Tyrany of a sort

I have neglected this journal for the past three months because I am having considerable trouble writing about an issue that has consumed my energy for the past year. I think it is probably the first time in my life that I have not been able to get something down on a screen or paper. I don’t generally suffer from writer’s block. Usually, my excuse is merely lack of time or energy. But this is different.

I am afraid that I will not be able to explain the soul-wrenching dilemma and that those who read my blog may think I am merely complaining about what might seem like a minor bureaucratic problem to some. I am also afraid that my readers might simply think I am selfish and guilty enough to justify the situation. I am even oddly afraid to write down my fears, in case I might somehow make them come true.

Let me try it this way. I’ll tell you the story of our adoption case worker. I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to be her because I don’t want to be a person who hates others, so I try to look at things from her perspective. Here goes.

There is a woman whose name in English-translation means “Miss Knife-sharpener”. She is quite young compared to most of the other people in the regional social work office. She is also quite good-looking. She has quickly risen through the bureaucratic hierarchy, outranking the other two social-workers in her office, who are also psychologists. She isn’t a licensed psychologist and yet she was given the lead position over her two older colleagues. She has become the person responsible for coordinating all adoption and foster placements in our region. There are no private agencies, so she has a monopoly.

I don’t know whether her work is particularly stressful, but I do know that she meets every day with couples who are desperate for a child – people who have struggled with infertility for years, good people who never expected to be in this position but who come to the state social workers as a last desperate measure. Unlike other social work clients they are generally independent, motivated, productive citizens. The are not in her office because of any psychological flaw, impulsive mistake or bad behavior. It isn’t their fault. And yet she knows almost all of them will wait as long as five years to adopt a baby. Some of them will in that time be too old to adopt a baby under the strict age limitations.

Miss Knife-sharpener cannot help but be sympathetic to these people who come begging her on their knees for a child. Some cases pull even more strongly at her heart. There are couples who have lost their only child to disease or accident. There are people whose only child was stillborn. And there are cases that she has less sympathy for, those who waited until their 40’s to try to conceive a child, those who she thinks slightly less than fit to parent even if the psychologist passed them, and the foreigners. She can’t help it. She has nothing against foreigners in general but, when she sees hundreds of Czech women in her office struggling to hold back their tears, she does not want foreigners coming to compete for the few adoptable babies in this country.

There is one other thing that particularly irritates her in her job. She told me so. Most of the deserving applicants will have to wait three to five years for a child – even those who are willing to adopt a child as old as three will usually wait three years. But there is one group that hardly has to wait at all. If they put on their papers that they will adopt one of those Romani (Gypsy) children, they only have to wait a few weeks or at most a few months. There are a fair number of Romani children in need of families and almost no applicants who will accept them. Miss Knife-sharpener considers herself fair and humanitarian. She doesn’t hate the Romani children, although she can understand why most people won’t adopt them. Everything she has ever heard about them is terrible. She pities them, but also feels that their genes are tainted. She has come to the point in her job where she can understand how most people can accept a child that is not their “own blood” and love that child with all their hearts. But she cannot understand how someone could love one of “those” children. Her distaste for that issue isn’t helped by the fact that many of the people who want to adopt Romani children are the same foreigners that irritate her in general.

So, last year, when she was handed the case of a Czech man and his American wife, who wanted to adopt a second Romani child, she was immediately irritated. Their first so-called Romani child was maybe Romani on paper, but quite pretty actually – with blue eyes. Miss Knife-sharpener had been in on the meeting where the child was assigned to that family and she had been among those who argued that the child didn’t look all that Romani and should be given to a family that is seeking a non-Romani child. Paperwork shouldn’t matter in this instance. There are so many desperate families, and if this family is open to Romani children, there are plenty more where that one came from. But the psychologist insisted that the child’s official heritage be honored, arguing that the child could easily darken later and they could have a difficult issue on their hands, if they passed her off as white or even if they told the would-be parents of a white child the truth but persuaded them to take the child anyway. Miss Knife-sharpener even knew of a family who was open to half-Romani children, though not fully Romani children. They would accept a child that was officially fully Romani, if the child didn’t look particularly like a Romani child. Why hadn’t the child been placed with that family?

