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About a boy

Sue De Nim

Child and youth care workers build relationships with young people. Each relationship is different and unique. Sometimes we struggle in our relationships with children and youth. Sometimes they push us away in fear and anger, and sometimes we pull ourselves away — often as a response to our own fear and anger. Yet it is often those children and youth with whom we struggle most that become a part of us. Long after they have left us we reminisce about how "tough" they were, smiling at the memories of the times when we felt connected to them. Long after they have left us, the invisible connection remains, sometimes deep inside. I wonder whether those young people continue to feel this connection too?

I saw Sylvia at the market recently. I hadn’t seen her for about fourteen years but I was sure it was her. I was keen to speak to her because I wanted to know how your life had been since she and her husband, Dan, had fostered you. As I approached her, I thought about you...

I met you shortly after I started working at the children’s home. You were about nine years old and I was twenty-one with no experience in working with children and youth at risk! You were a beautiful boy, tall and strong, intelligent, shy and athletic — an excellent swimmer. You looked sad, probably from grieving for your dead mother. You were also angry and aggressive, rather like your violent, alcoholic father. Many of the children and possibly even some of the staff were a little scared of you. I remember the time you cut yourself from smashing window during one of your regular temper tantrums. I remember the time I held you to prevent you beating up a smaller boy who sat down in your seat in the lounge when you had gone to the toilet during a break in a television programme. I remember how you enjoyed being with animals — dogs, cats, snakes — and how kind you were to them. I remember finding one of your snakes in my bathroom I having the courage to pick it up because you had shared your knowledge of snakes and I knew this one was harmless. I remember hearing a knock on my door in the middle of the night and you are standing there vomiting and asking for help. I remember how you loved the stories I told you before you went to sleep, and how I stroked your back for a few minutes to calm you before I said "good night". I remember you.

I remember meeting Sylvia and Dan and telling them about you. They were eager to foster a little boy to join them and their daughters. I felt happy that there was a caring family where you belong. You spent weekends and holidays with them for a while. Sylvia and Dan were in constant communication with the staff at the children’s home. Of course there were challenges, but Sylvia and Dan were strong and committed. After some time you moved to live with them permanently. We exchanged small gifts and notes and said our "goodbyes".

I wonder ...
For a couple of years, I would occasionally hear something about you from the social worker. The news seemed positive and I was pleased that your placement had been successful. After I left the children’s home I stopped hearing about you but still thought of you often. I wondered ... what does he look like now? Where is he? Does he still swim? How is he coping at school? How tall is he? How did he do in matric? Does he still have a relationship with his father? Is he OK? Is he happy?

I saw Sylvia at the market recently. I hadn’t seen her for about fourteen years but I was sure it was her. I was keen to speak to her because I wanted answers to my wonderings...

Sylvia didn’t recognise me when I called her name. When I told her who I was, she smiled and hugged me. I waited eagerly to hear the news of your successes, how you had grown from a sad little boy into a confident twenty-five-year-old man.

Some answers ...
Sylvia’s eyes filled with sadness and pain. She told me that you grew much taller and stronger in adolescence and girls were attracted to your good looks. You started using alcohol and drugs and threatened Sylvia and Dan with violence. She said that when you were in matric you "divorced" them — you took them to court so that they were no longer your foster parents. She told me that you live "somewhere around here" but that there is no contact. She said that she was scared of you. Her eyes fitted with tears and I said, "I’m sorry." We said "goodbye" and I walked away.
Questions ...

The market was bustling with activity and I rejoined my family who had walked on ahead. I was distracted. My head was full of thoughts and memories about you. My stomach churned with emotion — sadness, pain, disappointment, even guilt. I remained distracted for days. Even now, several weeks later, my thoughts turn to you regularly. I have so many questions and no way of finding answers. Why didn’t the placement work out? Was the family appropriate for you or were we so intent on finding you a placement that we overlooked important issues? Was everyone properly prepared? Should there have been more efforts to reunite you with your father or other family members? Were you fully involved in the decision to be fostered? Did you or Sylvia or Dan need more support? Should I have made an effort to contact you? Did I do everything I could to contribute to a successful placement? Did I fail you? Did the system fail you? How many others are there out there — children, youth, adults, people full of potential — broken, lonely and disappointed? What could we have done differently? I have so many questions about child and youth care work, the services we offer, the programmes, the staff, the policies. I have so many questions about you. I have so many questions about me.

I know that you will probably never read this or even hear that I met Sylvia at the market. You will never know of the tears on my cheeks as I have written these words. You will never know that I still remember you. You will never know that long after you left, the invisible connection remained, deep inside.

This feature: Sue De Nim(2004) About a boy. Child and Youth Care Vol.22 No. 3, p. 11