GREY STOOD QUIETLY next to the hospital bed. “Mrs. Jaspers, your baby has tested positive for cocaine.” Grey knew from experience that talking in a low voice helped hold back the negative emotions of a child’s removal, before anger and defiance from parents swept around him like a dangerous tempest. Mrs. Jaspers, a nineteen-year-old woman recently out of high school, glared at Grey. Her eyes grew larger in her upturned face, framed by tangled, matted purple hair. She wore an apologetic nose ring that swept to one side of her flared nostril and vibrated with each panicked inhalation she drew in.
“I repeat, Mrs. Jaspers, your baby has tested positive. I am from the Department of Social Services. I am here to take your baby to a safe environment.” Mrs. Jaspers bolted upright in her bed. She grabbed onto Grey with a gritty desperation to stop him from removing her baby.
“My baby ain’t on cocaine. How dare you say my baby is on drugs? I didn’t give no drugs to my baby. You cannot take my baby girl. We are waiting for her daddy to come see her. We are going to name her today. I need my baby to stay with me, because like I just told you, we’re waiting for her daddy to come see her.” The daddy, a twenty-one-year-old unemployed construction worker who married her when she tested positive for pregnancy, prowled the streets looking for cocaine after a three-day drinking binge.
Grey unclasped the mother’s hands and moved towards the door. Mrs. Jaspers jumped up, pulling out her intravenous tube, causing blood to spurt out of her arm. She howled loudly. Grey called in a police officer who waited tentatively in the corridor. The police officer’s presence did not deter the fiery mother from running around her hospital room in frantic leaps. The sickening odor of fresh blood permeated the room. Her hospital gown flew open, displaying the naked form of a young woman new to adulthood. Her tattoos, splayed across her torso, looked like colorful orbs of splattered paints, graffiti statements embroidered in flesh.
Grey felt his stomach grip in painful spasms. He thought of his daughter Olivia, also nineteen years-old, at an age of innocence, a time for dreaming, to be a youthful arrow pointed at the stars. As Grey watched Mrs. Jaspers lurch side-to- side in frenzied movements, he wondered how she came to this moment; losing her baby, being strung out on drugs, with a bleak future rising before her. Nurses ran in as the police officer restrained her, “Her stitches. Watch for her stitches,” one of them shouted.
“I don’t care about my stitches. I wish I could die. This man wants to take my baby away. I just had hours of pain to make my baby. You didn’t have that pain, you didn’t go through what I went through; you didn’t make my baby. You have no right to take my baby. How dare you?” The young woman screamed between loud ricocheting sobs. Her hands shook and her face turned ashen.
One of the nurses yelled, “Mrs. Jaspers, get in bed right now. Nurse Anne, please help me lift her into bed and get her to stop moving around. She has stitches that will tear, if they haven’t already. There, there, Mrs. Jaspers, we’ll have something for you right away.” The nurse patted the sheets down with trembling hands.
Mrs. Jaspers kicked furiously, as the officer restrained her. Two nurses and an aide helped pull her onto the hospital bed. Mrs. Jaspers screamed when the officer gripped her arms and hands. Another nurse came in and gave her a shot. Mrs. Jaspers looked out at a haze of blue uniforms surrounding her, as she shook uncontrollably, emitting a strange growling sound, before her sedative took effect.
The head nurse turned to Grey. “Tell me, if you know you’re going to remove babies, why don’t you come to the hospital and catch them yourself? I do not understand this. Why do you get here when the mother and baby are bonding, when the mother needs peace and quiet, so she can recover from her birthing ordeal? Now this mother is upset, and she may be at medical risk.” The nurse’s stern voice cut through Grey as he struggled to remain calm.
“It is procedure to test the baby first.”
“Can’t you offer the mother rehabilitation before you yank her baby away from her? Don’t you think that losing her baby will cause her to do more drugs?”
Grey cleared his throat before he spoke. “This mother refused treatment when we offered it to her. Now her baby must go through cocaine withdrawal. Her baby needs urgent medical attention. You know that. We alerted your unit before Mrs. Jaspers checked in.” Grey hated to defend department procedures.
“Give her a chance to heal now that she has a baby. You’re telling me you’d rather take this baby to strangers then let the baby stay with its mother?” The nurse’s face looked strained from all-night baby deliveries and haphazard nursing schedules.
“I’m sorry. It would be better for me to leave now and take the baby to safety as quickly as possible.” Grey turned away from her. The tight faced nurse followed Grey to the nursery. Grey met paramedics there, and they wheeled the incubator past angry nurses and doctors, accompanied by a somber, waxen-faced police officer. They continued downstairs to a waiting ambulance. After they loaded the incubator into the vehicle, the ambulance pulled away with blaring sirens, as paramedics rushed the newborn to a neonatal intensive care unit. When they hit a bump, the baby went into seizures. The baby needed urgent drug withdrawal treatment and further medical assessments, none of which the baby’s birth hospital was equipped for.
