Six months after I graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I began my first “real” job as a social worker for New Jersey’s Bureau of Children’s Services.
“I want you to visit this seventeen-year old in the jail up the street,” said my supervisor. “Her father signed an incorrigibility complaint—again.”
“Sure,” I said as I tried to dismiss the thought that I’d accepted the wrong job. Coming from a conservative middle-class background, I had never seen the inside of a jail, let alone visited an inmate.
It has been more than forty years, so I don’t remember many of the details. What I do recall is being startled by the deep voice that came out of nowhere when I first entered the building, asking me why I was there. He buzzed me in after I responded, and I was led back to a room where I spoke with Janet (not her real name, of course).
This tall, dirty-blond young woman was amused by the fact that I was only a few years older and promptly called me “Granny.” I didn’t mind the nickname and as she talked about her life, I came to see a free-spirited girl who had been toughened by her experiences but who still managed to be kind and funny despite her dysfunctional family. I genuinely liked her and admired her compassion for others.
Over the next few months, we spent a few more times discussing her problems. It wasn’t long, however, before Janet turned eighteen and aged out of the agency system. I felt relieved of my responsibility to her, but at the same time concerned about a future with unsavory friends and no high school diploma. I never saw her again.
A couple of years later, a news article came to my attention. Janet’s murdered body had been found on the township dump—a young life tossed aside like a piece of trash. I wondered if I could have helped her in some way avoid this ending, but came to realize that a few sessions with a young social worker could not have had a profound effect on twenty years of living in an environment of neglect, poverty and ignorance.
I can only hope that our times together helped in some way. Perhaps she made a couple of better decisions, or perhaps not. One thing I do know is that the experience of learning about a life so different from my own left a lasting imprint on mine.