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Excerpt from Attorney-at-Large

Fall

            The sun was warm, especially for so late in the season.  It was Friday.  I'd thought the day would go one way: meet the caseworker, make an unannounced home visit, take a quick look around the house to reassure ourselves things were more-or-less okay—that is, in compliance with court orders—and I'd head back to the office for mid-afternoon appointments.  That plan lasted as far as the large and pleasant front porch of what had, in better days, been a large and pleasant home.

            Inside, a dark-haired baby wailed on the living room floor, which would not have been such a big deal except that he was underweight, underfed, hungry, and sucking an empty bottle, while his young father—in violation of a restraining order which "prohibited" him from entering the home—and younger mother watched silently, perhaps angrily, from the one piece of furniture in the room, a tattered couch, some indeterminate shade of dark green or gray.

            The social worker, a kind, no-nonsense Nicaraguan woman, nodded toward the back of the apartment.  "We have to see if there's food, formula.  We have to check the kitchen."  There was another girl—the young mother's sister—with her own two toddlers in the kitchen.  Did that girl really begin to wail along with the baby as soon as she saw us, or does the scene unfold that way only in memory?  Almost certainly, at the time, I did not acknowledge any part of what I felt as shame.  Maybe I didn't even feel it until later.  

            The social worker moved from empty cabinet to empty cabinet, opening each one.  We worked quickly, efficiently, bound by some tacit communication.  I opened the refrigerator.  There was a little milk and cheese from WIC, the only food in the house.  No formula.

            I moved to the bathroom.  Like the other rooms, it had holes in the walls and ceilings.  I checked methodically, every move a statement in which I refused to acknowledge participation: You are nothing because you have nothing.  Nothing in this country is yours.  Not the house you live in, not even your children.   

            The bathtub was without running water.  Sopping newspapers on the floor surrounded a leaking toilet.  While the landlord apparently did as the landlord pleased, the girl had been ordered to provide adequate housing for the baby.  As if she could choose where to live.  As if anyone who had a choice would live here. 

            I could not get back to the air and sunlight on the porch fast enough.  We paused on the steps, saying the same words at the same time.  "We have to pick up the kids."  The worker's hands shook for maybe a second while she lit a cigarette, but her clipped voice was reassuringly steady.  "This is the part of my job I hate.  The auto body shop guys on the corner have worked on my car.  We can use their phone."

            So she exchanged greetings with the owner, a stocky, bald guy who said, "Sure you can use the phone.  What do you need to call the police for?"  When she told him she probably shouldn't talk about it, he laughed.  "It's all right.  I already know it's got to be something to do with that fat little Mexican three doors down who's always violating his probation.  And you two better be off this street by dark.  It's okay now, but it'll belong to the Inca Boys then."

            I called the office to have my afternoon appointments rescheduled while we waited.  The officer was a big, calm, blond guy who knew and spoke to neighbors as they gathered near the squad car to watch us go into the house.  Inside, the girls knew, of course, right away, when we came back in with the cop.  They knew we'd take the kids.  They started crying and pleading—they'd have food stamps and food by Monday, no, they'd borrow food money from their mom, get food right away, and pay her back Monday, they'd make the landlord fix everything right away, really, really they would—while the baby's father sat on the couch, hands dangling between his knees, staring at the floor and saying nothing.

            The officer went back to his car and got on the radio for a long time.  Inside, I guess we tried to calm the crying girls, telling them to just get food and start looking for a better place to stay, they'd have a forthwith hearing and probably get the kids back Monday.  Then I went out to the car and said, "Look Officer, I know you have to be really careful about the criteria for an emergency pickup without a court order, but I've got to know your decision.  Because if you're not going to pick them up without the order, then I've got to get into court for an emergency order this afternoon.  And I'm running out of time here." 

            "We've decided," he said.  "Let's go."

            The crowd was small and quiet, watching as we took the wailing children from the wailing mothers . . . .

 

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