I met her for the first time at her father’s apartment just outside Washington, DC. I’d agonized over what to wear. Work clothes would be too formal, but jeans would make me look too casual, too young. I settled on a blouse, cotton pants, and a pair of loafers. With a spray of perfume, I tried to mask the cigarette smell that clung to my coat from happy hours in downtown bars. I wanted to make the best possible impression.
“I don’t know if I want you to come to my home,” her father had said, when I called to introduce myself one week earlier. “I don’t know you.”
I offered to meet in public, but he resisted.
“How old are you?” he asked. “Got any kids?”
I answered truthfully: “Twenty-eight,” and “No.”
“How would you feel if a 6-foot-5 black man came to your door and said, ‘I’m going to advocate for your child?” he asked.
I paced back and forth in my basement apartment, searching for an answer among the second-hand furniture, which now made me feel even younger, more inexperienced.
“I understand your concerns,” I said, “but believe me, I have good intentions.”
I wanted to make it clear that I was not afraid of commitment. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a family of my own, but I was ready for my life to be about something more. I was prepared to enter into a long-term relationship with his daughter.
“My daughter and I are going through a hard time right now. She’s twelve,” he said. “You remember what it’s like to be twelve?”
That, I said, I could do.
Now, one week later, Joe Williams answered the door of his apartment in a white T-shirt, jeans, and high-top sneakers. He held a cigarette in his hand, smoke drifting up and across the lenses of his broad eyeglasses. He was as tall as he’d claimed to be on the phone.
At barely five feet tall, I found Mr. Williams intimidating. To my surprise, he seemed rushed and nervous — intimidated by me.
“Destiny,” he called behind him, “the lady’s here.”
The walls of the apartment were white and bare. As I stepped inside, I detected the mild scent of burning rubber, like that of an old vacuum that had just made a quick tour around the room. I sat down on a worn black leather couch facing a large-screen TV.
That’s when I saw Destiny.
She entered the room and smiled shyly, her round brown eyes staring at the beige carpeted floor. She was petite and naturally pretty, with clear skin and short black hair pulled up into a ponytail. She wore jeans and a white t-shirt with a round neckline that revealed the strap of a bright pink bra – provocative, I thought, for a girl her age.
She looked up only to offer a polite hello.
I unbuttoned my coat and took a few moments to explain that I’d be visiting regularly, helping to make sure Destiny had everything she needed, like a tutor or vouchers for the bus. What I didn’t mention was that I was supposed to make sure that Destiny appeared safe and Joe appeared sober.
“And of course,” I said, “I’ll make regular reports to the court.”
Before I had to ask, Joe began to share the details of their family history.
“…I’ve been out of work since… They got me on these meds now … My daughter’s been through a lot … You heard about her cousin? What he did to her?”
I’d read about all of it in Destiny’s files – her parents’ drug addiction, the sexual abuse by a teenage cousin — but somehow it felt wrong to say so. I nodded and took notes as if I’d never heard it before.
Without my asking, Joe presented Destiny’s latest report card, which had been resting on the dining room table. She had earned A’s and B’s, with one C-.
“Destiny needs to read more,” he said, “otherwise, she’s doing good.”
It felt strange to be privy to such information, all because I had used the word “court.”
I asked Destiny what she liked to do on weekends. She said she liked to go the movies or to the mall.
“Why don’t I come pick you up on Sunday and we’ll do something fun?” I suggested.
“That’s it?” Joe asked, looking relieved.
“That’s it,” I said, and rose to leave. I had never taken off my coat.
He ordered Destiny to walk me to the door, which she did, in dutiful silence. Then she walked me down the apartment hall and held open the door of the building for me.
“I’ll see you on Sunday,” I said.
She smiled at me and nodded, just a flicker of appreciation in her round, brown eyes. Then she turned away and walked back down the hall.
For the last four weeks, I’d spent evenings and weekends learning about the child welfare system. I memorized laws, read practice cases, and role-played with the other volunteers in my class. Now, armed with a red binder full of paperwork and a letter of appointment from the judge, I was supposed to be able to determine the best interests of a child.
I quickly realized this would be no easy task.
On the following Sunday, Destiny’s shoulder-length hair was blown straight and shiny. With a black wool beret pulled down just above her left eye, she looked older than the last time I’d seen her, and older than I had at her age. She asked me to take her to the mall so that she could look for hair extensions.
In training, they’d told us to take kids to parks or for walks in their neighborhoods. But I didn’t know the area, and I was new at this. I had few responsibilities on weekend days, and loved to shop. Maybe, I thought, this would be an opportunity to bond.
