Twenty-four years old, conscious of my lack of preparedness and certain I would choke on my words, I stood on a dusty country road with a heroin addict whom I had come to know and root for. I was advising him to surrender his parental rights before I asked the judge to terminate them.

Caseworker jargon tumbled nervously out of my mouth, but my stilted words did not matter—he knew what I was saying. We had prepared for it. He and I had always called this scenario What Could Go Wrong.

By the time his child was brought into foster care, my client had experienced more than 10 years of severe opioid addiction. The reunification prognosis was poor. “There is nothing more terrifying than a sober life,” the man once told me. “I guess I don’t really know what a sober life feels like. Maybe that’s the scariest part.”

Scarier than losing his son.

Present in Suffering

Nationwide, there are more than 420,000 children in foster care. More than half of those children are in the foster care system for longer than a year. As a social worker, I’ve seen the faces of these statistics. Though I got into the profession to help people, I’ve learned that being present in suffering—comforting others with the same comfort we receive from God—is just as much my God-given calling.

My client was 34, with pinprick pupils and sunken cheeks. He collapsed at my feet in despair and was crying, “Oh, my son.”

His sweet seven-year-old son was a lover of all things nature and “boy.” To him, all of earth’s creatures, from bright baby frogs to mundane grasshoppers, were worthy of a water-bottle aquarium stuffed with sticks and grass.

Earlier, I had visited this child in the psychiatric hospital after his foster mother called me and said he had described to her a detailed suicide plan. Everything in the sterile room was ill-fitting. There were too many pill bottles on the counter, and my small friend was too still. He should have been thwacking his father’s pitches with a baseball bat, howling when the ball bounced past his beaming mother in the outfield.

The realization was a familiar pang: The children on my caseload should never have met me.

“Has anything changed in his life recently?” the boy’s pleasant psychiatrist asked me in the hallway.

“His mother died of an overdose last year and his father stopped visiting him,” I said. “He has been in half a dozen foster homes in the past six months. He stops talking sometimes.”

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My mind went to the videos of a smiling boy turned violent animal, rooms destroyed, bruised and bitten siblings. The various foster parents saying to me—over text message, because a phone call would mean hearing the finality of the words wrapped in their own voices—that his behaviors were more than they had signed up for. I tell them it takes time for children with such trauma to feel safe, but they tell me that he is more than they can handle. I understand, but I don’t.

Inside room 202, the boy’s body was dwarfed by a hospital bed meant for a larger body. “I am sick. I have PTSD and complex trauma,” he said, his tongue stumbling over the foreign words. “But I don’t know what that means. I just know that I am bad.”

His eyes swept desperately across my face for answers.

“You did not cause this,” I said, knowing that he did not believe me. He would try to explain to me why this was his fault: He had bitten his siblings, and now he was here. I would try to reframe it: “You were hurt, and you hurt others. You are learning better ways to handle your hurt, but none of us get it right all the time.”

I asked him to tell me about the new coping skills that he was learning in the hospital, and he pulled out his “regulation kit,” his little hands going to work on a ball of Play-Doh.

I thought of Psalm 40:1–3: “I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and the mire.” In my head, I prayed the words over the child. “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”

That day, I took comfort in God’s redemption of my own life and the lives of others I knew. I thought of all of the slimy pits that the lot of us had been pulled from and the new songs that we had been given. I thought of the promise that none of us are too far from the reach of God.

And yet, it was not a day for new songs. It’s difficult to hear a new song with screaming sirens in your ears, the kind that come with PTSD and complex trauma. Today was a pit kind of day. I knew that my job in that moment was to wade through the muck and the mire so that I could sit next to that seven-year-old boy in the pit for a while and remind him, with our fistfuls of Play-Doh, that he was not alone.

Would you believe me if I said that I love them both: son and father? After all I have seen? Well, I do.

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My client had been a foster child himself. I forced myself to picture him at the age of his son. He, too, had deserved to be protected. I sat in the complexity of it all and allowed the grief that I felt for my client to coexist with the anger that I felt toward him: foster child, turned father of a foster child, turned heroin addict who lost it all.

A Pencil in God’s Hand

How terribly wonderful it is to have the privilege of my position, to be invited (most days by court order, but on the lucky days, out of trust and relationship) into the most intimate corners of people’s lives. And to try, by the grace of God, to do right by them, whatever it takes.

I often recall a college course in which our professor, dry erase markers in her outstretched hands, asked us to write what we thought it meant to be a social worker. We clamored to the board to add our own understanding, colored by optimism, grandiosity, selflessness, and nakedly obvious savior complex. It was clear to anyone looking at the slew of hurried handwriting that most of our definitions came down to “helping others.”

We had played right into our professor’s hands. She flicked on a PowerPoint presentation and led us through a lively discussion regarding the delicate dance of social work: the feelings of personal fulfillment when we help others and the need to check one’s own need to be needed at the door. She encouraged us to wrestle with the idea that any of us had answers to the problems that our future clients faced. Instead, she suggested, our job would be to help them find their own answers and support them by taking on the barriers that stood in their way.

I remember being both enamored and scared of that call. I still am.

When I feel as if I am all left feet in this social work dance or when I catch myself puffed up with pride or deflated by an all-too-frequent feeling that I have nothing at all to offer my clients, I try to pull my head up from the flashing phone and the mounds of paperwork. I look up at Mother Teresa’s words, tacked up in my cubicle among the sea of colored pictures and toothy school portraits: “I am just a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

Small Stirrings of Hope

I often find myself wanting to give the parents I work with another chance. I mourn the havoc that addiction, mental illness, and trauma have wreaked in their lives, the way these demons seemingly render them powerless. I see the shame they feel over the damage done to their loved ones, and I want to give parents more time to make things right.

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But my professor was right: It is more complex than that. Every time a parent receives more time to correct the conditions that brought the child into foster care, that child spends more time in the child welfare system. A child can only be adopted when parental rights are severed. Of course there are other avenues, but adoption is often viewed as the gold standard if children cannot return home.

What was less complex was this boy’s need for permanency and stability. He needed to be chosen first, before drugs, before fear.

Back on the country road, the boy’s father was still crying at my feet. His cousin, soon to be the parent to his child in this strange new universe that was closing in around him, was there with us. She pulled the man’s face into her hands.

“Look at me,” she said. He did not. “There is still hope for you,” came her words, more of a plea than a conviction.

“This is the end of my rope,” my client said.

All I could do was kneel before him. I knew only that I should be near him, on his level, one last time before taking the lofty stand to testify against his parental fitness, in the same way that I had needed to be near his son in the hospital room.

Frederick Buechner says that to be a Christian is to be “one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.” If I have ever been a Christian, it has been in these moments, the What Could Go Wrong moments, thankful that there is still God’s promise of healing and the small stirrings of hope and new songs.

Of all of the selfish decisions that this father has made, surrendering his parental rights was not one of them. I witnessed a father setting his son free to live a life that he knew he was not yet whole enough to provide.

Hundreds of moments along the way I have counted as lost. But some sleight of the Director’s hand allows me to peek behind the curtain, occasionally, and see rightness even in moments like this.

Molly Skawski is a foster care social worker and writer. She lives in Illinois with her husband and dog.

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