At Risk

by Christopher Murphy

05/13/2016

While driving to a visit in Adair County on an early afternoon in the rolling hills of a northeastern Oklahoma winter, Shari watches the softness of the landscape: green even when it’s brown. Different from the TV conception of country, hard-bitten Appalachian hollers, and different from the starker wind-blast of western Oklahoma or the open roll of central Oklahoma. The landscape tucks away poverty.

Shari’s grown to resent poverty because she faces it all the time: it’s the common thread between the families she sees. Families come to Child Protective Services from DHS because they don’t meet DHS’ standards of need.[1] Teachers notice bruises; neighbors see wandering toddlers. Families come to the office, usually hoping for diapers or food. A nurse in the maternity ward at Tahlequah City Hospital says, “Check 24.” Shari’s job is to go to their homes.

There’s a deep bias she’s tamped down until the tamping became habit. A dirty home does not mean an unfit home. Everyone sometimes leaves trash in the house too long. When mothers give their babies crawdad brains or squirrel brains for teething, that’s a cultural difference, not a transgression.

The trailer’s way down a country road graded so the rocks pile in eight-inch rises on the roadside, and stones in the road kick up into the undercarriage of Shari’s car. She called first to confirm the appointment, a matter of necessity—many people agree to a visit in the moment but balk later—and also a matter of safety. She needed to confirm that mom and child will be there and find out who else might be.

The trees bend close to the road. A thin rope of power line connects one other residence, a doublewide barricaded across the front with a cord of wood. There’s a few other buildings, a collapsed barn, a trailer with sheets hung over the windows, set back into the trees on a small weed-thick lawn. A battered white Trans Am driven along ruts in the grass to nearly behind the trailer, invisible from the road unless you caught it at the right moment.

The road comes to an end with the family’s trailer to left. It’s tilting just a little down to the right and the windows are dark. There’s a decent chance no one’s home. She parks the car turned around so it faces the road, far enough away that it would be hard to get blocked in if anyone comes.

A nurse who works with Children First referred Shari here. The family had timed out of Children First; the mother’s first child was nearly two. The mother, Clarissa, also had a baby girl, and the nurse thought they could still use services.

There’s no cell coverage on Shari’s work phone, Verizon. One bar on her personal phone, AT&T. She takes both, her license, keys, and money but leaves her purse. She scans the yard before getting out of the car. Scattered toys, a Little Tykes push car faded to sun-bleached pink, a sagging pup tent, two rusted charcoal grills.

There are no structures by the home, no sheds, no older ramshackle trailers with their windows painted out. No sign of dogs. There isn’t a mental checklist, these are routines so embedded at this point that Shari takes the layout, the potential risk factors in one sweep. Over and over she’s seen in the literature for home visits, the training and safety manuals: trust your instincts.

Shari’s met at the door by Clarissa. When she asks, it’s “Rissa.” Rissa’s got dull blond hair dark at the roots, an old 27 with thin wrists, the slight protrusion of belly under a purple tank-top, wash-faded and stained at the armpits and nipples, loose sweatpants, and thin ankles above her slippers. Shari looks once more to the yard. Lots of people have stuff all over their yard. Her dad does.

She can see through the windows in the trailer. When the windows have sheets over them, foil, cardboard, it’s harder to trust the person inside. Sometimes it makes her think, “I could disappear from here and no one would know where to find me.” There’s no sign of serious concern: no smell of acetone that suggests someone’s been cooking meth, no paraphernalia on the tables, no bottles everywhere, no trash scattered so deep it signifies mental health problems.

Shari’s demeanor is open, projecting more than anything a positive determination to engage. She knows her posture keeps families calm and willing to listen. There’s one couch and above it pictures of Rissa’s children, the baby and a toddler boy with a full troublemaker grin, mall pictures, one taken on a white satin backdrop with a white rug and one outdoors on a weathered log in the countryside. The baby girl wears a big pink bow headband in both pictures. She’s tiny.

