When the social worker popped open her trunk the stench of the smoke was almost more than we could stand. It was emitting from…
When the social worker popped open her trunk the stench of the smoke was almost more than we could stand. It was emitting from the two large trash bags that contained Randy’s clothes. There was also a small bicycle and a pair of cowboy boots. Together she and I dragged everything over to my car and jammed it into my trunk. Then we said our goodbyes. They shook hands without him looking up and he didn’t watch as she drove out of the parking lot. We got into my car without either of us saying a word. He buckled into his seat belt before I could ask him to and we drove away, the only sounds coming from the traffic.
As we turned into my neighborhood he shifted his body slightly in my direction.
“Is it okay if I call you Ma?”
“Yes, of course. What should I call you?”
“My name is Randall Joseph Wells, Jr. They call me RJ.”
“But what do you want to be called?”
“Call me Randy.”
And with that I pulled into the driveway and we both got out of the car. I had popped open the trunk but decided to leave it open to air out a little before attempting to go through Randy’s stuff.
When we got inside I introduced him to Mickey, my Yorkshire Terrier. This made Randy smile and open up. At some point I asked him if any of the clothes in the trash bags still fit him, to which he shook his head “no” and I nodded. He added that the bike was too small for him as well.
I silently vowed that he would leave my house someday with boxes, not bags of clothes that fit him, as well as a bicycle he could ride.
Becoming a foster parent was something I had felt called to do. There were so many children in need. My house was large enough and my schedule flexible enough so I signed up for the required classes. They warned me and the other prospective foster parents of the pitfalls that lay ahead. The children were from dysfunctional, chaotic households. Many had witnessed violence or drug and alcohol abuse. All were victims of neglect. They could be taken out of our home on a moment’s notice. Some would lie about what we said and did in our homes and their complaints would be taken seriously. Others would attempt to injure themselves or run away during the night. These children had suffered humiliation and indignities we could not imagine and would be scarred for life.
When asked if anyone wanted to leave this first meeting, all of us agreed to stay.
There were endless visits to my house over the coming weeks. All medications, even aspirin had to be kept under lock and key. The fireplace had to have a special gate installed so no one could crawl inside. My porch swing needed repairs. I would need to take a lifesaving course because I had a hot tub in the back yard. My dog would need to sleep in my room, with the door closed for at least a month. And we were never to allow a child in our care to even sit on our bed, or us on theirs. The rules were strict and non-negotiable and I understand them because I had already been a classroom teacher for six years at that time.
Randy and I spent the weekend getting to know each other. We shared stories about our lives and I developed a solemn face for when he told me stories that shocked me. On Sunday we went to my church. I drove him through the parking lot and pointed to a small building with toys in front.
“This will be your new school tomorrow, Randy. It’s going to be so much fun for you here.”
He craned his neck to take it all in. Then he sat back in his seat, contemplating his next words.
“What if they don’t like me because of my family and what my father did to me and my mom?”
“Randy, let’s go inside the church so you can meet everyone. They are going to love you and you’ll see what Sunday School is all about. And you know I will never let anyone say or do anything bad or unkind to you while you’re with me, right?”
He smiled and we went inside. I had called the Pastor the previous week when I knew Randy was coming to live with me. He and the others were thrilled to be included in his life during the time we would be together. Sunday School went very well and Randy had never felt so much love and acceptance, and from people who did not know him.
Over the next few weeks Randy became more comfortable in his new surroundings. He and I had a routine and a rhythm that worked. He wanted to learn how to cook and I encouraged his interest in this area. We began with a simple recipe I had for chocolate cream filling. Then we moved on to scrambled eggs and toast. He wanted to learn how to make fried chicken “just like Colonel Sanders” and I promised to teach him what I knew.
My friends and family embraced Randy with open arms as well. They dubbed him “the boy who made everyone smile.” When he was at school or with the social worker or child psychologist they would ask me to share more about what had happened that resulted in him being taken away from his parents and placed in the foster care system. The story became more difficult for me to share over time because I was getting more and more attached to this boy who had melted my heart.
Randy’s father was an alcoholic and addicted to crack cocaine. His mother was an alcoholic but did not take drugs. There had been several visits from the police over the past year when neighbors heard them arguing and then fighting physically. Each time they had left the scene without making an arrest or calling social services because they believed the situation did not call for further action on their part. That all changed one Saturday afternoon when the screaming became so loud the neighbors feared the worst.
When the police arrived they found Randy’s father in an uncontrollable rage. He had beaten Randy’s mother and knocked out a couple of her teeth. Randy jumped in to protect his mother and got caught up in the violence when he was thrown to the ground just as the police car pulled up in front of their apartment building.
The police report said that Randy was taken away because his mother was so inebriated she could not walk straight or give the officers her full name. His father was arrested for assault and taken to jail. Randy was initially placed in the care of his aunt until her teenage son sexually abused him a few days later and he was pulled from their home.
