Child Welfare

by Dwight Geddes

They came for me and Moet on a rainy Tuesday in October. I remember it because I was supposed to stay home a week from school. Momma had taken me to see this doctor at the clinic on Junction Boulevard cause I wasn't feeling well. He told momma that I had a stripped throat or something like that, so I got to stay home the whole week. That was good, but I had to take medicine and it didn't taste too good.

So, y'know, I was home when they came for Moet and me. Her name is really Keisha, Moet is her middle name, but she wanted everyone to call her Moet because she said it sounded sexy. I don't know how she knows what sexy was or wasn't, but momma busted her butt when she heard her say that. I call her Moet just so she would shut up already.

Anyway, like I was saying, we were watching a talk show, sitting on the floor in the living room. I was lying on my belly, my face propped up by my hands, squinting at the people on television. The topic of the day was REUNITING WITH THAT ONE NIGHT STAND. Moet was curled up near me, her feet tucked under her body, playing with one of her braids. Momma was in the kitchen cooking ox- tails and rice and peas. She worked evenings, so she would be getting ready to leave soon, when Aunt Claire came to stay with us. We were watching the television and didn't even hear the knock on the door until Momma yelled from the kitchen for us to see who was there. We ran over to the door and peeked out from the curtains at the same time. We were trying not to be seen in case it was one of them Jehovah's Witness people. It wasn't them. It was a policeman and a lady standing there. The policeman was staring straight at us.

My heart was beating really fast and I yelled to momma that there was a policeman at the door. Me and Moet sat back on the sofa and peeked at the two people standing outside in the drizzle as momma bustled towards the door, wiping her hands on her skirt as she walked.

When momma opened the door, the lady spoke.

"Good afternoon, ma'am, are you Isabel Penney?" Momma was looking at her and then at the policeman and back again.

"Yes I am. How can I help you?"

Momma had that voice on, that voice that Daddy used to call her cultured voice. Where it sounds like, real proper, but she's usually really pissed off.

"My name is Sandra O'Connor, Ms. Penney. I'm with the Bureau for Child Welfare. This is Officer Briggs. Can we come in?"

Somehow, even as I strained to hear the conversation, I knew she really was gonna come in anyway. I mean, she was here with a police officer, momma was supposed to let them in, right? So I guess that really wasn't a question.

"Ah, yes, sure. Come in."

They came in from outside, and I stared at them as they wiped their feet on the mat and stood in the middle of our living room. Moet was sitting right in front of me, and I pushed her slightly so I could see what was going on. It used to piss me off that she always got in front of me in everything, but before Daddy went away he told her that I was her little sister and she was supposed to take care of me and also momma. So I guess that means she went first in most everything. Anyway the lady was talking to momma.

"Ms. Penney we are here to speak with you about your daughter Keisha." She turned to us and smiled," Which one of you pretty little girls is Keisha?" Keisha's hand shot up as if she had won first prize in a contest. I stuck out my lip and frowned. Why does it always have to be Keisha? The lady turned back to momma.

"We got a report from the school that Keisha had some bruises on her back and arms on Friday. Do you know what happened to her Ms. Penney?"

The lady was staring at momma as she spoke, but momma was not even looking at her. She was staring down the police officer. She finally turned and looked at the lady. She still didn't say a word. The lady was starting to look a little upset, and momma just kept on staring at her.

The policeman finally said something. "Ms. Penney, could you answer the question? Do you have anything to say?" He spoke so softly I almost couldn't hear him. I leaned on Moet's back to hear better. Moet was quiet as she picked a hole in the sofa. The hole was where Daddy had accidentally burnt the sofa when he was drinking and smoking one night with Uncle Tony. Momma had yelled at him when she came in from her job at the hospital and saw them sleeping there with cigarettes and they had a huge argument. I was gonna tell her to stop but then momma spoke.

"What exactly do you want to hear?"

Her voice was very quiet, and I started to feel afraid. I don't know why but I felt really bad. I looked at Moet but she kept staring at the hole and kept picking at it with one hand as she sucked her thumb with the other. That's two no-nos, right in front of Momma. But momma didn't see her, momma was still staring at the woman. She spoke to momma again.

"Ms. Penny, there is no need to get agitated over this. We are just checking to see if everything is okay, that's all. This is the second report we have had in the last three months." Momma shook her head.

