the court to overturn the highly controversial Roe v. Wade decision.
The consequences of outlawing abortion will undoubtedly ripple throughout society, hitting the foster system worst of all. “There will be an influx of children who have children in the system,” says Williams when asked about the effects an abortion-free world would create. “It’s hard enough to get foster families to take a teenager. Now, imagine finding a foster family who will take a fourteen-year-old and their baby. It just won’t happen.” If Williams fears about Roe v. Wade come to pass, the ramifications on the foster system would be catastrophic. And the next time Nurse Walters goes out for a smoke, she might not find one Baby Jane – but a line of them.