When my son Shane was three years old, maybe four, his father bought him a mini-motorcycle. The mini-motorcycle was green, and Shane, who then went by his middle name David, learned to drive it by circling a shopping center parking lot somewhere in North Texas.
The first time Shane took the mini-motorcycle out on the road, maybe the second, he drove it under a tractor-trailer. He fell off and broke his am. His parents took him to the hospital, which reported his accident to Child Protective Services, which opened an investigation.
In a sense, this is when my son was born.
It’s December 16, 2016, and Shane should be eating his morning bowl of Reese’s Puffs. He is fifteen years old, and he has lived with me and my husband Howard, an English professor and attorney, respectively, in upstate South Carolina for slightly over a year. In this year, Shane has grown three inches and put on twenty pounds. He is still thin, but his pediatrician is no longer alarmed.
My son reaches across the kitchen table for the pad of paper and pen we use to make grocery lists. “I will draw it for you,” he says. And I am not sure whether he means the mini-motorcycle, tractor-trailer, or broken arm.
He draws what looks like a UPS truck jacked up on Slinkies. It’s the illustration of a much younger child who can’t yet represent the dimension of things. The rectangular door resembles the front door to a house. “I used to draw these a lot,” he says – and by “a lot,” I know he has forgotten the origin of our conversation.
This story of the mini-motorcycle, the tractor-trailer, and the broken arm will nonetheless resurface several more times over the next few months.
“I want a mini-motorcycle for Christmas,” he will plead.
“Those are for kids,” I will reply, when in actuality I know nothing about mini-motorcycles – who rides them, what they cost, and what they are, exactly.
“But they aren’t!” And to prove this point he will open his laptop and show me a YouTube video of an overweight adult male riding a mini-motorcycle across an empty parking lot in a state that could well be Texas. There’s also a semi parked on the edge of the lot. The man on the mini-motorcycle nearly topples as he turns to avoid the trailer.
“Shane, that man is an adult. Mini-motorcycles are for children. People your age want cars.”
But he will not hear me. He will tell me again about the green machine his father once bought him and how he slipped and fell and broke his arm.
I check Shane’s medical records. One of many sets of records – legal, educational, dental, therapeutic, placement – stored in a brown banker’s box under the desk in my home office. Shane’s caseworker mailed this box to our house in October of 2015. This box is the archive of what can be known for certain.
Delivery: normal. Height and weight: normal. Infant fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea: all normal.
Normal, too, the childhood accidents. At two-and-a-half, Shane suffers a contusion on his left index finger. The physician’s report says that my son “hit a brick.” A few days after his third birthday, Shane sustains lacerations on his face from a “dog attack.”
At three-and-a-half, Shane presents with a possible broken bone. The doctor has slashed vertical lines over the left forearm of the adult androgyne pictured on the evaluation form. He has scribbled “DEFORMITY” next to the slashes. Under “Context,” he has scribbled something more stereotypically illegible. My son “fell from a” something. It looks like “gland attack.” My guess is “plant stand.”
Radiological and surgical reports confirm fractures of both the radius and ulna: “The patient was brought to the waiting room, and general anesthesia was obtained.” The arm was manipulated. A cast applied. “She [sic] tolerated the procedure well.”
The discharge report identifies Shane as a “three-year-old male who fell off a trampoline.”
Shane is mistaken. The Child Protective Services (CPS) division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) did not open an investigation into his family following his mini-motorcycle mishap.
CPS followed Shane from birth.
In the cab of my Toyota Tacoma, as we drive back from Burger King, I tell Shane why as best I can, which is not well. Most of what know I learned through the CPS case reports appended to the affidavit of the forensic psychiatrist who examined Shane days after he was removed from his mother’s care at age five. Sometimes, these reports proceed in reverse chronological order. Sometimes not. All are hastily typed, full of typos and abbreviations. I often do not understand the stories they purport to tell about my son’s past, and his family’s. Most of these stories are also not mine to tell.
Partially reconstructed from the archive:
Shane receives his first psychological assessment at age three years and four months. He wears corduroy jeans, a green shirt, and a jacket. He walks freely around the office. He picks up a rubber lizard. He picks up a container of potpourri and carries it over to his mother.
