contains references to assault, drug use, death of a parent, and child abuse.
When we spotted her, she sat in the corner. A tiny child holding a doll, she picked its poofed hair with the ferocity of potential future trichotillomania. Her skin’s patches of white and darker tan contrasted with the doll’s color somewhere in between. Hair cascaded down her shoulders in different textures than the other girls – naturally wavy. Across the room, other girls cavorted on the rubberized mats of the playroom, isolating her in the corner. The social worker’s eyes went wide with recognition before her Baltimore accent stepped between us, “That’s Leticia – she got here a couple’ a days ago. We cannot put her with mentors yet.”
I grabbed my partner’s hand and squeezed. “Can we still talk? If it’s a good fit, I’m sure we could wait.”
The social worker checked her clipboard and took a deep breath. My eyes followed her wide steps across the child-safe foam walkway to the bench against the half-wall. She knelt – I only saw the back of her head.
“No!” Leticia screamed, jumping to her little feet. She threw the doll to the ground and stomped on its head before she ran through a door on the far side of the room as her tantrum’s finale. As it slammed behind her, the din of children remained unphased.
Turning around and jogging back, the social worker raised her hand with splayed fingers. “She’ll be ready in five minutes. Zoey will help you in the visiting room!” The social worker scurried after the child in a flash of khaki, leaving us with the other children lost in their games, blind to our presence.
“Do you think this sort of thing happens every day?” My partner whispered to me, squeezing my hand back finally.
“It’s hard to be a new arrival,” I whispered, perhaps too quietly. Before I finished uttering the words, they pulled my arm toward the door.
The front office was once a sitting room. The textured fabric plastered on the wall peered through a single layer of paint used to make everything look a bit more respectable. As we waited, I stared at the architecture. What was this building? A renovated doctor’s office? A long-gone accountant a hundred years ago before the formation of suburbs turned this part of Baltimore into a ghetto? Low-income families followed the housing we could afford – the way it always is. A door closing somewhere means a slumlord opening a door somewhere else.
“Leticia’s ready.” I looked up to see the woman at the front desk with Zoey on her nametag. Her immaculate box braids, tucked into a cascading bun atop her head, hid cheerful iridescent colors. She clicked and clacked her acrylic nails against the desk. Hand in hand, we walked through the door she buzzed open.
On the other side, the social worker met us, her clipboard against her chest, trying to hide the bite marks on her arm. “She’s had a rough night. You sure you wanna see her now?” The social worker let out an uneasy laugh transitioning to a short cough. I looked at her name tag, reminding myself of the name I missed earlier.
“Amanda, I know. Give us ten minutes. We promise not to decide based on this.” My sincerity ricocheted. My partner’s confusion surfaced.
“Okay. I warned you.” Amanda sighed and shook her head. She opened the door to the small blue room. Murals of clouds, rainbows, a smiling sun, birds, and a sailboat spent years fissuring under the humming lights. Three bean bag chairs sat in a corner opposite a one-way mirror – a big black window darkening the otherwise bright room. My partner and I sat in the two bean bag chairs next to Leticia. Her little arms crossed her chest, and she looked away from us.
“Hi, Leticia,” I said, smiling. I stuck out my hand. White splotches covered my palms and fingers, wrapping around to the backs of my hands and down my wrists.
Leticia glanced, then stared. Her mouth fell open. “They gonna leave ya here cuzza that too?”
All thoughts vanished. My face hot, tears welled up in my eyes. “Oh hon, did someone say that to you?” Childhood flashed before my eyes. Echos of taunts and jeers I wished to forget rang in my ears. I relived the ancient woman as she screamed Leper. She bruised me with her wood and metal cane on the Metro Subway. I ran out the doors ten stops early while not a single rush hour patron said a word, but watched. My partner squeezed my hand again, ripping me back to the little room.
Leticia’s brown eyes fixated on the stained gray carpet. “Momma, don’t want me no more.”
“I can’t imagine anyone not wanting you.” I heard my partner’s voice, deep, melodic, and foreign.
