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Stuck In A System

Erin Butler

An encounter I will never forget with a girl who seemed forgotten.

Last year I walked into a psych ward to talk to a girl named Sarah. Four locked doors later, I was sitting in a room that was well-lit but seemed cold and too sanitary to feel like a home to anyone. Finally, the door opened and a girl entered wearing a purple sweatshirt and her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. The moment I saw her I realized that coming alone was a mistake. She was incredibly angry. She slumped down in a chair and stared at me furiously. "When am I going home?" Her tone was sharp. I quickly assessed my situation.

Here I was, a psychology major interning for the semester, working for a social worker who was too busy to meet her new "case." And here she was, a 15-year-old girl in the custody of the state, living in an institution and battling mental illness without the support of a family. I looked down at my list of questions I was planning to use to "get to know her" and they suddenly seemed ridiculous. She wanted to get out of the psych ward. Her social worker was supposed to be a voice for her in court to help her do just that, to help her work through her mental illness caused by years of horrific abuse and help her go home. But Sarah was one of over 4,500 kids in Utah that were in the custody of the state last year . A hiring freeze in the Department of Child and Family Services meant that Sarah's social worker was assigned to 18 other cases. It meant that there were days when kids were forgotten, a name on a folder, tossed into a pile. On this particular day, it meant that there was no social worker coming to meet her, just me, unqualified and feeling incredibly naive.

Sarah's head was tilted downward, but she was still looking at me. I smiled and tried not to let my voice shake as I spoke, "I just wanted to come meet you and introduce myself." The words didn't match the feeling in the room. My voice was falsely high-pitched and it bounced off the cold walls a little too loudly. She deepened her scowl and I felt even more shaken as our conversation continued:

"When am I getting out of here?"

"I'm not sure."

"Well, can I at least have my shoes back?"

"Where are your shoes?"

"They took them. I want my shoes back."

"Um, I can ask about that."

It turned out that Sarah couldn't have her shoes back, and she wasn't going home for a while. When a kid is in the custody of the state, the social worker becomes his or her legal guardian. To me, the word guardian is supposed to mean something significant, a protector, even a savior. To Sarah, having a guardian must have meant something different, a blur of strangers trying to decide what was best for her based on behavior reports and prescriptions. It probably meant being stuck in a system that would never feel like a home.