It was February, and we’d had a light dusting of snow the night before. Destiny politely kicked the slush off her sneakers before getting into my car.
She commented on my “fancy” Honda Civic, which to me was boring but practical — nothing compared to the expensive new models that lined the streets of my neighborhood.
Then she noticed my purse. “Kenneth Cole!” she said. “Expensive.”
“Got it at Filene’s Basement,” I said. “I’m a bargain hunter.”
I wanted to disabuse her of the idea that I had a lot of money — or that I was going to spend money on her.
I let her tune in a local hip-hop station on the radio then suggested that she program it so that she could always listen to it when we drove in my car.
“If you want,” she shrugged, unimpressed by the gesture. Then she turned and stared out the window for the rest of the drive.
At the mall, we stood by a marquee and plotted a course through the garden-variety chain stores. Out of nowhere, Destiny asked, “Did you commit a crime or something? My brother said maybe you did something wrong, and this is your community service.”
“Spending time with you is not a punishment,” I said.
“My brother said maybe you would buy me presents.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but that’s not why I’m here.”
I knew right then that the mall hadn’t been a good idea. I was supposed to be gathering information, learning about her life at home and at school. Instead I had brought her to a place full of expensive, unobtainable things, and I was sure to disappoint her.
As we walked through the mall, I asked questions about classes and friends. Her answers were brief. Eventually she mentioned missing a recent field trip because it was too expensive.
“Next time let me know and I’ll talk to your case worker,” I said.
Maybe, my role as an advocate was open to some interpretation. As long as I could be a mentor, and help Destiny get the things she needed, I would be doing some good.
When we cruised by the food court, Destiny declared that she was hungry. I offered to buy her either a hot pretzel or an ice cream cone.
“Can I have a pretzel and an ice cream cone?” she asked.
I looked at all the kids standing in line with their parents, and I couldn’t say no. I just hoped that her father wouldn’t find out that I was already spoiling her.
Over the next few months, we got to know each other better. Destiny showed me pictures of her favorite niece, who lived in Las Vegas with Destiny’s sister. She told me about the boys in her class who liked her. She was smart and self-assured. She had been through a lot, but I had reason to be optimistic about her future.
Meanwhile, I did some background work, checking in with a school guidance counselor. “The good news is,” the counselor said, “I don’t know the child. That means she’s not in any trouble.”
The caseworker confirmed that there was no pressing need to reevaluate Destiny’s living situation. “After all,” she said, “We’re just looking for minimum standards of care.”
I was working in an office with mothers who talked about their kids’ college funds, trips to Europe, and internships on Capitol Hill. To me, “minimum standards of care” didn’t seem like much to aspire to, but for the time being, I concurred.
One evening after work, I was surprised to be greeted at the Williams’ door by a man I’d never met before. He wore a skull cap and held a cell phone to his ear. While talking on the phone, he let me in and cruised back toward the bedrooms with the leisure of someone who lived there. In the living room, Joe lay on the couch, his long legs dangling over the end.
He nervously rearranged a blanket on his lap and told me he was “down with a cold or something.”
Since the shopping mall trip, I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t feed Destiny any more junk food. But I felt the need to get her out of there.
“I’m starving,” I said. “Have you eaten?”
She wanted a Big Mac meal. “It’s only two dollars,” she said.
At McDonald’s, we sat and ate burgers. I thought of the other advocates from my training class and wondered whether they were all abiding by the rules, feeding kids nutritious snacks while I fed Destiny greasy fries. I asked her whether things had changed at her father’s, whether she felt scared by strangers in the apartment, whether anyone had hurt her.
She just dipped her French Fries in a pool of ketchup and told me, repeatedly, that everything was fine.
I remembered a warning I’d gotten — off the record — from experienced volunteers. No matter how badly the kids are treated by their parents, they always want to stay at home.
I thought of whisking Destiny away to my apartment and keeping her until the strange man was gone and Joe looked upright and sober. Destiny had never been to my apartment, but I had described it to her and shown her pictures of my orange Maine Coon cat. But it wasn’t my place to take her away from her father. Reluctantly, I drove her home, resigned to calling her caseworker in the morning.
“Do you visit other kids, too?” she asked before the got out of the car.
“No,” I said, “just you.”
For the first time, she gave me a hug.
That night, I crawled into bed, comforted by the purring of my cat. But I lay sleepless, wondering whether I’d done all I could to keep Destiny safe.
Destiny’s grandmother, Teresa Jones, was a sixty-something woman who had raised nine children of her own and taken in a few nieces, nephews, and grandkids along the way. Friendly and energetic, she called me “girlfriend” from the first time we met. She lived in a high-rise apartment building within just a few miles of Joe’s.
