“¡Dame una chansa! (Give me a chance!)”
Winner of the 1999 International Labor Communications Association Max Steinbock Award
After viewing photos of the bruises on a seven-year-old girl, Monterey social worker Wren Atilano-Bradley understood why the children’s protective services department wanted to terminate parental rights immediately. Like many social workers, Atilano-Bradley had witnessed many abhorrent situations, but she had seldom seen a child as badly beaten. The child’s body was covered with belt-buckle bruises, and the mother was charged with felony abuse.
Atilano-Bradley prepared herself to meet the mother who had done this to her young child. But instead of encountering the anger and hostility of a vicious parent, she found a very emotional, young Mexican woman who immediately broke into tears. When Maria, the mother, realized that Atilano-Bradley spoke Spanish, she started pleading, “¡Dame una chansa!—Give me a chance! I’ll show you, I’ll prove to you I can change,” she begged. Atilano-Bradley’s heart opened to her and responded, “I told her that if she was serious, I’d work as hard as she worked. And we both worked really hard. She signed up for parenting classes and got into therapy right away. She asked for visits twice a week; usually they only visit once a week, but I said, ‘If you show up, I’ll show up.’” Atilano-Bradley remembers those visits and the attention Maria bestowed on her daughters. “She was so beautiful with those girls. She was like a little mother hen, cuddling them, grooming their hair, and cleaning their fingernails.”
So what had gone wrong? What had caused this mother to beat her daughter so badly?
Atilano-Bradley was the first person in the system to whom Maria, who speaks only Spanish, could really talk and explain her story. Everyone else had spoken to her through interpreters and talked to her only enough to fill out court forms. Now that she found someone she could talk to, she poured out her story.
When Maria was 19, her youngest daughter died, and then her husband was murdered. She left her two surviving daughters in Mexico and came to the United States to work in the fields so she could support them. But then she found out that her uncle was molesting the youngest daughter, Juanita. So she brought her daughters to the United States to protect them. But Juanita started having problems. Teachers complained that she was defiant, and that Maria couldn’t control her. Maria even took the child to a doctor, but he said that the girl was just acting out and Maria would have to learn how to control her better. Maria thought everyone was telling her to discipline the child more, and so Maria began beating Juanita.
Atilano-Bradley was sure Maria could be worked with and could be a good parent. The case plan called for therapy to calm her down and parenting classes to teach her to control her difficult child.
But Maria was not the only one to have trouble with Juanita. Within a few days of getting the case, Atilano-Bradley received a call from the foster home to pick up the daughters because the foster parents couldn’t control them. This was the third foster home to reject the kids.
Atilano-Bradley spent almost a week driving around with the kids in the back of her car, checking out different foster homes. Finally she turned to one of her select care providers, a Spanish-speaking grandmother who, like Maria, grew up in Mexico. The grandmother was especially good with challenging kids. The only problem was that Atilano-Bradley had previously placed a 14-year-old boy with the grandmother. The teenager fomented a neighborhood gang war and caught the foster home in the middle. After that, the grandmother decided she wanted only preschoolers. “I really had to use my social work skills and tug on her heart strings. I described the girls to her and how the mother was all alone and had no one to turn to. It was a hard sell,” Atilano-Bradley recalls.
Finding the right foster care placement for a child is a key element in the art of social work. This foster mother nurtured both the kids and the mother. Feeling relieved that her children were safe, Maria started to calm down and open up.
So what was really going on with Juanita, the defiant child? Atilano-Bradley instructed the foster mother to report in detail the girl’s behavior problems. The girl would roll her eyes and then urinate on the floor when people were talking to her. Atilano-Bradley finally put everything together and guessed what was going on: the child was having seizures. The doctors who had examined Juanita before didn’t speak Spanish and couldn’t get enough details from Maria’s description to understand what was happening. So Atilano-Bradley went with Maria and Juanita to the doctor. Her instinct turned out to be correct. As soon as the daughter was given seizure medication, she calmed down and her behavior became manageable.
Atilano-Bradley’s next task was to keep Maria from going to jail on the felony child abuse conviction. She spoke to the probation officer, who was understandably skeptical at first. “Did you see those photos?” the probation officer asked. “Yes,” Atilano-Bradley responded, “but you should see how loving she is with those kids.” Atilano-Bradley conveyed to the probation officer, and later to the court, the potential for change that she saw in Maria. “I felt like I was really going out on a limb with the department. Everyone thought I was crazy. If something happened to those kids, it would come back to me,” she recalls. With her recommendation, the court sentenced Maria to in-home detention for six months, which meant that every time Atilano-Bradley took Maria anywhere she had to get permission and then check in and out with her probation officer, a time-consuming process.
