What does love look like for a 3-year-old boy whose mother is in jail?

As the Director of Family Support Services, calls like this always came to my desk. Often the inquiry was about the children seen in the Wednesday’s Child segment on Channel 12.  Sometimes, an adoptive parent was looking to understand what the psychiatrist was recommending for a child in the home.  Rarely did the call concern a child this young.

This call came in at about 4 o’clock one Friday afternoon.  The woman on the other end of the line said her family of 4 had taken in her 3-year-old nephew when his mom was arrested on drug charges.  She described some pretty disruptive behavior and was most concerned about how aggressive he was toward her 2 young daughters.  His mother was serving a 3 year sentence so he was going to be with the family for a while.

We had a contract to provide a wide variety of services to foster, adoptive and kinship families so we had resources to help her. I listened patiently for a long time while she very angrily and emotionally told me how hard it was to manage his behavior.  Then she listened to me describe the types of services we had to offer:  respite, family counseling, a neurological evaluation, family camp, etc. She refused to participate in family counseling; couldn’t we just work with him? Couldn’t we just fix him?

I certainly understood her dilemma. She had very generously rescued a small child from a very difficult situation.  She had stepped up to help her sister in her time of need. She was also genuinely afraid for the safety of her daughters.

I also knew what was at stake for this 3-year-old boy. We didn’t know much about what life had been like before he entered his aunt’s home but the drug charges certainly suggested the possibility of some chaos and probably neglect if his mother was also using what she was selling. His current behavior spoke volumes either about his history or his grief. He needed someone to step up and fill in for his mama with lots of tender concern and patience.

Unfortunately, his aunt wasn’t interested.  She was willing to keep him clothed, housed and fed but hoped we had some sort of magic that could replace the day-in, day-out patience, comfort, attention, and playfulness that little children need. I’m sure she would have been shocked if I had suggested that her devotion had never been really necessary for the daughters whose safety she so wanted to protect; that an hour or two a week with a therapist would have been enough to shape them into the wonderful people they were becoming. I have enormous respect for the idea that she just didn’t have the emotional resources to do this for him but it wouldn’t have been right to pretend that he needed anything less than 24 hour compassion for the various kinds of pain he was experiencing. Without the promise of this commitment, nothing else would amount to much for such a young child. I obviously still think about this little boy and hope his aunt or someone else was finally able to give him what he needed.