"You bring a policeman into my house just to check up? No, Ms. O'Conner what exactly do you want from me?"

The police officer spoke again, raising his hands as if to calm Momma down. She gave him a quick angry look and I jumped back. Everyone turned and looked at me. I looked at the carpet and started to feel my ears burning.

"Ms. Penny, we have to do this, so please let's not make it any more difficult than necessary."

He sounded very smart, like he talked like those people you see on the news. I don't watch the news but momma watches it every evening at six before she left. The police officer spoke again.

"Did you put those bruises on Keisha, Ms. Penny? Momma looked very angry now. Moet was still staring at the hole in the sofa and I glanced at her and back at momma. I wanted to pee-pee now but I was afraid to get up and walk past everyone. I was starting to fidget on the soft next to Moet but no one noticed me.

"Yes, I disciplined her! Is that what you want to hear? I spanked my daughter."

"Ms. Penny……," This was the Ms. O'Conner lady. She now looked real angry. Why would she be angry with momma?

"Ms. Penny, where is the children's father?"

Momma looked at her angrily and looked at the officer. He had his arms folded and looked upset too. The lady sighed and glanced at the police officer. He spoke up again.

"Ms. Penny, does he live here? He wasn't here the last time we came. Is he in jail? Is anyone else living here?"

"Is he… dare you? How dare you come into my house, question me about my child, my husband, disrespect me in such a manner?"

Momma took a step toward the lady and I got really nervous. Momma looked like she was going to fight the lady. My heart was beating really fast and I looked at Moet again. She was now staring at the scene happening before her. I saw for the first time that Moet was shaking.

The policeman was talking to momma again. He had stepped between her and the other lady.

"…them with us, Ms. Penny, at least until the case is more thoroughly investigated and it goes to court."

Momma was silent but still looked very mad. I was confused. What are they talking about? What do they want? Momma looked at me and Moet.

"Get dressed, girls. Go ahead."

We got up and walked silently to our room. Moet had her head down and she looked like she had started to cry. I looked up at momma as I went by, but she seemed to be staring into space. Her eyes looked like she was going to start crying also. My chest felt funny and as I followed my sister up the stairs everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. They were still talking as we got to the top of the stairs but I don't know if momma heard even one word. She was still staring off somewhere.

When we got to our room I turned to Keisha.

"What's going on, Keisha? Why're you cryin'? What's going to happen?" Keisha sat on the bed sobbing and sniffling. She didn't answer. I felt like crying too cause I felt something bad was gonna to happen. I sat beside my sister on the bed and we both cried softly until momma yelled up the stairs for us to hurry up.

Everything started happening real fast after that. When we got to the bottom of the stairs the lady held our hands and took us outside to her car. I noticed it had stopped raining as we walked to her little brown car that was at the curb. There wasn't anyone outside, but I know that nosy Ms. Franklin next door was probably peeking out at us and calling all the neighbors 'spreading our business' as momma always said. Momma never liked Ms. Franklin too much, and she cursed her out after Daddy left. I think Ms. Franklin was spreading stories about what happened to him. Momma put her in her place. Anyway I was looking for her as we was walking to the little car but I didn't see her.

Momma was not around as we were walking out, but as we got into the car I saw her standing in the doorway, looking at us. Her hands were together in front of her with a coat over them and that policeman, Officer Briggs, was holding on to her arm. I couldn't tell from that far away, but I think she was crying. I had never seen momma cry before, and as we drove away, I kept looking at her, watching as Officer Briggs took her to his car. She was looking at me too, and I felt tears running down my face again.

Ms. O'Connor drove us to Queens General Hospital. On the way there, she kept asking a lot of questions. I didn't feel like talking to her and I guess Keisha felt the same cause she was quiet the whole way there. When we got to the hospital Ms. O'Connor took us up in the elevator to the third floor. She left us in a room with one of those long doctor's tables and two chairs. Me and Keisha sat down quietly and waited. Ms. O'Connor came back after a few minutes with a white lady. This lady was much shorter and fatter than Ms. O'Connor, with red hair, a round face and these big round glasses on. She was wearing a green uniform, and Ms. O'Connor introduced her as Dr. Debbie Ross. She smiled at us and rubbed our heads as she said "Hi, girls." Keisha smiled at her but I didn't like her. I don't like people patting or rubbing my head.