“Hi, Shane, how are you?”
“I wanna see my daddy.”
Shane’s mother and father have separated. Shane refuses to eat. Current symptoms include a lack of consideration for others, mood swings, painting fingernails and toenails, hyperactivity.
Shane has five siblings, three of whom were taken into state custody after his mother tested positive for methamphetamines.
It is snowing outside, for the first and likely only time this year. Shane rolls marbles on the floor.
“Shane, have you ever seen snow before?”
My son picks up a shell. “That big!”
“How old are you?”
“Three and a half!”
“What’s your whole name?”
Some of what Shane says is unintelligible.
My son points to a bag of toy animals: “What’s that? Deer. Duck.” He squeezes each toy, lifts the bag over his head: “Gonna dump it.”
Our adoption worker, the Charleston-bred Southern belle president of a small, local placement agency, forwards me and Howard profiles of children from Ohio, Texas, and Colorado. These states, she informs us, are more likely to place foster children with same-sex couples. We have no idea if this is true, or if these are the states with which her agency simply has established relationships.
The profiles arrive as a single PDF. Someone in the agency has strung them together, often upside down.
Some of the profiles are minimal. A fuzzy image of the child or sibling group. First names only. Birthdates. A few of the pages have curlicue black, blue, or pink borders around them.
Other profiles describe affectionate, curious children who love science and reading and helping in the kitchen. These children are enrolled in the fifth grade. They get A’s and B’s. They are bilingual. They love spaghetti.
Other profiles hint at the reasons for state custody. These children have been diagnosed with autism or fetal alcohol syndrome. They have HIV. They need to be in homes without animals. They need to be only children.
In his picture, my son sits behind a desktop computer, smiling up at the camera. His head is shaved, and his wide mouth consumes most of his pale face. He looks like a lizard stretching its neck to the sun. He needs to eat something. He wears a black hoodie and a white t-shirt and giant headphones that cup his neck.
As advertised, Shane is an energetic young man with an outgoing spirit. His favorite food is pizza. His least favorite food is beans or anything resembling a bean. He also does not eat rice. He loves video games and games in general and anything imaginative. He loves card games and board games. He seeks positive and negative attention. He knows when people are watching him. He likes mythology. He likes to draw. He is enrolled in the seventh grade.
Howard and I ask his caseworker for more information: “Has he been in adoptive placement before?”
“Yes, once. But they disrupted after Shane locked himself in the bathroom and shaved off his eyebrow.”
At age fourteen, after nine years in foster care, Shane wins the adoption lottery because this story makes me smile. Because when I was his age, I shaved my legs to learn what it felt like to kick like a fish.
Howard and I do not buy Shane a mini-motorcycle for Christmas. He is fifteen-and-a-half, and we buy him a moped for three hundred dollars off Craigslist. I drive an hour north to test the green machine in a Walmart parking lot. I have never ridden a moped before, and I nearly topple as I turn to avoid the pallets of mulch and topsoil.
Here is what I know for certain:
1) Shane hit that brick. Told to turn off the Xbox and do his homework, my son put his fist through the living room drywall.
2) Shane has never said anything about a dog attack. Shane says the family dog gave birth to a litter of eight puppies. Seven were adopted, but his mother left the eighth out in the rain, and it drowned.
3) Incarcerated, Shane’s father expressed no interest in retaining parental rights.
Outside the Anderson County DMV, where we have come to apply for a moped license, Shane changes the story. It wasn’t a tractor-trailer. He never said tractor-trailer. It was a white pickup truck like the Dodge Ram parked beside the dumpster. And it was a real motorcycle. He was on the back, and his dad was driving.
Another variation: “When I got back from the hospital, I asked my mom, I said, where’s my mini-motorcycle? She took me to a pawn shop. That’s how I know she pawned it.”
Like most children who have spent time in the foster care system, Shane’s memory slips, confounds, and reconstructs the events of the past. What Shane knows about his past, or what knowledge means in this context, is often indeterminate. Shane knows his mother did not take drugs. He knows she did. He knows she could not feed him. He knows he had plenty to eat.