For Maria to become a self-sufficient mother, she needed to learn to function in her present culture. Mentoring clients is another social work task. Atilano-Bradley helped Maria through the system, taking her to doctor appointments, showing her how to get health insurance, and explaining how to be assertive in the bureaucracy. “Letting clients see how difficult raising a child and functioning in the system is for everyone is an important part of empowering them to be good parents, so they don’t get overwhelmed thinking that they are the only ones who have trouble,” Atilano-Bradley explained.
Through therapy Maria was able to come to grips with her troubled past and learn how to control the anger and frustration she had suppressed. According to Atilano-Bradley, Maria was like a sponge, soaking up every bit of knowledge and experience she was offered.
Today Maria nearly comes to tears as she reflects on her past. “In my home I wasn’t abused,” she said. “In fact my father never hit us, and he even told us girls to never let any man hit us. But when I was 13, a car ran into our house and killed my five brothers. After that my mother went crazy, and we had to move away from the area because she couldn’t be near the house. She was never okay after that. That is when my dad got very sick and would even cough up blood. I took care of him for two years until he died because my mother was incapable.”
Shortly after her father died, Maria married and began a new family. “I had a good husband and a good marriage.” But unfortunately her happiness was short lived. When Maria was 19, her youngest daughter died and her husband was murdered at a fiesta. “All those things in so short a time, I couldn’t handle them,” she explained. “I had never worked before, so now I had to go to work in the grape fields. My mother would wake me up and say, ‘Come on m'ija’— and I would sit on the edge of my bed crying, ‘I can’t do this one more day, I just can’t do this.’ Finally I came to California so I could work here and make a better life.
“I never had anyone to talk to about this and I think it built up inside me, the anger, the fear, the nervousness. So I would get frustrated and yell and hit my kids. The first time I told anyone about this was when I saw the therapist. Every time I talked to her about it, I felt more liberated from my pain and suffering.
“I know I committed errors. I made a mistake, but I have changed. The therapist taught me not to get so frustrated, and when I was feeling frustrated or angry, how to do things so I wouldn’t expose my children to that. Some times I would go to the resource center and leave my children there if I felt like I was going to explode.
“I come from a culture that does a lot of yelling and screaming. That is how we were raised to take care of our kids. But when I talked to the social worker and started taking parenting classes, I started to understand that you can take care of your children without yelling and screaming. You can become a more united family by talking things out and trying to understand the problems. You can still have discipline with your children by taking away privileges, and that way they learn about having consequences to their bad behavior. I don’t have to get angry at them.
“Right now my life is very good because I have all of my children with me. They are almost adults, yet when I tell them that they can’t do certain things because they are dangerous, or they can’t go to dances in San Jose because there is a danger, they listen. We are very involved as a family. If one of us wants to go to the beach, we all go to the beach. If one of us wants to go to the park, we all go to the park. We go as a family. I’m very happy with how my life has turned out, and I know it is that way because of all the help I got and the parenting skills I learned. My family is the most important thing to me. We are all we have, so we have to be together.”
Maria is one of Atilano-Bradley’s inspirational cases. The case closed almost five years ago, but they still keep in contact. Maria has become a booster for children’s services, referring her friends in need. She said, “When I meet with my friends or talk to the neighbors over the fence, and they tell me about problems with their kids, I tell them, ‘No, you don’t have to do that. Here is where you should go. Go talk to these people before you explode. They will help you.’ Because that is what happened to me. I felt like there was no one there to listen to me. Now I know there is someone there.”
But will there be someone there for Maria’s friends and neighbors? Maria was fortunate. Atilano-Bradley fears that if she had a client like Maria today, with the high caseloads, the outcome might have been different. She was able to see Maria as often as every other day, spending several hours per visit. Workers don’t have that much time anymore.
Maria and her family were not the only beneficiaries of Atilano-Bradley’s efforts. Maria’s case required about six months of reunification services and then six months of family maintenance services. Had Maria gone to jail, the case would probably have taken at least 2 ½ years. Maria could have been so devastated from incarceration that her children would have spent the rest of their childhoods in foster care. The total cost to the taxpayers could easily have exceeded $100,000, and the family could have been shattered rather than healed.