The room’s dominated by a dinner table, separating the dining area from the den with its small flat screen. The critics of the poor, and there are many in Oklahoma, say if you’re struggling to get by, why a flat screen TV? Why an iPhone? Oklahoma is a proud bootstrap state. The talk here is of those people down the way trading welfare for drugs and cigarettes.

Often that iPhone is the last thing cut off, after the water, even the power. How else to call the one person who can watch your kid? How else to hear if you got the job at Sonic ten miles away in Stilwell? The TV was half what it would cost new because a friend needed the money to make rent and you had it from your tax check. Shari gets all this to the point she doesn’t think of justifications. The table is a hand-me-down, an heirloom, huge and wooden and chipped, covered by bills and mass mailings, surrounded by chipped chairs.[2]

Shari asks: “Is the baby there?” An eight-month-old girl, according to her file. The baby’s sleeping. Is there anyone else home? No, no one.[3] Usually, her mom’s here after work. It’s just the two of them, plus the kids. Rissa sits on one end of the couch, knees tight, and Shari pulls out a chair. In training they say not to sit on plush couches in case, in a panic at the visit, someone hides a hypodermic in the cushions. Shari knows there are also often bed bugs.

“How are things going?”

“Fine.”

“And the baby…”

“Emmy,” Rissa says. “This the most quiet I got in forever. She don’t calm down.” Rissa looks tired and a little aggrieved. “She’s fussy.” If Shari weren’t here, Rissa’d be getting some sleep.

Shari doesn’t take notes—that might shut Rissa down. Shari talks about the baby’s health. The breastfeeding never stops, but Rissa’s mom got Emmy some formula. She had a cough but it passed. Rissa looks from the couch like she expects judgment and has half a mind to bite back.

She’s talking, though. Shari moves from the baby to Rissa. No boyfriend? No. Emmy’s father? Left after Emmy was born. Her son’s father? Who, Leonard? Took off long time ago.

Shari mentions school and Rissa opens up. She wants to get a GED, saying so like it’s the start to an old argument. Shari tells her, “We can do that. Next time, we’ll bring stuff that can help make that happen.” So often all Shari provides is encouragement. It’s in talking about getting her GED that Rissa stops bouncing her leg. This is a thing she wants. It’s a good sign. So far this visit has been nothing but good signs—the desire to finish school, the pictures, the resignation when Rissa talks about Emmy’s dad as if she’s sick of all that. Shari still hasn’t seen the baby.

Is her mom at work? No, she took out Logan, the toddler. Rissa’s tried applying at Dollar General, but “what do I even do if they say yes. If I have to learn, like, their whole system.” She can’t leave the kids with her mom working at Daylight Donuts, and they only have the one vehicle. They get by. How? On the TANF, her mom’s check, commodities from a Cherokee girl her mom works with.

Shari shifts the conversation, first to Rissa’s mom’s job at Daylight. She catches Shari looking without much thought toward the kitchen, two empty plastic vodka bottles against a white trash bag on the floor next to a full trashcan. Her mom drinks, she says, but she doesn’t drink. Rissa doesn’t either, then admits to having a drink when Emmy’s down for the night when she gets to watch a little TV. Rissa fires up a cigarette talking about it. Shari makes a noise like it doesn’t matter.

Roaches test the light in the kitchen along the baseboards, a movement that Shari doesn’t turn to look fully at. Roaches are a reality, but they’re a reality everywhere. She doesn’t move her feet.

She pushes the conversation a little. Why did Leonard leave? He just left. What about your dad? Him? What about him? It’s not that Shari gets that dark pushback, the rubbing of hands on forearms, the strand of hair pushed back. There’s just nothing there to tell. The men aren’t there.

Emmy squalls, then squalls again more forcefully from back into the trailer. Rissa sighs and stamps out her cigarette. Shari follows her back even though she wasn’t invited. Rissa doesn’t turn to say anything or stop to block the hallway.

Emmy’s in the middle of a full-sized bed; the thin comforter is a bunched oval with the baby at its center. There’s a crib next to the bed, but the pasteboard bottom is on the floor in the middle of the frame, the little naked mattress across it.