Destiny had been living there since an uncomfortable court hearing in which the judge admonished Joe for not submitting to drug tests and ordered Destiny to be removed from his home. Destiny herself was not present in court. Her father had done what he felt to be in her best interests and sent her to school.
In the courthouse, I’d been afraid to approach him — afraid he’d blame me for losing his daughter again. But it felt wrong to ignore him, so I said a polite hello.
He shook his head, eyes downcast. “Destiny just needs to read more,” he said. “Other than that, she’s doing good.”
No one – not Destiny, not the caseworker, and not Mrs. Jones — had heard from him since then.
Destiny’s new home was all flowered upholstery, needlepoint, and stray toys from whichever child happened to be visiting — or living there — for a while. On my first visit, I looked quizzically at a plaque in a corner that read “WWJD.”
“What Would Jesus Do?” Destiny said, looking shocked that I had to ask.
I didn’t bother to tell her that I was Jewish, but nodded as if to say, “Of course.”
She showed me the bedroom she shared with a cousin. She slept on a bottom bunk in a bed covered with pillows and stuffed animals. The room smelled of perfume from a row of miniature bottles along the dresser top.
Mrs. Jones had strict rules, but she assured me they would be good for Destiny. According to her, Joe had let his daughter get away with far too much.
“I would never turn my granddaughter away,” she told me, while Destiny was out of earshot, “but it’s another mouth to feed. And the department doesn’t give you much. I get paid for kids when I was a foster mom — just some cash for groceries, you know? But I don’t get any money for Destiny.”
Folded in my wallet was a $20 bill that I would probably blow on a couple of beers later that night. I considered handing it to her. What would be the harm?
But I thought of our trip to the shopping mall, and remembered the dangers of setting the wrong expectations. I said that I was sorry, but she would have to take it up with Destiny’s caseworker.
I told Destiny that I would see her in two weeks, after she had settled into her new school. Then I said good-bye and left, thinking of the $20 in my wallet – a nice Jewish girl, wondering what Jesus would do in my place.
Over the next year, Destiny and I took trips to the library, a couple of museums, an amusement park, and a women’s professional basketball game. We went to the planetarium along the wooded Rock Creek Parkway, where Destiny looked out the car window and exclaimed, “I can’t believe this is the city!”
We went shopping together once again — to Target, after she’d received a $50 voucher from her social worker to buy school clothes. At the register, she discovered that she had a few dollars left, and to my surprise, offered to buy me a pair of earrings.
“They’d look good on you,” she said, holding up a pair of rhinestone studs.
“No, thanks,” I said. “You keep that money for yourself. It’s yours.”
Then I turned so she wouldn’t see the tears brimming in my eyes.
The following summer, Destiny failed a class and learned that she would have to go to summer school. Classes would keep her busy for a few nights a week, but I worried that too much unstructured time might get her into trouble. The mothers in my office talked about soccer, basketball, and art camps for their kids. I wanted Destiny to have something to do other than wander around the city, looking for places to escape the heat. She deserved more than just minimum standards of care.
With her caseworker’s help, I got her enrolled in a camp at a nearby YMCA. Destiny was looking forward to it, but she didn’t want to take the bus by herself on her first day, so I took a few hours off of work to drop her off.
In the YMCA parking lot, kids kissed their mothers or fathers goodbye, leapt out of their cars, and bounded up the steps of the building. Many wore blue T-shirts with white lettering — camp uniforms that Destiny, a latecomer, had not yet received.
We got to the registration desk to find that Destiny’s payment had not come through. Frustrated after spending days making phone calls and faxes on her behalf, I raised my voice louder than I’d intended.
“Look,” I said, “I know for a fact that Child Welfare Services sent a payment. I’m not leaving here until she’s registered.”
Behind me, Destiny shrank back. She rolled her eyes and tried to distance herself.
I realized that I’d drawn attention to her as a kid in the system — a kid whose parents couldn’t pay for camp, a kid accompanied by a volunteer — when she only wanted to be like everybody else.
Within a few minutes, we were escorted outside to an athletic field, where kids were slowly gathering around their counselors. We found Destiny’s group leader, a gregarious young African-American woman, who immediately welcomed Destiny. “We’re gonna have a good time,” the young woman said.
I liked her already. From the way Destiny smiled, I could tell that she liked her too.
As I walked back to my car, I stopped by the side of the building and watched as Destiny stood on the periphery of the group. Like a nervous parent, I lingered, hoping she might wave good-bye or signal that she was all right.
But after another moment, she disappeared into the group, just like any other camper.