I didn't like nobody putting their hands in my hair at all. "Are you Keisha?" asked Dr. Ross, pointing at me. I shook my head and pointed at my sister.

"Okay. Keisha, Ms. O'Connor told me that you were hurt the other day. Can I see where you were hurt?"

Keisha slowly pulled up her sleeves to show the doctor where momma had spanked her, using her free hand to wipe her nose. It was cold in the room, and I'm thinking to myself, it's October and they got air conditioning on. "My back too." Said Keisha quietly.

The doctor looked at the bruises touched her on some of them and asked Keisha to turn around so she could see her back. Keisha had started to have her monthly thing recently, and momma had bought her a box of maxi-pads and a training bra. Everyday I would see her in our room doing some stupid exercise to make her breasts bigger. She was wearing her training bra now, and she moved it up so the doctor could see the mark on her back. I sat there quietly as they examined Keisha. The doctor asked if she could take some pictures of her. Keisha shrugged her shoulders and glanced at me. I turned away and pretended to watch the wall. The doctor took a little camera out of her pocket and I turned back to see and rolled my eyes. The doctor had the camera raised to take some pictures and stopped as she looked at me.

"Why did you do that?" she asked me.

"Why you asking her for? You already got the camera, you know you gonna take her picture whether she say yes or no." The doctor looked surprised. Ms O'Connor looked at me with one of them faces like I had slapped her or something. Ms. O'Connor was the one that answered.

"Well, ahh…yes we do have to take these pictures, but it's not… right… to just take pictures of someone. It's not right." She looked at the doctor and spoke again. "Your mommy and daddy told you the difference between right and wrong, didn't they?"

She was looking at me as she spoke, and all of a sudden everyone was staring at me. I just looked away. She turned to Keisha, who had pulled down her shirt. "Why did your mommy beat you, Keisha?"

Keisha was quiet for a few seconds and I knew she was looking at me. I wasn't gonna look at her cause I know she be making shit up all the time, and as far as I know this was all her fault. "She spanked me cause she heard I was kissing Bryan Phillips." Ms. O'Connor nodded. I kept quiet and just pretended to not be listening.

"Did she ever beat you before?"

Keisha nodded, and looked at me again. I still ignored her.

"Yes ma'am."

"Did she use her hands? Or did she hit you with a belt?"

"She hit me with a belt this last time, but she hit me with her hands plenty of times too." The doctor was still looking at me, but I was just ignoring all of them. Ms. O'Connor continued.

"Listen, Keisha, what your mommy did to you was not right, and we are going to have to keep you away from her for a while. You and your sister." She looked at me. I turned away.

"We will put you with some other kids, you will have a nice new family. It's only going to be for a little while, and i'll make sure everything goes alright, okay?"

I was listening to Ms. O'Connor and I couldn't say a word. I felt really bad. First daddy and now momma? What's going on? I looked at Keisha, who was now showing off her bruises like it was something special as the doctor took pictures. For the first time in my life I really began to hate my sister. We didn't see momma after that, and after that day me and Keisha fought all the time. We got put in this home with this family, the Bennetts. Ms. Bennett was a fat, old lady who was always shouting at the kids. I saw Mr. Bennett twice. Some other kid said he worked at Transit and was always working double shifts.

Besides me and Keisha, there were five other kids there. Keisha liked it, cause they let her do all the stuff momma wouldn't let her do and in two weeks she was talking to this boy Jamir, who was the oldest boy there and the one that beat up on everyone. I hated the family. I hated the house. I wanted to go back to my momma and I told them that every day.

It was two weeks later that momma came to see us at school. I just got out of homeroom when momma came to the door of my class. She was wearing daddy's favorite coat and it was big on her. She looked like she had lost weight. I ran to her and hugged her as she picked me up and squeezed me.

"How are you, my angel?" she asked.

"I wanna go home momma. Why can't I go home?"

My homeroom teacher saw me with momma, and I saw her walking fast to the principal's office as we walked down the hall to Keisha's class. I was talking to momma and paying no one no mind. I was never so happy to see her. When we got to Keisha's class, she wasn't there, so we walked down to the first floor. All the other kids were leaving class, most were heading home, some were hanging outside.

