First smile

The second two days of our work we were in the field. Day one we went to a crisis center to assess children. The Crisis Center is where children go when the police pick them up for abuse and neglect in their family. Once the crisis center has them the social services department has 48 hours to follow up and go to court. The court then decides if the department takes jurisdiction or if the children go home. It does not sound like there are any services for birth families.

We arrived with our assessment forms and were ready to work. Like any institution I have ever been in, the smells overwhelm you, stale urine. The center was nice and had nanny’s that seemed to genuinely care and know about the children. The first kids I saw were two 1 year olds (?) sitting against the wall completely somber. They just stared, not at me but through me. So I sat near them on the floor and used candy as a bribery. They took the sucker but kept the somber look. I tried some pictures… I took a picture of the two of them and then showed them. Usually this a sure fire way to get a smile. Nope. I sat for about 30 minutes touching their hands, being very non confrontational… still nothing.

Slowly some of the older kids started arriving from school and the little ones followed them into the bigger play area where they were given a small meal. One of the 6 year old girls was feeding a little boy. I learned they were siblings and when they arrived she would not leave his side. I was observing the kids from afar and writing down my observations (because a white English speaking woman asking a 5 year old questions is not going to work so well) and then began to color and play with them. As they gained more confidence with me, we started doing some fine and gross motor activities. I would make notes on the assessment forms, but they were so black and white. It is important to know how they interact with each other, how they respond to direction. I learned how long they had been here and what brought them to the center. I will never be desensitized to these stories. Ever. Children being dropped on their heads, left alone for days, burned by boiling water during a fight between her mom and boyfriend.

As we were playing, talking and assessing, my stone faced 1 year old started looking at me, with eye contact. She then allowed me to color with her. Finally I was able to hold her. She snuggled into my arms like she had wanted to be there the entire time. She found my phone and started scrolling though it (pretty impressive for an 18 month old child!) She accidentally turned on the music and then instantly started to dance. Her little head was bobbing and shoulders were pumping. She started trying to sing along. She smiled. I later learned that was the first smile the staff had ever seen. She spent then next hour on my lap as I worked with other kids.

At one point I put her down to do something with another child. As I sat on the floor she slowly worked her way over to me, shyly but very intentional. She was back on my lap quickly and I realized I was going to be with her the rest of the day. Which was really fine. We danced, we made silly faces, other kids came over and we all played together. The older girls loved it when I shook my hair in front of my face and they parted it back to where it belonged. I think we did that for 20 minutes. We had one final dance party before we had to leave and Jill, Adey and I were a sweaty mess, I was covered in pee from leaking diapers and was likely exposed to all kids of lice or scabies or ring worm, but I made a child smile. I danced with children who have no music. I was able to help write good assessments so that these children can be matched with the right families (if the right families are out there).

I learned for a few hours, what it is like to be a social worker in Botsheblo South Africa. No resources, no control…I don’t know what will happen to those children. As I left and put my new friend down in front of some toys her face turned blank again. There are foster families in the area, but many of them do it for the money. Will these kids find the right home? With they be returned to parents who can’t care for them? So many questions and so many unknown futures.


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