By 15, Destiny was no longer the soft-spoken girl who carefully kicked snow off her boots before stepping into my car, the girl who politely walked me to the door of her apartment building. Now she had attitude.
She started missing curfew, disappearing to “get the mail” and not coming back. She wore tight jeans and borrowed low-cut belly shirts from friends. Buxom and curvy, she changed hairstyles on a regular basis. Sometimes it was blown straight and shiny, other times it was braided tight against her scalp in intricate patterns.
“Three boys like me,” she told me. “But don’t worry, we’re not hittin’ the skins.”
Her grandmother was exasperated.
“Destiny lies. She manipulates,” she said. “She’ll convince you the moon is made of cream cheese.”
Destiny said her grandmother set unreasonable rules. Why wasn’t she allowed to go to the Rec. center on Saturday nights? All her friends hung out there. And why did she have to be home so early in the evening?
I tried to reason with her: “Look, just live by your grandmother’s rules for the next few weeks. Once she starts to trust you again, she’ll loosen the reins.”
It didn’t work. Destiny ditched classes. More than once, she got caught drinking and smoking pot. It wasn’t such unusual behavior for a kid her age. But she was a kid in the child welfare system, and the system intervened, moving her in and out of her grandmother’s home — through treatment centers and group homes — over the next two years.
“Destiny’s gone,” her caseworker said. “She took off two days ago.”
By this time, Destiny was 17. She had moved from a shelter back to her grandmother’s home just a few weeks before.
I was sitting in my cubicle at work when I got the call. I spent the rest of the day preoccupied with worry, feeling guilty because I hadn’t seen Destiny in far too long.
I called the police, who didn’t seem particularly concerned — maybe because she was a kid in the system, a kid who’d already been in trouble.
I wondered if she was doing drugs and couch surfing with friends, or whether she’d hopped on a bus to Vegas to join her sister and niece.
Like Destiny, I had moved over the years – through apartments, jobs, boyfriends. I wondered whether I was suited to be Destiny’s lady anymore. Our visits had become less frequent, and less successful. We didn’t relate the way we used to, gossiping over ice cream sundaes. Maybe Destiny needed something different, and that something wasn’t me. Maybe I didn’t need her as much as I had before.
A week after she’d disappeared, she strolled into her grandmother’s apartment, said hello, and casually opened the refrigerator.
She was back.
I arranged to meet her outside her grandmother’s apartment one morning the following week. When she walked out of the building, I was surprised and somewhat ashamed that I barely recognized her. She had changed so much in such a short time. She was a young woman now – thin and toned, a bright smile, the morning sun glinting off long auburn hair extensions. Tight denim shorts capped off her shapely legs.
“Grandma said you were looking for me!” she said, and threw her arms around my neck.
“Of course I was,” I said, surprised and moved by how much it mattered to her.
I decided to stay on.
That same year, Destiny’s mother, Yvonne, reentered her life. A petite, slow-talking woman with faint freckles, Yvonne had gotten sober and secured a job as an aide in a nursing home. She began visiting Destiny regularly at Mrs. Jones’ – her mother’s — apartment.
Destiny always greeted Yvonne with affection and cuddled up to her. The two would sit on Mrs. Jones’ flowered couch as Yvonne stroked her daughter’s hair or rubbed her back. They didn’t seem to bicker like a typical mother and daughter. I figured they didn’t spend enough time together to fight.
Whenever Yvonne mentioned Destiny’s name, she would add, “Bless her heart.”
“Destiny doesn’t want to go out with you today, bless her heart.”
“Destiny wasn’t happy living with her father, bless her heart.”
One day, Yvonne, Destiny, and I walked to the park and decided to get soda and ice cream from the Good Humor truck.
“Thank you, bless your heart,” Yvonne said, and stepped away, leaving me to pay for all of us.
Yvonne had lost custody of all nine of her children. One, an infant, had died after being left to sleep in a dresser drawer. Another had lost part of a thumb after Yvonne bound it to keep her from sucking on it. She had been clean for years, but she couldn’t get Destiny or her other kids back until she found her own place to live instead of drifting through her friends’ homes.
I treated her with respect, but I resented her for putting Destiny in danger. Even more so, I resented Destiny’s loyalty to her.
As an advocate, your job is to solve a problem. Once that problem is solved, your role is no longer necessary. I realized that maybe I didn’t want Destiny to move back in with her mother because then the case might be closed, and I wouldn’t be necessary anymore.
