(Part one of the Jerome story was written on July 18th, 2005…if anybody missed it and wants to see it...)
After the wisdom teeth incident, Jerome’s whole attitude towards me shifted. He seemed to look forward to seeing me. He was able to truly communicate with me about his needs. The facility allowed him to have two pairs of shoes, so he wanted his second pair, and he had a special request. Done! He also told me about all of these hair care products and other stuff he needed. Well, crap. I’m Whitey McWhite girl when it comes to African-American hair care products, so I made my friend Sheryl come with me to the store to pick out the items needed. Sheryl’s my friend who laughed her ass off at me when she told me she got a perm and I looked at her, confused. “Perm? But…it used to be kinky and now it’s STRAIGHT!” Apparently, for A-A hair, the idea is to straighten it, so that’s what a perm means. Only white folks think perms mean curl the hair. Anyway, the next visit I saw him I brought more McDonald’s, his shoes, his hair care products, and candy. Since I didn’t have my stuff searched (privilege of being DSS), I stuffed extra snack products in his shoe box. Please nobody give me a lecture about breaking rules. Bite me. He was 16 and growing and STARVING…if you saw how skinny he was, you’d have done the same thing.
Excited about all of his purchases, he let me hug him good bye. I thought all of the staff there would pass out cold when they saw Jerome LET me touch him and then HUGGED ME BACK. I felt great! I was getting somewhere with the boy who was supposedly hopeless! I ran back and told the other workers what happened. The older workers who had had Jerome on their case load scoffed at me, not believing that he hugged me.
I then found out that he had been made to repeat a year of school at the DJJ facility and it was boring him. This pissed me off, but I could never secure the school records that said he passed his last year (conveniently, these records were lost…sheesh). He OBVIOUSLY knew the materials. Jerome had an IQ of 114. That may not seem impressive to you, but that’s solidly in the “I can do it” range, especially for a foster care kid. He also had street smarts and cleverness. Slowly, he became so bored in school he didn’t want to do the work AGAIN. Sigh. I tried to convince him to care. Often, it was a losing battle. He would tell me, “Kira, you don’t get it. In the hood, a man moves his arm, you gotta figure out if he’s pulling out a gun, and you got a short time to figure it out. Guns are just a part of my life. Not schooling.” I told him earnestly that my vision for him was that he didn’t live in that kind of neighborhood…that he went to college…that he got a great job and had a wife and family and never had to look over his shoulder constantly again. He looked at me sadly. “That’s for other people, Kira. Half my relatives are in jail. Some are into drugs. Others, I just don’t know where they are. Even more died in a shooting or something. That life is not mine to have.” It was hard to convince him that he had alternatives, but I never gave up trying.
Another turning point day came when I visited him at the facility during recreation time. I didn’t mean to do that as it meant he wouldn’t get to go outside and play ball or whatever for the time. They dragged him in and put me in a new room, waaaay back into the facility. I had never been placed in this room to talk to my foster kid before. It had sofas and lounge chairs and tables in it. Apparently, it was some kind of common area for the boys. Well, we chatted intently for about an hour, and then…suddenly…the guards let in about 50 teenage boys, sweaty and shirtless, into the room. Alone. They had forgotten I was there!!!!
See, I tear up when I remember this incident because…it so clearly demonstrates what a good person Jerome was deep inside…this boy that so many said couldn’t be saved and was so worthless.
I was 26 yrs old, pre children, and probably looked about 22. I was the SOLE female in the middle of about 50 hormonal teenage boys who didn’t get to be around women under 40 at the facility. I was immediately surrounded. If I screamed, nobody would have heard…we were at the back of the building through several locked doors. There were no guards. I was, quite frankly, nervous as they started getting closer and closer in their circle, shouting out, “Who’s the hottie? That’s your worker, man? She’s fiiiine!”