Shane also knows his mother took better care of him than the State of Texas did. And in this he may be correct.
According to DFPS’s own reporting, the State of Texas currently assumes responsibility for over 25,000 children between the ages of zero and seventeen. In 2017 alone, they removed north of 16,000 children from their homes. The advertised hope for almost all of these children is swift reunification with their family (within an average of one year), or, in cases where reunification is not possible, adoption by a close relative (within an average of two years). While they wait for these happier outcomes, children move from one foster home to another – changes most often prompted by the emergence of unmanageable “behaviors,” from bedwetting to stealing, fighting to eyebrow shaving.
Removed from his mother’s care at the age of five, Shane changed placements thirteen times prior to age fourteen. He lived in standard foster homes, therapeutic foster homes, group homes, and residential treatment facilities. Like almost all foster children, Shane was diagnosed, re-diagnosed, and medicated, increasingly heavily. No therapist lasted longer than one placement. His education suffered. My son repeated first grade and, since seventh grade, has tested at a third-grade level.
It’s the fall of 2017 and Shane tells his teacher, Ms. Young, that he’s in a gang. Sometimes he’s the leader. They’re called the Skreet Killas, and they jump people into the gang at the school bus stop on the corner of Brown and Mechanic. The Skreet Killas hang out in the dilapidated oil mill in downtown Pendleton, South Carolina, population 3,115. My son is the only Skreet Killa with motorized transportation. He drives a green moped.
Had Howard and I not adopted Shane, he likely would have aged out of the Texas foster care system at the age of eighteen. His caseworker likely would have helped him find a job and a place to live. But Shane has no job training. He likely will not earn a high school diploma or a GED. To subtract twenty-one from thirty-five, he draws a thirty-five-legged centipede and then erases twenty-one of its legs. Like fifty percent of his teenage foster-care peers, Shane would have been homeless within eighteen months of emancipation.
Shane rarely lets slip any reference to his nine years in foster care. Driving past the Clemson University dairy cows, he mentions “the people with the farm.” His friend Michael lives in a house “like Ms. Washington’s.” Shane supposes I know what he refers to – as if I, his father, share these memories, or at least have committed to memory the material in the archive under my desk. He grows agitated if I ask for clarification. He needs my recollection to be his.
But the material in that archive cannot provide me with the recollection he wants. Outside of psychological reports and therapy notes that bespeak an “unengaged and distractible child, consistent with previous observations,” the files divulge little about how the events of his past etched themselves into and then erased themselves from his memory, sometimes partially, sometimes wholly.
Possibly Shane would be a more reliable historian had the State of Texas left him in his mother’s care. As Chris Bean documents in To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, the State often traumatizes foster children while attempting to forestall or ameliorate the trauma they endure at the hands of their parents. However damaged by neglect, malnutrition, physical or sexual abuse – however terrible the original parenting – foster children, removed from their homes, suffer that loss’s “primal psychic battering,” only to have that loss repeated, perpetuated by a system that passes them from placement to placement. The economic and social effects of all this battering have been well discussed. My interest here is the effect of all this abuse on my son’s memory – its montage of mini-motorcycles and tractor-trailers, broken arms, trucks, and dead dogs.
Shane shows no fear of our three rescue dogs, but from time to time he “throws fists” at them – tries to scare them, to claim superiority as the alpha of their pack.
It’s March 14, 2008, and Shane reports for his first session with a new counselor. He has recently moved into a new foster home. This session takes place at school and lasts approximately forty-five minutes.
Shane presents as well-groomed and cooperative. He is hyperactive and avoids making eye contact. His speech is normal. He flies between ideas.
“I just want to live all day long and not die,” Shane says. “I think about death a lot and I don’t want Rick to die and I don’t want my mom to die.”
“Do you think about your mother a lot?”
“She lives in an apartment.”
“What about your father?”
“Rick let me drive in California when I was six and I stayed on the road and Rick just pushed the pedal.”
“Let’s talk about school.”
Shane says his teacher misunderstood. He was joking. His mother does not eat poop. She eats real food.
Shane is excited because today is his roommate’s birthday and they are going to the bowling alley after school. Shane wants to knock all the pins down.