My social worker gave me the report to read in her office one day. It was difficult to read and made me angry — at Randy’s parents, his aunt, and even the police. And looking at the photos were almost more than I could bear. Randy’s handsome little face all beat up, with one eye swollen and blood caked on his now rosy cheeks. All these years later I can still see this image in my mind. He was wearing a green shirt with giraffes on it. This made him appear younger than his five years. I learned that day that it had been Randy’s 5th birthday when this all happened.
The child psychologist who had been assigned to Randy’s case met with both of us for the first fifteen minutes each week, then alone with Randy, and then alone with me for fifteen minutes at the end of our session. She explained the post traumatic effect of Randy’s neglect and subsequent beating. I learned how to help him work through the hurt and anger so he could return to his parents some day and build a new, healthier relationship with both of them.
Part of the therapy we practiced at home was in the early evening. I would run the tub for him and he would get in and gather his toys. I would then go into the family room to read or listen to some music. The rule was that Randy had to keep talking loud enough for me to hear that he was okay. But the time was his to relax and think and play with his toys.
He was a natural with this. He role played and shared stories. One toy would be his father and another represented his mother. He was the biggest bathtub toy, a yellow plastic lion that roared his words.
“Stay away from me and my mother!” he would demand. “You’ve been drinking a six-pack and we don’t want you here.”
Then there would be violent splashing and a guttural sound that I figured out was Randy mustering the courage to go after his father. After a few minutes of this he would call for me.
“He’s dead, Ma. I’m ready to get out.”
In the beginning I would ask him how his father had died, this time. It varied, with death by stabbing, drowning, gunshots, and beatings. I finally stopped asking, but always listened when he wanted to share.
The Kindergarten at the church was a blessing for everyone involved. They told me after the first week he was behind academically and socially, but was welcome to stay. When I asked for more details they told me that his neglect had been severe and that he was not familiar with any children’s stories. He had never played with kids his age and was awkward in forming relationships. Over the next few weeks I helped him catch up with stories and games and play dates and life experiences. Randy took it all in and blossomed in the process.
His mother was given one hour a week for a supervised visit. We would go to the social worker’s office after school on Wednesdays and she would be waiting in the lobby. The first time this setup caught me by surprise. Randy was cold to her and called me “Mommy” loud enough so she could hear. He crawled into my lap and said he wanted to go home.
I sat him up straight and said, “Randy, your mom has taken two buses to get here today. She hasn’t seen you in more than a month and wants to know that you’re doing okay with me helping her out right now. Why don’t you give her a hug and tell her you love her. That would be a nice thing for you to do, don’t you think?”
It took a few minutes and a little more prodding before he got up and went over to her. We were all crying by then and I hoped I had said and done the right thing. One thing was for sure — Randy’s mother and I had bonded in a way that only mothers can experience. At the end of the hour they spent together they both emerged with smiles on their faces. As we left I felt like I needed to say one more thing to her.
“Thank you for trusting me to take care of your son for a little while. He’s a wonderful boy and I promise to take the best care of him that I possibly can.”
She smiled at me, but was not able to get any words out.
Randy did not talk about their visit. When I gently asked he changed the subject. Then we stopped at the grocery story and went home to have dinner and then his bath. The toy he used to represent his mother did all the talking. She said she was sorry for letting his father hurt him. She promised to never let it happen again. She told him how much she loved him. Randy never answered her pleas for forgiveness, at least not that evening.
Weekends were busy for us. Randy was now playing T-Ball and had been assigned to the Dodgers team at the park. All of the boys were five or six and all of them had experience playing catch, watching ball games, and being coached by their father. All of them except for Randy. The boys and their fathers exhibited super powers with the kindness, patience, and guidance they shared with him.
It would be a year before Randy’s mother would be eligible to get her son back. She had promised a judge she would divorce his father, but most of us didn’t believe that would happen because of the powerful bond they shared. When it was finally time for her to find a suitable apartment that would meet the requirements set forth by the offices of social services it was obvious she would need some help. I sought out the assistance of people I worked with and those who attended our church and they came through for us in a big way. She was speechless when I told her about the furniture, clothing, toys, and even a used car that they had donated.
The month before Randy was to leave my home I applied for him to go to a Charter school for families going through crisis of any kind. He would be guaranteed bus service through the 6th grade, no matter where in the County they might move. He was accepted and I thought of this as my gift to Randy and his family.
I would love to tell you that everything worked out well for Randy after he returned to his family. I’d love to share that his father got off the drugs and started attending AA meetings. I would be thrilled to say that he and his family had a fresh start and were able to move forward with their lives. I can’t tell you any of these things because they would not be true. He did leave my home with a shiny new bike that was just the right size, and two boxes of clothes and shoes that were just a bit too big.
This article was originally published on my site at https://mondaymorningmellow.com/randy-the-boy-who-made-us-smile/.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, dreaming of excellence in all things and kindness in every corner of the world, and connecting with humans as a way to understand myself and the world more fully and with greater meaning.