I got out of my car, took off my jacket, and put it and my purse into the trunk. Carrying just a clipboard, pen and my ID, I walked into the building and said a silent thank you that I had only two flights of stairs to climb, in stairwells that reeked of body fluids. I swore—again—that this was it; next week I was going to get a job that offered more than an up-close view of human wretchedness. Of despair and anger too painful to examine closely. I told myself I was in the business of helping, but truth was, my hands were often tied; there were limited funding and options available for addressing child abuse and neglect problems, and none of them were very effective anyway. No, I was one of the many who added to the overall misery that was life in the crosshairs of DCFS. Hell, I spent more energy trying not to remember what I saw every day than doing anything that really helped.
I knocked on the door and after a few moments it opened. In front of me stood a woman who looked far too young to have four children. Her name was Denise, and she looked like she had just gotten up, although it was past lunch time. Refusing to make eye contact, she mumbled that she didn’t know it was afternoon already. She stood back so I could come in and took me to what I thought was her living room. On the way through the apartment, I fought to keep the disgust from my face and my breakfast in my stomach.
To say the apartment was dirty would be generous. It reeked. Every inch of space in the kitchen was filled with dirty dishes or rotting food. There was an aquarium sitting on the floor, and while whatever had been in it was long gone, the water remained, fetid and covered with a green slime. Cockroaches scurried across everything and up and down the walls, so many they had seemingly dispensed with their preference for dark places and now were willing to claim any territory they could find. I’d like to say I was surprised, but past experience with home visits were the reason my coat and purse were in the car. In my job, you quickly learned how to avoid taking unwanted critters home with you.
This is how the projects are. They are built, assigned to families, and then abandoned by management. The elevators don’t work, there is little heat in the winter, pest control is nonexistent, a broken toilet or lack of water can take months to be fixed. These are common problems. The families who live here often start out with the hope of creating a real sense of home. But after years of fighting for routine maintenance, they give up. Despair is as present in the projects as the stench in the stairwells.
The living room was almost dark. The lone light bulb hanging from the ceiling had burned out and Denise went to look for another one. The only furniture in the room was a grimy corner piece of a sectional couch and a rickety wooden kitchen chair. I chose the chair, because there was nowhere the roaches could hide, and I sat, praying Denise wouldn’t think she had to be polite and return with something for me to drink. Looking around, I counted my blessings.
I thought about why I was here, in someone else’s home, for it was her home, no matter what I thought of it. Denise’s four children were in state custody, not because of the condition of the home, but because her boyfriend had been abusing the children—broken bones, concussions, black eyes abusing. I worked for the agency that was supposed to help her get them back, if that was even possible. I would make home visits and report on the suitability of the home for children. Denise knew that. The fact that she had made zero effort to make the apartment somewhat presentable told me that depression might be an issue. Not surprising.
I prayed that maybe she had a drug hangover instead, because if it was determined she had a mental illness, that meant she would be on my caseload for a very long time. DCFS could get her treatment, but she would have to show sustained progress and then solid stability for a good long time, a near impossibility for someone living in intractable poverty. DCFS does not like giving children back to mentally ill parents. It’s called covering your ass.
Or perhaps Denise believed her children were better off without her, or was enjoying a decrease in the stress that accompanies not being able to adequately care for one’s children. In any case, her children were not coming home soon. And I was the one who would tell her that.
Denise returned with the light bulb, screwed it in and started to sit down. Then her phone rang, and she was gone again. Great! All I wanted was to finish the visit and leave, and she was talking on the phone. I scanned the room as I waited.
The dirty lime green walls held nothing, until I looked at the wall behind me. In the middle, about six feet up, was a framed piece of artwork. Nice frame. I got up to get a closer look then stopped as I realized what it was. It wasn’t a painting or print. It was a needlework piece, more specifically, it was crewel work. A bouquet of pastel colored flowers on a green linen background, very pretty, and the result of many hours of work. I knew because I had sewn every stitch, tied every French knot. I was responsible for the crack across a tiny bit of the right lower corner, having dropped it while hanging it for the first time. Completed at least fifteen years ago, it had been at least five years since it was tossed into a box of stuff I gave a relative for a yard sale.
This was the first needlework piece I had ever done, shortly after my marriage, as a way to demonstrate my mastery of the womanly arts, and also to prove that I was a good wife, decorating our home with the work of my hands. When the marriage disappeared, so did my fondness for the things with which I had marked my spousal territory. But that piece remained special because it took so long, and each stitch was made with love and hope for my new and promising life. It all came back in a heartbeat as I looked at it. It occurred to me that my fingerprints were probably still on it somewhere. My young, naïve fingerprints.
Denise returned, apologized, noticed me looking at the only thing she had chosen to hang on her walls. I asked where she bought it, and she told me she couldn’t remember, but she liked the flowers. I looked at her for a long moment. She was small, thin, and her hands shook. Unlike some of my clients, there was nothing sassy or defensive about her. She again averted her eyes. She took up so little emotional space, and gave off so little energy, a blind person wouldn’t have known she was in the room. I wondered what she was feeling.
I sat down and waited for her to tell me.