Justin got home Monday night; he moved to New England a couple of years ago. Margaret and TR and the dogs leave Greensboro for Austin, Texas in a couple of weeks. But for this one lovely sunny autumnal week all three children are here in town together. It feels really good.
One of the things Justin is doing in New England is playing a lot of music. He’s a really talented drummer but he also plays guitar and keyboard; he plays the tabletop, the chair back, the car dashboard if nothing else is available. He’s one of those people who thinks in music, who dreams in music. He’s never had formal lessons and didn’t even really have access to instruments until he was into his teens but he’s got the kind of music inside him that flows over and around and under all impediments. I look forward to hearing all the music he’s going to be making for the rest of his life
Margaret sometimes jokes that she groundscored herself a little brother and she’s not far from the truth. She was the first to meet Justin, down by the railroad tracks one spring night in 2001. Justin started hanging out at the apartment that Margaret was sharing with some friends, sleeping on the sofa, eating out of their refrigerator, watching their TV. He didn’t say much about himself and gave his age variously as 15, 17 and 19, though he looked about 11. It was obvious that he was a runaway and pretty clear that he was on the run from a foster home. One Friday evening Margaret called me up and asked if I would come over right away to help them figure out what to do.
There was nothing very appealing about Justin—dirty white tank top, dyed blond hair, sagging jeans, thuggish attitude, the smudgy precursor of facial hair across his upper lip. He sat way down in his chair and gave me evasive answers when we talked, but it was clear that Margaret had guessed right, that he had run away from a foster home and had been gone for several weeks now. By one of those strange chances of which life is made, I had volunteered years before for something called the Guardian ad Litem program. I had been trained as a court advocate for children in the foster care system. I asked Justin if he had a GAL. He said he did, although he couldn’t remember her name.
On the strength of that I called my husband Bill. He agreed that I should bring Justin home and call the GAL office on Monday morning—it had been ten years since I had volunteered and I didn’t know anyone in the office any longer, but at least I knew what questions to ask. The weekend was uneventful; Justin was much sweeter, more childish than he had seemed when he was slumped down, sullen and spraddle-legged, in Margaret’s apartment. He slept a lot. He ate a lot. On Sunday night just before bedtime he lost what would turn out to be the last of his baby teeth. Right before I went to bed myself that night I opened the bedroom door—Justin was sleeping in Isabell’s old room—and slipped a quarter under Justin’s pillow.
The next morning I called the office and spoke to the woman who had Justin’s case. Everyone was tremendously relieved to hear that he was all right; I learned that he was 13, almost 14, that he had been in the system since he was nine, that he was a habitual runner, that he had been gone this time for two weeks. Justin, small for his age, wiry and energetic, quick to smile, was a favorite in the office. The Guardian ad Litem office is in the courthouse. We drove downtown and parked in the deck across the street from Government Plaza. As we lined up to go through the metal detectors Justin turned to me and said “This feels like a trap.”
It was. Justin’s GAL had told me over the phone that the judge had issued a “secure custody order” on Justin, which meant that when he was picked up he was to be taken directly to juvenile detention for three days. She had asked me not to tell Justin that when I brought him in. We rode up the elevator to the office. Women came from behind their desks into the reception area to hug Justin and ruffle his hair and tease him about the new rhinestone stud in his ear. Justin, the GAL and I went into the GAL’s small office; Justin and I sat in a pair of chairs so close to the desk that my knees nearly brushed up against the dark modesty panel. The desk was crowded with papers and pencil holders and paperweights and brightly colored erasers. The GAL told Justin about the secure custody order. The GAL excused herself and left the two of us alone. I felt like crying. “It’s just three days, Justin,” I said. “Just give them the three days and then it will be over.” Justin was talking about running away, about killing himself, about going to find his mother. “I knew this was a trap,” he said. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.”
The GAL came back. She had two security guards with her, two overweight men in dark brown uniforms, their wide shiny black belts hung with keys and flashlights and handcuffs and holsters snapped shut over black handguns. One of them took the handcuffs off his belt and opened them up. Justin bowed his head, lifted his two arms, and held his wrists out in front of him with his hands hanging down.
“ Behind you, son,” the other security guard said.
“Please,” the GAL said. The guard shrugged and fastened the cuffs in front.
I reactivated my Guardian ad Litem status. They waived the retraining for me. I left the courthouse that day with a paper signed by a judge and a six-inch stack of folders filled with Justin’s files.
It wasn’t three days. It was three weeks. The judge decided that Justin shouldn’t go back to the foster home from which he had repeatedly run and that he should stay locked up until an alternative was found. I met with his social worker, his psychologist, his probation officer, his lawyer, with people whose jobs I never could figure out, people who were making major decisions about Justin’s life without ever having met him. I felt ill-equipped and ill-informed for the responsibility I had taken on. I barely knew Justin myself, and I felt way over my head, but I still kept getting in the van, driving down to DSS or Mental Health or wherever for another meeting around another conference table in another windowless room. And Justin was still in detention. I took a copy of my court order out to the detention center as soon as I was allowed to—they told me at the office that Justin had to go through several days of processing before he could see anyone. I had never been to the detention center before. It was—it is—a large one-story concrete facility out by the airport, fairly new and well-maintained, with small neatly-trimmed boxwood bushes on either side of the heavy glass door into the lobby and a big interior window with a speaker grille and a metal drawer like the change drawer at the drive-up window at the bank. Behind the thick glass I could see a woman watching a row of monitors that showed wavering images of empty corridors and closed doors. I put my court order and my driver’s license in the drawer and waited.
