Even as I knew she was about to arrive at our front door, I struggled to conjure up empathic feelings for Katherine. I dragged my feet the whole way down the hallway, I didn’t even bother changing out of my worn-out slippers. In my time working with vulnerable children, I’ve met a few social workers who are the real deal. We have one of them on staff - they aren’t hard to miss - they can suspend moral judgement in the most polarizing circumstances. “You sold your daughter’s body in exchange for drugs?” they ask. “You must be in a lot of emotional pain.” they speculate.
Meanwhile, I’m in the corner stirring passive aggressive circles in my coffee.
I’m just not as good at thinking my way out of my own constraints. Our team had spent over a year trying to put Katherine’s five children back together. Five children she abandoned; five children she left exposed to unimaginable horrors. I first met her kids in September of 2013 when a police van rolled into our front yard.
Small children climbed out of the back: a twelve-year old, an eight-year-old, six, four, two. These kids were pretty far gone - I have to say - filthy, hungry, battered, expressionless, they had been on the streets. Their mom, Katherine, had left them in the home of a very disturbed step-dad, where they were burned, cut, starved and worse. Eventually they ran away. After trying and failing to locate Katherine, we turned our attention to the kids.
Early one morning I saw one of the siblings - the six-year old boy - in the backyard, standing on a chair, trying to clip something onto the clothes line. When I got closer I realized he had washed his stuffed-animal’s tiny red sweater and was hanging it out to dry. He owned my whole heart.
But these siblings weren’t ours; the custody paperwork was temporary. All of these thoughts were buzzing around as I opened front door to Katherine. She was the spitting image of her third born and she had a baby tied to her: baby number 6. Her stories terrorized me. She described being brutalized so badly during her last pregnancy that she left her husband, and she left her five children. Katherine told me she was 26. I must have looked surprised; six children, the oldest of them now 14?! “I was twelve when I married, and I got a baby,” she explained. But she didn’t owe me an explanation.
She got married and “got a baby” when she was 12. What were you doing, when you were twelve?
“I’m sorry for that”, I responded. In Swahili, the word for “sorry” is “pole”. It sounds lame and it kind of is, but it’s an expression that people use liberally here. You can bang your elbow and people will shriek, “Pole!”. You can miss the bus and people passing by will offer a sorrowful, “Pole.” You can have your own childhood ripped from you and spend your life abused by men and society alike and some American girl in slippers who knows nothing of your suffering will say, “Pole.”
But I was sorry. I was sorry for her suffering, for the hopelessness and violence she endured, and for thinking that I might have done things differently, if our roles were reversed. Our village in rural Kenya isn’t fair: we don’t have hotlines, we don’t have women’s shelters or many of the goods and services available to vulnerable women and children elsewhere. Katherine has been hurt, controlled, used, and oppressed since she was in third grade. She wants to change her story, but she needs our help.
Here's what I know: Katherine has a second chance at being with her children, and that makes me happier than a kid doing his teddy-bear's laundry. This will be a lot of work, though. We are starting from scratch. Katherine doesn't have job skills and she needs a great deal of parenting support. She also needs an apartment, she needs a stove, she needs a new set of clothes, blankets.
Will you help us put this family back together?