Going Home, Part 3: A Street Cleaner

During the Great Depression it was not uncommon for young mothers to relinquish custody of their children to the state, whether by choice, necessity, or by the force of law.

Many such children, separated from their families, were raised in hospitals, orphanages and training schools, and became so institutionalized in childhood that it was only natural they remained wards of the state for much of their lives without knowing what life was like on the outside, nor the reason for their being committed to these institutions.

It was a cold day in early March when I met Phillip and Mr. Renauld, Exeter School’s Social Worker, at the Children’s Center. Phillip seemed very happy to see me, but simultaneously appeared extremely nervous and withdrawn. He would not speak much and just grunted hello to myself and two other people whom he was introduced to. I then suggested that we leave and the boy was anxious to do this.

Phillip and I went on into the car, and as the boy got in, I asked him if he knew why he had been brought up. He answered that he did, that Mr. Renauld told him he was going to see his mother. I asked him if he wanted to do this and the boy answered in the affirmative, adding shyly, “I’ve been waiting ever since I saw you to see you again.”

As we drove along, there was very little conversation. Phillip just seemed dazed. I finally got him to talk a little bit by talking about Exeter School and the fact that I used to work there. Phillip said he had already found this out Sunday when he was talking to the guys. They all had said to him,”Yes, he was a swell guy, that Hartford. Too bad he left. This guy Renauld is just a street cleaner.” I asked Phillip what a street cleaner was and he told me that it is a social worker who just takes kids out of the institution and then gets mad at them and brings them back. I said that perhaps he might think I’m a street cleaner because he would have to go back to Exeter today. Phillip seemed unprepared for this and I wondered why because we had definitely made arrangements with Mr. Renauld only to come up for a visit. Phillip’s amazement, however, was understandable later on in the day.

By the time we reached Phillip’s mother’s house, the boy was talking freely, and as we approached, he got out of the car before it stopped moving. We went in and Phillip and his mother embraced and kissed and sat down, neither of them knowing what to say and both of them looking pleadingly at me. So I began by asking Mrs. Green didn’t she think Phillip was a nice looking, well-dressed boy and she agreed to this immediately. Phillip does make a nice appearance. Mrs. Green felt it necessary to explain why she had never seen Phillip and I helped her along in this discussion even though much of what she said was obviously rationalized and much of what she believes to be true at this point is merely a defense against her own guilty feelings for neglecting this child when she never rejected him. Phillip had very little to say but seemed overwhelmed by the home, which was furnished very nicely by his mother who is a fairly attractive woman, although she has a dull appearance about her face and seems very pleased with her housekeeping, which is meticulous.

He began by playing with his little half-brother Billy who appears extremely bright for a child under two, as he can talk and walk and has developed his personality to a considerable degree. As the interview progressed, Phillip and his mother began to loosen up with each other and would only lean on me occasionally for some verification of something they said or some approval of something they did, and to this I attempted to give readily. Mrs. Green said she wished so much that Mr. Green could see the boy, but he wouldn’t be home for about an hour.

After some time had passed, I suggested that perhaps it would be good for Phillip to go visit the people where I hoped he would work and then return to meet Mr. Green. This was accepted as an excellent idea by both mother and Phillip, as apparently they felt the need to separate momentarily, but still did not want this to be a prolonged separation. Phillip and I then left with the understanding that we would return shortly.

It was nearly noon when we arrived at the home of Mr. Andre Pasco where Phillip was interviewed in respect to working on this farm. The Pascos seemed interested in the child, and I explained to them that the boy had been in Exeter for six years; that he seemed like a nice boy, but that he was lacking in a lot of the normal social graces acquired by a child who is not institutionalized. The family seemed ready to accept this and seemed eager to want to help Phillip to become a part of the community instead of an inmate of an institution. Phillip seemed to respond to these people very well and whereas the conversation at the beginning seemed very polite and intellectual, nearing the end of the conversation, Mr. Pasco was able to laugh jokingly and say to to the boy in his Italian accent, “If you don’t do what I tell you, I hit you in the head with a sledge hammer. That way I always have good boys around here.” Phillip was able to discern the hyperbolic qualities of this statement and laughed readily at it saying, “A sledge hammer wouldn’t be needed; any old piece of wood would do just as well.”

There was much conversation about television between Mr. Pasco and Phillip and I, and the previous evening’s programs were discussed at length. The people seemed anxious to have Phillip placed with them and asked how soon this could take place. Phillip of course became extremely white at this prospect and was afraid to participate in the planning as to exactly when he would be there. I told them I would want to have Phillip examined physically, and that I would want the boy to realize what was happening, think it over and then I would attempt to place him as soon as possible. Phillip accepted this readily and after a short time, we left the foster home.

In the afternoon we returned to the Green home and this time, Mr. Green was there. Mr. LaPlante accepted the boy very well, shaking hands with him, speaking to him of his mother, bragging of his mother to him, and being as accepting as humanly possible while not being condescending. This second visit had a quality about it extremely different from the first. Both Phillip and his mother had been able to settle down considerably in the hour that intervened between visits and there was much conversation between the two in which I was excluded completely. Talk of visiting the home, of possibly coming to live in the home and of Phillip’s place in their lives erupted from the family without any provocation from myself. I played with Billy most of the time during this second visit as these people were very able to get along and obviously understand each other better than I could ever hope to.

The leave-taking was short and there was a lot of confidence on both Phillip’s and his mother’s part as this was the beginning of something, not the end; that they would see each other, and both of them expressed several times how glad they were that this happened, how important it was to her, and to know that he had a mother, and then Phillip shyly added, “And to have such a pretty mother.”

I left with Phillip and returned him to the Children’s Center where we were met by Mr. Renauld. As Phillip was prepared to return to Exeter School, Mr. Renauld committed what I considered a serious professional faux pas. He said to me, in the presence of the child, “Why don’t you place him now? I have his clothes with me, you know.” Although I was extremely annoyed, I attempted not to show any of this annoyance and turned to Mr. Renauld and said, “I think that would be a little overwhelming for everybody concerned. I don’t think I can push this thing any faster. I’m a little afraid of the rapidity of it at this point.” Then I turned to Phillip and said, “You know how I feel about this. How do you feel about waiting when Mr. Renauld has indicated that you could be placed today?” Phillip looked at me, put his head down and said, “I’d like to get out, but I would rather do what you say, Mr. Hartford, because everything you said so far has come out nice.” I thanked Phillip and told the boy that I would see him soon.

Next — Part Four: So Long