Confessions of an Urban Principal /Arthur is Placed in Protective Custody.
by Frank Murphy
Installment (7 of 9)
Last Friday I attended a weekly Principal’s Meeting with the Philadelphia Central Office Leadership team. Afterwards, I was eager to get home. Several items on the morning’s agenda had enraged me. We adjourned at noon. I was looking forward to enjoying a weekend escape devoid of school district business. Only a few hours back at school separated me from the beginning of this retreat. I resolved to myself to be on my way home by three thirty. But like on so many other Fridays I found my plan unraveling by the end of the day.
A Department of Human Services (DHS) investigator appeared at the office counter around two o’clock. She was responding to an anonymous call that had been made to the DHS Child Abuse Hotline. She requested to see Arthur.
I knew this caseworker. She had enrolled her nephew in our school a few years back. In my previous interactions with her, she impressed me as being a decent and caring person. We talked for a while. I shared with her what I knew of Arthur’s life with Cindy. In turn she related some of her observations concerning Arthur’s home. She had made a visit there just before coming to the school. What she had seen had caused her concern. She wanted to interview Arthur. I arranged for her to meet with him in the counselor’s office
A half hour later, she came back to see me. “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first, Mr. Murphy?”
“The good news…?”
“The good news is that Arthur is the most humble, nicest teenage boy I have ever met. He really is nice.”
“I know. He is a great kid. What’s the bad news?”
“Arthur has asked to be removed from his home. He is afraid to go home. His mom has been waking him up at different times during the night, beating him with a pot.”
“What are you going to do with him?”
“I’m going to place him at an emergency shelter tonight. Then I will work on finding him a foster care placement. But first I need to obtain a court order in order to remove him from his home. This will take a few hours. Can he stay here after school until I come back to pick him up?”
“No problem, he can come down and stay with me. I’ll be here until six. I have a request, though.”
“What is it?”
“I would like you to find a placement for him where he can still come to our school. Can you do that?”
“I can try. I’ll have to talk to my supervisor. Can you write a letter that makes this request?”
I agreed to do this. The caseworker left. She went to obtain the court order. This sudden turn of events had upset me. I willed myself to be calm, when Arthur arrived at my office. Together we waited for the caseworker to return.
The wait felt like forever. A big decision had been made. Arthur’s life was about to undergo a dramatic change. Now, a prisoner to circumstances beyond his control, he waited. I was his companion in these last moments of his life before foster care.
At first, he sat quietly on the sofa. He thumbed through various professional books that were sitting on the coffee table. He looked as though he was carefully reading the text. This I doubted knowing how much he struggled with reading.
“Are these your books, Mr. Murphy? They are like high school books. Do you read them?”
“Yes Arthur, those are books about teaching and running a school. I use them for my work.”
“How do you remember all of the things they say? It must be hard.”
“When you get older, books like these will be easy to read, Arthur.”
I got up and turned on my CD player. I needed hear some soothing music. Several of Mr. Nottingham’s CDs were loaded in the player. Celtic music started to play. When Nottingham heard the music, he came into my office. As he entered, I said to Arthur, “This is Mr. Nottingham’s music.”
Nottingham asked him, “What kind of music do you like?”
“I don’t listen much to music. I just stay in my room and play my games.”
I had to step out of the office for a moment to see a teacher. When I returned, Nottingham was explaining to Arthur how to build model planes. I didn’t interrupt them. I slid into my desk chair and listened to Nottingham talk. Once he gets started, he can be quite a storyteller. Arthur was sitting forward in his seat, taking in every word. His eyes were bright and he was smiling.
A melancholy sounding fiddle and harp number was playing on the stereo. It sounded like the background music for a movie scene. I was mesmerized by their discussion. Mr. Nottingham was standing and Arthur was sitting, beaming up at him. The conversation had shifted while I was out of the room. Mr. Nottingham was describing his camping experiences as a boy scout. Arthur was taking it all in, like a thirsty boy drinking water at a newly discovered desert oasis.
Earlier, Arthur had started a conversation with me by asking, “So Mr. Murphy, what do you have planned for our eighth grade trip? Are we going somewhere like New York City?”
“Where do you want to go? Where have you been?”
“I don’t know where I want to go. I’ve never been anywhere.”
When he said he hadn’t been anywhere, he meant it. Apparently his house and Meade school are the only world he has ever known. Cindy and friends drank away their lives in her living room while Arthur played with his games alone in his bedroom. The world he lived in was indeed small.
Mr. Nottingham was taking Arthur on a quick look at what his life could be. Arthur was enthralled.
Nottingham continued to relate more camping stories to the boy.
“We used to go up to Fairmount Park, near Germantown when I was a kid. We would camp there overnight, I loved it.”
Arthur laughed. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that park. They say that unicorns live there. Do you believe in unicorns, Mr. Nottingham?”
Mr. Nottingham didn’t miss a beat as he responded to this question.
“I hear a lot of people say that they are real. Maybe… but I don’t think they really do live there.”
Mr. Nottingham had the look on his face of sweet memories and happy days. Arthur was bright eyed with joy. They were both enjoying their conversation. It was a pleasant moment. I guess it was the calm before the storm. Soon this boy would be taken from the only world he had ever known.
I kept looking from one face to the other, as the man continued his reminiscing and the boy enjoyed the stories told. They both looked like their troubles were far away from them. As I watched, I almost cried. I didn’t. If I did, it would have ruined the moment.
I wasn’t completely sure, if Arthur fully comprehended the changes that were about to come. Life with Cindy had been rough, but being placed into foster care setting didn’t necessarily mean that everything would be better. Shelters and some foster homes can be nightmares. I was worried.
Keeping Arthur company as we awaited the return of the caseworker was difficult. I have waited before with children who were being put into protective custody. Those waits, like this one, have been some of hardest things I’ve had to do as a principal.
A parent came into the main office in order pick up her child from the after school program. Mr. Nottingham left my office in order to assist her. Arthur and I were once again alone as we continued our wait.
The social worker had promised to be back by six. She was late. By six-fifteen we were the only two people left in the school. I was starting to worry that she might not return. I called the number that the caseworker had given to me. It was her office number. After several rings, her voicemail picked up. I left a brief message then I tried to reach her supervisor. I ended up listening to another voicemail message. Growing increasingly frustrated I searched for a DHS Hotline Number. I wanted to talk to a person.
Finally, I did reach someone. The hotline intake worker put me on hold while she tried to find the caseworker. It was a long wait. Fortunately, in the middle of this finger-drumming experience, the social worker walked back into the building. She showed me the court order she had just obtained. She apologized for taking so long.
Arthur and I shook hands and shared an awkward hug. Then he was gone. The caseworker promised me that he would return to Meade. This made me feel better. I hoped that it was true. Once again, I blinked back my tears.
It will be all right. It will be all right. I told myself over and over. When I arrived home, I didn’t want to talk, but I needed to talk. I told my wife, Mary Anne all about Arthur’s departure. She hugged me. She comforted me.
What comfort awaited Arthur at the place where he was being sent?
I slept for most of the weekend. Sleep was a way to try and escape from this ugly fact of life.
All of my waking hours during these two days was spent worrying about him.
My dreams were troubled.