But no, the child was placed with this half-foreign family, and now they were back, a year later, asking for another child. They sent in their official application in January and Miss Knife-sharpener put it at the bottom of the stack. Finally, in March the American woman called to check up on the application. Miss Knife-sharpener spoke softly and kindly to her, explaining that “these things take time.” The woman persisted in asking what the next step would be and finally Miss Knife-sharpener snapped at her a bit. She told that woman how she felt, explaining that she had a great many applicants who had been waiting for a child for many years, while this woman had waited three months after being approved for a baby and now she was back asking for another one. “I myself don’t feel that’s quite fair,” Miss Knife-sharpener said in a reasonable tone. “I think applicants for Romani children should have to wait two or three years to be approved in order to be fair to other applicants and make the waiting times more equitable.” She bit her lip to keep from mentioning the fact that most of the applicants were citizens, while this woman was not. The woman protested with a flood of words in her strange accent and Miss Knife-sharpener tuned her out. It was something about children being her clients, not adoptive parents. Whatever. The woman was not only greedy but a bore as well. When the woman had settled down a bit, Miss Knife-sharpener told her that, in any case, there had been some difficulties and there would be no special classes for second-time applicants this year. Then, she shuffled some papers in pretense and told her that she was pretty sure the classes for next year would be full as well. “So,” she told the woman, “You will have to be patient for quite some time. Your application can not proceed without the special parenting classes.”

Miss Knife-sharpener mainly just wanted this woman to go away for as many months as possible, but the woman took what she said literally and exclaimed, “Are you trying to tell me that we will have to wait three years just to take the mandatory parenting classes?”

“I didn’t say that exactly,” Miss Knife-sharpener said. “You just have to wait and be patient for once. That is all.” It was usually true that the process of approval with second-time adopters never takes more than a year, usually as little as four or five months, and Miss Knife-sharpener didn’t want to get backed into a corner on this one, but she did hope this woman could be put off for a year or two.

At this point, Miss Knife-sharpener could hear the woman’s one-year-old adopted child start howling in the background through the phone, but the woman persisted in her arguments, ignoring the child. The woman was even breathing hard. So, she interrupted the woman and told her to go attend to the child she had and that was the end of the conversation.

Miss Knife-sharpener was glad to put that file back at the bottom of the stack and forget about it. There was some truth to what she had told the woman. There was actually a class for second-time applicants going on the same week of their conversation, but there might well not be another one for the rest of the year, although there was supposed to be one in the fall. There weren’t many second-time applicants. The thing about the classes being full was really the only part she had made up completely. This year there might not be a class because one of her superiors was working on cancelling the contract with the organization that had provided the classes. He was hoping to use his own consulting company to provide the classes. In any event, there was a lot of paperwork to be done to finish that process, so it should be easy to put off this woman’s application for another year at least. That would teach her some humility.

But two months later, in May, Miss Knife-sharpener got a nasty surprise. On a Wednesday morning, an official from the national Ministry of Social Affairs called to inquire about the complications with the classes for second-time applicants. The Ministry officials never should have known about such minor details at the regional level. Miss Knife-sharpener soon received an unpleasant phone call from her superior, demanding to know if she had leaked the information about his plans for the contracts. She denied it but the Ministry seemed to have found out anyway and soon enough, she received a phone call from the Ministry issuing an official reprimand to her for “failing to fulfill her legal duties with regard to clients”.

This was the first time she had ever received a negative evaluation from a superior in her short and upwardly mobile career. She was humiliated and even a bit frightened. She had not really been involved with her superior’s plans for the contracts, she had only known about them. And yet it was she who was reprimanded,, not the superior. It didn’t make sense… UNTIL one of her clients called her to ask about whether the classes for second-time applicants had been cancelled. This was a woman Miss Knife-sharpener liked quite well and she assured her that her second-time application would be approved soon. There are ways to fulfill the requirements without attending the official classes, and, in any event, there would have to be some sort of classes in the fall now that the Ministry was involved. But Miss Knife-sharpener was puzzled. How had this client ever learned that there was any trouble with the classes? The social workers kept all information tightly under wraps. The woman answered readily enough. She had read it on an online forum. She wasn’t sure who the person was who had been discussing it but it was a foreigner, an American woman she thought, who was adopting Romani children here. She had claimed to have filed a complaint with someone at the Ministry of Social Affairs and had written to the online forum again to say that the Ministry was taking steps. It was not difficult to convince the client that this foreigner – someone involved with the Roma in particular – might well not be telling the truth. So, at least Miss Knife-sharpener saved face with that client.

Then, she called the American woman and let her have a piece of her mind. Miss Knife-sharpener had cultivated her sweet manner and kind voice. She normally had excellent self-control. But this time she freely expressed her fury. She told the woman that she had seriously endangered her own application with her actions by slandering the regional social work office with her accusations. Miss Knife-sharpener had brought her voice to a kinder tone and explained that a parent has to be a very patient person and by showing how impatient she was, she had shed serious doubts on her ability to parent. The woman was obviously taken aback by the call, but instead of apologizing or crying or doing any of the many things Miss Knife-sharpener was accustomed to, she said, “Are you threatening me?” And no matter how Miss Knife-sharpener turned the issues around, she kept repeating that same question stupidly, sometimes when it didn’t even make any sense at all, “Are you threatening me?”