After the baby left, Grey’s heart raced, and he fought to catch his breath. He turned and ran back into the hospital. He burst into the bathroom, holding onto himself, after he locked the bathroom stall. His large frame huddled into a squirming ball, like a dying centipede wrapping around itself. He rubbed his salt-and-pepper hair and his shaky arms to comfort himself. Sweat poured off him in cold waves, and he felt sick and dizzy. He emptied his insides out, and then it was over. His stomach spasms eased, as he limped to the sink. He splashed cold water onto his face and washed himself. In the mirror, he saw his face staring back at him, a horror-mask drained of color.
Grey took the next three days off from work. He stayed home smoking pot and watching television. When Grey felt high, he fantasized going to the tropics and sailing. He imagined salt spray on his face and wind blowing through his hair. His fantasy calmed him down. Nothing else settled his frayed nerves.
Grey thought back to foster home placements during his eleven years of service. He thought of children who left abusive homes and were adopted by caring, committed people. As fear pressed closer, Grey questioned the meaning of his job. He saw kids yanked from parents in drug houses, doctors’ offices, and schools. Children screamed and cried for their mothers and fathers, the same parents who beat them, sold them, burned them or neglected them; it did not matter. Their children did not want to leave them. Parents walked out of courtrooms sobbing after they lost their kids. It was the same human drama, played out like an ugly, revolving kaleidoscope, during Grey’s eleven years on the job, except lately, the numbers of removals were skyrocketing.
G rey thought about parents who lost their children to Child Protective Services, and he wondered how they handled missing the daily unfolding of their children. He wondered if their mental illnesses and drug-induced stupors kept their grief away. He wondered what happened to parents’ love for their children. Where did it go when their children slipped out of their lives, never to return?
Grey felt an overwhelming loss. He sat in the shadows and struggled to hold back tears. Grey could not imagine losing his daughter, Olivia. Every day he marveled at his daughter’s beauty, her intelligence, and her courage. Olivia’s openness to life kept him moving forward, even though he himself felt like he was sleepwalking. His daughter Olivia looked like his wife Anne, whom he lost to a sudden death eight years before. Anne moved softly like a cat, her thin, apple-shaped figure tantalizing him from the moment he met her. Her thick, chestnut hair, like a rich mantel, fell over her shoulders, as she laughed with a child-like quality, that same quality that constantly stirred his hunger for her. Anne righted his world when she moved close to him, as she laughed and nibbled at him, or playfully tickled him. He longed for the silliness of her. Sometimes he heard her laughing when he walked down the hall, or bent down to pick up a newspaper.
He still waited for her, lying in the thick, inert, darkness; wishing she were next to him, yearning to reach out and touch the velvety outline of her warm body. Grey knew his daughter struggled with the loss of her mother. When her nineteen-year-old eyes turned distant and sad, he shied away from her. When he heard her crying in her bedroom, he tiptoed past her door, not daring to go near her, not daring to break open the wound again. Losing his wife was a gut-wrenching memory, still overpowering him. Anguish oozed through him like a tumultuous river, seeping over banks, rising always rising, towards the crest of his dread.
Grey was the toughest worker in the department. He pulled off horrific removals in his unit, and he never missed sleep over them. Until recently, he had no misgivings about removing children from their parents. But lately, he questioned his work and his sanity. He sensed sinister edges of his brain curling towards an ominous peril. Grey dreaded having another panic attack. He never knew when one would strike—the crushing fear, the desperation to breathe, the pouring sweat, the utter humiliation of its grip on him. He doubted if he could go on like this.
by Shelby Londyn-Heath
Grey and his co-workers find themselves in dangerous situations every day at work. Their social services jobs require them to confront irate parents who are on drugs or who are mentally unbalanced. Grey is a long-time social worker, one who is not afraid to snatch newborn babies from glazed-eyed mothers or grab abused children out of classrooms, to place them in foster care. But something happens to Grey, something he cannot put into words as he struggles to cope. When a new co-worker enters the department, she secretly devises ways to force Grey out of his job. He senses her ploy and his stress intensifies. He grows increasingly head-strong and defiant, but he fails to stop her from delivering the final crush in an unexpected, malevolent manner To challenge his co-worker, Grey must find his inner truth and his co-worker’s “Achilles Heel” in order to rise up to conquer her. One of them must be transformed or destroyed.