Finally I was allowed in, accompanied through a series of thick metal doors. Justin and I met in the dayroom of his little pod: a small open area with a set of polished steel benches and a steel table etched with a checkerboard, all bolted to the floor. The room was lined with cell doors; each door had a single long window about five inches wide and maybe eighteen inches long; as I came into the dayroom every window suddenly had a little boy’s face in it. The guard asked me to wait. He opened Justin’s door and brought him out. Justin was dressed in a white polo shirt and elastic-waisted khaki pants and sneakers: the uniform. He walked with his head slightly bowed and his hands clasped behind his back. Every other time I went out to visit him he walked the same way, with an almost professorial gait, as though he were lost in deep contemplation. It took me sometime to realize that he had been ordered to walk that way. The handclasp was in lieu of handcuffs.
This became the background of my life for the next year. Justin was finally released and sent to a group home out in the country south of Greensboro. It wasn’t long before he ran. He got caught and sent back to juvenile detention. He did his time, got out, went back to the group home and a month or so later he ran again. One time he left school and talked someone into driving him back to Greensboro. Once he borrowed a bike from a friend and rode it the fifteen miles back to Greensboro. Once he jumped out of a social worker’s car at a stop sign and ran. He was finally moved from that group home to a smaller home. He ran from that one. He ran out the back door. He got off the school bus and ran. One day I added it up: out of twelve months Justin had spent 82 days in juvenile detention.
Even then I didn’t know the worst of it. One day when I was visiting Justin in detention he came in buoyant. “Check it out!” he said. “They’re letting us keep our mats!” I asked him what he meant. That’s when I learned that the cells were unfurnished except for a toilet, a sink and a cinderblock platform covered with a mat and a blanket. The guards had been coming in every morning at 6:00 to take the mats and the blankets. Now they were leaving the mats. That’s also how I learned something else that I hadn’t known before, that when a boy or a girl is brought in to the detention center (there were girls there too, though I rarely saw them) he or she goes into automatic solitary confinement for five days. Twenty-three out of twenty-four hours locked in a cinderblock cell with no books, no paper, no pencil, no human interaction except a brief moment with the guard who brings the meals. An hour of television in the recreation area, then back to the cell. If a child does the time, gets out, and is brought back before the judge within two weeks, it’s double time, which means that it is possible for a child to spend fifteen days out of a month locked up alone. The thought that Justin was being hovered over by counselors and psychologists and lawyers and social workers, that he was being force fed mood stabilizers, taken to church against his will, handcuffed and humiliated, and all the time being locked up in a way that was designed to destroy any good any of that might do him made me sick at heart. And they knew. His lawyer, his social worker, his psychologist, they all knew. They weren’t bad people; they truly liked Justin and cared about him, but there were so many Justins in their files, so many children crying and pleading, so many children sullen and angry, so many children mute and hopeless, that they weren’t going to throw it all away on one child. They got angry at Justin for running, for setting things in motion again, for forcing them to choose again: him or my job. Him or me.
I was horrified and heartsick. I didn’t have a job to lose, but I was afraid of having my court appointment revoked and being taken off Justin’s case. I joined the crowd encouraging Justin to just suck it up and deal with it, but on the inside my admiration for him was growing. His habitual running seemed to me his way—clumsy, desperate, but effective–of hanging onto some sense of himself, of saying “I know that I’m worth more than this. I don’t know where I belong, but I know that I don’t belong here.”
After a year of trying to find someplace for Justin, it became clear that the first place Justin belonged was out of the foster care system entirely. So that’s how I became first his foster mother, and eventually his adoptive mother, and in a way that’s how this collective house came into being. My husband Bill didn’t want to take on the responsibility for another child—not only had he already raised two daughters, he’s a high school teacher and spends all his time with teenager. With Isabell and Margaret out of the house our relationship was showing all the cracks and fault lines that can develop over the course of a marriage. Bill and I separated, and my panicky, clumsy response to the prospect of becoming the single mother of an angry, frightened, vulnerable teenage boy was to invite other people in to try the experiment of collective living. The collective became the village that raised Justin, or perhaps more accurately accompanied him into adulthood. That’s not to say that it was always easy, that I didn’t ever wonder what I had gotten myself into (and that Justin didn’t wonder the same thing), that I didn’t ever make mistakes. I made a lot. But it was also from the very beginning full of funny, wild, exhilarating, tender moments. In the end it wasn’t simply that Justin belonged out of the foster care system. It was that he belonged with me. We belong together.