“Well, they didn’t!” Leticia shrieked. I felt my partner’s hand slacken against my own, defeated. Leticia crumbled into a complete meltdown of screams and tears. “Nobody wants me. They took me away, and even Gramma didn’t want me'” Her words progressed into a wail and sobs.
“I want you,” I stated. With those words, hot tears streamed down my face, and the tightness in my throat and chest burst into warmth. I slid to the floor in front of Leticia’s little feet. Her pink light-up sneakers stopped trembling, their sparkling stars now still under the fluorescent lights. I looked to my partner, their face petrified with a combination of terror and confusion. Leticia’s brown eyes gazed into mine. I noticed the spots at the corners of her mouth and over her eye starting to bloom, each patch mirroring my own.
“Hannah, I…” My partner put a hand on my shoulder.
I put my left hand up, requesting silence, focusing on Leticia. “I can’t make promises yet. It sounds like a lot has happened, and you may need to stay here for a while. What I can promise is that I will visit.” Her big eyes stared intensely, capturing me.
“Okay.” She looked down at my hands again. Her eye movements traced the margins of each bleached patch of skin in her mind, following the slightly raised area where the vitiligo ends, and the pigmented skin begins. “Does it get better?”
“No,” I whispered, gathering myself. “But you get stronger. The people that see it and don’t see you can’t love you, but they only make you stronger.” I choked as I searched through years of my trauma she hadn’t experienced yet. I swallowed. “Do you want a hug?”
My partner watched the small child stand on her tiptoes, her embrace begging me never to let go. We heard the ten-minute buzzer. My partner took my hand, and I waved goodbye to Leticia with a promise to return the following week. The door to the social worker’s office slammed behind us as we met for the post-meeting.
“That’s the most she’s talked since getting here.” Amanda sighed. “I should clarify some of her case’s details.” She pulled out a large accordion folder, and from it, a manila folder labeled ‘censored file.’ “This is a version I can share with you. It cannot leave this room.” She opened it to reveal a copy of a birth certificate with the mother’s and father’s information blacked out along with a censored court statement.
“Leticia’s birth mother went up three days ago of an opiate overdose, and her grandmother was Leticia’s legal guardian. Both Leticia’s mother and grandmother lost custody and visitation rights when it became clear they had been dosing Leticia with opiates, accidentally or purposefully. We believe there was more abuse involved, but what’s most important is treating her withdrawal symptoms and continuing to monitor her here.” Amanda took a deep breath. “That’s why she’s in a therapeutic care home.” With her careful annunciation, she dropped the papers to her desk and looked instead to each of us.
My partner looked at me, then back at Amanda. “Does she know about her mom?”
“No. Not yet.” Amanda frowned. “The care team decides when.”
“I want to visit her weekly,” I insisted. My partner squeezed my hand hard. My arm winced, but I refused to show it in my face.
“That would be good for her. She needs a role model, someone with your…” Amanda struggled to be polite.
“Similarities,” I interjected. My partner’s glare burned into my skin as I ignored their body language. Fierce eyes that screamed into the silence between us. What are you doing helping this fucked up kid, you idiot? I smiled at Amanda and reached my empty hand out for a pen. “What paperwork do I need to fill out?”
“There are a couple of background check forms. Similar to the ones you both filled out before.” Turning away from us, she stood to walk over to her forms on the wall.
I took a deep breath and exhaled. “One set. It will be just me.” My hand cramped with pain as my partner squeezed. Amanda replaced the duplicate forms, and the pressure on my hand released. I filled out each line and refused to turn my head until I handed the forms back to Amanda. “I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
My partner dragged me from the office, pushing the door closed as we entered the hall. We walked down the corridor back toward the front room when my partner broke the silence. “What are you thinking? You are not in a position to mentor a kid this vulnerable!” Their voice hissed.
“I have a chance to change the future for someone like me. How can I ignore that?” I shot back. We reached the electronic door back to the waiting room.
“It couldn’t have been that bad! Look at you – you turned out fine! Now, come on, Hannah. Let’s go.” They raised their voice and turned to leave as Zoey buzzed opened the door. I watched as they opened the door and walked through without waiting.
You have no idea. I let the door close behind them.