When Yvonne’s name finally reached the top of the list for subsidized housing, the judge allowed Destiny and a brother and sister to move in with her. The caseworker was pleased. If Yvonne could pay the rent and keep the kids out of trouble, the case could be closed. Destiny was ecstatic. Mrs. Jones was relieved to think that perhaps her childrearing was done for good. Everyone was happy, except for me.
I saw the inside of Yvonne’s apartment only once, shortly after Destiny moved in with her. The family was living among boxes, the floors still bare. Still, they were all excited to be on their own, as a family. They had adopted a kitten. Destiny would start another new school that fall.
From that point on, almost every time I called Yvonne’s apartment, the voice mailbox declared itself full, preventing me from leaving a message. On the rare occasion that someone answered the phone, it was a friend or neighbor who happened to be hanging out there. Destiny wasn’t home, they said, and they didn’t know when she’d return.
Within just a few months, I had no idea how Destiny was doing in school — or whether she was going to her classes. I wasn’t even sure which school she now attended. She had fallen so far behind it wasn’t clear whether she would graduate on time, if at all. I wondered who she was hanging out with — or hittin’ the skins with. It seemed like we were back to minimum standards of care.
Before long, the caseworker informed me that Yvonne’s neighbors were complaining of loud parties and people coming and going at all hours, occasionally via the second-story balcony. The rent went unpaid. Yvonne got evicted. Destiny’s life was disrupted once again.
In the courtroom, I recognized the judge, but not Destiny’s attorney — a young African-American woman in a fitted navy blue power suit. She sat close to Destiny and touched her shoulder protectively. I waved to Destiny from the back of the room, but she looked at me with empty eyes and turned away.
I wondered what Destiny had told this attorney. That she wanted to stay with her mother? That from now on, she would go to school and abide by the rules? That the moon was made of cream cheese?
Destiny had a different attorney at practically every hearing. They usually wouldn’t meet until just beforehand, when Destiny would tell her side of the story. I no longer concerned myself with these rotating attorneys because the judge usually sided with the caseworker and me. Today we were calling for Destiny to move back in with her grandmother, who could set better limits that Destiny’s mother could.
But this attorney was particularly engaged. When it came time for her to speak, she requested that Destiny and her mother be allowed to live together in some kind of temporary housing. Destiny had moved far too many times already, and she deserved to be with a parent for once and for all.
Before she finished, the attorney leaned down to let Destiny whisper in her ear. Then she stood up, straightened her suit, and announced, “Your Honor, Destiny also says she doesn’t want to have an advocate anymore.”
The judge asked why.
“They don’t get along,” the attorney said.
I looked around a courtroom full of faces I hadn’t seen before. Over the years, Destiny had been through multiple caseworkers, attorneys, and therapists. Maybe I hadn’t always been the best advocate, and maybe I hadn’t always done the right thing, but I was the one who’d been here all along.
When the time came for me to speak, my voice trembled with anger and frustration.
“Your honor, this is the first time that Destiny and I have disagreed about her best interests. We are going through a hard time right now,” I said. “But I think that this is a time when she needs an advocate the most.”
The judge ordered Destiny to move back in with her grandmother and extended my appointment for another six months. But I never saw Destiny again.
I now worked more than 20 miles from Mrs. Jones’ apartment, but I fought rush hour traffic to visit one more time. When I arrived, Destiny was inexplicably missing.
Mrs. Jones was mortified. “I think you should go help somebody who wants to help herself,” she said.
It sounded as if her grandmother was about to give up on Destiny. I didn’t want to give up, too, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice.
I told myself that it wasn’t me she was rejecting. She was tired of being in the system, and that she no longer wanted the court – or anyone associated with it – in her life. I wanted to believe that the time I’d spent with her had made some kind of difference. But all I could do was be thankful for what our relationship had done for me – when I’d felt alone, when I needed a purpose, someone to care for.
Once I resigned, I had no more reports to write and no more rush hour drives out to the suburbs. My weekends were free to take road trips or meet up with friends. I didn’t miss the responsibility.
But after a few months, I did miss Destiny. I wrote her a letter in care of Mrs. Jones. By this time, Destiny would have aged out of the child welfare system. Her case was closed. I hoped that she’d graduated from high school. Maybe she was heading toward college, or maybe she had moved to Vegas, where she was living happily with her sister and niece.
I never got a response.
I still wonder what happened to that letter. Maybe Mrs. Jones gave it to Destiny, who kept meaning to write back, but forgot about it. Or maybe Destiny crumpled it up and tossed it into the trash – just a reminder of her time in the system, a time when she was a kid without parents, a kid escorted from place to place by a volunteer.
Maybe it’s for the best that I don’t know what became of her. Maybe I should leave it at that.
Or maybe I’ll just write her another letter.