Miss Knife-sharpener was eventually able to frighten the woman enough that she did give up the name of the person she had spoken to at the Ministry of Social Affairs. That would help somewhat in damage control. Miss Knife-sharpener told the woman that she had better not do anything or even call the social-work office again until after the summer holidays. Then, they would see.

In the end, they had to hold classes for second-time applicants in October and at this point Miss Knife-sharpener couldn’t tell this difficult applicant that the class was full. The woman might be crazy enough to interfere again and find out that the class was not full. Certainly, reasons could be made up about why the class was not suitable for that applicant. The regulations for social workers are very flexible, but it wasn’t worth it. The woman kept calling after the classes were completed, asking what other steps were necessary to complete the application. Miss Knife-sharpener didn’t know or care if anything else was necessary in their application. She didn’t want to look at it, so she didn’t. It was late in December, when the psychologist happened to look through the files, and called that family in for a final consultation. After that Miss Knife-sharpener could only put off signing the final approval letter for a few weeks. She made sure that theirs was the last of the letters send out and that all of her legal time limits had been exhausted, but in the end she had to send it.

Miss Knife-sharpener had no doubt that this woman had been responsible for the reprimand she had been issued from the Ministry and so she would do nothing to help the woman adopt a child. Miss Knife-sharpener is the person responsible for arranging matches for adoptive families and, in theory, she could simply refuse to ever match that family with a waiting child. The problem would be that the psychologists knew that the family had been approved and, if there were two many Romani babies going without families and staying in the children’s homes, things could be uncomfortable. While Miss Knife-sharpener has great leeway in deciding who is suitable to be sent to the matching commission in which cases, she could have to do a lot of explaining, if she delayed a placement for too long. She can justify some decisions not to match the family, but not endlessly. There are almost no other applicants for Romani children. Her fury over the insult to her professional reputation has been enough to keep her thinking up reasons for awhile though, and there sometimes are other applicants for Romani children. That family will certainly end up waiting far longer than they normally would and it is possible that she can find a way to permanently obstruct their case.

So, that is the situation from all that I can glean of my case worker’s perspective. I am the American woman, of course. Okay, I don’t know if she bit her lip to keep from voicing her dislike of foreign applicants but I do know about her attitude from the comments of others who know her. That is about the only detail I made up until the last paragraph. I found out about all the other machinations through various professionals who know her, including the fact that she lied about the classes being full. Only the last paragraph is speculation, and therein lies the problem. I don’t know if she is motivated enough to go to the extra effort of blocking us purposefully or if she will be lazy as bureaucrats are want to and not help us but allow things to take their natural course. I have seen that other applicants are being processed far more quickly than us, so she is blocking us to some extent, but I don’t know how much.

At this point, there isn’t much we can do. We could fight her further through more official complaints, but if we do that we will certainly make her even more angry and then we will really be in a battle and we don’t know if we can win. The system is heavily rigged against us. The social workers have virtually no accountability and we have virtually no actual legal rights, other than the right to petition for adoption. We have no right to a match, even if we are approved, even if children are waiting. If the other people in the office are offended by our struggle with her, simply on the principle of “bureaucrats of the world unite” or some personal friendship, then we could be blocked permanently..

The worst part is not knowing. I think we could survive, even if we knew we would be denied a second child in the end. I would cry a long time and I would feel great anger and grief. But we would know and we would be able to resume our lives.

I have realized during the past year what a toll the past seven or eight years have taken on us, our relationship, our health, my chances to ever have respectable work again and so on. In the course of the lengthy crisis of infertility, I went from a 28-year-old with an eccentric but fresh and energetic resume, to a 35-year-old with a very spotty resume, showing some energetic eccentric stuff in the first few years out of school and then a long period either without work or with very low-energy jobs without respectable references – mostly teaching English in my own home.

I could not get a real job, you see. At first, I quit my stressful journalism work, partly in order to get pregnant and have a baby. We were sure it would happen almost immediately. Then, when it didn’t, we kept expecting it any time. I was at a prime age and there was no reason to expect any difficulties. Then, when it didn’t happen and we went for fertility treatments, we were told that ours was a very good, light case and that it could be solved easily. And we got pregnant on the first try, so again I could not get any serious job. Even when I had a miscarriage, I was certain that it was only a fluke, that we would be successful the next time.

