Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Black Garbage Bag

I have been horrified by the stories I have heard from kids who have experienced institutional care of any kind in their lives. One of the things I have hated most over the years is the way children in the foster care system have their possessions treated. Too many kids leave one foster home for another with virtually nothing that is their own. One of the things Claudia and I decided years ago when we first adopted kids from foster care is that we would take with us whatever possessions the kids valued, even if it meant inconvenience and cost for us.

When we adopted Kyle and Mike a decade ago we shipped from Washington State to Minnesota their battered bikes, among other possessions, because we wanted them to have with them whatever familiar comforts they could have. They came with a few pictures of their earliest years of life, their clothing, some awards and certificates and a few games. They had virtually nothing, but we arranged for any they wanted to come with them.

No, it was not convenient for us. Yes, it was irritating. We spent a number of hours in our limited visiting schedule packing, taping and shipping from UPS the big items. But it made us feel that we had done the right thing for them, even when many of those same belongings were lost or destroyed within a short time of arriving in Minnesota.

What I have abhorred most in this journey is the way that foster children arrive. Almost without exception they have arrived in our home with two or three black or green plastic garbage bags filled with their clothing and whatever scanty possessions they still have. I have often wondered whether the "garbage bag" is a dark symbol for the way society sometimes views these "leftovers of society." While I understand the need for quick and inexpensive solutions to moving children in a fairly rapid way, I still have a problem with the garbage bag deal.

It's been years since we have had foster kids (in the temporary, transitional sense) in our home, so I had forgotten about my disdain of the garbage-bag-as-travel-container concept. I had forgotten, that is, until yesterday evening. On my way home from work I stopped by the county jail to pick up what remained of Mike's "property." I had called in advance, so the staff knew that I was on my way.

Following the standard protocol (enter the open doors, pick up the phone in front of the locked doors, state my business on the phone, listen for the buzz to open the locked door, proceed to the elevator, get off and wait for the "click" signaling the large, imposing doors to be open) I stepped inside and was shocked.

There was no human encounter, no staff person (uniformed or otherwise) to transact the deed. There was sitting in front of the iron doors a black garbage bag with a formal notice that indicated the property belonged to "inmate Michael Fletcher."

Now don't get me wrong. I don't expect busy officers or staff persons to greet me with a smile as they hand me my law-breaking son's belongings. I don't think that an institutional process note shouldn't be stapled to the bag. I'm not even saying it should be delivered in something better than a trash bag. It's not about the policies or procedures at the local jail.

Simply put, I was immediately drawn back emotionally to numerous trash bags I've seen over the years that have carried the belongings of our kids as they entered our home. I'm sure I am overreacting to the whole thing, but it reminds me once again that humans are not well cared for by institutional processes, whether that is the foster care system, a treatment center or a jail or prison incarceration.

There is something about the ever-present black garbage bag that bespeaks a culture where those who are separated from "normal" society -- through no fault of their own, as children in foster care, or because of illegal activity, as adults serving jail or prison time -- are little more than refuse to the rest of us.

And it reminds me that the only hope for such dispossessed people lies not in institutional environments, but in personal, human connections. Institutional systems, structures and procedures, in and of themselves, do not "rescue" children or "reform" criminals. It is good people working within those sterile, life-robbing structures who make the difference. Kudos to those who choose to work within the confines of institutional existence in an effort to help people. It really shouldn't be this hard for those caught in the system to find redemptive human connections, but I am grateful for those who do their best to make it happen.


Hopewell said...

When I adopted my kids my son was handed the remains of an action figure he had entered the [Ukrainian] orphanage with. When my daughter began to speak English the first thing she talked about was the stuffed Bunny she'd brought with her and never saw again. However, the orphanage director DID sort thru every photo in the place to find some of my kids and their friends for them to take a long. No trash bags in Ukraine. Nothing really goes "on" with them though. Even their underware had to stay.

Don said...

My son arrived with about four black garbage bags filled with clothes six sizes too large for him. The only "toy" he had with him was a GameBoy. This post took me back to that day, and how quickly I wanted the bags to go away so he could settle into his new home, with drawers and a closet in which to store his things.

Ours said...

Bart, where are you??

Rose Adoption Journey said...

Where are you these days? I have followed Claudia's blogs but we haven't heard from you...I have had to revamp mine so you can catch up here....looking forward to your insights!

mez said...

I grew up in foster care, and I can honestly say that I hate black plastic trashbags even now. I dont use them. When I look at them I feel like trash. when I think about foster care and how I grew up, I think about trash bags. That is sad