Jerome stood up and did this silverback ape thing, told them all to fuck off, that I was HIS worker, right, and if they touched me, he’d kill them. They didn’t quite back off all the way. There was a showdown as I stood next to Jerome, totally uncertain what to do. He then did this chest strut thing wherein he bumped other guys to show his dominance, and they grumbled and backed off…sort of. They didn’t get their eyes off of me. Jerome took me by the arm (THE BOY WHO WOULD NOT TOUCH OTHERS EVER GRABBED MY ARM!) and escorted me out of there, elbowing and cursing at all the boys who still tried to get closer to see if they could catch a grope of the only young female in the place. He pushed his way through dozens of boys until we went to the locked door. He pounded the shit out of that door, growled at the others repeatedly while we waited for the guards, and then hugged me good bye again as the guards—very embarrassed as they realized the huge error they had made by forgetting me back there—took me out of the facility.
We laughed, we joked, we teased. He opened up to me. His DJJ social worker told me she was stunned how receptive he was to me!
But then my year wound down. I was getting an ulcer. I couldn’t sleep. I was eating constantly as a salve for the emotional wounds that were left raw from this job. I couldn’t help most of my kids. They put me on call to take intake calls for abuse and never trained me to sort through them, so I was always stressed when I was on call. I wasn’t even PAID for on call work either. I aged considerably in my one year as a foster care worker. Some people are meant to do this work, but most of us just can’t!
It was a rough decision, but I knew I had to quit or I would lose my mind. I didn’t want to leave my kids behind. The parents, sure, but the kids? Oh God. No, I didn’t want to do that. I had no choice though. I was dying inside.
I remember the day I told him that I had to leave, and why. He threw his head down on the table and sobbed.
Oh, man. The guilt…I’m crying now myself…
I told him I’d write to him and I did, but he never answered a single letter.
I even started up the “become a foster care parent” process with the goal in mind that my ex and I would take him in when he got out of jail at 17. My ex, for all I complain about him, was totally sympathetic to the situation and agreed to go through the hoops to take Jerome in. However, a miracle happened…an unplanned one. I became pregnant. We had decided to have two children, starting two years from when I actually had Ariana. It was the nicest surprise I think I’ve ever received. However, this put aside the “take Jerome in” plan. We had a tiny house and Ari would take up the extra room, plus I knew I couldn’t handle being pregnant and working full time AND being a foster mom. With regret, we stopped the foster care parent process.
But then it gets worse.
My ex was a prosecutor for the state. He never knew Jerome’s full name because that would have broken confidentiality laws. However, since we were contemplating the foster care parent thing to get him, he certainly knew a lot about Jerome’s background. He called me up one day when Ari was about 2. I wasn’t pregnant with Jared yet. Jerome would have been 19. Time stood still at that phone call:
“Kira, is Jerome’s full name X X X?” he asked.
My heart sank. There’s only one reason why my prosecutor husband would have asked that question.
He told me the rap sheet on this fellow who shared Jerome’s name. It matched perfectly. It was Jerome. He had been arrested for armed robbery. No one was hurt, but yes he used a gun to hold up some people at an apartment and steal their stuff (along with a ‘friend.’). My ex was hysterical. Jerome had NO idea that it was MY HUSBAND who had been assigned the case to prosecute him. The ex was torn between keeping the case and having control over the case’s outcome or getting rid of it so he didn’t have to be the one to send Jerome to jail. The evidence was too strong. He kept the case.
The night that Jerome’s case came to trial, the ex and I sat down numbly after Ariana was tucked into bed. For armed robbery, the penalties were severe. At 19 years of age, he would be in jail—even WITH parole for good behavior—a minimum of 39 years. His life was over before it even started. A perfectly good boy. A perfectly good heart and brain. All…flushed down the toilet of life as he sat now in the big house, forever.
Yes, I think of Jerome every single day. I struggle with myself…I HAD to leave that job or I’d die, but by leaving that job I killed Jerome. I was the only person in the seven years he was in DSS to be able to reach him, and I left. I can’t tell you how that feels.
And maybe today, with my students, that might explain why I get so protective of them and drain myself dry for them. I can’t do another Jerome. It's almost like I can make up for him somehow if I just bend over backwards for him...sigh. Whatever jail you are in today, Jerome, I still love you and think of you.