The meeting begins with the most important person in the room speaking, the man or woman at the front. Then the person to your right, the one who knows you somewhat, at least through a file, starts speaking about you. Imagine having to sit there while all of these adults, mostly strangers, start talking around you but about you. They talk about your family and your faults and how you're doing in school. They talk about how you relate to your family members and about your medical, dental, and psychiatric history. Everyone is updated on what medications you take and why. They speak formally but with a flippancy as if all they are doing is rearranging the furniture in their living room: "Well, we could put the couch here but then everyone would see the stain. If we put the chair over there, then it would just be in the way and everyone would trip over it. And we've tried that location before. It didn't work."
After everyone around you has talked about everything but your peeing and pooping habits, you are asked if you have anything to say. Would you feel like talking? Would you feel like adding anything? Would you think that anyone would even care?
I've never been a teen-ager in this situation but I have been one of those people in the back watching and my blood boils every single time. This is the review hearing for a child or teen in foster care. The best way to describe it is that it is like a trial you see on TV except in this case the juvenile on "trial" is not being accused of anything other than needing a place to call home and parents to love and care for him. Depending on the situation, the teen-ager must sit through this every three to six months while she and her situation (referred to as a "case" in this room) are discussed around her. Imagine this humiliation on top of the rejection one has already faced; the rejection that put the teen here one or more times already. And the reason he came here in the first place was never, ever his fault. To be in a room where no one really knows you yet is sanctioned to talk about you and licensed to make all decisions for you. Imagine that. I'm an adult, and I know that I would not be able to handle that. And we wonder why so many teens in foster care feel alone, helpless, and struggle to find their voice.
If you're lucky, one or two of the people sitting behind you are your foster parents and if you're really fortunate, you've established a relationship with them. You know they love you and want the best for you. But they have no say in this meeting. They can't sit with you and you can't sit with them, be held by them, or be physically supported by them in any way. They have no importance to anyone in this meeting but you and no one else seems to notice or care.
I don't know what it's like to sit there and listen to my family's and my dirt being talked about as if everyone is listing last night's dinner menu. But I do know what it's like to watch it and to watch someone you love slump lower and lower in the chair. I know what it's like to watch the person who is usually bubbly and talkative suddenly become sullen. I've had discussions with these teenagers after these meetings and heard how they really feel about what happens. Children and teens were never meant to be talked about in sterile environments while their futures are decided upon by strangers. Whoever thought that this wouldn't add more trauma to the fragile psyches of our most vulnerable children and teens?
This is, of course, a generalization of the scene in a review hearing. Sometimes the child's caseworker, the one to the right side of the room who is doing most of the talking, has taken the time to get to know the child. Sometimes the judge or magistrate speaks kindly and less formally, trying to make the child feel at home. Sometimes the child's GAL, the stranger seated right next to the child, has made an attempt to establish a relationship with the child. Sometimes the judge or GAL gives the child a chance to speak. But this is all rare. But the teen's words rarely get much traction; the decisions have already been made. The good, but mostly the bad and ugly have already been shared. Why add anything? And none of this changes the fact that no one likes to be in a situation where your life is being decided by others and you have little say and no one in the inner circle to call your own.
It's a broken system, run by broken people, caring for broken children from broken families, living with broken humans who want to see brokenness transformed into wholeness. There are good people in each of the represented professions but in the system, even that goodness is often too little, too late, and overshadowed by the hopelessness of the whole. I hold little hope that a governmental system can ever be personal and human enough to heal but I can introduce children and teens to a God who never wanted it to be this way. I can allow my heart to break so that others can be made whole. I can be uncomfortable so others can be comfortable. And I will. As long as I am able.