Shane knows better what to tell any therapist than any therapist knows what to tell him.
The foster care system uses medication to manage the behaviors and disorders it induces in its charges. According to the Government Accountability Office, children in foster care take far more psychotropic medications than their peers outside the system.
Yet it would be too easy to say that foster children are simply over-prescribed medications. More accurately, foster children are over-prescribed and under-treated, psychically battered in ways that meds can help numb or conceal. These medications are often as necessary for the foster child’s survival as they are symptomatic of a systemic failure. For in the absence of a stable family environment, sedation helps offer a chance of adoption.
My son’s story isn’t mine to tell. But most of his stories are lies.
From foster mother’s observation log, April 2008: Shane is impulsive, difficult to control. He requires constant redirection and can’t stay on task. He runs around and screams for no reason. I have to take Shane with me everywhere I go. He asks me every day to adopt him. We have taken all the mirrors out of his room and make him get dressed in the laundry room where there are fewer distractions. His favorite color is purple, and he prefers playing with girl toys. He does not eat beans and claims he is allergic to beans. He is not allergic to beans. He is no longer allowed to go out to eat with the family. He lies when reprimanded and will say “I forgot” or “I didn’t hear you.” At school, Shane disrupts the class. He hit a student who hit him back and did not understand that he was to blame for starting the fight. He must be supervised while brushing his teeth or he will not brush them. I left Shane to shower by himself and came back to find he had soaked the floor in water. He was jumping up and down in front of the mirror. He throws his clothes at people. He touches people, grabs their arms and puts his hands in their faces. He has not been able to attend church due to his disruptive behavior. He started running around the classroom during the lesson. He asks when he is going to see his mother again. He complains that people are mean to him and that he does not have any friends.
In March of 2018, my friend Duane and I drive from my home in Pendleton, South Carolina, to his in Lubbock, Texas. From Dallas, we detour north to Sherman, Texas, population 41,567, the industrial mill town where Shane was born. The town motto is “Classic Town, Broad Horizon.” The median household income is $34,211. In one instance of the cliché, a railroad track divides the town’s middle from its lower class.
We have come here to see the house Shane’s mother listed as her residence when a jury terminated her parental rights in 2009. From Facebook, I know that his mother moved to Oklahoma, worked at a meat packing plant, married the man whom Shane sometimes mistakes as his biological father, and watched him die of cancer in the summer of 2017. She decorated his grave with a picture of a Harley-Davidson and a Mars bar.
The house itself is rickety, dilapidated. A two-story, white-shingle home with a wrap-around porch. The foundation is crumbling, and the house slopes to the left. A refrigerator and an oven sit outside on the dirt of the front yard. And as Duane and I watch from the car, an old lady in elastic-waist shorts comes out of the door to beat a rug. One block north is the Dollar General where Shane says his mother worked and bought meth from a high school dealer.
Shane sometimes says he’s from Dallas, sometimes from Sherman. I now understand the slippage – this move in his memory between a dried-up industrial town and the urban epicenter of all subsequent foster placements. Shane wants to be from somewhere that’s not here: somewhere other than this town of arid dumpsters and abandoned mills. He wants a family that never lived in this house.
My son tells me we need to have a serious talk – a man-to-man heart-to-heart. I carry my nighttime coffee cup of cereal to the kitchen table and he sits across from me, hand on cheek.
“I’m tired of living like this,” he says, “just coming home from school and beating my meat and watching TV.”
“What do you mean,” I ask, ignoring his bid for negative attention.
“I mean, I need a dirt bike.”
Beam, Chris. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care. Mariner Books, 2014.
Will Stockton is a Renaissance scholar, creative writer, and translator living in South Carolina. With D. Gilson, he is the author of the 331/3 volume on dc Talk’s Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury, 2018) and the co-editor of the forthcoming volume 33 1/3: The B-Sides. His other books include Members of His Body: Shakespeare, Paul, and a Theology of Nonmonogamy (Fordham University Press, 2017) and Playing Dirty: Sexuality and Waste in Early Modern Comedy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). His essays and translations have appeared in journals including The Bennington Review, Kenyon Review Online, Waxwing, and Foglifter. For more information, visit willstockton.info.