Emmy has sweet fat little legs kicking as she bunches her fists against her squinting eyes, making a continual series of pealing cries. Shari doesn’t see any bruises, burns, cuts, rashes, irritation that shouldn’t be on a child that small. She leans in to say Emmy’s adorable and checks Emmy’s eyelashes and eyebrows to see if roaches had chewed them. Emmy is adorable. Her eyelashes are fine.

Rissa swings Emmy up to her shoulder like a sack of groceries, pats her back before switching hands and looking at the one that held her bottom like it’s infected. “She’s wet.”

Shari watches Rissa trade the diaper without wiping Emmy. The diaper wadded and joining a growing batch in the trash. Shari takes note of the room, men’s socks, an ashtray by the bed, dirty clothes in two piles creeping up the wall. One drawer is cracked open, right by the bed within reach. The sheets look cleaner than a hotel, cleaner than a college student’s. Rissa rocks the baby against her shoulder while Emmy screams and screams. It’s a brutal, red sound. It’s endless. Rissa’s eyes are like she’s not there with Shari or with Emmy. She’s gone.

Then, as if by miracle, Emmy quiets. Rissa smiles to Emmy’s head against her cheek and says, “She doesn’t know what she wants.”

Shari will fill out the assessment later. Rissa and Emmy fall into the narrow pit that makes up Shari’s entire client base, at risk but not tipped over, within the window—financial, child age, need—for aid. She’ll pass on the case, and maybe someone else comes later to model parenting skills, cover outlets, get Rissa enrolled in a GED program. No signs of substance abuse,[4] no signs of physical abuse or mental health issues. No previous history of abuse.[5]  Shari feels a brief, regenerative rush.

There’s no Rissa. Confidentiality is one of the first, most sacred promises home visitors make to establish trust. But if you live in northeast Oklahoma you’d be lying if you said Rissa wasn’t in Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Sav-A-Lot, Love’s. You’ve crossed paths today. The poverty rate in Cherokee and Sequoyah counties sits close to 25 percent. Oklahoma does poorly by most state metrics—poverty, child poverty, food insecurity, teen pregnancy—and northeast Oklahoma does poorly for Oklahoma.

There’s no Shari either. The social workers I talked to, all women, had stories differing in particulars, chewed eyebrows and piled t-shirts, but on the broad truths of their families, their work, the similarities are constant. Their work is considered high risk. When social workers are killed, often brutally, they’re rightly raised to public service martyrs. The American Public Health Services Association maintains a page for “Fallen Heroes” on their website. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration states that social services face the highest incidence of non-fatal assault in the workplace, over 10 times the national rate.  There’s also the psychological toll of going into hard situations over and over.

Most hear of social workers because of the shame in their being called. Or because children died in their care. A smaller percentage thinks social workers are there to take their children. Social workers want to keep families together. The failures are awful. The success rate is disheartening but tangible.

They drive throughout northeastern Oklahoma. They pass country road after country road after country road. They pull down one to see a woman and her baby.

Footnotes

1. In social work, this is known as secondary prevention, focusing on those “at risk.” Primary prevention involves general public awareness. Tertiary intervention involves families that have already had an incident.

2. “The Hidden Rules Among the Classes” in Dr. Ruby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty says that the upper class puts their faith in maintenance of status and the past, the middle class in aspiration and the future, and those in poverty put their faith in survival and the present. Payne’s work is deeply contested in academic circles but taught in workshops across Oklahoma.

3. Men have come unannounced from back rooms, destabilizing to the visit. If anyone else comes, even if the man left, Shari says she needs to make a call, has to check a meeting. She politely cuts things short.

4. Except for the drinking, which bore attention. And the smoking.

5. Along with poverty, one of the noted risk factors for child abuse is a history of child abuse with the mother, the father, the grandparent. Abuse is generational, reaching out across parent to child to child. But not always. And not solely—abusers can come from strong families with no previous history. Past abuse rises up ugly and unpredictably in a lot of cases. Previous abuse also tendrils out to other issues— substance abuse, mental health, violence


Originally published in This Land: Spring 2016