And by the time it appeared that we might never be successful, we had started the adoption proceedings. All this not only made it logistically difficult to plan because we were always expecting the disruption of a child and very possibly a risky pregnancy, but the fertility treatments took up huge amounts of time, often visits to a clinic two-hours away every other day, and they were physically debilitating. I often was in bed for days and rarely had much energy. This went on for years, and the thought of getting a stable job seemed impossible and foolish, given that surely we’d have a child any time and then I’d have to quit. So, I taught English, dabbled in grant writing or did translations just to put food on the table.

Once we were in the adoption proceeding, it was even more difficult to plan our lives from one day to the next. With the Czech social-work system the waiting is particularly hard. You wait and wait and then one day you get a call out of the blue and you have a baby at home within a few days. As a result, even now, I can not plan anything. I can barely even hold private English classes because I have to explain to my students that I could have a baby any day now and have to stop teaching for awhile. And they can not understand when I say, “or I may never have the baby.” It could be tomorrow and it could be never, literally. Thanks to Miss Knife-sharpener our lives are that much more uncertain. The people who wait three to five years, at least know that it really will not happen within the first three. Not that I envy them in any way. They have my heartfelt sympathy, despite their attitudes about Romani children.

I know that today, my relationship with Dusan is far more tense and oversensitive than it was before. We are both extremely defensive and likely to interpret almost everything the other says in some problematic way. Perhaps this would have happened anyway, but I doubt it. I feel the strain, as if we were climbing a long steep hill carrying heavy burdens and now the top is actually in sight. We are so exhausted that each step seems impossible, but we keep on struggling upward. It would be this way, regardless of Miss Knife-sharpener. But with her, it is as if we are being pushed back down the hill. We do not know if we will ever make the top or if all of our efforts are futile. In all of my adult life, I have never had to carry such a heavy burden and I do not know how much longer I can.

I want another baby. And I want Shaye to have a sibling. Whenever she sees a baby, even a baby carriage at a great distance in the street, she cries and calls, “I want a baby!” I have not told her any of the difficulties. I have tried to prepare her a bit, saying that someday we will have a baby to be her little sister or brother but, other than that, we have not told her, and yet she somehow seems to sense the fear and desperation of it. And she truly does love smaller children and is kind and attentive to them. She deserves a sibling as much as any child. And yet at what cost in stress and disruption? I wonder if the day will not come when Miss Knife-sharpener will win because we are simply too beaten down to go on.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. George Lederer
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 19:17:30

    Arie thank you for sending me this latest post. I have a lot to say, but I want to write to you directly, and I find that the email address I have for you is no longer correct.

    Please write to me, however briefly, so that I may respond to you directly.



  2. Brook
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 19:21:34

    Oh Arie, you are loved! ((HUGS)) Please remember that you are a very strong woman. You have the strength of several typical women! Don’t give up, you are stronger than you think you are.


  3. Julie
    Apr 21, 2011 @ 00:53:15

    I am glad you wrote it. These stories need to be told. People in power need to be accountable. There are not that many people who can or are willing to write the stories that hold them accountable. I hope it helped to write it. It hurts my heart and I can only imagine what you feel.


  4. Nathaniel Farnam
    Apr 21, 2011 @ 18:53:55

    That is heartrending. It brought tears to my eyes, especially the part about sweet little Shayelinka crying for a baby! It sucks to be stuck in bureaucratic hell, but I believe that you will pull through it and be the stronger for it. Know that there is much love and sympathy flowing your way…


  5. linda donnelly
    Apr 21, 2011 @ 20:05:42

    Arie, hang in there. Rejoice in your little one. I will pray for you and Dusan’s well being. I know how hard it all can be. Love, always, Linda


  6. ariefarnam
    Apr 24, 2011 @ 18:24:00

    Thanks, everyone. I mightily appreciate the moral support. This was a hard one to write, but it may actually have been helpful to do so. It has felt very hard to explain it, because it is kind of a long story. So, now if someone wants to know, I can also just tell them to read this. It gets me off the hook for having to tell this long, convoluted and unpleasant story over and over. 😛


  7. Ginny
    May 04, 2011 @ 07:23:51

    Arie, My heart goes out to you. You have opened yours to tell this story. It is a very hard one to read, but the truth is so important . This is one of your strenghts!
    I wish all the best for you and send love your way. Much love to Dusan and Shaye too. Keep strong , and know that you are an amazing woman with much to share. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
    Love, Ginny


  8. Joe
    May 22, 2011 @ 23:33:35

    Arie- Thank you for sharing your story. My heart goes out to you and your family. I commend you for grappling to see things from Ms. K’s perspective, especially when so many of her actions seem inexplicable. Admittedly easier said than done, but by understanding someone’s overt and covert motivators, it opens the door to the possibility of finding ways to communicate to her that being helpful to you can be in her best interest. You are a gifted writer, mother, and spouse. You will prevail and be stronger and wiser for your efforts.


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