"So how's your sister doing, baby?"

"She's okay. She's talking to some boy. I guess she likes him, but I don't like that place momma. I want to come back home. When can I come back home?" Momma was looking at me and I could tell she was really unhappy. She didn't even answer me for a long time.

"Well, baby, I am trying to see what I can do. You know, I have to go to court and ask the judge if you can come back home with me." She held my hand really tight as she spoke, and her face looked really tired. "I don't know if they'll allow me to take you home, but…They tried to say I was really bad to you and your sister, baby. It might be a while, but don't worry, honey, momma is gonna take care of everything, okay?"

Just then a police car pulled up and I saw two policemen get out. As we stood there talking they were walking towards us. I recognized one of them as the officer that was at our house. Officer Briggs. Momma saw them too, and she held me tighter and hugged me. Over her shoulder I saw Keisha coming from inside the school building with Jamir. She stopped when she saw us. Momma didn't see her, and for a second I thought Keisha was going to run away.

"Listen, baby, I just want you to know that I love you. I would never do anything to hurt you or your sister, you know that, right?"

"Yes momma."

"Just promise me you will remember everything I taught you and be a good, smart girl, okay baby?"

"Yes, momma."

"Okay baby, I have to go. You go inside and get your sister, okay. Kiss her for me, okay honey? I have to go now. Don't stay out here, baby. Go on inside."

"No, momma! Don't leave me. Please, can't you stay a little longer?" The policemen stopped right near us and Officer Briggs spoke up.

"Ms. Penney, I hate to do this, but you know you should not be here." Momma let me go, and I ran up the stairs towards where Keisha was still standing. She was kind of hiding behind one of the columns, and Jamir was giving me a mean look as I walked up.

"Momma wants to talk to you!" I said to her as I got to the top. Keisha just looked at me, and Jamir pushed me out of the way.

"Yo, Moet! They gonna arrest your moms!" he said. I turned around, and as I did I saw Officer Briggs reach out to grab her arm. We were all there watching, and then momma pulled out daddy's gun from the pocket of her coat. Officer Briggs backed up as she pointed the gun at him and the other officer.

All of a sudden I heard some kids screaming and people started running. Momma just stood there with her back to us, as me, Keisha and Jamir stood on the steps staring.

"Get away from me, Officer Briggs. You, you and that lady are the reason for all of this! All I'm doing is trying to raise my daughters' right and you come into my house, arrest me in front of my kids, and take them away from me. Ruin my life!"

"Ms. Penney, calm down. Please, put down the gun before somebody gets hurt..."

"Don't tell me to put down the gun! You took away my kids! You ruined my life! How could you do this to me! I'm not a criminal. My daughter is fourteen years old and mixing with the wrong crowd. If I don't set her straight now, when am I supposed to do it? When she's a crack addict? When she's dead? No, Officer. What you all did was wrong. Wrong!"

"Ms. Penney this isn't the way to go about this. Put down the gun, please. Let's talk about it. Your can still get your kids back. If you put down the gun we can talk to the judge for you, it's not too late…."

"NO! It IS too late! You took away my reasons for living! I can't get them back! What kind of crazy world is this! I'm a Christian, I go to church, they told me abortion is wrong, when I'm eighteen years old and pregnant! Marriage, that's the thing to do. That is the right thing to do, drop out of school, sacrifice to raise your kids right… I try to raise my kids properly, and you arrest ME! If I don't punish my children, people like you arrest them and put them in jail! Or if you don't put them in jail they're going out there on the streets with no sort of control! What kind of crazy, sick world is this…"

Momma turned slightly and even though she couldn't see us I could see her. I saw her face, tears streaming down, eyes all red as she kept the gun pointed at the police officers.

"I love my girls. And I'm not a bad mother."

She turned back to face the two officers, and sighed. As we all looked she put the gun to the side of her head and pulled the trigger. I had never seen anyone killed before. I mean, I see it all the time on television, movies and stuff but never in front of me. I saw my mother fall sideways, heard the loud boom, heard the splat of blood hitting the pavement right before her body did and right before I closed my eyes and blacked it out I heard the loud scream from Keisha as she watched momma die.

Child Welfare by Dwight Geddes

© Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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