I remember him as if we met yesterday. Johnny, not even six months old, sat on my lap and giggled as I finished getting together my court documents. I was a young attorney for Florida’s Department of Children and Families, learning how to navigate the complexities of child welfare. Johnny had bruises on his body, his runny nose had crusted over, and he was filthy. I wanted to drop everything and scrub away his despair.
Something in me changed that day.
Before becoming a law professor, before starting my photography business, before blogging, I had one “job” other than motherhood. I was a child welfare attorney, working alongside child advocates just like you. I worked with men and women who, on a daily basis, risked their own safety and sacrificed their own personal needs to protect abused and neglected children in my community. We worked as a team, but it was not until a social worker got sick and asked me to watch Johnny that I realized that while I led the fight in the courtroom, the real heroes led the fight on the ground.
The concerned citizen who calls in an abuse report. The social worker who brings a child to safety. The foster parent who answers phone calls in the middle of the night. The therapist who heals the broken heart. The doctor who fixes the broken bone. The nurse who provides nutrition to the neglected belly. The schoolteacher who provides continuity during a time of great upheaval. The volunteer who collects Christmas presents and advocates through philanthropic service. The adoptive parent who gives a child a forever home.
A social worker made the brave and necessary decision to remove Johnny from his parents earlier that morning. That evening, a foster mother would wash his tattered clothes. Tomorrow, a volunteer might agree to serve as his Guardian ad Litem.
I know caring for abused and neglected children is a thankless calling. Child welfare professionals only get attention when things go wrong. The day-to-day victories often go unnoticed.
Please remember that you change lives every single day. You see things most ‘regular people’ pretend don’t exist. You nurture broken hearts by day and fall asleep at night wishing only that you could have done more. You give everything you have to mend the pieces of shattered lives and then awaken the following morning to do it again.
Before going to court, I looked into Johnny’s big brown eyes. I felt the warmth of his skin and was touched by his beautiful gaze. He chewed on my suit jacket and smiled at me. And he broke my heart. Not just because his life was already harder than any I could imagine, and only in part because his future would likely be filled with challenges, but because I knew that as much as I wanted to save and protect Johnny, tomorrow another Johnny would need me, and I would have to shift my focus away from this precious life. I felt a weight on my shoulders and an ache in my heart. I gently placed Johnny on the blanket next to my desk and prepared his court documents.
That day, I provided comfort to Johnny. The following morning, I successfully advocated on his behalf. But by the following week, my focus shifted away from him. Another child needed my attention. Johnny’s life was no longer in my hands.
My favorite author, Brian Andreas, whimsically says, “Anyone can slay a dragon…but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.” You are on the front lines slaying dragons every day. You go to bed each night like a warrior, and you wake up each morning ready to fight yet another battle.
Thank you for loving the world so much that you are willing to wake up tomorrow and protect yet another child, even at the expense of your own heartache. You are not only my hero, but you are a hero for all the Johnnys I’ve ever met.
With my deepest respect and gratitude,